10 Tips for Successful Panning Photography

10 Tips for Successful Panning Photography

When you love photographing moving subjects, it may be difficult to get a perfectly sharp photo. The best way is by moving your camera with the subject to keep it in the frame. This technique is called panning. I have 10 tips for successful panning photography.

It isn’t that hard to take a photo that is perfectly in focus. Most modern cameras have sophisticated autofocus systems that allow for fast and accurate focusing. Automated exposure setting will give a helping hand to acquire a good exposure, and image stabilization prevents camera shake even when the shutter speed is too slow for handheld photography. 

If your subject is moving, it becomes more challenging, even with all the automated systems that you have at hand. Holding the camera steady while the subject is moving by is not the best way. You have to move your camera as well.

If the shutter speed isn't fast enough, you will get motion blur. but if you use panning, the subject can be reasonable sharp. (Canon EOS R5, 138mm, 1/50 sec)

Photographing Moving Subjects

There are some things to consider when photographing moving subjects. Although the camera systems are often extremely fast, you still have to press the shutter release button at the right moment. If the subject is moving faster than expected, you will probably miss the subject entirely and end up with an empty photo. That’s why you have to move the camera proportionally with the subject. This is called panning. I have 10 tips that will help you get the desired results.

1. Choose the Correct Autofocus Setting

You have to make sure the autofocus is set to continuous focus so it can adjust the focal distance in real-time. Enable the tracking ability as well, which allows the camera to change focus points. This way, it will keep the focus on the subject no matter where it will drift in the frame.

For action photography, AF tracking and continuous focusing are the most important things. This example shows a couple of focus settings on a Canon R3.

There are many sophisticated autofocus systems that allow to change the focus area, the autofocus speed, and much more. But tracking and continuous autofocus ability are the most important settings, which are present on every modern camera in every price range.

2. Choose the Right Focal Length

It’s impossible to mention one perfect focal length. The best one depends on the size of the subject and your distance. If you use a long focal length, the narrow field of view will make it much more difficult to keep the subject in the frame while panning. If the focal length is too short, you will have to go closer, which poses another problem.

A long focal length will have a small field of view. This makes it difficult to follow moving subjects like this puffin. It flew out of the frame despite my panning efforts. (Canon EOS R5, 500mm, 1/2,000 sec)

The relative size of the subject in the frame is important. If the subject takes up a large portion of the frame, panning will be difficult. Perhaps it's best to let the subject fill about half the frame, if possible. But then again, that also depends on the speed of the subject and if it is moving at a constant speed. You have to find out what works best for you.

3. Keep Your Distance

It may be tempting to use a wide angle and get close to the action. Although that is possible, it will become more difficult to acquire good results. A close distance will make the movement appear much faster compared to a larger distance. Your panning has to be much faster, perhaps even too fast. At a larger distance, the panning is much more controllable. If you start with panning photography, keep your distance. If you become more experienced, a shorter distance will become a challenge.

If you stand too close to the moving subject, the relative speed will be large. This makes panning difficult. (Canon EOS 1DX, 95mm, 1/1,600 sec)

4. Use the Right Exposure Method

You have to keep your attention on the panning while keeping the subject in the frame. There is no time to adjust any exposure setting in the process. Sometimes, it’s possible to set the exposure manually before the action starts, but not always. If not, try to use shutter priority.

You can choose the desired shutter speed, and the camera will set the aperture to achieve the correct exposure. It's advisable to have auto ISO enabled. This way, the camera has the ability to raise the ISO when the correct exposure can’t be achieved with the largest aperture.

I use shutter priority and let the camera take care of the other settings. This way, I can concentrate on the panning and not worry about the settings. (Canon EOS R3, 15mm, 1/500 sec)

5. Set the Camera to a Burst Mode

It’s extremely difficult to take only one shot and end up with the best possible photo. If the camera is set to burst mode, it becomes much easier to capture the best moment. A series of three to five seconds is often more than enough. 

The amount of photos you end up with depends on your camera. Some do bursts with a maximum of three frames per second, others allow ten frames per second. There are cameras that can do up to 30 or 40 frames per second, but this never guarantees a good result. A successful panning photo is achieved by the right technique, not by the amount of frames per second.

