Photograph by Jim Richardson

Photograph by Jim Richardson

Panning—Motion 101

Discovering the trick of panning to stop motion was one of the most thrilling stages of his early photography, Jim Richardson says. Get his pro tips.

Contributing editor Jim Richardson is a photojournalist recognized for his explorations of small-town life. His photos appear frequently in National Geographic magazine.

Panning is a photographic mind game. But a very cool mind game.

Technically, you should not be able to show motion in a still photograph. After all, the image on the paper is not moving; it’s not going anywhere. But your mind takes the blurred image and tries to make sense out of it. "Aha!" it says. "That’s not a blurry picture; that’s a horse and wagon moving very fast. I get it."

Part of our delight in “reading” pictures is the I get it part.

Panning is nothing new. It’s been around almost as long as photography itself. Originally it was forced on photographers who had no hope of capturing fast moving action without moving the camera in synch with their subjects. They simply lacked film that was fast enough to give them a fast shutter speed.

Racehorses and early motorcar races were enticing subjects at the turn of the century. Photographers discovered, to their delight, that they could get reasonably sharp images and that they really liked the streaked backgrounds resulting from swinging the camera along with their subject.

The joy of that discovery never seems to fade. Discovering this little trick was one of the most thrilling stages of my early photography. I must have been 13 or 14 years old, playing with my dad’s old folding Ansco (he’d moved further up the photographic equipment ladder by then). The camera had one shutter speed: 1/50th of a second—hardly enough to stop a lazy butterfly. I had a beagle named Dixie who was like a streak of lightning when it came to chasing rabbits. No way to stop that motion with a 1/50th-of-a-second shutter speed.

Panning was the answer. I must have picked up the technique from one of the photography magazines of the day. I remember thinking: You move the camera during the picture? How’s that going to work?

Slowly, the concept dawned on me. If I panned along with my racing Dixie—that is, if I moved the camera in perfect synchronized motion with her as she flew by—she would actually remain in almost exactly the same place in the picture! The rest of the image would be blurred, but since she was glued to one spot on the film she would be fairly sharp.

It worked! Dixie was sharp—well, my kind of sharp at that time—and the background was wonderfully blurred. When I raced out of the darkroom to show the picture to my parents, they offered a tone of incredulous awe. That tone of their voices was music to my ears. Later that summer, the same picture elicited similar accolades from the judge at the county fair. She gave me a blue ribbon (before moving on to judge the canned tomatoes).

I was hooked.

Almost every student photographer I’ve ever taught has the same aha! moment when they finally get the idea. But while the concept is simple, the execution has many ways of going wrong.

So here are a few tips to up your percentage of keepers. Panning is a percentage game. One in ten good shots is major league success. One in 100 is not out of the ordinary. But that one will be worth your trouble.

  • Understand the basic concept. Panning works when you move the camera in perfect motion with the subject. It’s not enough to just swing the camera from side to side. You have to move it in perfect synch with your subject.
  • Choose the right subject. Generally (and up to a point) it is easier to pan with a fast-moving subject than a slow one. Sprinters running sideways to you are great examples. They are moving fast enough that you can pan smoothly with their motion, and they are running in a straight line. People walking are almost impossible; they are too slow to get much blur and it’s difficult to pan smoothly. Football players are tough because they move erratically.
  • Use Manual Exposure or maybe Shutter Priority metering. Whichever you choose, the object is the same. You don’t want the shutter speed to change while you are shooting.
  • Pick a good shutter speed. This is important; however, there is no “correct” shutter speed for panning. The longer the shutter speed, the more blurred the background will be. A long shutter speed will make your subject pop out from the background, and that is good. But the longer the shutter speed, the more difficult it is to get the subject reasonably sharp. It’s a balancing act. As a starting point, let’s go back to the example of the sprinters running across the picture. Try anything between 1/8 and 1/60 of a second. Beyond 1/8 of a second it's really tough to get sharp, but it can be very interesting. Above 1/60 of a second, the camera will probably stop too much action and ruin the effect. Except for low-flying jets at air shows. Then you might need 1/500 second, and that brings us to our next problem.
  • Find the right background. The right background is almost as important as the right subject. The background must have some detail in order to produce the pleasing streaks you are looking for. That is why the jet is a bad subject for panning when it is up against a plain blue sky. Pan all you want but the sky will still be a featureless blue. Nothing will look as if it “moved.” On the other hand, backgrounds with too much contrast will often make bad backgrounds for panning. Just one person in a white T-shirt can create an unsightly white blob in your photograph. Choose carefully.
  • Use the viewfinder correctly. Your viewfinder is your friend when it comes to panning. The best trick is to find a focusing mark in your viewfinder and put it on your moving subject. Now, try to keep that point perfectly aligned with your subject. Crosshairs would be perfect, but we don’t have them in camera viewfinders, so we have to make do with what we’ve got.
  • Practice panning smoothly. Fluid, smooth motion is the name of the game. No jerking, no rushing, no hesitation. Stand with your body facing where you ideally want to shoot the picture, then rotate your shoulders to pick up your subject in the viewfinder. Start shooting before your subjects reach the ideal point; keep shooting after they pass that point. Follow through just like a good golfer. And practice. Good panning shooters literally go out and just practice their movements.
  • Go for the Goldilocks Effect. The combination of subject motion, panning, and shutter speed is not a precise science. Don’t be afraid to adjust to conditions.
  • Try. Evaluate. Retry. Experiment! There is no right way, just infinite variables that can produce interesting results. For instance, if instead of “panning” you could rotate your camera at the same speed as the turning of the carnival Ferris wheel, you might get something cool. Now try to imagine other moving objects you can synch with. By the way, looking back, I see that I shot the horse and carriage in Spain at 1/6 sec at f/9. (And yes, I shot a lot of bad shots to get this one.)