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.