How to Shoot an Amazing Action Shot Using Panning

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How to Shoot an Amazing Action Shot Using Panning

How do you go about capturing fast action when you’re shooting?  Do you typically try to freeze action with your camera?  Me, too…  that is until I discovered a technique called PANNING.  Panning is the act of moving your camera at the same speed as a moving object to freeze the subject while showing intense movement in the background.  It will take practice, but along with a couple of simple shifts in your settings, and you can make it happen.

Two Different Ways to Capture Action

When you have an opportunity to show action, there are two popular ways to make it happen.  The first is by freezing the action, like this:

3 boys on water tubes with water splashing

Another option is to show the speed and movement that is happening at the moment, by panning, like this:

3 boys on water tubes with panning action

Both Freezing and Panning are amazing and so much fun.  As you can see, these examples were taken just moments apart with the same 3 boys but different camera settings.  Those are 3 of my sons, by the way.  Aren’t they handsome!?  Thanks!  I think so, too.  But I digress. 

Now is a great time to catch up on how to freeze action in your photos.  Click HERE to learn about Using Shutter Speed to Freeze Action. 

All caught up?  Great!  Now we can get to today’s subject, Panning!  If you want to read the technical definition of panning in photography, check out Wikipedia’s explanation HERE.

Let’s jump into the steps to create your perfect Panning shot!

Step 1 – Choose your settings

Start by setting your camera to Shutter Priority Mode.  That’s the mode on your camera that lets you choose your shutter speed and ISO but lets the camera do the rest of the work by choosing the aperture.  You will be moving fast, so it’s a great time to let the camera do some of the work for you.  Set your ISO as low as possible, considering the lighting conditions.  In most cases, 100 will work.

Next, you’ll choose a fairly slow shutter speed relative to the speed of the subject.  Know that you’ll likely need to make a few changes as you go, but here are some suggestions:

1 – slow subject (a jogger, a kid on a bike), start with a shutter speed around ¼.

2 – medium subject (a skier, a bird, a slow-moving car), start with a shutter speed around 1/20.

3 – fast subject (a race car), start with a shutter speed around 1/50.

Remember, these are simply starting points for your shutter speed.  You will learn as you go and make changes on the fly (we’ll talk more about that when we talk about practice below).  Remember – the idea here is to get your shutter speed set slow enough to see motion in the background and capture your subject clearly.

A subtle panning effect still shows motion but leaves my son pretty clear. And check out that dimple!!!

Step 2 – Choose your focus

You are off to a great start!  Now let’s talk focus.  There are a couple of options here.  I prefer to use autofocus and let my camera do the work.  I use the continuous autofocus setting on my Canon EOS R.   It uses multiple focus points to track the moving subject and grab focus.  Go ahead and try it with your camera and see if it works.  If not, and you’re having trouble catching your subject in focus, then you may want to try to focus manually.  Not to worry, it’s pretty simple!

To manually focus, first set your lens on the MF setting, a small slide button on the side of your lens.  Next, do your best to predict where the moving subject will pass in front of you and set your manual focus on an object in that space.  For example, as I’m preparing for my son to ride his bike past me, I can have him park himself in the area where he’ll pass and take my time and manually focus on him.  Then without moving myself, have him go back and ride by, and I’ll be ready to catch him in action.

Panning Bonus Tip!

Here’s a bonus tip for you.  If you have a long lens, you’ll want to use it.  A longer focal length will increase blur in the background.  I prefer my Tamron 70-200 G2 for panning shots.  No worries if you don’t, a nifty fifty or your kit lens will also do the trick.

Step 3 – Choose your Shooting Mode

Set your camera’s shooting mode on burst or continuous shooting.  Any good DSLR will allow several shots per second when you hold the shutter button down.  Holding the shutter down when your subject is zooming past you instead of pressing it again and again reduces the likelihood of up and down camera movement and is one less thing to think about while you’re panning.

