So, what is panning?

Panning is the act of following the subject with the camera while using a slow shutter speed (SS) in order to convey motion.


Here we have an image taken with a high SS in order to freeze the subject. This is good in that it keeps the subject sharp, but it results in a rather "static" image.

image by Amy


Another way of taking such an image is to use a slow SS and keep the camera stationary. This is good as it conveys "motion" but now the subject is blurry.

image by velo_city


And then there's panning. This combines a slow SS and moving the camera at the same speed as the subject. This is good because it keeps the subject sharp while also conveying motion. Panning also causes the background to blur due to the camera motion. This provides "separation" and focuses the viewers attention on the subject.

image by Eleaf

But notice that panning can only freeze motion that perfectly matches the speed of the camera. In the above example it was not sufficient for the second rider.

In a given image there is often a multitude of various speeds occuring. A rotating wheel has a huge variety of speeds occuring around it's circumfrence with the bottom of the wheel actually being stationary. There may be body parts moving in other directions such as legs pumping the pedals. Or there may be bumps in the road moving the wheels/vehicle/rider in other directions. Therefore the slow SS requirement for blurring the BG needs to balanced with the need for a higher SS for other motion that may be occuring.


Panning also only freezes motion that is directly perpendicular to the sensor. If you are in the center of a curve on which the object is turning, and the curve the object is following exactly matches the arc the camera is following, then you're all set. Unfortunately that almost never happens.
Take the example of a motorcycle on a straightaway as in this image.


The subject is moving in a straight line but the camera is moving on an arc. Because of this there is only one point at which the subject motion is perfectly parallel with the camera and that is the ideal point to take the photograph.

Or take the example of an object going around a curve coming towards you as in this example.

Because the direction of the subject is not parallel to the camera's path panning is less effective and a higher SS is required.

An object on a curved path has two primary directions relative to the camera's position. One direction more closely matches the camera's path and panning helps. The second direction results in the object getting larger or smaller as it comes towards or away from you. This secondary direction also requires a higher SS.

So, what SS should you use? I can't answer that because every situation is different. The rule of thumb I use is to start at 1/subject speed. So for a motorcycle going 150mph I would start with 1/125, or for a bicycle going 30mph I would start at around 1/30. But that is only a rough starting point. A higher SS may be required due to the other factors, or an even slower SS may be required in order to get the desired blurring such as for the propellor of an airplane.

Because we are using slow SS's, often well below what could be kept sharp for a stationary subject, it is very important to start the panning motion as early as possible. It is the inertia of the camera in motion that provides the stability required to use the slower SS. Getting the motion started early also allows you to synchronize the speed of the camera with the speed of the subject. The closer the two are matched the better the results will be. And don't stop the panning motion until well after the picture has been taken; follow thru.


A few additional tips for panning:

*Use an exposure mode that allows you to set the shutter speed. This can actually be accomplished in almost every mode but S/TV or manual modes are probably the easiest and most straight forward.

*Use slow SS's. I'll generally start at 1/subject speed and increase from there.

*Use smaller apertures for more usable depth of field (DOF). This helps when the motion is not perfectly parallel to the camera. 

* using a continuous autofocus mode or "zone focus." (fixed focus w/ adequate DOF for a known point/distance)

*Using fewer autofocus points is quicker and more accurate. The center AF point is the most accurate.

*Don't forget about using proper handholding technique. Get the elbows in tight and pan by roating your torso. Make sure you have a stable stance/foot position.

*Handholding generates better results, and is easier to do than using a tripod/monopod, *if* you can support the weight.

*Don't forget about composition. You generally want to leave more space in front of a moving subject.

*If using flash to help freeze motion you will probably want to use rear curtain sync.


A note on vibration reduction (VR/IS/OS/etc):

The purpose of vibration reduction is to help eliminate subject bluring due to camera movement when using slow SS's, and we are almost certainly using SS's that would benefit from it when we are panning. VR will not help with any of the subject motions, and the better your panning technique is, the more stable the camera will be, and the less you will benefit from VR. 
But it may not help, it may even be detrimental. First versions of VR were often not good for panning because they would try to take out the intentional movement of the camera. Some forms/modes of VR only work in one direction at a time. And some modes may be optimized for different levels/frequencies of vibration (i.e. you probably don't want the "active" mode for panning). 
But I suggest you don't simply disregard it, if your camera or lens offers some form of VR try it because it may help. And practice your technique!

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