slow pan of leopard

Basics of Slow Panning

Slow panning is a technique used to capture a sense of motion in images. A slow shutter speed is used so that the animal moves during the capture time. The resulting blurring of the parts that move is what creates the motion effect. The trick is to move the camera at the same speed as the animal while you take the image. If the camera is tracking the head, then the head should be sharp while the legs and tail have some motion blur.

The image above was taken one evening on our way back to our camp in the Mara. It was quite dark, but still with a sunset glow in the sky, when we came across this leopard walking out in the open. Although we had been in a hurry to get back to camp, we certainly weren't going to pass up this opportunity. And because there were no other vehicles in sight, this really was safari gold.

With a leopard moving in the open, parallel to the vehicle, it was an ideal slow panning opportunity. Since the camera was moving past the background as the image was captured, it also created background blur.  The extent of the background blurring depends on both the shutter speed and the speed of the animal since this determines how fast you have to move your camera to track it. The final look of the image will also depend a lot on the nature of the background and the light.

In another image from the same encounter which I show below, the leopard was moving towards us rather than parallel to the vehicle. I had the same shutter speed of 1/13 sec for both. Since my camera was not having to move so much horizontally in the second image to track the leopard, the vegetation is not as blurred. So even with the same animal in the same situation and with the same shutter speed, you can get quite different effects.

Slow panning is a high risk style of photography as typically you have to take a lot of images to get a few that work and are worth keeping. It's probably not something to try the first time you see a leopard. However, if you already have lots of leopard images, why not try something different? A good time to try it out is early in the morning or in the evening when the light is poor. The image above was taken at 6.30 pm when the sun was setting and it was really too dark to take a good standard image.

This style of image is something people tend to either love or hate. For sure, it takes you away from the record shot into what some like to call arty-farty. I prefer to call it creative photography.

Our guide moved the vehicle a few times to keep up with the leopard. So we were able to take a lot of images and I'm pleased to report that a good percentage of mine were keepers. My biggest problem has been choosing a favourite among the sequence of images that I captured that evening. My opinion still changes every time that I look at them. But isn't that a great problem to have?

Below I discuss the camera settings before going on to give some tips on the capture process in terms of framing the subject and the panning action. Finally, I will say a few words about my default setup in terms of my equipment and camera settings when I'm on safari.

Basic Settings

Since you will want to control the shutter speed, you should set your camera on shutter speed priority (TV mode for Canon, S for Nikon) and put the ISO down to 100.

Late in the morning, it may be so bright that your camera will not be able to set the aperture high enough to get a correctly exposed image when the shutter speed is low. As a result, your images will be overexposed. This will not be a problem as long as the highlights are not blown as you will be able to bring down the exposure in post-processing. In some cases, you might even like the high-key effect of the captured image.

However, if your images are too overexposed, then you need to find a way to stop so much light getting into the camera during capture. The best way of doing this is to use an ND filter, but many people on safari don't have a set of ND filters with them. If you don't have such a filter, there are a couple of other options that you can try.

On some cameras, it is possible to set the ISO to a value lower that than 100. So it's worth checking your manual and menu options beforehand to see if you can change the minimum value. If so, you can switch the ISO to the minimum value. In the case of my Canon cameras, I have it set to 50.

Alternatively, or in addition, you can put on a polarising filter and/or an extender/teleconverter. This will often reduce the amount of light getting into the camera by enough to allow you to set the shutter speed as low as you want.

If it is very dark, it may be that your images are too underexposed and, in that case, you can either increase the ISO or opt to use the Auto ISO setting. This is actually the only situation where I switch my camera to Auto ISO.

You should also have your camera in what I consider to be the default for wildlife photograph, namely continuous focusing (AI  Servo on Canon) and continuous shooting.

I use a single focus point (or sometimes the option available on my cameras of a single point with four surrounding active points). I think using a single point actually helps when tracking an animal as you can position the point on the head and then try to keep it there as you do the panning action. It does however require some practice if you are not used to single point focusing.


Choice of Shutter Speed

The choice of shutter speed will depend on how fast the animal is moving and the effect that you want to achieve. For fast moving subjects such as a bird in flight or a running animal, you might start at 1/60 or 1/80. The image below of an eagle owl in flight was taken at 1/60.

