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Photo Tips: A Creative Action Technique called Panning

Panning can be a useful and creative photographic tool for capturing action.

By Dusty Perin | 22-Mar-12

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Harness racing action shot
This image was captured while panning using a shutter speed of 1/80. Notice how the horse is sharp and the background is a blur. Photo: Dusty Perin
I first discovered panning accidentally when I was a horse crazy teenager spectating at a grand prix jumper event in 1970. I had a borrowed Brownie camera in hand, loaded with one roll of black and white film. I stood in awe on the sidelines trying to capture the jumpers as they cleared each fence but the fixed lens and slow shutter speed resulted in mostly blurry images, except for one. This one picture was of a horse galloping by caught in full motion and tack sharp except for the soft blur of the background. I was fascinated by the result and looked at it over and over trying to understand what I had done differently. I finally realized I had pushed the shutter while moving the camera as I followed the horse. I didn’t know it was called panning but I knew I liked the result.

Panning is an old technique that often gets forgotten in the era of super fast modern cameras that have sports modes, but it can be a very useful and creative tool for those who remember to use it. The first key to panning is a slow shutter speed, usually 1/60th, 1/80th or 1/125th. Many less expensive point-and-shoot cameras have fixed shutter speeds in this range and cell phone cameras typically also have slow shutters. With these low tech cameras, panning can save the day and give you lovely sharp action photos while delivering a sense of speed.

Panning is also useful with pro cameras because it allows you to get creative and to show motion, but you have to remember to set your shutter speed slow. I love to use panning when the light is low or when the background is too close and busy and will detract from my subject. Panning allows me to blur out the background yet keep my subject sharp and focused.

Panning works best when your subject is passing horizontally across in front of you and you can hold your camera focused on your subject and depress the shutter while moving your camera at the same speed. It takes practice but the results are worth it. One of the best places to go to practice panning is a horse racing track. Stand along the rail on a straight stretch where the horses will be moving by you on a predictable path. Try different slow settings as you track the subjects and push the shutter, remember the interesting part about photography is the creativity, so experiment and have fun.

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Reader Comments

Galadriel    Lothlorien, ME

5/17/2013 11:47:34 PM

I had never really thought about this but I've definitely done it. Maybe I'll do it more now!

Ellen    N. Berwick, ME

3/26/2012 3:05:24 PM

I am excited about this column! I can't take a decent photo of a horse in motion - now I can try panning. Thanks, Dusty!

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