Panning Photography - a tutorial on how to achieve this effect

Nikon D3, Nikon 600mm f4, 1/30th of a second at f20 and ISO 100

Nikon D3, Nikon 600mm f4, 1/30th of a second at f20 and ISO 100

We have compiled a list of the TOP50 questions that we hear on our workshops. From gear, to settings, to composition, and shooting styles, we have decided to post three questions and answers a week till we get through them all.

We hope they answer some of the questions that you may have. Here is todays question.

Question: How do I do show some motion in my photos when an animal is moving?

Answer: This would be referred to as panning and it is what I would call a trial and error exercise. But here are some tips to help you the next time you are out taking photos of moving subjects.

The skill of panning photography is going to take every ounce of patience you have. Almost every person I have talked to about this type of photography has told me that it wasn’t until they saw that “one cool photo” that they had their “AHA!” moment. I was 13 when I stumbled upon this. Yes, stumbled−sometimes ignorance is bliss−and as a 13-year-old trying to freeze images with high shutter speeds, my lack of knowledge produced an image that gave me some ideas.

Back then our family had a miniature poodle named Brandy. He was a bolt of white lightning when he ran out the backyard. One afternoon I was trying to freeze the dog’s motion for photography class with little success. After a roll of film and a tired dog that was fed up with my Milk-Bone bribery, I discovered that I could freeze part the dog yet have the background blurred.

This latchkey kid would now have a couple hours each day to work on getting this image perfected before mom and dad came home. Dozens of film rolls, a couple boxes of dog treats, and a few extra pounds on Brandy later, I got the shot…a dog, head and body in focus, legs a little blurred, mid stride, hovering over the blurred ground…“AHA!”

Nikon D800E, Sigma 120-300 f2.8 sport, 1/60th of a second at f20 and ISO 100

Nikon D800E, Sigma 120-300 f2.8 sport, 1/60th of a second at f20 and ISO 100

From my personal trials and tribulations, and yes a few curse words uttered under my breath, here are a few tips I put together to hopefully take your keepers from one out of five hundred to one out of one hundred.

Understand the Basic Concept. Panning works when you move the camera in perfect synergy 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 it is easier to pan with a fast-moving subject than a slow one. Owls flying in a straight line are moving fast enough that you can pan smoothly with their motion. 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. And running dogs, well, they are perfect because they just want to please…

Use Manual Exposure or Shutter Priority Metering. Whichever you choose, the object is the same. You don’t want the shutter speed to change while you are shooting.

Focus Tracking. It’s very important that all or part of your subject is in focus. You might like to switch focus to AI Servo mode (in Canons) or AF-C mode (in Nikons). In this mode, hold down your shutter half way to lock focus on your subject and start following your subject with your camera at the same speed. You can take several shots at once…the number of photos is dependent on your camera.

Find the Right Background. The background must have some detail in order to produce the pleasing streaks you will want. That is why the jet is a bad subject for panning when it is up against a plain blue sky. Nothing will look as if it “moved.” On the other hand, be aware that just one person in a white T-shirt can create an unsightly white blob in your photograph.

Pick a Good Shutter Speed. This is important. The longer the shutter speed, the higher the probability the image you wanted in focus will blur. It becomes a balancing act. As a starting point, let’s go back to the example of the flying owl across the picture. Try anything between 1/8 of a second and 1/60 of a second. Beyond 1/8 of a second it’s really tough to get sharp. Above 1/60 of a second, the camera will probably stop too much action and ruin the effect. Except for faster moving objects like flying birds or jets. For that you might need 1/250 of a second for a bird and 1/500 of a second for the jet, and that brings us to our next problem.

Nikon D800E, sigma 24-105mm f4, 1/20th of a second at f20 and ISO 100

Nikon D800E, sigma 24-105mm f4, 1/20th of a second at f20 and ISO 100

Practice Panning Smoothly. A fluid, smooth motion is the name of the game. No jerking, no rushing and done without hesitation. Start clicking the shutter before your subjects reaches the ideal point and then keep shooting after they pass that point. Good follow through is imperative. The best panning shooters literally go out and just practice the movement.

Use the Viewfinder. Your viewfinder is your friend when it comes to panning. The best tip I can give you is to set the viewfinder to show crosshairs, then focus on the intersecting line of the crosshairs and follow the subject in the viewfinder. You will eat more batteries doing it this way, but it does help with the success ratio.

Try. Evaluate. Retry. Experiment! There is no right or wrong way to produce the desired results…set rules do not apply. But try it, have fun with it, experiment with camera motion.

Final words on “Panning Photography.” Things do not always have to be totally in focus. This type of photography, in addition to showing motion of an object, can be extremely artistic. If the intent is to produce an image of just motion through camera movement, please note that it can be referred to as motion blur photography.

Technically you shouldn’t be able to have motion in a still photograph. This is a two dimensional form of art. But the act of panning will force a person to look at the image more closely, and they will until they come to realize: “That’s not a blurry picture; that’s a young boy taking a photo of the running dog he loves in the backyard. That’s cute!” After you try the technique, I hope I gave you your AHA! Moment. Now go out, try this, and remember to “pay it forward” so the next person can have their AHA! Moment too.

Thanks for reading,



Kevin A Pepper

Kevin is a photographer and educator based in Waterloo, Ontario. His first love is photographing nature, regardless of the season or weather condition; the Ontario landscape and its wildlife are his inspiration. But you will also see other styles of photography in his portfolio. From street photography to urban exploration of abandoned buildings and architecture, he loves to capture it all with his camera for his corporate clients and his growing personal portfolio. Kevin’s images have been featured in Canadian Nature Photographer, PHOTONews Canada, Photo Technique Magazine, The London Free Press, The Weather Network, and National Geographic Online. His diverse client list includes the City of Cambridge, Olympus, GORE Mutual, TVO, and African Lion Safari. Kevin also operates “Northof49 Photography”, a company launched in 2012 dedicated to teaching amateur photographers through International and Canadian-based workshops. In the coming year, Kevin will be leading workshops in Iceland, Mongolia, Tanzania, Venezuela, Provence, and numerous destinations across Canada. Website: