Every photographer I’ve met has gone through what is generally referred to as ‘creative block’ – we struggle to see creatively when out with the camera. If you ask ten photographers how they get out of a creative block, you’ll likely get 10 different answers, or close to it, because there is no one correct answer – what works for one person may not for another. Personally, I use a couple of methods to try and snap out of the block and one of them is panning.
In simple terms, panning is following a moving subject with the camera. At higher shutter speeds, this technique can freeze action, a method used by sports photographers covering events, like football games, cycling and auto racing. At lower shutter speeds, panning can give a sense of motion to a frame, which is the method I prefer. This can also be used in sporting events, but when the creative juices need help, I like to use it for street photography, like the image below.
Presenting a sense of movement in a photo can really add life to it and that goes very well with street photography. Take the image above. Just standing there watching this Cooper Mini drive by is pretty much a ho hum deal, but blur all of the objects around it and give the wheels some movement and you turn this lady into the one from Pasadena that Jan and Dean used to sing about! Now that’s dating myself! Here’s how I go about taking panning shots.
First, find a nice spot on a street where there’s a lot of activity. The image above was taken on Main St. in Stillwater, MN, a place where on any given spring or summer day can see a ton of traffic from regular commuters, but also gets its share of motorcycles, classic cars and convertibles, which I find interesting to use as subjects for panning shots. The spot chosen must have a good field of vision so that you can see the subjects coming from either direction and one where you’re not too obstructed from other folks, although in most busy spots, it’s tough not to get the occasional passer by in the frame. Most importantly, it needs to be safe from the traffic so you do not end up hurt or hurting anyone else.
There are a couple of camera settings that I find crucial to producing good panning shots. First, put the camera in shutter priority mode so that you control the shutter speed and the camera will adjust aperture to obtain what it sees as the correct exposure. The key to getting that motion blur around the subject is using a relatively slow shutter, which can change due to the speed of the moving subjects. A person running is not going to be moving as fast as a car, so a speed of 1/15s might work for the runner where 1/40s might work for the car (like the image above). The drive mode should be set to continuous or burst mode and the ISO should be set as low as you can, especially during daylight hours so that lower shutter speeds can be achieved.
In order to properly focus on moving subjects, the camera focus mode should be set to AI-Servo (Canon) or whatever name your brand uses for continuous focus. The camera and the subject is going to be moving, hopefully at the same speed, and this focus mode will help keep the subject sharp. Some folks say to use the center focus point also, but I’ve had success using one of the outside focus points on my Canon 60D as well. Selecting one of the outside points also allows for some creative flexibility for composition, like leading the subject into the frame. I’ve also used both the shutter button and back button focus modes and have had success from both, so this option should be to the photographer’s taste.
Lenses for DSLRs are also more of a personal choice. The motion blur tends to be better with a longer lens, but, especially with a crop sensor, keeping the subject sharp at a long focal length while hand holding the camera is a bit tough. I also find that being a bit wider than your subject helps me see them better and keep the focus point fixed. Zooming in tighter makes the subject move a lot faster through your viewfinder and can be tougher to hold focus. However, if you feel comfortable using a longer lens and hold focus, go for it! If you have an image stabilized lens, use it!
It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, shoot RAW.
Now that we have a camera set up, we’re ready to start snapping frames. Physically, the key to good panning shots is to hold the camera in tight, elbows in tight and only turn from the waste, not with your hands and arms, at the same speed as the subject. What I will do is face forward and square my shoulders with the road, then twist at the waste and shoulders in the direction of the oncoming subject. As the subject gets closer, try to shift your waste and shoulders at the same speed, then press the shutter half way or the back button to catch focus on it. This is key – aim small, miss small. Pick a small spot on the subject, like the eyes or ears of a person or the side view mirrors of a car and try to keep focus on that small spot. It will be difficult, but the closer you are to that small spot, the chances of you focusing on the main part of the subject are greater, even if you move off of that small spot a bit.
Start pressing shutter down all of the way before your body gets square to the road again and keep pressing until you have twisted with the subject going the other direction. Follow through is important. If you stop when your shoulders are square, you will likely not get the shot in focus – keep moving with the subject until they are beyond your desired picture distance. This will help eliminate sudden stops and blurs.
From there, it’s practice, trial and error. You’ll find your sweet spot for each subject and get some pretty cool images! It’s also a ton of fun to play around with and in busy street areas like Stillwater, people don’t seem to care much that you’re pointing a camera at them. Some will even give you a wave – that can mess up a cool pic, but I always wave back just to be friendly! It’s also something you can try in any spot where there’s movement, like tracking planes at the airport.
So when the creative juices don’t seem to flowing easily, give panning a try and have some fun with it. Experiment with what set ups and camera settings work best for you. Already have some? Turn them loose on us – tell us what’s behind your eyes!