How to take pan motion photos

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Are you looking for a way to take the coolest photos at your kids’ track meet? The pan-motion photographic effect can make them look like they’re the Flash.

how to pan photography lauren crabbe
This photo was taken with a shutter speed of 1/40 and an aperture of f/8.

The pan-motion technique adds drama and movement to photos and is commonly used in sports and even news photography. The idea is that if you slow down your shutter speed and follow your subject with the lens as you are taking the photo, the subject will be clear and the background will be a spectacular blur. To take pan-motion photos, you need a camera with manual controls, a moving subject and a lot of patience and luck.

Pan-photography is a quick, frantic technique so it is best to rid yourself of the variables. If you can, switch to manual focus so your lens doesn’t try to auto focus on the background instead of the subject. In high-traffic areas, your plane of focus can be easily predictable. A bike lane, for example, is an easy spot to focus on in order to keep your attention to the subject’s speed.

When shooting pan photography, your camera should be in continuous shooting, burst, or bracket mode, so that it takes multiple photos as the subject moves in front of you. Because the camera is moving with your subject, the subject appears still and the background will blur. Out of the dozens of photos that you take, maybe one or two will turn out and the rest will be a blur.

pan motion photo by Lauren Crabbe
Follow your subject as they move across the scene. If you are lucky, one pan-motion photo will turn out.

Set your shutter

All DSLRs have a manual option, and many advanced point-and-shoots have them as well. (Check out a list of some of the top point-and-shoot cameras with manual controls.) If your camera has manual settings, a good place to start is shutter-priority mode (usually indicated by S or Tv on the camera dial). Review your instruction manual for how to adjust your ISO and shutter speed in shutter-priority so that your camera will automatically adjust the aperture for you based on how much light is available. If you are using a manual setting, remember that the slower your shutter speed is, the higher your aperture number (or f-stop) must be in order to keep your subject in focus. Otherwise, you will end up with a blown-out, blurry mess.

Depending on how fast your subject is moving and how far away it is, you could pan with a shutter speed as fast as 1/100 or as slow as 1/4. I usually like to start at 1/60 and work from there. Be careful about going too slow with the shutter speed. Depending on your lens length, you could start to get camera shake blur on top of your pan motion blur below about 1/30. A clear subject is the result of a steady hand or a tripod with a pan-tilt head. These tripods come with either a two-way or three-way tilting head and allow for the user to control one axis without affecting the others. In this case, you would want to lock all axes except the panoramic rotating one that gives you a smooth, steady view.

Pan Motion photo by Lauren Crabbe
I kept my shutter speed quick so the bridge would be visible in the background.
Choose a background

Good pan photography also depends on the quality of the background. The best backgrounds for pan photography have nice colors, a lot of details to blur, and allow the focus to stay on your subject. You can adjust your shutter speed to include more or less background detail—the faster the speed, the more detail your background will have.

Make sure to balance the light in the composition. Generally, the light that your subject is in should be the same as the background, but mixing the light in your frame can make some excellent compositions if you know what to look for. For example, you can place your subject in full-sun while the background is in dark shadow—creating even more of a focus on your subject.

The ideal time of day to shoot pan photos is during the magic hour—that’s the time just before sunset or after sunrise. During this time, the light will be diffused and warm—great for slower shutter speeds. If you are shooting in mid-day sun, you may be limited by how small you can set your aperture. The Sony Cybershot, for example, can only go to f14 in full-zoom. Stick to the shade or wait for low light if you are limited to a fast shutter speed.

Be patient and good luck!

Pan photography is just as much luck as it is skill. Be patient. Once you get the right settings and background, wait for an interesting subject to come along and snap away. Link to your pan-motion photos in the comments!

[Lauren Crabbe is a Macworld intern.]

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