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Showing Motion with Panning

We all understand that the process of taking a photo captures a moment in time and freezes it forever. Yet life around us is constantly moving. So how do we express that motion and fluidity in a static two dimensional image? The answer lies in implying motion through the creative use of motion blur. While there are several techniques for capturing or creating motion blur, one of the most commonly used techniques is panning.

While panning in itself is a simple technique, it does require practice in order to get that perfect shot. Here are a few tips and tricks to get you started in showing motion in your images through the use of panning.

  1. Slow your shutter speed: In order to create blur the shutter needs to remain open long enough to allow the scene to move through the frame. The longer the scene moves the more motion blur you will get. However it must still be fast enough to be able to capture the subject in relatively sharp focus. This is a tricky balance and requires some experience and forethought. Take a few test shots, view the results and adjust accordingly until you get the best results for the lighting conditions. Depending on the lighting situation a smaller aperture in combination with a slower shutter work best. The image of the bus above was taken at f/14 at 1/40th of a second in a slightly overcast day. The light was beautiful and I was able to close up on my aperture without having to sacrifice too much shutter speed.
  2. Anticipate the shot: The best result of a pan shot is when the subject is parallel to the camera. Set your framing and exposure to the area of your scene where you are looking to catch the action in. In the case of the bus I knew I wanted to capture the action against that large wall, offering the least amount of distraction but still able to relay the feeling of motion. I metered and made sure my exposure would be good for that part of the panning. Since I was using continuous focus (moving object coming towards the camera) I offset the focus point slightly to the left in order to focus on the front of the vehicle and still maintain my two thirds composition.
  3. Follow the subject early: The trick to a successful pan shot is to keep the subject in a relatively stationary position in your frame as the background moves. This requires practice since the camera will be moving as you make your exposure. By picking up and starting to track the subject early you have a better chance of coordinating the speed of your pan with the speed of the subject. Keep in mind that as the subject gets closer the relative speed is going to increase.
  4. Keep the motion steady: This is harder than it sounds. In order to get the subject nice and clear in the frame you have to minimize camera shake. "But wait... Didn't you say the camera needs to be moving?", you ask. Yes, the camera will be moving but it needs to move in a nice steady movement that mimics the movement of your subject. In this case I had a nice horizontal action so I needed to make sure any up and down movement was kept to a minimum.
    Start off with a secure camera hold. Insure that the weight of the camera is evenly distributed in your hands (specially with a heavier lens) and firmly pressed against you to minimize shake. Next plant your feet slightly apart and your body facing the target position of the action you want to capture. Typically this will be parallel to the line of travel. Using your upper body, keep your feet planted and your elbows locked in against you. Rotate your torso to follow the action. As the subject gets closer to the target point you should be rotating your upper body in time with the subject. Don't hold your breath, it's not necessary.
  5. Practice makes perfect: As I mentioned before, this action requires lots of coordination. The more you do it the easier it gets. Specially in shooting sports as there is so much going on at one time. With practice you can get the physical action to become muscle memory so you won't have to really think about it. This will allow you to concentrate on the action of the subject in order to help you anticipate the shot. Our world is constantly moving around us so you have plenty to practice on. Kids and pets running in the yard, birds in the park, cars on the road, athletes on the courts, etc. Have fun and experiment.


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