Burst mode will allow you to capture a series of photos. Afterwards, you can choose the best one. This is a series at 10 frames per second. (Sony a7R V, 105mm, 1/2,000 sec)

6. Disable Image Stabilization or Use the Setting for Panning

Image stabilization will correct any movement of the camera up to a certain amount. If you’re using panning, the movement is intentional. If image stabilization tries to correct this movement, panning may become a bit more difficult, but not impossible.

Image stabilization is often not necessary for panning. But it can make it more difficult when it wants to correct the movement. This shot is with the image stabilization on the lens set to panning. (Sony a9, 324mm, 1/2,000 sec)

It’s perhaps best to disable image stabilization if possible. This is easy if you have a switch on the lens, but more cumbersome if it’s a setting in the camera menu. Modern image stabilization systems can detect panning. These systems will change the behavior automatically. Some lenses also have a dedicated image stabilization setting for panning, which will disable the stabilization in the horizontal direction.

7. Choose the Best Shutter Speed for the Desired Look

Panning is often associated with motion blur that accentuates the movement. But in reality, panning is just the technique of following the moving subject with the camera. You can vary the shutter speed to control the outcome.

If you want to freeze the movement, use a fast shutter speed. I often choose 1/2,000 sec, and I change this to match the speed of the moving subject. On most occasions, 1/2,000 sec is enough to get a perfectly sharp image without motion blur.

I wanted to freeze the movement of this Short-toed Snake-Eagle and chose a fast shutter speed for that. (Canon EOS R5, 560mm, 1/2,000 sec)

When motion blur has to be visible, choose a slower shutter speed. There is not one setting that is perfect for every situation. Sometimes 1/30 sec works well; in other situations, 1/4 sec offers a better result. It depends on the speed of the subject, the distance to the subject, the focal length, and how much motion blur you desire. Experiment for the best setting in your situation.

For this photo, I wanted motion blur and tried different shutter speed settings. This one turned out okay, (Canon EOS 1DX, 200mm, 1/20 sec)

8. Follow the Subject Long Enough

For successful panning, you need to adjust the speed of your movement to the speed of the moving subject. Your movement has to be gradual to ensure the subject stays in the same position in the frame. When a slow shutter speed is used for motion blur, the gradual movement is even more important. By following the subject long enough, it becomes much easier to achieve a good result.

I had my eye on this Common Murre for some time and followed its movement. This way, I was prepared for the moment. (Canon EOS R5, 500mm, 1/2,000 sec)

9. Press the Shutter Release Button at the Right Moment

Taking a burst of photos of a moving subject isn’t that difficult. But you have to take the orientation of the subject relative to the camera into account. At first, the subject is moving towards you, and a few seconds later it will be moving away from you. Unless intentional, it’s often best to capture the subject when it’s facing you. So, don't wait too long before pressing the shutter release button.

When I pressed the shutter release button, this Northern Gannet was facing me. A second later, it was flying away from me. Choose the right moment when pressing the shutter. (Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, 560mm, 1/1,000 sec)

10. Practice a Lot

Panning can be difficult. You probably take a lot of photos, and most of these won’t be to your liking. That’s normal. If there’s only one good photo in each burst of images, you have succeeded.

It takes experience to choose the right focal length and the best possible distance. If motion blur is desired, you need to find out which shutter speed works best. Since this is different for every situation, you need a lot of practice. 

It takes a lot of practice, and the results will not always be to your liking. But practice makes perfect. (Nikon Z fc, 34mm, 1/4 sec)

Panning Is Just a Normal Photography Technique

Moving the camera for photographing moving subjects is just a normal photography technique. Panning is just a name. There is nothing special about it. If performed well, panning will produce the result you desire. These 10 tips can get you started if you're new to this technique. If you have experience with panning, and you know of other tips, please feel free to mention them in the comments below.

Nando Harmsen's picture

Nando Harmsen is a Dutch photographer that is specialized in wedding and landscape photography. With his roots in the analog photo age he gained an extensive knowledge about photography techniques and equipment, and shares this through his personal blog and many workshops.

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