Design, Photography, & Fashion

How to Use Camera Panning for Photography

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Nov 6, 2019 • 4 min read

Panning is one of the most fundamental camera techniques in film and television, but it is also used in still photography. In motion picture cinematography, panning shots start in one position, and then the camera pivots to show different parts of a setting, or to follow a character as they move across a set. In still photography, the camera moves but the finished product is a single static image.

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What Is Panning in Photography?

Panning in still photography refers to the technique of opening the camera shutter and then horizontally moving the camera before the shutter closes. Panning is used in the following types of photography:

What Are the Benefits of Panning?

The panning technique creates effects that are not achievable with other methods of photography. Here are some effects that panning photography can produce:

  • It can show motion. Panning shots can track a moving subject when the camera moves at the same speed as the subject. For instance, if a camera moves horizontally at the same speed as a cyclist, it can produce an image where the cyclist appears still (with motion blur around the edges of their body). Meanwhile a background blur appears around them. This creates a sense of speed, whether you’re tracking an athlete, a high speed animal, or a moving car.
  • It can create artistic blurs of light. When a camera is set to a slow shutter speed, a photographer can play with light patterns by panning the camera before the shutter closes. The effect can be particularly striking in nighttime photography.
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What Camera Settings Should You Use to Pan?

If you are new to the technique of panning photography, here are some settings to use on your camera.

  • Wide lens. Panning is easiest with a wider camera lens. Select a fixed zoom ratio before you press the shutter button, and refrain from zooming in or out while you are panning. A telephoto lens is also fine for panning; the same techniques and challenges will still apply.
  • Slow shutter speed. For the first part of your camera setup, choose a slow shutter speed. Try 1/30th of a second to start, but anywhere between 1/15 and 1/200 of a second can produce a panning effect if combined properly with other elements. Do not use a fast shutter speed. It will heavily mute any panning effect.
  • Autofocus. For purposes of beginner photography, use the autofocus camera mode of your DSLR camera. Depending on your model, this autofocus might be labeled “AI Servo” or “AF-C.” Under such a setting, the camera will identify a subject and continually refocus on it if it moves from the starting focal point. You can forego this automated function and manually focus on your subject, but you must then maintain a constant distance from your subject as you both move. Most advanced photographers prefer manual focus, but they also have ample experience in maintaining a steady subject distance.
  • A narrow aperture. Your camera’s aperture should range from medium to narrow. A wider aperture would theoretically bring the background into sharper focus, but a blurred background is elemental to panning shots. If your DSLR has a shutter priority mode, consider using it on panning shots. A shutter priority mode (usually labeled “S” on a camera’s mode dial) allows the photographer to choose a specific shutter speed while the camera automatically adjusts the aperture to produce a commensurate exposure.
  • And sometimes, a flash. Flash is optional. While many professional photographers eschew the flash for stylistic reasons, a flash can help a beginning photographer who is learning the panning technique—particularly if adjust your shutter speed using your camera’s bulb mode. (To access bulb mode, set your DSLR camera to “manual,” extend the shutter time past 30 seconds, and you will activate bulb mode. In bulb mode, the shutter of the camera will stay open for as long as you hold down the shutter button.)

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6 Photography Tips for Better Panning

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Here are some photo tips to bring your camera panning technique to the next level:

  1. Set up your shot in advance. Before you subject becomes a moving object, decide how you want to frame your scene. What will the point of view be? What will your depth of field be? Will your camera be hand-held or mounted on a tripod or monopod? Will you use a flash and precise light metering? Will your shot be a close up (perhaps with a telephoto lens), or will your subject be a small part of a larger landscape?
  2. Don’t lock in on your camera’s viewfinder. Your priority should be moving your camera precisely, so that it accurately tracks the moving object you are capturing. If you’re able to do this while also looking into the viewfinder, so be it, but give precedence to camera movement.
  3. Remember: slower shutter speed means a greater motion blur; faster shutter speed minimizes the blur.
  4. To properly pan an action shot, you must move the entire camera. If you simply pivot it on a tripod, you won’t capture the sense of motion that action shots require.
  5. Understand that while panning produces similar blur effects as time-lapse photography, the two techniques are different. Most time-lapse photography involves a static camera that never moves. However its shutter remains open for long periods of time and as objects move within the frame of the photograph, blurs naturally appear.
  6. Prepare for your first try to be a failure. Smooth camera movement isn’t easy—it’s easy to delve into undesirable “camera shake”—and photographing a moving subject presents challenges for any level of photographer. No matter what your starting point may be, keep working at your craft. Experiment with focal length, light reinforcement, and shutter release until your photographs start looking like those of the professionals you’re emulating.

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