The image below of an arctic fox carrying a guillemot was taken at 1/25. This was a situation where I already had my camera on slow panning settings to capture the arctic fox walking up the rocks at the bottom of bird cliffs. Suddenly, it spotted a guillemot at the water's edge and ran really fast down the cliffs and grabbed it.

The question in such situations is whether you quickly switch your camera to another mode, or stick with slow panning. I chose to take the risk of sticking with slow panning. I ended  up with lots of images to delete but a couple that I was really pleased with. As I said before, it is high risk photography, but when it works you can get something very different and special.

For a leopard walking, you might try something in the range 1/8 to 1/13. For a very slow animal such as a rhino or elephant, you might go down to a 1/3 or 1/4. This image of a king penguin walking through a nursery of chicks on a beach in South Georgia was taken at 1/4.

With experience, you'll get to know what are good starting points for different species and situations. But the important thing is to try different speeds. Take the figures I have given purely as starting points. If it's a slow moving animal, you will have the time to try out different values and check the results. If it's a fast moving animal, you might not have time to check your images, but it can still be worth spinning the dial to experiment with different shutter speeds.

Generally, the slower you put the shutter speed below these typical values, the more blur you will create and the higher the risk. But sometimes it's worth taking that risk and it's certainly great fun to try a running cheetah or a flying bird at a very low value such as 1/20.


Framing the Subject

Don't worry too much about composition and framing of the subject while capturing. If you try to fill the frame, the chances are that you will be so focused on tracking the head that you don't notice that part of the tail is chopped off. It's better to zoom out to make sure that you capture the whole of the animal if that is what you intend. Then, assuming you get a successful pan, you can crop later to get a composition that you like. Of course, you may want to capture just part of the animal, but in this case it's still good to give yourself some space in the frame by zooming out.


Panning Action

Similar to actions such as hitting a ball in tennis or golf, aim for a smooth movement with a good follow through. Try to pick up the animal and lock focus on it early and then take a burst of shots as you track it. To get a smooth movement, you should move the whole of your upper body, turning your shoulders rather than just your wrists or arms. If you imagine a line between your shoulders, this means that your lens should always be perpendicular to that line.

If you are using a large lens on bean bag, you can pull the lens back so that only the hood of the lens is resting on the bean bag and you can turn the lens freely. Another option is to turn the tripod collar so that it is positioned on the bean bag in a way that allows you to freely swivel the lens.

Equipment and Default Setup

On safari, my default set up is to have my large lens mounted on my main camera and set in aperture priority mode ready to take any action shots or portraits. I will sometimes switch it into shutter speed priority for slow panning, but always switch it back to aperture priority mode afterwards.

On my second camera body, I have a smaller lens, formerly Canon's 70-200 but nowadays their 100-400, that I can handhold. My default is to have that camera set up for slow panning. As the light changes, I adjust the ISO to or from the minimum level of 50 and add or remove any filters, so that it is always ready for slow panning. This means I can quickly pick up that camera and start slow panning as soon as I see some interesting action whether it is a leopard walking in the open or a group of impala running by. The only thing I need to change is the shutter speed.

You may find slow panning with a handheld camera easier at first than with a larger lens as you have more flexibility and freedom in movement.


Final Remarks

Some people find slow panning easy, while others find it extremely difficult. The important thing is not to have too high expectations. Don't expect every image to be good. Even professionals will sometimes end up with nothing worth keeping. I find I have good days and bad days. But there are two sure things. One is that you will improve through practice. It's really worth going out and practicing on the birds in the park before you go on safari. The second sure thing is that you'll have fun.

Setting up your DSLR camera

There’s always a sense of excitement when you take a new camera out of its box. After charging and installing the battery, you probably switch on and go through the quick guide to set up your camera. Many of the default camera settings are ones that a lot of users will never need to change and, generally, the manuals do a good job of taking you through the various settings and describing the options. However, there are a few important things that some people seem to skip over that I think it’s worth highlighting.

