Panning Photography with Motion Blur Background

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In terms of photography, what is Panning?

Panning basically means moving your camera horizontally with a moving subject, in order to capture it.

Panning Shot of a Cyclists

Panning Shot of a Cyclists

As you start learning photography in detail you begin to come across terms like motion blur, panning photography, zooming and many others which you really want to try out once you see the photos clicked by others, using these techniques. Some practice and some technical knowledge will ensure that you are able to get outstanding photos with use of these superb techniques. While I’m writing this article, I’m still in the practice stage but couldn’t wait sharing the knowledge I’ve gained on one of the above mentioned techniques i.e. panning photography. This particular technique allows you capture motion and by that I do not mean you freeze the subject to get it completely sharp, but, you shoot a subject that is in motion in such a way that most of your subject is sharp but the background gets a motion blur effect, ultimately giving a sense of motion in your capture.

Panning Shot of a Bike Riders

Panning Shot of a Bike Riders

While panning photography is something that almost every photographer must have tried early on, but, for me it started when I was learning the basics of photography at National Institute of Photography, in Mumbai. For one of the practical sessions, we were taken to a place called Aarey Colony in Goregaon, Mumbai where we had all gathered on one side of the road and were supposed to practice panning on the passing vehicles. You can imagine about 15-20 people, with camera, standing on the side of the road and clicking almost every passing cyclist, biker or for that matter, every vehicle, even a car. During those days, I didn’t yet own a DSLR and thus I used a point & shoot Canon PowerShot A710 IS which had some manual control in terms of aperture and shutter along with the ISO.

What we were taught on that day, meant that we had to pick a shutter speed that is slower than what we would normally use. This is considering the fact that the moving objects are in a normal speed and nothing as fast as a race car or a race bike. The first example that the instructor shot for us, used a shutter speed of 1/30. After looking at the photo, the immediate question on my mind was how do you focus on a subject that is visible to you a distance, and comes closer at the point where you actually want to position it in the frame and then, it again moves away from you. The trick here was simple. When the subject is visible to you, you can look at it’s line of motion and guess the position at which it will be when it is right in front of you. Now you can lock your focus in the same plane and then move your camera with the subject and press the shutter in a timely manner to ensure that in the shot, the subject is right in the position where you wanted it to be. My plane of focus was that part of the road which I could safely assume, would be the line of motion of the subject.

It all started for me with some shaky photos. I realized that while moving the camera from left to right my hands weren’t steady and thus there was a marginal vertical blur also which didn’t allow the subject to be captured sharp. After about 8-10 tries, I got a hang of it and captured my first proper panning shot of a biker riding fast with a pillion rider, seen above. I was glad to have captured the 2 riders very sharply. Soon this technique became so exciting for all of the students that for next 2-3 hours we must have clicked about 50-60 pictures each, trying to get some good results with panning. I remember everyone thoroughly enjoyed this particular session and the passing bikers, cyclists and other vehicles loved the attention they got.

The second opportunity to take panning shots arrived when I visited Majhya Mamacha Gaon an agritourism resort that is very close to the Guhagar beach. Guhagar beach has many horse carts operating right on the beach for the amusement of the visitors. The beach being slightly crowded towards the evening, the carts would move about in a speed that would be perfect to get you some nice panning shots. I attempted 5-6 shots and got 2 results which I thought were acceptable. The shutter speed I used for these were 1/30.

Panning Shot of a Horse Cart on Beach

Panning Shot of a Horse Cart on Beach

After that day, I attempted this technique on very few occasions and one of them was recently when I visited Save Farms, for the second time this year. The road that takes you to Save farms Gholvad, from the main highway is superbly beautiful with greenery on both the sides. During the morning when the sunrays passing through the gaps between the leaves would reach the black tar road, it would really appear awesome and create an beautiful ambience. I captured some back-lit candid portraits of locals and tried out panning again. I didn’t want to spend time changing lenses so for both types of photography i.e. back-lit effect as well as panning, I used a canon 70-300mm lens only. There was enough light falling on the subject by means of the light reflecting from the road and the leaves and also, there was a bright background which ultimately gave a nice motion-blur background with lines of light.

Few articles that I had read some time back mentioned that you could use flash to ensure the sharpness of the subject. However I was vary of that and didn’t try using flash. But when I experiment again with this technique I would definitely want to try out results with flash as well as further lower shutter speeds and faster subjects.

Here are some basic tips for Panning Photography

  • Shutter Speed – The shutter speed must be slower for medium speed subjects. This could be anything in the range of 1/8 to 1/30. For superfast subjects you may be required to use slightly faster speeds i.e. 1/100 to 1/200 sec. Faster objects will require slightly faster shutter to ensure the sharpness on subject. This is something that we learn and perfect as and how we experiment.
  • Sharpness – While the background is going to be motion-blurred as that is the main purpose of this technique, it is very important that your subject appears to be sharp. Here what I mean is that if it’s a cyclist, the fact and hands may appear sharp but there are chances that the feet, that are also in pedaling motion, may appear blur. That is acceptable. Another example would be a horsecart, the passengers, rider etc and their faces would be sharper and the wheel, along with the legs of the horse/s would appear blur since they are also simultaneously in motion. So again this should be acceptable. But ensure something about the subject is sharp to get a good panning shot.
  • Plane of Focus – When shooting with panning technique for subjects like vehicles, bike riders, cyclists, runners, you can safely assume, that these subjects will maintain their line of motion so importantly you can lock your focus to that plane and press your shutter when the subjects arrives in that plane thus ensuring that focusing is not an issue.
  • Tripod – In case of subjects with steady line of motion, you can use a tripod to ensure there is no vertical movement.
  • De-cluttered Background – If there are too many things in the background it may appear to be distracting the viewer’s attention from the main subject. Thus it is important to consider that there is very less, happening in the background. You will see this in some of the panning photos that I’ve shared below.

Gallery of Panning Photography Experiments

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