How To Master The Art Of Slow Shutter Speed Panning
The number one skill that all motorsport photographers need to master is the art of slow shutter-speed panning.
While we have a number of compositional techniques that we can use to convey speed and movement, nothing showcases the movement in a still motorsport photo better than motion blur in your images. And the only way to do that in camera is by panning.
Slow shutter speed panning adds a dynamic and artistic touch to your motorsport images that, when used well, not only emphasises the speed and drama of motorsport but can also bring a greater focus to the subject of your photo. Usually, a race car or bike travelling at speed.
By mastering the art of slow shutter speed panning, you can bring an enhanced sense of speed and movement to your motorsport photography.
What Is Panning?
Let’s start with the basics, which I also covered in this post. Panning is a technique used in photography where you, as a photographer, tracks a moving subject with your camera while capturing the image. The purpose of panning is to create a sense of motion and speed in the photograph with motion blur while keeping the subject sharp and in focus.
Why Is Panning Important In Motorsport Photography?
Motorsport, by its very nature, is high-speed and action-packed, and that’s what makes it so interesting and entertaining to watch. However, bringing that energy to a still image is an extremely difficult task. That’s why, as motorsport photographers, we need to lean heavily on techniques like panning to bring that extra dynamic into our photographs.
The resulting images from panning convey speed by creating motion blur in the background while keeping the subject sharp, not only separating the race car (or bike) from the background but also emphasising the fast-paced action and making for a more exciting image.
Once you’ve mastered the basics of panning, you can then experiment with it to add an artistic element to motorsport photography. Drawing the viewer’s attention to a specific part of the photo, be that the driver’s (or rider’s) helmet and/or eyes or even a sponsor logo.
How To Pan In Motorsport Photography
Now that we’ve covered the basics of what panning is and why you need to use it in your motorsport photography. Let’s delve a little bit more into the details about how you do it and how you can level up your panning photos.
The first thing you need to do is use the right settings in your camera. Ultimately the number one thing you need to control is the shutter speed. To do that means that you are going to need to use your camera in either manual mode or shutter priority mode (signified by an S on the mode dial on Nikon and Sony cameras or Tv on Canon cameras).
Shutter priority mode is going to be much easier because the camera is doing the rest of the work to balance the exposure. But if you are confident in adjusting your settings for a balanced exposure, manual mode is going to give you much more consistent results while also allowing you to control the exposure in contrasting lighting.
Pro Tip: All white and black cars can and do affect how your camera meters for exposure in automatic modes like shutter priority, which can lead to an over or underexposed background.
As for what shutter speed you should use, that really depends on a lot of factors. If you are still working on your panning technique, especially getting a smooth motion, then I would say sticking to somewhere closer to 1/200th is a safe place to work. Sure, you aren’t going to get a lot of motion blur, but the most important factor in a panning photo is getting the subject sharp.
Keep in mind that the slower the shutter speed, the more dramatic the motion blur you will create in your photos while panning. That said, it’s not the only factor. You also need to consider how fast or slow the race car (or bike) is going, as that will also affect not only the amount of motion blur but also how likely you are to get the subject sharp.
Once you’ve got your settings dialled in, the next step is to work on your technique. We’ve already covered the basics of moving your camera in time with the race car (or bike) that you are trying to capture, but there are a few extra things you need to know to ensure the best possible panning photos.
The absolutely best way to capture panning photos is actually to move as little as possible. And that starts by making sure you have a solid, balanced footing.
How you hold your camera and how stable it is will also significantly impact how likely you are to nail your panning shots. You want to make sure to hold the camera (more so the lens) from underneath with your left hand to take the weight and give it a nice stable platform. At the same time, you will use your right hand and your face to not only control the camera but also stop it from moving around. You can add further stability by tucking your elbows into your body.
Once you’ve ensured your camera is as stable as possible, the panning motion is actually all in your hips/waist. Again the smoothest panning motion comes when you move as little as possible, so once you’ve got your camera and the rest of your body stabilised, all you need to do is twist at your waist to match the subject’s movement.
This will require practice, coordination and experimentation to master. But once you’ve got it, your hit rate from your panning photos will significantly improve, and this will allow you can get more creative with slower shutter speeds.