A Note About Image Stabilization When Shooting Movement with Panning

Many high-quality lenses have image stabilization (IS).  If you are lucky enough to have that, turn it off for panning!  I know this is not great news if you just paid big bucks to have that feature, but trust me – you’re better off without it here.  The thing is, IS is designed to counteract camera movement while shooting, and when panning, you’re actually using camera movement to your advantage.  No point in having your camera fight you.  You’re a team!  Don’t worry; most of the time you’ll be glad to have that feature, just not today!

It should be noted that some Canon lenses have an IS 2 mode.  If your lens has that, go ahead and turn it on.  It is specifically designed to be used with panning.  For this reason, it’s important to know and understand your camera and equipment and what it can do.  Don’t worry if you don’t know all the features.  Learning new techniques forces you to learn more about what equipment you have and what you might want when you upgrade.

dude on a quad driving to the right making a cool face
I love how you can see the movement in the wheels of the ATV here!

Step 4 – Choose your stance

Now your equipment is just about ready!  Congratulations on making it this far!  Time for some fun as you get ready to snap those images!  As always, in photography, it’s important that you are in the correct stance.  

Woman holding camera correct in the vertical position
See how my arms are pressed close to my body? This offers stability and less camera wiggle.

When panning, it is especially important to have your camera move smoothly from side to side and not bobbing up and down.  Pay close attention to how you’re standing.  Stand up nice and tall with your feet shoulder-width apart, tuck your arms in close to your body and prepare to swivel at your waist and hips, moving your whole torso.

Picture the bottom half of your body firmly planted into the ground, unmoving.  Freeze the top half of your body in position.  The only movement in your body should be at your waist/hips as you twist your torso from one side to the other as you track the moving object while holding your shutter down.  For more tips on how to hold your camera, click here:  3 Simple Reasons Your Photos Are Blurry.

You can always use a tripod if you want to be guaranteed a smoother motion.  Set it up and ensure that the head can be freely rotated from side to side.  Instead of using your body to move with the subject, you can move your camera on the tripod as the object zings by!  Another tool that will be handy for this technique is a remote trigger, which will reduce camera shake and allow for smooth panning.

dude on a quad driving to the left making a cool face
My sons had a great time zooming past me for these shots! They were definitely willing participants for my practice.

Step 5 – Choose your Panning Practice

You are ready!  Now it’s time to enjoy the best part – the practice!  As you know, practice makes perfect, and if not perfect, then practice definitely makes progress.  Find a friend or a kid or grandkid who wants to lend a helping hand and get started!  If you don’t have a willing subject on hand, you can always practice shooting your dog as she runs through the yard or find a SAFE place where you can photograph cars passing by.  Bring a friend for an extra set of eyes – always be safe!  If you have a skateboard park or a jogging track in your neighborhood, you may find some willing and fast-moving subjects there, too.

Play with your settings as you practice.  Change your shutter speed to see what effect it will have on your result.  Also, take a look at some of your photos with the on-camera LCD screen while you are on-site shooting.  Zoom in on the subject because often what looks in focus on the back of the camera will look very different on the larger computer screen.  When in doubt, keep trying.  It’s better to have too many photos to choose from than not enough. 

Be prepared to take a lot of pictures and eliminate most of them!  Fine-tuning your panning technique will lead to lots of rejected photos, but nothing beats the excitement of seeing that one winner in the stack of rejects.  Your clearest shots will usually be as the subject passes directly in front of you.  

Release Your Inner Artist

As you work at capturing your perfect shot, remember that panning is an artistic form of photography.  It is ok to have some motion blur in your subject.  In fact, some subjects lend themselves very well to extra motion blur.  I took this photo of a biker zooming through Chicago’s Grant Park at twilight.  I love the clear view of the bicycle mixed with the streaks of light behind him.  At first look, I considered this a fail, but when I stepped back to study it, I really decided I love the colors and the overall feel of movement. 

Panning shot with man on a bike and lights behind him

Another artistic choice is to really slow down your shutter speed to catch intentional movement in your subject.  Motion blur is an artistic choice in this context.  Just as slowing down the shutter speed shows motion, speeding up the shutter will freeze motion, so don’t be afraid to tinker both ways and look at your results.  Neither is wrong, just different.  Have fun and show me your results in our amazing FB group HERE.  

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Dude on a quad showing action with panning

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