Howdy! My name is Marti, lifestyle family photographer in Northern Virginia and personal paparazzi to my little four year old tornado. You can find me oversharing personal photos on Instagram at @martiaustinphotography and my client work on Facebook.
Like almost every other photographer who is also a parent, my love of documenting really took off when my daughter was born. It became crucial I capture all the magical moments of her childhood, and the mundane ones, as beautifully as possible.
I shoot with a Canon 5D Mark III and almost exclusively a Sigma 35mm, which is what all the photos in this lesson were taken with.
What is Panning and When to Use It
In photography, panning is a technique where you capture motion by moving in time with your subject. Ideally, this will cause your subject to be sharp and in focus while showing movement in the background.
Basically, Panning is the opposite of Motion Blur.
Blurry subject, crisp background.
Crisp subject, blurry background.
Panning is perfect anytime you want to show movement, especially while keeping focus on your subject. It’s a great option anytime I want to convey a feeling of chaos, rushing to keep up, a whirlwind of activity, or when I really want to emphasize how quickly something is moving.
For panning you need a slow shutter speed. I like to stay around 1/20 to 1/40, but there will definitely be some variation based on the speed of your subject.
Because our shutter speed is so long, we need to adjust for all the light coming in by increasing our F stop. I usually bring it up as high as my lens allows, usually around f/16 or f/22. This actually serves another purpose as well. In addition to controlling the light and properly exposing your image, a low f stop allows you lots of wiggle room for nailing focus. Your depth of field will be very wide, so your subject is almost guaranteed to be in focus.
Your background will be blurred by your motion anyway, so need to make things harder on ourselves by shooting with a shallow depth of field!
Next, ISO. Basically, choose the lowest ISO that still allows your image to be properly exposed. This will vary depending on whether you’re shooting inside or outside, the weather, the light, etc.
Finally, make sure your camera is set to continuous or burst mode. This way you can hold the shutter button down as your subject moves, taking multiple images and increasing your chances of a successful panning photo.
Now that we know that What and When, it’s time to focus on the How. The first thing we need to acknowledge is that unless you are extremely lucky, this will most likely take some trial and error. You might take 100 photos for one to be successful (I know I do!).
1. Frame your photo how you want it, but have your subject on the edge of the frame for now, so when they start moving they’ll move through the length of the frame.
2. Lock focus on your subject.
3. As your subject moves through the frame, shoot continuously, rotating your body (and thus the camera) but without moving your feet. Your camera should move in a smooth, sweeping motion.
This should give you the basic starting point to begin experimenting. From this point, try changing your shutter speed to get the desired look you’re going for. In general, the faster your subject is going, the shorter you can make your shutter speed.
Tips for a Successful Panning Photo
Here are a few tricks I’ve figured out for panning:
Choose an activity that has a predictable trajectory.
This is especially true when photographing young kids. If I try to take a panning photo of my daughter running, she will inevitably change directions when I’m not expecting it. But, on a swing, a carnival ride, or even riding a bike down a hill the path is predictable and much easier to successfully pan.
Pay attention to your background.
The best backgrounds for panning are ones with lots of contrast. Panning against a solid wall won’t give you the same results as panning against something like light filtering through trees or a multi-colored background.
Look for the different directions of movements.
Panning is traditionally done in a horizontal motion, but be on the lookout for opportunities to use different directions too, such as vertical movement or forward/backward movement
Let It Go
Your perfectionism, I mean. Full disclosure, a slightly out of focus picture has never bothered me, but I know some people are perfectionists. When panning, it is very rare that your subject will be tack sharp; it’s more about its sharpness compared to your background. If your subject being a bit out of focus will bother you, try shooting from an angle where you can’t see their eyes, like in profile or from behind. I find it doesn’t bother me as much when these types of photos are a bit blurry.
That’s all folks! I hope you found these tips helpful and I hope you’ll take some time to try panning; I can’t wait to see the results! Feel free to reach out with questions or just to say hi!