What Is A Panning Photo: Capturing Motion in Photography

by Dec 27, 2023

If you’re just getting into motorsport photography, you’ve no doubt heard the term “panning photo”, but what does this mean, and what does it look like?

In short, a panning photo is an artistic way to illustrate motion in photography, capturing a photo where a moving subject, like a race car, is sharp against a blurred background. Now let’s dive into details and see what this looks like and why it’s one of the favourite techniques for motorsport photographers to master.

What Does Panning Mean?

Panning in the context of photography is quite simply the technique of moving your camera along with a moving subject. This swinging or sweeping motion of your camera is referred to as a pan.

Why is it called that? Derived from panoramic, the word pan refers to the camera movement technique that was initially used in video/film to showcase more of the scene than could fit into the frame. So panning photo is a result of the camera movement.

What Does a Panning Photo Look Like?

What Does a Panning Photo Look Like?

Panning photos have a distinct look because they uniquely showcase motion in a still image. This means that in a panning photo, the race car (or bike) would be perfectly in focus and sharp, while the track and surroundings are rendered into a smooth blur. This style of photo creates a powerful contrast between the subject and the background, highlighting the speed and direction of the vehicle.

Characteristics Of A Good Panning Photo:

  • The subject in motion (typically in motorsport photography, a car or bike) is both in focus and sharp.
  • The background is a smooth blur, with horizontal streaks of colours and lights.
  • In motorsport, in particular, a full rotation of the wheels enhances the sense of speed.

Always keep in mind that a good panning photo in motorsport is determined by what is crisp and sharp, not just by how blurry the background is. Panning should also draw the viewer’s attention to the intended subject of the photo.

Why Use Panning?

Panning is the best technique to showcase movement in a still photo. It’s used frequently in motorsport photography, to capture and showcase the speed of cars/bikes.

It also creates a focal point. The contrast between the sharp subject and the blurred background naturally draws the viewer’s eye to the main subject of the photo.

How Do You Create A Panning Photo?

How Do You Create A Panning Photo?

In its simplest form, panning is a technique where you use a slower shutter speed and move (or pan) your camera with the subject as it goes past you as you take photos.

It sounds easy when I break it down like that, but in reality, it takes quite a bit of practice to make sure that not only is your panning motion smooth to ensure that the subject is sharp, but you also match the speed and the movement of the race car (or bike).

Basic Camera Settings For A Panning Photo

  • Put your camera in a mode where you can control the shutter speed – Either manual or shutter priority
  • Choose a “slow” shutter speed – This could be anywhere between 1/250th and 1/5th.
  • The dragging of the shutter will about you to use a lower ISO and narrower aperture than you might otherwise use to capture motorsport if you are using manual mode.
  • Adjust the stabilisation on your camera to better allow for the panning movement.

Process For Capturing A Panning Photo:

A good panning technique actually starts with your feet. You will want to stand with your feet shoulder-width apart to give yourself a good, solid, and stable platform. Typically, in motorsport photography, we want a smooth vertical movement, and we want to do everything we can to minimise any other movement by both yourself and your camera.

In addition to making sure you have good, solid footing, you also want to make sure you are holding your camera so it will be as stable as possible throughout the panning movement. The best way to do this is to have the hand not controlling the camera underneath the lens holding the camera up. Holding the camera up against your face, which you should be doing anyway, to use the viewfinder, will give you three points of contact with the camera to help minimise any other movement. You can increase the stability of your camera by tucking your elbows in towards your chest.

Once you’ve got a steady platform, the panning motion actually comes from twisting with your waist, hips and legs to rotate as the car goes past you. This movement will ensure you remain as smooth and stable as possible to help ensure that your photo is sharp.

Alternatively, you can use a monopod for extra stability, particularly while using a larger lens. Just keep in mind that your pivot point with a monopod is slightly different, and you will need to adjust your movement accordingly.

Don’t use a tripod! I’ve seen many panning guides recommending a tripod, and for photos, particularly in motorsport, it’s just bad advice. To get the level of movement that you need to capture panning photos, you lose all the stability that a tripod has to offer.

Now that you have your camera as stable as it can possibly be, all you need to do is move as your subject moves with a smooth sweeping motion. Looking through the viewfinder, follow the car and ensure that it remains in the same spot in the frame throughout your shooting sequence. A good way to do this is to use your focus point as a reference point.

What Shutter Speed Should You Pan With

What Shutter Speed Should You Pan With

When it comes to panning, there isn’t one shutter speed setting that is the perfect solution for all shots. When you are just starting out, you can begin with a comfortable shutter speed range – somewhere between 1/250th and 1/160th – to ensure you get a good sharp photo of your subject.

Then, once you’ve started to get your panning action smooth and you’ve got a good hit rate with getting the subject of your photos nice and sharp, you can experiment with slower shutter speeds.

The ultimate rule when it comes to panning, the slower the shutter speed, the more dynamic the image. But always remember panning is a technique to draw attention to your subject, so that needs to be sharp for it to be a usable photo.

What Lens Should I Use To Pan With?

When starting out learning to pan, there is a sweet spot with lens focal lengths that will give you the most optimal chance of getting the entire car nice and sharp in the photo. This is usually between 70mm to 200mm.

If you go wider, you introduce lens warp into your pans. Once you’ve mastered the basics, this can actually be a desired effect. But I’d focus on getting the technique right and getting a good consistent hit rate before you look to start panning with wide lenses.

Also, if you use longer lenses, the camera becomes more sensitive to movement, and you’re more likely to introduce camera shake into your pans.

With longer lenses, you can look to add additional stability by using a monopod, but again having a good technique will help you with your consistency.

When Is The Best Time To Capture Panning Photos?

I tend to focus on getting my panning photos during practice and qualifying. This is for two reasons.

Firstly, during practice and qualifying, the cars tend to be more spaced out around the track. This makes it a great time to focus on individual cars allowing you to get a little more arty with your compositions.

Secondly, during the races, you are more likely to be on the lookout for the high-action moments, crashes, passes, etc… And for these, you want to have a higher shutter speed, especially in the opening stages, to ensure you capture the moment, no matter what plays out in front of you.

because during actual races, you’re more likely to be in a situation where there are high-action moments, and I typically tend to stick to faster shutter speeds during races, especially the opening stages.

Start With Side On Pans

When starting out capturing panning photos, the easiest ones to get into a rhythm with are when the race car (or bike) directly side on to you, particularly at constant radius corners.

This will allow you to work with a nice long sweeping motion for your pan with the race car (or bike) maintaining a fairly constant distance and speed. This will give you a bit longer and a few more attempts to get the shot.

Once you’ve mastered the side-on pan, you can add some flair to your shots by panning with more unique angles.

You can also add more action and drama to your shots by panning at a section of the track where you can see multiple cars going in different directions.

How To Improve Your Panning?

Now that you understand the basics of what panning is and how you can use it in your motorsport photography, check out this blog post to master the art of panning and take your photos to the next level.

How To Improve Your Panning?

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Rhys Vandersyde

Rhys Vandersyde

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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