Monday 22 November 2010

The frustrating magic of panning shots

Well, as promised, a lengthier, hopefully pithier, blog post...

You've seen them, right? Those blurry shots of birds flying or animals running with just the exact amount of sharpness on the eyes or face or head to make it work beautifully. Those shots which look "Photoshopped" but after investigation you find out it was all achieved using in-camera settings and specific techniques...

"Ground Squirrel Rocket"
f14  //  1/50 SS  //  ISO-200

I am, of course, talking about panning shots...or as I like to call it: pan-blurring. This is where you use a much slower shutter speed than you normally would when you are attempting to get pin-sharp detail, and you try to track your subject with a single focus point as they speed by you. Keeping up with them is half the trick...keeping the focus point on the exact body part you want to is the other half! Knowing which shutter speed to use...well that's something you'll have to learn through practice (this will differ from subject to subject depending on size and speed!). The background and surroundings of the subject will be visibly blurry...but the idea, as mentioned above, is to get just enough of the subject sharp to convey a real sense of motion and energy while keeping the subject distinguishable.

The best way to handle the technicals in this type of photography, is to shoot on "Shutter Priority" mode - meaning that you set a certain shutter speed you desire, and allow the camera to adjust the other legs of the triangle (those being aperture and ISO). I usually put the ISO on something high such as 200 depending on the available light. This then frees the camera up to adjust the aperture to give you the selected shutter speed every time. In this case you shouldn't be fazed about a selected aperture setting of f18 or f22 for example, as the blurring causes all perceptions of depth-of-field to fall away in any case.

If you've ever attempted doing this, you will know that you get probably one keeper among hundreds of shots (that's if the subject you are photographing is even giving you enough opportunity for repeated takes). And more often than not, that "keeper" is not a real stand-out, either. You will probably try to work with it in processing and end up discarding it anyway because it's just not sharp enough where it needs to be.

The beauty of any type of photography is that every missed opportunity inspires us to work that much harder to make the next opportunity count...and get a better shot. I have deleted countless efforts at perfecting the "pan-blur" shot...and I have neither perfected it or been entirely happy with any of my "keepers"...but I will share them with you nevertheless.

Keep practicing, and keep trying out new ideas when out in the field photographing your favourite subjects! Who knows, you'll probably end up clearing most of the images from your memory card right after shooting them, but you might JUST end up with that winning shot...and that will ultimately be so much more satisfying than shooting the perfectly sharp post-card portraits that every second photographer has in their portfolios.

As promised - here are some of my better efforts at this tricky technique...


Morkel Erasmus

"Red Hartebeest in flight"
f22  //  1/60 SS  //  ISO-100

"Impala Passenger"
f36  //  1/60 SS  //  ISO-640

"Cattle Egret"
f5.6  //  1/125 SS  //  ISO-200


  1. Canon's also come with a focus mode called AI Server that is designed to help with locking focus onto moving objects. This mode will start tracking the focus and setting exposures when the shutter button is half-depressed, but waits until the shutter opens to fully lock the focus. This allows you to start tracking the animal and when you "feel the moment" start the exposure with the camera as ready as it can be. I do not know if Nikon or other camera models have this feature or not.

  2. Thanks for the tips.

    As you say one keeper in a couple of hundred..... But it is fun trying (but frustrating)