Picture Perfect: How to Pan Like a Pro
Pans: They’re not just for bacon anymore.
We all know the shot: Perfectly framed racecar that's perfectly framed against a blurred racetrack, sense of speed and motion overwhelming. They're known in photography as a panning shot—because the camera is panned (moved sideways) as the shutter is open to match the speed of the car with the speed of the lens. But the question for many novices (and in my case, that I continued asking into my semi-pro years) is: What's the magic combo of settings for consistent motion shots? And how do I not just set up my camera right, but also train myself for solid results on the racetrack?
After literally a decade of practice, I finally have some tips on how to get those beautifully action-filled panning shots with consistency. While I'm not a trained professional, these are the things I've learned in the past 10 years of shooting that have worked for me. So, in this installment of Picture Perfect, let's get panning.
Shutter Speeds: A Crash Course
Shooting pictures in manual mode requires knowledge of one basic principle: shutter speeds. Put simply, the shutter speed of your camera dictates how long the shutter remains open—or how long photo is exposed for—expressed in fractions of a second (e.g. "1/30th of a second"). A long exposure can be used to allow more light to accumulate on the sensor, but it also means the final image will be susceptible to blur, because human beings cannot hold perfectly still. The smaller the number—like 1/100th of a second or 1/250th of a second—the faster the shutter speed and the bigger the number—like 1/50th of a second or 1/25th of a second—the slower the shutter speed will be.
In the case of a panning shot, however, we want blur, and we can use slow shutter speeds and a careful application of technique to use that sense of motion in order to create the perfect shot.
1. Know Thyself
The way a panning shot works is simple: You move the camera and your body in unison with the car passing by, and you leave the shutter open for long enough to capture your own motion. If you match your body's rotation with the passing vehicle, you get a shot like No. 1: A perfectly sharp car with a blurred foreground and background.
There's a range of shutter speeds that will work for you, and there are various ways to make getting a crisp shot easier or harder, but the most crucial component—as with most things in photography—is the photographer. The easiest way I've ever found to train my body for the gentle sweeping motion of panning is to rotate my entire torso from my hips. I "wind up" by positioning my feet straight ahead of me, toes pointed where the car will be directly perpendicular to my vision.
As the car approaches, I turn my upper body towards the approaching vehicle, taking care not to move my feet. When it gets in range, I rotate my hips with the passing vehicle, keeping my chest pointed directly at the car. The whole time, I keep my elbows tight to my body as I hold the camera, to help minimize arm strain, and to keep my shutter eye—and focus point—centered on a single spot on the passing vehicle.
As with any repetitive motion, it will take practice to find what works for you. I know some photographers that don't rotate their hips at all, choosing instead to bend their knees, like a golf swing, or turn just their shoulders like a baseball batter. Experiment until you find what's most comfortable and easiest for you! Start with faster shutter speeds, so that your panning doesn't need to be perfect for a good shot, and slowly work your way down as you get more and more comfortable and figure out what works best. Panning shots are notoriously difficult to pull off consistently, so don't be disheartened if most of them are throwaways—that's normal!
2. Know Thy Track
After you've got the basic motion down, it helps to know the environment you'll be shooting in and how you can use it to your advantage for the shots you're planning. The ideal place for a crisp panning shot like No. 2 of the Acura NSX is in the infield side of a corner because that keeps the car turning around you, the photographer. When the car is turning across your body at the same rate you're turning your camera, that makes it possible to capture the car with almost video-game-like sharpness and at relatively slow shutter speeds. It also maximizes the amount of time the car spends within view, thus widening the probability of you landing a good shot.
Shot #3 Mazda: Nikon D750 + Tamron 70-200mm f2.8 @ 122mm & f/22 for 1/25 sec, ISO 50
So in these shots, I took the photos right at the start of the Esses at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, at the marked point (Turn 4). It's a spot with excellent views unmarred by catch fences or light poles, and—crucially—the infield is the apex of the corner, which means that the cars will turn past the spectators. By standing at this center point, I was able to get shots of the entire side of the car frozen at speeds as low as 1/25th of a second, as I did in shot No. 3 of the blue-and-white Mazda.
If you end up somewhere else such as in shot No. 4, where I'm placed outside of the corner with my friend's Lotus headed towards me, you'll get a vastly different look. This is still a fun, action-filled shot, but because the car is moving towards me and not perpendicular to me, I can only freeze motion on one point of the car, and it doesn't get the same Forza-screenshot effect as shots 4 and 5 have. Here, I chose the front grille as my tracking point (which is why it's the sharpest point in the picture), to help freeze the car's "face" and convey forward motion.
3. Know Thy Gear
Shot #5: Daytona. Nikon D750 + Sigma 105mm f2.8 @ f/7.1 for 1/100th second, ISO 1000
Shot #6: Meetup. Nikon D750 + Sigma 105mm f2.8 @ f/22 for 1/50th second, ISO 200
Once you've positioned yourself, it's crucial to plan out what kind of lenses and distances you'll be shooting with, as well as the speed of the cars in question.
Shot No. 5 was taken at Daytona International Raceway from a pit box across the infield about 250 feet away at 1/100th of a second, and shot No. 6 was taken at a car meet, at 1/50th of a second at around 40 feet away. Despite leaving the shutter open twice as long and being physically closer to the Nissan, the Daytona shot still looks faster, because one: it is faster, and two: it has a more compressed background. Compressing the background (with close objects to the car) is an ideal way to add a sense of motion even when circumstances (such as shooting incredibly fast race cars at night) demand a faster shutter speed. And, of course, the faster the cars are moving, the faster shutter speed you can get away with and still keep a solid sense of speed.
Shot #7 Jeep: Nikon D750 + Sigma 50mm f1.4 @ f/13 for 1/60th second, ISO 64
Shot #8 Honda: Nikon D750 + Sigma 105mm f2.8 @ f/11 for 1/60th second, ISO 64
But that's not all you have to keep in mind.
These two above shots were taken in the same location at the Rebelle Rally of two competitors moving about the same speed, around 25 mph. Both shots have virtually identical settings and are taken at 1/60th of a second. However, shot No. 8 of the Honda has a faster sense of motion—that is, more blur—than shot No. 7 of the Jeep. The reason for this is that when I shot the Jeep, I used a 50mm lens, and when I shot the Honda, I used a 105mm lens. The longer the lens, the more it intensifies the sense of motion.
Even more than most photography, practice is crucial for getting great panning shots because it depends so heavily on your own consistent, physical motion.
Shot No. 9 is of my friend's AE86 I got after he spent 20 minutes driving around a cul-de-sac in a local park at 10 to 15 mph. I shot at 1/25th of a second, a relatively slow shutter speed, with a 35mm lens in extremely close range until I finally got a few keepers. Still, I took hundreds of rejects to get this shot, as it was before I'd had much practice and I wasn't quite as practiced at panning yet. High speeds aren't crucial to getting a good shot, and as you practice the panning motion, you'll find yourself getting sharper photos at lower and lower shutter speeds.
The good thing about shooting a motorsports event, though, is that you will always know where the cars will be. Even though they're moving, they're also stationary in that regard. So pick a good spot to set up, and if it doesn't work, move to a new one. Not all staging locations are created equal.
Good luck, and happy shooting!
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