How To Pan With Your Camera

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If you’ve been following this blog, you know that my most important rule is to relax and have fun while you photograph. There’s a reason that works. What you are feeling when you make an image will show up in the final picture.

But what if you don’t want to have fun? What if you want to sweat it out and do something super difficult with your camera that is going to take a lot of time and effort to learn? What if you are ready for some serious geek-speak?

Okey-dokey. This blog is for you. Let’s try panning.

There are rules that will help, but after you have followed them and find it is still difficult to get a good panning shot…after that…the real work begins. But let’s start with the rules. By the way, it goes without saying that you are a serious photographer using a SLR camera. Don’t even think about using anything else.

So here are the rules:

  1. Set your shooting mode to shutter priority. (We’ll discuss what speed to set in a minute.)
  2. Set your autofocus mode to moving subjects (AI Servo AF) so when you hold down the shutter button halfway, the subject will be focused continuously.
  1. Set your meter to center-weighted average metering. (You want the meter to read the center of the frame.)
  1. Set the drive mode to high-speed continuous shooting.

Ok. Now that we’ve got the easy stuff out of the way, we’re ready!

To pan, start with a good stance and focus on the spot in front of you where the action will happen. You want to make sure that you are positioned so that the animal is moving across your film plane from left to right or right to left. (In other words, parallel to your position, not coming towards you or moving away from you.)

Hold the shutter button halfway down. (You are pre-focused and ready.) As the animal approaches, follow it with your camera as if you were shooting a gun at a moving target, pushing the shutter release when the animal is directly in front of you. Continue to follow through, moving the camera with the animal as it runs on by.

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Although the background is still distinct in this image, we can tell panning was used because the horse and rider’s action is not frozen on the frame. There is a lot of movement, indicating  panning as opposed to simply setting a wide aperture (smaller numbers on the f-stop scale) to blur out the background.

If you have a continuous shooting (burst) mode, use that feature to increase your chances of getting “the shot,” by taking a burst of images. Holding the camera steady is important for this technique to work, because the whole idea of panning is to stop the action of the subject while letting the background blur.

So now you know what to do. Hey, wait. What about the shutter speed? Well the shutter speed is the wild card with panning and to get it right you have to put in a lot of time setting different shutter speeds to see what works. The speed of your subject determines the speed you need to set on the dial so choosing the best shutter speed is all experimentation.

Start with a shutter speed of 1/15 or 1/30 and then work up or down from there. Basically the “rule” is to use a slow shutter speed for slow subjects and a fast shutter speed for fast subjects. Whatever speed you use, you want the subject frozen and the background blurred. When you view your results, if everything is blurry, speed up the shutter. If nothing is blurry, slow it down. The principle remains the same: panning requires setting the shutter speed much slower than what it would take to freeze the action with total clarity.

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The shutter speed is too fast for panning so the action is “frozen” on the file.

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The shutter speed is too slow for panning so everything is blurry.

Egad. This is hard! There’s lots more, but work with getting all your settings right this week and next week  I’ll throw in a few more variables that can make or break a good panning image.

Good shooting.


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