How To Pan Like A Pro

Yamaha R1 wheelie by Dave Estment

I am often asked how to get really impressive action shots of fast moving subjects. Well, the key to this skill is threefold:

1. Steady Hands – As you become more confident that you have steady hands, you become more confident that you can shoot still subjects at lower shutter speeds. This is important because it enables you to shoot sharp images in low light without having to use a flash or speed-light, thereby capturing the ambient light, shadows and mood of the moment in pin sharp detail by holding the camera steady enough to avoid any movement blur.

2. The ability to pan or track a moving subject accurately at a relatively slow shutter speed – This is an art and really takes practice. Firstly, you need to be able to judge what shutter speed to use. For example, too fast a shutter speed will not blur the background or the fast-moving parts of the subject, such as the legs of a cheetah chasing down its prey.

3. Following through the pan after depressing the shutter release button – like a sniper would follow through whilst tracking a moving target in his sights. This enables you to retain the smooth movement of the pan, preventing an out of focus image due to stopping on the pan to release the shutter, which would essentially negate the pan in the first place!

In terms of selecting your shutter speed, this variable will depend on the speed of the subject and how steady you are with the camera movement during the pan or tracking exercise. There is a balance between losing the focus on the subject’s eye or other key focal point because of not enough shutter speed, or freezing too much of the action by using too high a shutter speed. Here are two examples to illustrate this:

(a) With a hummingbird sucking pollen from a flower, hovering almost stationary in the air, it would be fairly easy to freeze his body and bill but because his wings beat at a very high speed, you would need to select the correct shutter speed to illustrate the movement of his wings, without losing them in a complete blur due to too slow a shutter speed. In this case, you could get away with a fairly fast shutter speed of say 1/500 of a second.

(b) In the case of motorsport, a superbike needs to be accurately tracked to maintain focus on the rider’s helmet and other parts of the image in the same focal plane, but to show the movement blur of the background and wheels to give the impression of speed. The ideal shutter speed will vary depending on the speed of the superbike. In a slow corner you could use a lower shutter speed (around 1/250 sec) to achieve the movement blur but hold focus on the subject. If the superbike was travelling at 300KPH down the straight, then because of the additional speed, it would be easier to blur the background and wheels, allowing you to use a higher shutter speed (possibly 1/500 -1/800) to compensate for the added speed of the subject.

I hope this helps you to achieve great results in your action photography endeavours.

Shoot sharp!