Tips and techniques for better camera panning

Master the method of panning in photography and convey a sense of motion in your images.
A person riding a dirt bike around a track, leaning the bike low to the ground, photographed using camera panning. © Richard Walch

From freezing high-speed subjects against dynamic backgrounds to adding a sense of motion to slower subjects, using the technique of panning in photography you can add movement and drama to your shots.

You can use the technique of panning to add another element to your photos with any camera. And you don't have to shoot high-speed subjects, either. Panning can be used to add a sense of motion to relatively slow subjects, as the motion blur can make them appear to be travelling much more rapidly than they were.

1. What is panning in photography?

A skier speeding down a snowy mountain.

Panning is a creative technique that can convey a real sense of movement in action photos. If you use a fast shutter speed to freeze a fast-moving subject, the picture can lack some of the drama that was there at the time, because the subject will look like a statue. But if you use a slower shutter speed and move (or pan) the camera at the same speed as your subject, then you can get the moving subject sharp in the photo while the background and any static objects become a smooth blur.

As well as adding a sense of speed, panning can help you capture a sharper shot of a moving subject and focus the viewer's attention on it, or simply disguise unappealing backgrounds. Whatever your intention, camera panning is a great skill to have, and the secret to achieving an impressive pan is practice. Panning requires good camera control, so there is no substitute for experience.

Track sports of all kinds are good subjects to practise panning on, because you get many attempts to hone your skills as the runners, horses, dirt bikes or racing cars pass by each lap. At home, children or pets playing in the garden are ideal opportunities to try capturing subjects in motion.

2. Panning photography settings

A deer running through a field with the background blurred because of camera panning.

Combining a slower shutter speed with a sweeping motion of the camera that tracks your subject, you can use panning in wildlife photography to capture sharp images of animals in action, conveying a sense of movement in your images. Taken on a Canon EOS 350D (now succeeded by the EOS 850D) at 1/50 sec, f/20 and ISO100.

Switch to Shutter Priority (Tv) or full Manual (M) mode and select your shutter speed.

The ideal speed depends on a number of factors: how fast your subject is moving, the distance between you and your subject, the lens you are using, and how much of a blur effect you want to achieve. Start with a shutter speed around 1/60 sec and lower it as you get more comfortable with the action. Try 1/30 sec or slower for more blur, 1/125 sec for less. Make sure to switch off your Image Stabilizer - unless you are shooting with a lens with the option of Mode 2 IS – if so, use this. In this mode, the IS system will correct for vertical shake but not the horizontal motion of the camera as you follow the action.

Some subjects may require a faster shutter speed to prevent them becoming a complete blur. For example, a racing car will probably need a faster shutter speed than a cyclist. You can still record a lot of blur using a shutter speed of 1/200 or 1/400 sec if the subject is moving quickly and you succeed in tracking it as it moves.

If you're shooting in Manual mode, then you will also need to set an aperture to give you a good exposure. With Shutter Priority (Tv), the camera will take care of that aspect for you.

Set the Drive mode to Continuous. As well as having a better chance of capturing the important moment, you will also minimise camera shake from pressing the shutter button.

3. Planning and focusing your panning photos

A woman mid-jump in a hurdles race along a track photographed using camera panning.

Sport is an ideal subject for practising panning photography techniques, whether your subject is running on a track or driving around a circuit. Taken on a Canon EOS-1D X Mark II (now succeeded by the Canon EOS-1D X Mark III) with a Canon EF 400mm f/2.8L IS III USM lens at 1/30 sec, f/8 and ISO640. © Jaime de Diego

A cyclist on a city street with a brick building and pedestrian in the background blurred because of camera panning.

Learning how to use the panning technique can create striking results even in everyday scenes, with a sharp subject appearing to be moving at speed. Taken on a Canon PowerShot G1 X Mark III at 15mm, 1/20 sec, f/10 and ISO100.

The background of your photo should be a blur, so individual details of it will be less important in your photo. But the overall colours will form an important part of your image as they will be the frame for your subject. If you can, look for a backdrop that will contrast with the subject to help it stand out, and will work well when it's recorded as smooth streaks. A few practice runs without the subject in place will soon reveal whether it has potential. Horizontal lines, such as a fence or the edge of a road, will add structure and give a greater sense of speed. If you shoot in low light then blurred background lights can add real drama to your images.

To prevent your camera refocusing while you pan, use your camera's autofocus in AI Servo AF mode to track the subject – depending on how far away you are from the action, you might need to experiment to determine whether Single Point AF or Zone AF produces better results.

4. Improve your panning technique

A small vehicle travelling along a road, passing buildings blurred because of camera panning.

The camera panning technique will help you capture the atmosphere of a bustling city, giving a vivid impression of people or vehicles moving at speed. Taken on a Canon PowerShot G9 X Mark II at 1/15 sec, f/7.1 and ISO125.

A brown dog runs through a field, with the background blurred by camera panning.

Panning is a great technique for capturing motion while retaining all the excitement of the action and can be used to capture your children playing football around the garden or your pet sprinting around a park. Read more tips on capturing motion. Taken on a Canon EOS 7D (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 7D Mark II) at 1/160 sec, f/5.6 and ISO160. © Hoi Ling Mak

  1. Face your chosen background and stand with your feet shoulder-width apart for stability. Only the upper part of your body should move during the pan, so twist at the waist to follow the action.
  2. Using Continuous shooting, press the shutter button well before the subject reaches your intended spot, and keep shooting until your subject has passed through it.
  3. Using a smooth motion, track your subject – but don't just do this when you are actually shooting. Follow it before, during and after, keeping your camera and yourself as stable as possible, minimising vertical and tilt motions. You may find this easier to do using the viewfinder (if your camera has one) than the LCD screen.

Panning takes practice, so don't worry if your first images are not very good. You can learn by taking lots of photos and working out why some come out better than others. Is it the wrong shutter speed, for instance, or is the subject too blurred? Then apply what you have learned to your next set of photos.

Of course, if your subject is perfectly in focus and the background a smooth silky blur, consider it a job well done. Panning is great fun, though, and chances are that you will still want another go!

A man cycling down a street with the lights around him blurred.

Once you've mastered the technique of panning in daylight, you can get creative at night and introduce light trails to your panning shot.

Written by Marcus Hawkins

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