Trying for a blurred panning shot is a bit like going to a casino. You know the house almost always wins, but you’re going to give it a go anyway, and the fact that the odds of success are against you are in fact part of the whole appeal in the first place. Panning shots (or motion blur, although they aren’t always the exact same thing), involve tracking a moving animal with your camera while shooting with a slow shutter speed that blurs the background, but at the same time is fast enough to capture a reasonably sharp and in-focus portion of the animal.
It’s very hit-or-miss.
For the shot to work, you need to:
- Hit the sweet spot of a not-too-low but not-too-high shutter speed (which you arrive at through an educated guess by combining of the speed of the animal, your distance from it and type of lens you are using).
- Make sure you track your camera at the same speed as the animal.
- Make sure the camera maintains its horizontal plane (or at least the same plane that the animal is moving in).
- Take enough shots to hopefully have one that works.
Bear in mind you will struggle to get any kind of motion blur with a wide-angle lens, so I’d recommend shooting at at least 100mm, unless the subject is close to you, in which case you could maybe drop to 70mm, or even 50mm if the subject is moving quickly.
The single best thing you can do when trying a panning shot is to make your peace from the start with the fact that success will involve a lot of luck. You are then less likely to become exasperated with a whole series of completely blurry photos…
Ok, the main thing: determine what shutter speed you need.
Although it might seem that only the speed of the subject is important, it’s actually the speed of the subject relative to the background/its surroundings that is key. Panning photography is about implying movement, and if this isn’t highlighted by your chosen shutter speed, you might as well not try.
Take the following rules into consideration when deciding on a shutter speed:
- If your subject is moving slowly, slow your shutter speed.
- If the subject is very close to you, you can afford to have a slightly faster shutter speed (as the subject will be further from the background, assuming the area is relatively open).
- If you are using a long lens, your shutter speed can be slightly faster (longer lenses blur the background slightly already, and will also need to move slightly faster to keep your subject in frame).
The absolute fastest shutter speed you should be thinking about is roughly in the 1/100s range, but this would be for a fast animal running at full speed, and the slowest you should get to would probably be around 1/10s, for slowly walking animals.
The slower the shutter speed, the less likely it is that any part of the subject will be sharp, so shooting from a stable platform like a Wimberley arm would be a good option. Somewhere around the 1/25 – 1/40s is usually a good bet.
The easiest way to set your shutter speed is to shoot in Shutter priority mode and set the shutter speed.
I usually shoot on Aperture mode however, and the simplest way to suddenly drop your shutter speed to get that motion blur is just to crank down your aperture. By letting in less light, the camera will know that it needs to keep the shutter open for longer, and your shutter speed will drop. The added bonus here is that a much narrower aperture will give you a greater depth of field, meaning you are more likely to keep your subject in focus.
If you shutter speed still isn’t as low as you need it to be, drop your ISO right down to its lowest setting.
All that sounds like a lot to think about, so maybe some examples will help:
Panning shots can be tricky in bright light with a fast lens, as it’s difficult to get a slow enough shutter speed (unless you’re using a filter), so the best time to play around with this technique is when the light is poor. This is pretty handy, as just when many people would be thinking of packing their cameras away with the approaching darkness, or on gloomy overcast days, is actually when you can create some of your most dramatic and original images.
A subject moving reasonably quickly and a slow shutter speed. Those are the fundamentals for good panning.
As long as you’ve got those in hand, you’re already on track…