Thursday, September 16, 2010

Panning to Capture Motion


I recently posted an entry “Deepening Understanding in a Blur” which argued against the relentless pursuit of tack sharp images.  I also talked about the importance of intentionally adding blur to emphasize motion or a sense of energy.  In this post, I will give you two methods to achieve this sense of motion and offer some examples.

Fast Landing

As the title of this post states, panning is one of the methods you can use to blur portions of the image and emphasize a sense of motion.  This technique takes some practice although the concept is simple.  In the examples here, the planes were passing by (either landing/launching, or doing a low altitude fly-by) and I rotated (panned) along with the movement of the plane and made the shot.  If done precisely, meaning you match the rate of your camera rotation exactly with that of your subject, you can get a very sharp subject and a blurred or streak filled background.

Steaking Fast

People who first try this technique are often frustrated because they are unable to get the subject as sharp as they would like.  Here are two recommendations:

1.  Pick one of the focusing pints on your view finder and try to keep that targeted to a specific point on your subject.  For example, in the following photo I chose one of the focus points and pinned it to the pilot in the orange flight suit.  Point to point targeting for a panning shot is more accurate than trying to see the “whole picture” and keeping the subject aligned.

2.  Practice, practice, practice.  No worries – it will not take long to perfect this technique.

The degree to which you want the subject in clear focus is up to you.  As you can see from these photos, there is a range from very sharp to very blurred.  I would suggest that the amount of blur in the subject is not indicative of the quality of the photograph – the level of blur in the subject simply presents a different feel a suggestion of speed.  It really depends on the story you are trying to tell.  The two adjoining photographs present a good comparison.  The biplane (above) appears to be moving much faster than the auto-gyro (below).  The people in the foreground further enhance this sense of speed.

Gyro Fly by

The second method to introduce a sense of motion is by using a slower shutter speed.  This is quite important when shooting things that have rotating parts such as wheels on race cars or motorcycles, and propellers on aircraft.  If you were to use a high shutter speed and “stop” the wheels or the propellers, the result could appear as a less interesting static display, or even awkwardly unnatural like that of a helicopter in mid air with the rotors still.

23 Taxi

The spinning propellers on these two aircraft photos add more energy and interest to the shots than a still prop.  This is a small consideration that makes a world of difference in the final product.


The photos featured in this entry were taken at the Front Royal/Warren County, Virginia airport.

Have fun and go make some great photography.



  1. Hi Craig...Thanks for the explanation on "how to" take a shot like the ones illustrated. The manual that came with my camera attempts to explain it, but this is the first time that I've actually understood a process that just MIGHT work for me. Now, where's my camera...

  2. Terri,

    I'm glad you found this helpful. If you have any questions on techniques or anything photography related, send them! I would be happy to respond and provide examples to help you improve.


  3. Hi, Do you know any historical photographer expert in panning? Cheers