The normal sequence is to first set up the language and then the date and time. Since many photographers organise their images based, at least partially, on date and time, it is important to set these up accurately. It really will make your life easier in the future when you want to find images or just check when something happened. You should also remember to change the date and time setting to the local time when you go on a trip. I was once on a safari in Africa with someone who had two cameras with them – one set  at UK time and one set for an Australian time zone. Later, he was able to alter the dates and times in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom so his images could be organised by day and ordered by the capture time. But it was a painful experience for him and one that ensured that he’ll not forget to reset these in the future.

One of the next settings is picture quality. The main decision to be made here is whether your images will be captured in raw format or in JPEG. Camera manufacturers have their own formats for storing image data as captured by the camera’s sensor. For example, Canon’s raw format is CR2, while Nikon’s is NEF. If your images are captured in raw format, they will need to be processed later either using some general image processing software such as Adobe Photoshop Lightroom or the software provided by the manufacturer of your camera. Alternatively, images can be processed in the camera at the time of capture and stored in JPEG format. This means that the camera automatically performs some colour processing, sharpening, contrast boosting and noise reduction. It will also compress the data so that the resulting file is much smaller than the raw format and hence requires much less space on your memory card. Since JPEG files are a standard format, you will be able to send them to friends or post them on a website directly. Because they have already been processed in your camera, a JPEG version of an image will also tend to look much better than the raw equivalent when first uploaded onto your computer. However, the down side of capturing images in JPEG rather than the raw format is that the data originally captured by the sensor is lost and the types of processing that you can do later will be limited. For example, if you capture the image in raw format, you will have full flexibility in adjusting the white balance later in a photo editing tool such as Lightroom so you can choose to simply leave your camera on the automatic white balance setting (AWB).

I would strongly recommend that you capture as much data as possible and hence set the picture quality to the largest raw format available. I’ve read one photography book that recommends JPEG unless you are a really keen photographer prepared to spend time sitting in front of a computer processing images. The problem with this advice is that it doesn’t allow for your growth as a photographer. I used to travel and take snapshots, and only became interested in photography after, somewhat accidentally, ending up on a photographic trip to the Arctic. I now look rather sadly at the images from my first DSLR camera taken on trips to Botswana and the Antarctic as they were captured in JPEG. Even though my processing skills have improved dramatically, there is little that I can do with them as the original data is lost. I think the purchase of a DSLR shows that you are at least thinking about photography as a hobby and something more than simply taking snapshots. Leave yourself the option of spending more time on processing images in the future by capturing raw. In the meantime, you can always do minimal processing which really requires only a few clicks or slider adjustments before exporting your image as a JPEG ready to be printed or posted online.

Two other things to check when you set up the camera are the beep and card reminder settings. Cameras are often set up to beep when they focus on a subject. Apart from being annoying to fellow photographers, the beep can be problematic when photographing wildlife or events such as concerts. It is therefore best to switch it off when you take the camera out of the box and always leave it at that setting. If your camera has an integrated flash, you might also consider switching off automatic firing of the flash to avoid it going off unexpectedly in situations where flash is not allowed or could cause problems. I remember a young bull elephant once getting rather upset when someone’s flash went off unintentionally! The card reminder setting controls whether the camera allows images to be taken if there is no memory card in the camera. You might ask why this should even be possible and the simple answer is that it allows someone to try out a camera in a store without their image actually being stored. It is important to check that the reminder setting is activated. I knew someone who spent a Christmas taking lots of family photos with a new camera given to her by an ex-husband, only to discover later that there was no memory card in the camera. Of course, the ex-husband was blamed.

Last, but not least, is a setting that comes as a revelation when people find out about it later down the line. Next to the viewfinder eyepiece, there should be a dioptric adjustment dial that allows you to adjust the setting for your eyesight so that the information displayed in the viewfinder is sharp. I once attended a photography workshop for beginners where many people said this was the most useful discovery of the day. I’ve also had a fellow photographer pass their camera to me to check something and I couldn’t read anything in the viewfinder as it was totally blurred. When I asked if it was really adjusted to their eyesight, it turned out that they didn’t know it could be adjusted. They were amazed at how much easier everything became once they could easily read their camera settings in the viewfinder. You should remember to check this periodically, as the dial can sometimes be knocked accidentally and the best settings may vary according to specific eyewear and contact lenses.

These are all general settings that you can leave in place. The next thing is to learn about the basic settings used to capture specific images and I hope to share some tips with you for settings used to take wildlife images in future articles.