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Capturing Dynamic Photos With a Panning Effect

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Have you ever wished that there was way you could capture the sense of motion in a still picture? Well, today, using just our camera and a special technique we're going to learn just to do just that. Panning is the art of tracking a subject with your camera - blurring the background, while keeping the subject in sharp focus.

We'll be walking you through the equipment required, how to choose a subject & location, ensure the background is appropriate, and pan smoothly!

1. Introduction

"In photography, panning refers to the horizontal movement or rotation of a still or video camera" - Wikipedia. The basic idea behind panning is moving your camera along to follow a moving subject. If executed correctly, the result will be our subject (e.g. a biker riding a bicycle) "frozen" and sharp while the background is smeared in the apparent opposite direction, hence creating the illusion of movement.

While not simple to execute, panning is a very rewarding technique that can be used in a great variety of situations to produce a unique and outstanding picture. This tutorial is at intermediate level: some terms such as shutter speed and aperture are used but are not explained, if you are not familiar with them I recommend reading a few of the basic introductory tutorials on Phototuts+.

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2. Equipment

One of the great things about panning is that it can be achieved using almost any camera. There's no need for a big and shiny DSLR, even a small compact camera could do the trick as long as it allows you full control over those 3 settings: shutter speed, aperture size and ISO sensitivity. It's also possible to do with a film based camera. However, since panning is a lot of "trial and error" it's going to be very hard (and expensive!) and not recommended unless you've already mastered this technique.

In addition to a camera, you should also bring along a good tripod. Although a tripod is not a must, it can make your life much easier as a beginner. For all the pictures in this article I used a Fuji S6500FD.

3. Choosing the right subject and location

There is one rule about the subject, it has to move! There are endless possibilities: A moving car, a running person, a rider on a bike, walking dogs and even jumping horses. Basically if it moves, it can be panned. Since panning usually requires lots of trial and error to get it right, a location where the same event repeats itself many times and usually at the same location is advised. i.e. if we want our subject to be a runner, we should try and find one of those running lanes or a promenade that can be found in many parks or by the sea. We then try and position ourselves in a place where our view of the subject will not be obstructed by anyone or anything else. A very important thing to remember is ensuring that there is enough room to move around and find the best spot.

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4. Choosing the right background

Now that we have chosen our location, we put our focus towards finding the right background. Since that one of the main goals of panning is for the subject to "pop out" of the picture, we need to make sure that our background is not distracting from the subject.

Try not to pick backgrounds that are considerably brighter than your subject, as they are likely to be over-exposed. If you can, find a nice plain background, because bright lights and sharp shapes might be distracting when blurred. Try to find a background that contrasts (red-blue, white-brown, blue-yellow etc') with your subject, to make him stick out even more.

This is the background used in the final effect picture. It's not too bright, has solid colours, and contrasts well with the subject's red T-shirt.

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5. Setting your camera

Now that we have our desired subject, background and location it is time to get our gear ready. The first order of business is to change the camera shooting mode to manual. Now play around with the settings until you get a good balanced exposure (the camera histogram can come in handy here), trying to keep your ISO level around 100-200 and the aperture as closed as you can to achieve maximum depth of field in our subject.

When we have a well balanced picture, we need to estimate the correct shutter speed. This is difficult, and depends on two main factors: the speed of the subject and the distance from the subject. The faster the subject is moving, the faster the shutter speed, and the closer you're to the subject the slower the shutter speed.

You'll need to play around with the settings until you get it right. Here are, for reference, average speeds for some objects - start out with these and do your own fine tuning until you get it right: walking person (1/10), bicycle rider (1/20), moving car (1/60). I recommend starting out shooting faster objects because camera shake becomes a larger issue at a slower speed. This step might be a bit frustrating, especially for beginners, so don't give up until you get it right. In this picture the shutter speed was too high and the background was not blurred enough, so for the next attempt I slowed the shutter speed down a notch.

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6. Panning

Now that everything is ready, it's time to put our photographer hat on and get started. The first step is to plan where exactly you want (and expect) the object to be in the picture. Try and find something that can be used as a mark; a road sign or tree for instance. It should be easy for you to spot during the action.

If your camera is not equipped with a good tracking auto-focus, you should set your focus on the marker by half-pressing the shutter button. Now the camera is focused and all that is left to do is take the picture! Identify your object and start tracking it with a steady, smooth motion. Try gauging speed and adjusting your own accordingly. Remember that the closer it is to you, the faster you'll have to move your camera.

When your subject reaches the chosen mark, depress the shutter gently (to prevent unwanted camera shake) while still tracking the subject until you've heard the shot is complete. The key is to execute the entire movement as steadily as possible - study your subject, notice where it slows down and where it speeds up, and adjust your location if necessary. Done correctly, you should have a good panning blur with a sharp subject.

Some older cameras (or entry level point & shoot) have what is known as "shutter lag" problem. Shutter lag is when there is a slight delay between the moment you press the shutter and the moment the camera actually starts taking the picture. If your camera suffers from this problem, you'll have to anticipate this lag and click the shutter a little earlier than expected.

For an appealing composition, place your subject towards the side of the picture, opposite to the direction of movement. It should look as though the subject has room to move into within the frame.

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7. Patience is a virtue

Panning is all about patience - it's a trial and error process, and can be difficult to perfect. Try shooting as many images as you can until you get it right! Remember that nothing is set in stone, experimentation is key, and most importantly: have fun!

8. Another take on panning

In this article I focused on the more "classic" panning technique in which we're moving our camera in sync with our object. However there is another way to achieve a similiar effect - instead of moving the camera, we're going to be the one doing all the movement.

Imagine two cars driving side by side at the same speed - if you capture the car right next to you and set a low shutter speed, the same smearing effect will appear in . This technique is much easier to execute, although there are fewer situations where you are moving side by side with your object and at the same speed.

In this picture I was sitting in a carousel facing my brother and was shooting while we were going in circles.

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