Tips for Better Panning

Perfecting this technique to show motion.

The first tip is practice. Be sure to bring a large container of patience to combine with practice.

Panning is movement. It’s the panning of the camera to match the movement of your subject. The object is to show a sharp subject along the plane of movement while the background remains stationary. By panning with your subject the movement is reversed the moving subject (car) is sharp and the stationary background is blurred into movement. The amount of background blur will depend on the ratio of your subject’s speed past the background and your camera’s shutter speed.

Sound simple? It is the shutter speed, subjects speed and your ability to match both with a smooth continuous panning camera movement. It’s how you combine these three that will determine the success of your shoot.

Choosing a shutter speed.

How fast is the car moving and how fast do you want it to appear to be moving? The amount of blur in the background contrasted with the sharpness of the car is what gives a look of speed/motion to an image. I shoot the first couple of laps at a relatively fast shutter speed often 1/500 or 1/250 second. The reason, I want to insure I have a sharp usable image for my publisher. Third lap I drop down to 1/60 second and start to move my shutter speed around. The slower the shutter speed the more important a smooth panning technique is.


To show motion it’s important to have something on the car sharp. Set your shutter at 1/160 second and use your auto focus to follow the car. Place the Focus Point on the driver and follow him/her through the pan. He/she will likely be sharp with the front and rear of the car blurred and the background heavily blurred.

Pre-determine where on the track the car will be when you want to capture it. Face that spot and square your feet up to the spot. Twist from your waist to place the car in your viewfinder panning to follow the car through the turn. Push the shutter down part way for activating the follow focus as soon as you start to pan. Make your exposure while continuing to twist your body to follow the car exiting the turn. One smooth panning motion from the car entering the frame to the exposure to it’s exiting the frame. I can not over stress the importance of one smooth motion from beginning of the pan till the end. Like a swing of a baseball bat it’s all about smoothness and followthrough.

Another method of Focus:

Use the AF-ON button the rear of the Nikon D Cameras. Touch the button with your thumb focusing on a targeted area. Release the button locking the focus. As the car passes through your pre-focused area shoot one or two exposures. This allows you to place your subject anyplace in your frame and it will be focused as it enters the area you have pre focused on.

I almost always use a mono pod with longer lenses. But if you are able to set your feet establish a solid base then pan using a smooth combination of movement from your knees and waist you may not need a mono pod. Shorter lenses, say 200mm or shorter I hand hold. One hand firmly grasping the camera body the other supporting the lens. The strap around my shoulders pulled tightly in. Elbows in tight against my body. A firm camera support combined with a smooth panning motion.

“Hint” The closer the car is the less motion you need to show speed.

The more contrast of light and dark combined with contrasting colors in the background all help to add motion/speed to you image. If you can shoot through trees, leaves or spectators better yet. An out of focused blurred shape in the foreground with a sharp car against a blurred background is hard to beat.

“Hint” Use Nikon’s Vibration Reduction Control and Canon’s Image Stabilization systems for better results. I use Nikon’s VR set for Normal when shooting panning images. The Sport or Active setting when shooting car to car or from a plane or boat. But again experiment and see what works for you and your camera lens combination.

“Hint” All this panning is simple. The hard part is bringing it all together consistently. Matching the shutter speed to your subject’s speed. Then supporting your camera/lens through a smooth panning motion.

Practice before you arrive at the track. Use a local freeway for a longer lens. Use bicycle riders at the park for shorter lenses.