View Full Version : Panning is personal

02-11-2016, 01:04 AM
Most of you know I enjoy photographing nature on the move and over the last year I have been working on getting better at images that show birds in flight. Freezing a bird in flight so it is tack sharp is hard enough, but trying to convey a sense of motion is just plain frustrating. The technique is called panning or a pan blur. It requires estimating (read: guessing) a good shutter speed for the moving object and then following the subject, with the camera, shooting as it moves. The results depend completely on what you want the image to look like, so it is really personal preference. That is, the entire image can be blurred; part of the subject can be in focus with a blurred background (the hardest to achieve I think); or the image can be completely abstract.
There are lots of technical considerations to making the image. The subject can be anything moving, a car, a Discus in a tank (never tried it), a biker or any moving animal. The larger/closer the subject, the easier it is for the camera to lock on to focus. A subject that is moving erratically is very difficult; one that is following a repetitive pattern is better. For instance shooting a car that is passing at the same speed many times in front of your photography position allows you to gauge the speed and pan with the camera. Birds that are taking off from a fixed spot are doable. Some photographers liken it to shooting skeet, something I haven't tried. The goal is to fix/track on the target and shoot. If at all possible choosing a non distracting BG is key as well.

Knowing that Sandhill Cranes (below) are taking off into the wind, one by one, allows you to take a few test shots to get the exposure right. Then the fun begins. You can choose any Shutter Speed you want, lock on to the bird and fire away. The slower the SS the more the blur of the animal motion. How much the BG blurs depends on how fast you are moving the camera and the SS. Getting any part of the subject in focus (the bird's head) requires following the head with the camera at the exact speed that the bird is flying. Bottom line, lots of deletes.
SS of 1/15 to 1/500 can work. The lower end will be more abstract while the faster setting might give just a blur to the wing tips. It will of course depend on how fast the subject is moving.
The camera should be set on Continuous Focus, with Continuous shooting mode (the fastest frames per second your camera can manage). Don't be afraid to rapid fire. The subject is moving fast enough that you will want to be able to choose from several shots, the right pose. In the bird example, wing position can make a big difference in the image. If your camera has Back Button focus, learn how to set it and use it. This will allow you to hold on to focus much easier while you are shooting. Regardless, you have to get that focus bracket in your viewfinder on the subject and keep it there while it is moving. Because the head is relatively small I often choose the "shoulder" as my focus point. A fish would be the eye; a car, your choice, as to what is important. Newer cameras have an auto ISO function which allow you to choose your SS and F stop in manual and the camera will adjust the ISO to make a proper exposure. Sometimes you have to make some adjustments based on the tone of the subject (a white bird vs. a dark one), but Auto ISO can be helpful. Just keep an eye on the ISO to be sure it isn't getting so high in low light situations, as to create a large amount of noise in the image. A flash will also help freeze some of the subject but that is for another day (although I have added a few examples).

I can pretty much promise you that your first attempts will leave you frustrated. But you may get some nice abstract shots. When I have a good subject and I want to do pan shots, I just do that. I don't think about other compositions and I work the shot sometimes for an hour or more if the subject allows. Play with different shutter speeds, adjusting exposure accordingly. Tracking with the camera can be hand held or on a tripod. A big lens for me is easier on a tripod.
So here are some images from a Dec shoot in New Mexico with Sandhill Cranes, Snow Geese and a random biker!

First a fish, Queen Angel, with flash, SS 1/30 (not in a tank!).


The random biker, panned with flash, SS1/60.


Skimmers at sunrise, SS 1/15. Birds are moving very fast, going for an abstract feel. (Not N.M.)


Skimmers at sunrise 1/60. Wanted to get the red beaks on a green BG but not really worried about the head(s) being in focus. Again a little more abstract.


Now a Snow Goose and the Cranes. Shot at 1/60 with every effort to also get the head in focus by panning right on the bird. Not easy. BG was the sunrise sky reflecting off ice on the pond where the birds spent the night.




The last one, for me, was probably a once in a lifetime shot...

02-11-2016, 10:52 AM
That last shot is absolutely amazing. Kudos to you for taking a picture of a random biker lol.

Thanks for the explanation. This is one technique I have not messed around with often but will get a chance to soon in a car shoot.


02-11-2016, 11:08 AM
Very very cool!! Yea that last one you could sell !

02-11-2016, 11:20 AM
Stan great write up and excellent shots. I've never had much luck with birds in flight. What was the lens on the sandhill cranes?


02-11-2016, 12:00 PM
What was the lens on the sandhill cranes?
500mm f4 on a tripod with a gimbal head. It takes a little getting used to! Any lense will work if you are close enough.

Yea that last one you could sell:)

Kudos to you for taking a picture of a random biker lol.

We were having diner after a long day of shooting and a Xmas parade broke out. Shot the parade, missed the diner.
You should definitely try it with the cars. Some great effects.


Second Hand Pat
02-11-2016, 10:54 PM
Love, love these shot Stan and that last one is brilliant. Definitive something to try for the future. :D