Pro Tip: When I first considered pursuing motorsport photography, I spent an entire weekend at a local club race meeting in the spectator area just taking panning shots and working on improving my technique.
Review And Adjust
While you are getting comfortable panning, particularly at slower and slower shutter speeds, there is no shame in regularly reviewing your images to assess how you are doing. Reviewing your photos on the back of the camera is a great way to see if your shots are close to sharp and the amount of motion blur you are getting.
Just keep in mind that you’ll only be able to properly analyse your photos once you get them onto your computer; the small screen on the back of the camera can be a little deceiving as to how sharp a photo really is.
Once you get comfortable with your panning technique, you’ll actually be able to feel if you have a smooth movement and have a good idea of how likely your photos are to be sharp. But until you get to that point, it’s best to overshoot a little and review.
Another thing you can do to ensure the likelihood that you will get a sharp, usable photo while panning is to set up your camera to shoot in high-speed burst mode. The more frames you capture, the more likely you are to get a good crisp image.
The location of where you shoot your panning shots will also impact how likely you are to take a sharp photo, especially with side-on pans of cars (and bikes). A constant radius corner where the subject is neither moving closer nor further away from you will allow you the best opportunity to get the whole car (or bike) sharp. If the subject is moving closer to (and also away from), you are more likely only to get half (or less) of the car sharp.
How Do I Improve My Panning?
Like most things in photography, getting a smooth panning action is all about practice. The more you do it, the better you’ll get.
There’s no hard and fast rule as to how long it will take to master your panning. Everyone is different. Just take as many photos as you can as often as you can. Keep practising until you get a feel for it, and always experiment with shutter speeds.
And it doesn’t just apply to beginner photographers: professionals are constantly working on improving their skills, too. You’ll often find me shooting mountain biking events or some other action sport before the motorsport season kicks off, just so I can get my eye back in and my panning motion smooth again.
It’s not because I’ve forgotten how to shoot; it’s just about getting the rhythm back so my panning action is nice and smooth again before the first race meeting of the year. Even though I’ve been doing it for years, it’s easy to get rusty over the off season.
Creative Ways To Take Your Panning To The Next Level
Once you’ve mastered the basics of panning, it’s time to take your photography to the next level by using your newfound panning skills creatively.
Panning is a great way to showcase motion in photos, but once you’ve perfected getting a clean shot of a car (or bike) side-on, it’s time to experiment with different angles.
Instead of just capturing panning shots of cars going through corners. Why not try panning as cars enter and exit the corner? The angle will mean that only some of the car (or bike) will be sharp, but it will emphasise the car’s movement. You can also do the same with cars (or bikes) coming down the straight towards you. And there is no reason you can take panning shots of cars moving away from you as well.
When you are starting out in motorsport photography, it can be easy to think that you need to fill the frame with the car (or bike) that is the subject of your photo. However, you can bring greater attention to the speed and the subject of the photo by shooting a little wider and including more of the background (or foreground, which we’ll get to) in your photos.
Alternatively, shoot tighter. This is especially good when photographing open-wheel race cars and bikes where you hone in on the driver/rider—focusing on the helmet and eyes. Sure, you can do something similar with a static high shutter speed shot, but a panning shot will bring greater attention to the subject.
Consider Your Foreground
Sure, panning is a great way to blur the background but what about the foreground? Can you use foreground elements to enhance the perception of motion in your images?
Shooting through the crowd, trees, other objects, and even race (or bikes) heading in different directions will add extra interesting details to your photos that will further emphasise the speed of your subject.
Panning is a skill that requires practice and patience to master, but once you’ve got it, you’ll be well on your way to becoming a true motorsport photographer. But always remember to experiment with different subjects, shutter speeds, and locations to refine your technique. Over time, you’ll become more proficient at tracking the subject and achieving the desired results.
Remember, each motorsport event and subject may require slight adjustments in technique. It’s essential to adapt and learn from each experience to improve your panning skills. With consistent practice and dedication, you’ll be able to capture stunning motorsport images that showcase the speed and excitement of the sport.
I've been working as a motorsport photographer in Australia since 2012, building up my business InSyde Media. I am very fortunate that I have been able to work at all sorts of motorsport events including Supercars, F1 and WRC all over Australia and New Zealand. Also, check out my personal website where I document my travels and a few other things.
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