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Panning is an important technique for photographers to learn and use, but one which does take a certain degree of skill and practice to master. So let’s break it down.

What is panning?

Panning is the technique used to capture a moving object against a static background. The aim is to keep the moving subject pin sharp while adding motion blur to the background thus producing a sense of speed and movement in the photograph.

In this article we’ll focus on automotive panning, such as you might wish to capture at a motorsport circuit. Essentially, the technique can be used throughout most panning situations.

Motorsport panning photography tutorial
f/7.1   1/320s   ISO 100
Standing in the right place

Before we even get in to the actual technique or camera settings, you need to ensure you’re standing in an ideal location. When panning, you’re likely to be tracking the movement of the car from your far left or right, over to the other side of you. For this reason, you want to ensure you have as close to 180 degrees field of view as possible. In reality, and at a busy motoring event, this may end up being closer to 90-120 degrees. The bottom line is, the wider the field of view you have, the easier the shot is to execute.

Nail your stance

Stand with your legs apart, so that you’re comfortable and sturdy when looking directly ahead. You should be able to pan smoothly from left to right (or vice versa) without adjusting your feet. Moving your feet midway through a pan will result in messing up the shot. So, practice a few swivels with your chosen stance to ensure you’re steady.

Motorsport panning photography tutorial
f/12   1/160s   ISO 100
The technique

When a car is driving towards you at speed, its visual speed in relation to where you’re standing will appear slower. Its speed will appear to increase the closer it gets to you, reaching its fastest when directly in front of you. The speed will then appear to decrease as it moves away. This change can also be represented aurally by the sound of a car driving past you. For this reason, your panning needs to mirror this ‘slow-faster-fastest-slower-slow’ change in speed. Panning at a constant speed will result in you missing the car as it passes by.

Try a few test runs with your camera poised and try tracking cars driving past whilst looking through the view-finder.

Once you’re confident that you’re keeping pace with the car, you need to hone in your aim one step futher. The trick to nailing a panning shot is selectiong a spot on the car itself and keeping this central in your view-finder throughout the pan. I personally aim for either the wing mirror or the racing number located on the driver or passenger door.

Keeping this focal point central throughout the panning will get you your shot!

Set your zoom for the final shot

Set your zoom for the shot you want and for where on the track you will be pointing when you take it. Then keep it set there! If, for example, you were to zoom in on the car while it was approaching you, by the time the car is in prime location to shoot, you’ll be too zoomed in. Always stay on the side of zoomed out, as you can always crop later. There’s nothing worse than nailing a panning shot only to realise you’ve cut the front off the car.

Motorsport panning photography tutorial
f/8   1/200s   ISO 100
The camera settings

The key setting here is your shutter speed. Shooting too fast will result in the car looking motionless and stationary on the track. Shooting too slow will nearly always result in blurred images. Generally, I shoot at between 1/160s and 1/320s depending on where I’m standing, how fast the cars are travelling and how much space I have around me to pan. Don’t be tempted to shoot any faster than around 1/500s (or even 1/320s through slower corners). Doing so will mean losing any motion blur from the car’s wheels and the background and with it that vital sense of speed from the shot.

Your aperture, with regards to depth of field, plays little importance here. The reason being that your background will become blurred anyway due to the panning action, so keeping this in focus with your depth of field doesn’t really matter. So long as you maintain an aperture which keeps all of the car in focus, then you’re fine.

Keep your ISO on 100 if shooting in daylight. You’ll most likely be shooting outside and shouldn’t need any ISO input unless low ambient light becomes an issue. Otherwise, just keep it on Auto. If you’re photographing at night or in low light, you’re going to be using a higher ISO, but don’t forget to open up your aperture (lower F number) to allow more light through the lens too.

Set your focusing to AI Servo (Canon) or Continuous Focus (Nikon). This will ensure your camera keeps the car in focus all the while you’re tracking it.

Set your metering to center-weighted (try to avoid spot metering) to ensure your images are exposed for the car and not the ambient surroundings.

Then it’s simply a case of setting your camera to high-speed burst mode and keeping that shutter button pressed throughout the pan. There’s no harm in taking five or even ten shots for each pass and selecting the best of the set. If you still find you’re not getting pin-sharp shots, then it’ll be down to your technique. So keep practising.

Author – Oliver Pohlmann

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