May 14, 2010

Advanced camera panning techniques (Sports and Action photography)

When we think of sports photography, usually we think of shooting at the highest shutter speed possible and wide open apertures in order to stop the subject dead in his/her tracks.  The sharper the image, the better, right?  Let's talk about breaking this rule for a minute and working to capture more of a sense of motion in your images.  How do you translate the feeling of a cyclist racing across the asphalt at 30mph?  How about the movement of a propeller as an airplane leaves the ground at take-off?  Or a sail boat piercing it's way through an open ocean?  Or what about a skier tunneling through three feet of freshly fallen snow?  One way to create movement in our imagery is through the use of slow shutter speeds and panning the camera.  As a commercial photographer, I'm constantly striving to create the most intriguing and compelling photographs.  Of the many techniques available to photographers, panning and the use of slow shutter speeds is an excellent tool to add movement and energy when shooting action.
Skiing image: panning at 1/30th of a second

The easiest way to practice this technique is to pick up the camera, walk out of your front door and point the camera at moving cars.  You can experiment with different shutter speeds, backgrounds and subjects this way.  To take panning to the next level, the trick is to get the camera into a position that it can move at the same speed as your subject.

Road cycling image: panning at 1/20th of a second from the back of a van.

Some other points to consider when panning:

1) Pick the important elements to keep sharp:

What are the important elements to keep sharp in the final image?  If I'm shooting people, I generally want head and facial features sharp.  If it's a commercial shoot, keeping logos, product names or other elements we are advertising is also critical.

2) Move with your subject:
Once you have the location and subject matter, next decide on your composition.  The easiest way to explore the technique of panning is to move the camera parallel to your subject as they ride, ski, swim, walk past you.  For example, during the 2006 Tour de France, I captured this image of cyclist, David Millar during the prologue stage of the tour.  And a few months ago during the Salt Lake Shootout, I captured this skiing photograph with roughly the same technique.  However, if you're working in a more controlled environment, try getting into a position where you can keep the camera still and move with the subject.  Whether it be a bike, motorcycle, car or other rig, try the camera into a position is moving at the same speed and direction as the subject.  For the following image, I wanted a head-on perspective and so we jumped in the back of a mini-van and with the tailgate up, started shooting.   I love the gritty feel of getting the camera close to the moving pavement, while keeping the rider and bike in focus.

3) Choose your shutter speed.
Panning requires a steady hand and experimentation with your shutter speed.  For example, when shooting a cyclist, I'll start in the 1/25th of a second range and move up or down from there to get the right blend of motion and sharpness.   Also, keep in mind your background colors when choosing your shutter speed to create either something that's recognizeable or completely blurred giving an ethereal and abstract feel.

Lifestyle shoot: Panning at 1/5th of a second (strobed w/ Elinchrom Ranger)


1. Use ND Filters.  If you're shooting on a sunny day, throw a neutral density filter or polarizer on your lens to bring your exposure back to 1/30th of a second (or whatever shutter speed you decide on).  As a LAST resort if you can drop your iso to 50 and crank your aperture to f/22, but make sure your sensor is clean!
2. Bring lot's of memory.  We shot roughly 300 images of one athlete in the span of 2 minutes or so on the 5D Mark II (3.9 FPS).  We had roughly 10-15 keepers.
3. Safety first.  If you are hanging off or a motorcycle or out of the back of a van, make sure to communicate to everyone involved.  You, the driver and the athlete need to be on the same page.  The last thing you want is for the driver to suddenly hit the brakes while your cyclist is trailing 3 feet behind at 30 MPH.  Keep it safe.

What are some of your techniques for panning?  Let's hear it.  Next, we'll talk about panning with the use of strobes (big and small).


More behind the scenes videos and photography


Vitali said...

Hey Kevin, thanks very much, very helpful article!
How does the camera focus on the subject when you are moving and don't look through the viewfinder? Doesn't this technique produce a lot of unsharp images?

Diego Huerta said...

I really enjoy your blog, felicidades!

Ben Bender said...

My struggle is always the movement of the vehicle I'm in as I shoot. Like you mentioned, it takes a lot of images to get a few good ones. I've taken 900 images from the back of a moving vehicle, and had 20-30 usable files:

I've thought about using some sort of steadi-cam to cancel out my movement on still images like this.

kevin Winzeler said...

Hey Vitali- If I'm shooting at a wide angle (16mm) with an aperture of say f/16 or something in order to get the shutter speed low, then I've got quite a bit of depth of field to work with. Set your lens to manual focus if you know the general distance you'll be from your subject. If you're shooting at a wider aperture, then yes, it is pretty difficult to get the images in focus without using AI Servo (or something).

@Ben - nice work. It sometimes does take a lot of trial and error. A couple of thoughts though to help get a few more keepers: 1) direct your subject by letting them know how you are shooting and that it's important that they keep their head and upper body (or whatever you want sharp) in a fairly stationary place. 2) Work with a larger depth of field (per comment above) to ensure the reason they are OOF is strictly your slow shutter speed and not due to focus issues.

Jose Lopez said...

Amazing Work... looks so simple and easy... but is very difficult... great post...

Frozen Forever Photography said...

Good stuff Kevin,
I love adding motion in portraits. Its almost turns the image from 3D to 4D.

Glyn Dewis said...

Great post; thanks for taking the time to put it together.


Anonymous said...

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Top Rated Cameras said...

Wonderful post! Lots of awesome tips! And i love the video! :) I am thinking of getting a new point and shoot camera and I can't decide what to get between the Nikon Coolpix S8000 and the Canon S95... Hoping to try out some of the tips on the article! :D