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Panning with a Digital Camera

Monday, September 20th, 2010 by | Filed Under: Digital Photography, Uncategorized

You have umpteen photographs from wildlife and motorsports photography enthusiasts. The ones where the subject (in this case, a car or a bird) is beautifully in focus while the background is all blurred to convey motion. Now compare that to the same picture where everything is in focus. That’s too drab, you might say. Here is where ‘panning’ comes into the picture. It’s the art of trailing your subject with your camera’s lens and shooting him just before or in the middle of action. Like a car in motion or a bird in flight. Here are ways to capture motion in photography, the ‘panning’ way. And you don’t even have to be a professional to be an expert at that. Happy panning!


Definition first

Panning is the horizontal movement of a camera as it scans a moving subject. To accomplish that, you have to switch your camera’s focus settings to ‘continuous’ shooting mode. This will ensure your lens is constantly focusing on a moving subject, so you can click anytime you want and still get a subject in focus while the background blurs, like the subject has moved from one place to another at lightning speed. While keeping the shutter half pressed, you follow your subject horizontally for a small distance before pressing it fully and capture the motion in the image.


Two ways to do it

Just as there are two sides to the coin, there are two sides to panning. And here is where you can be creative. Instead of keeping the subject in focus, which is the normal practice, you can flip the panning coin and instead focus on the background and blur your subject. It creates a unique effect and you will feel happy that you experimented. So remember to break the rules for greater creativity as panning allows you that liberty,


Steady your hand

Here is where holding your camera right matters. Use both hands to grip your camera and try to view your subject through the viewfinder. While you hold the camera with your right hand, grip the lens with your left (either beneath the lens or around it). This way, your camera is closer to your body, thereby achieving balance.
Alternatively, a tripod would do you much good.

Shutter speed

The subject’s rate of speed determines your shutter speed. But anything between 1/200th or slower. 1/200th if your subject is just too fast for the lens. Like motorsports cars. However, if the subject is merely jogging, keep it as slow as 1/40th or even 1/30th of a second if he’s just walking. But start with faster shutter speed to get the subject in sharp focus. And with practice, you can bring down the shutter speed and make it as slow as you can manage for a blur-free image of your subject in a completely blurred background.


Composition matters

Keep the subject off-centre and make space in front of him. So if the subject is towards the right of your frame, let the background be in the left of the frame and vice versa. But, definitely make sure your subject occupies the same place in your frame throughout your panning to ensure he is in sharp focus. Changes in his position could blur your subject.

Faster subjects need special care

It’s difficult if the subject’s movements are zig-zag, unpredictable and too fast for your camera movements. Chasing your subject and still keeping the subject in the same place in the frame can be difficult. On top of that, keeping the camera’s line in a straight line while horizontally moving it can be quite a trying task. Here is where a faster shutter speed helps.


In a case where it is difficult to match your speed with that of your subject. plant your feet firmly on the ground. Pull your elbows in tightly to your sides to avoid camera shake and wait for your subject to walk into your frame and then zoom right along with it.

Simple exercise

To see how you can sync your speed with that of your subject, take a teddy bear or a cellphone in one hand. Hold your camera to your eye with the other and spin your subject in a circle. Now move your camera with your subject at the same speed and go click, click, click. Once you’ve got the hang of it with this simple exercise, you should be on your way to some great motion photography through panning.

Happy panning!


~ Zahid H Javali

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