Panning Photography: Capture Objects on the Move
If you try to photograph any moving subject without a little knowledge of shutter speeds, chances are you'll get disappointing results. They will either be blurred with an unrecognisable subject or the picture will be absent of the subject as it will look static and lack impact. A better technique is to select a slower speed and follow the subject as you take the photograph. This is panning.
Panning is a great technique for action and, once perfected, the main subject will be sharp against a blurred background. The idea is to follow the subject as it passes in front of you and continue to follow it as you press the shutter and even after the shot is taken.
If you pan at the same speed as the subject it will appear sharp against a streaking blurred background. To ensure smooth results keep your feet still and rotate the top half of your body as you track your subject. Prefocus your camera at a point where your subject will pass to ensure the picture is sharp. Also ensure the background isn't too light and doesn't have shapes as this can create ghostlike effects or streaks in the image. A darker background is better. Make sure you press the shutter when the subject reaches a mid point along your panning track to ensure it's in the best position and try to follow without moving up or down to prevent subject blur.
Don't be tempted to use the LCD screen when taking your panning shots as the scene may appear jerky when tracking at such speeds, making it difficult to follow the subject accurately.
The camera settings
The key setting here is the shutter speed. Shooting too fast will result in the object looking motionless and stationary on the track. Shooting too slow will nearly always result in blurred images. Generally, you’ll have to match the speed of your subject with your speed of panning the camera as the subject passes. For an athlete running, it could be as low as 1/15 or 1/20. When shooting auto racing, your shutter speed could be as fast as 1/160. The slower the shutter speed, the greater the illusion of speed will be.
The aperture, with regards to depth of field, plays little importance here. The reason being that your background will become blurred anyway due to the panning action, so keeping this in focus with your depth of field doesn’t really matter. So long as you maintain an aperture which keeps all of the car in focus, then you’re fine.
Keep the ISO on 100 if shooting in daylight. You’ll most likely be shooting outside and shouldn’t need any ISO input unless low ambient light becomes an issue. Otherwise, just keep it on Auto. If you’re photographing at night or in low light, you’re going to be using a higher ISO, but don’t forget to open up your aperture (lower F number) to allow more light through the lens too.
Set the focusing mode to AI Servo (Canon) or Continuous Focus (Nikon). This will ensure your camera keeps the car in focus all the while you’re tracking it.
Set the metering mode to center-weighted (try to avoid spot metering) to ensure your images are exposed for the car and not the ambient surroundings.
Then it’s simply a case of setting your camera to high-speed burst mode and keeping that shutter button pressed throughout the pan. There’s no harm in taking five or even ten shots for each pass and selecting the best of the set.
If stopping down the aperture and lowering the ISO still don’t give you a slow enough shutter speed, try using a polarizing filter on the lens. A polarizer will lower your exposure by two stops. Another option would be a neutral density filter, which can be found in greater than 2-stop densities when necessary.
When panning, it becomes very easy to focus solely on keeping pace with the subject, to the point that you end up simply placing it in the center of the frame. Use the compositional aids in your camera to help you. If your camera has a grid focusing screen, use that. If not, use the AF points that are etched in the viewfinder.
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