Basics of Slow Panning

Note that this replaces an earlier version of the article. 

Slow panning is a technique used to capture a sense of motion in images. A slow shutter speed is used so that there is deliberate movement of the main subject during capture time. The trick is to move the camera at the same speed as the subject while you take the image so that some part of the subject is sharp. In the case of animals or people, this should generally be the head as shown in the example of the leopard below.

When it is walking, the head of the leopard stays in the same position relative to the rest of its body, while the legs are moving. So if you track the animal with your camera, keeping the focus on the head, then the head should be sharp and the legs blurred in the resulting image. The blurring of the legs creates the motion effect and is referred to as motion blur.

Since the camera is moving past the background as the image is captured, it also creates background blur.  The extent of the background blur depends on both the shutter speed and the speed of the subject since this determines how fast you have to move your camera to track it.

By controlling the shutter speed, you can choose how much blurring you want and hence how abstract you want the image to be. The final look of the image will also depend a lot on the nature of the background and the light. I took the image of the leopard above at sunset when it was quite dark but there was still a strong pinkish glow.

The image below was captured a couple of minutes later, when 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 to track the leopard, the vegetation is not as blurred in the second image as in the first. So even with the same subject in the same situation and with the same shutter speed, you can get quite different effects depending on the direction of movement.

As you can see, slow panning results in more abstract images, where the subject stands out from the background. 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.

In the following description of how to do a slow pan, I will continue to use examples from wildlife photography. But the same technique can be used to capture motion in any situation where the main subject of your image is moving. For example, it is often used in sport photography to capture the motion of people or vehicles.

It is important to note before you try slow panning that it 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. Also, it usually requires a lot of practice. It’s therefore probably not something you would try the first time you see a leopard. However, if you already had lots of leopard images, I would encourage you to try it.  On safari, a good time to try it out is early in the morning or in the evening when the light is poor. The images above were taken around 6.30 pm when the sun was setting and it was really too dark to take a good standard image.

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.

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.

In the middle of the day, 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 if you don’t have one with you, 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 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 can set it 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 action photography, 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 working with a single active focus point.

Choice of Shutter Speed

The choice of shutter speed will depend on how fast the subject 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 sec or 1/80 sec. This image of an eagle owl in flight was taken at 1/60 sec.

The image below of an arctic fox carrying a guillemot was taken at 1/25 sec. 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 sec to 1/13 sec. For a very slow animal such as a rhino or elephant, you might go down to a 1/3 sec or 1/4 sec. This image below of a king penguin walking through a nursery of chicks on a beach in South Georgia was taken at 1/4 sec.

With experience, you’ll get to know what shutter speeds are good starting points for different subjects and situations. The important thing is to try different speeds.

I’ve seen tutorials where they recommend 1/15 sec as a default for slow panning, but they were assuming photographing cars in city streets. Clearly, in the case of motor sports, you would start with something much faster, say 1/200 sec.

You should take any recommended figures purely as starting points. If it’s a slow moving subject, you will have the time to try out different values and check the results. If it’s a fast moving subject, you might not have time to check your images, so it can 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 sec.

Panning Action

Similar to actions such as hitting a ball in tennis or golf, you should aim for a smooth movement with a good follow through. Try to pick up the subject 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.

Framing the Subject

Don’t worry too much about composition and framing of the subject while capturing. This is certainly true in the case of wildlife photography, where the movement of animals tends to be less predictable. It is common for photographers to be so focused on tracking the head of the animal that they don’t notice that the animal has moved in such a way that part of the tail is no longer in the frame. It’s better to zoom out to make sure that you capture the whole of the subject 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 only part of the subject, for example the upper body of a person, rather than the whole person. But, in this case, it’s still good to give yourself some space in the frame by zooming out.

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. Birds in flight are really good subjects for practising on because their paths of motion are less predictable than say cars or persons in a street.  Also species vary in the speed and way they move. So you have to learn to vary speeds according to species and to quickly react to their changes in motion.

The second sure thing is that you’ll have fun!