I was talking to a potential client recently about panning. Panning is a creative technique used to freeze action and blur the surroundings. It’s used to portray speed, where you have a moving object, such as a car, or racehorse.  It’s a common technique used in sports and automotive photography.

Since I often have small people dashing about, this is where I get most of my panning practice!

In a nutshell, you move the camera at the same speed as the child, so that the face (and most importantly the eyes) stay sharp, but the background blurs. It’s not easy, you need a steady hand and a lot of trial and error!

using panning technique to show child on speeding bike
The cheeky face is clear, but the background is blurry. Crucially, the wheels on the bike are blurred to the extent that the spokes no longer show, which is what you want on a car or bike shot, it’s a good sign that your shutter speed is not too fast.  Here, it’s 1/25 sec.

You can just set your camera on automatic mode and hope for the best, but this could be difficult, particularly if it’s a bright day as your explosure will be very short. So if you can, set your camera to shutter priority mode (which on my Canon is Tv on the dial) choose around 1/20 of a second to start with.  Ideally the child (car/bike) needs to be moving at a constant speed in a straight line across your field of view at a constant distance to your position.  If they’re moving towards or away from you then you’ll encounter complications with focussing.

As they move into position, press the shutter (ensuring the autofocus has picked up on them) and swivel your position, or swing your camera, in their direction of travel.

running girl in playground panning technique
In this shot, the shutter speed was faster, at 1/100 sec. The face is sharp, but there’s movement in the hands and feet. This shot also illustrates an important compositional point, if your subject is moving, allow them space to run into. The image was cropped square in post-processing with the subject on the right, clearly moving into the space on the left.

How did you get on?  Try changing the speed, but bear in mind the slower you go, the more the risk of camera shake if you’re holding the camera yourself.  A monopod or tripod is useful if you have one.

Here’s a couple of straight out of camera shots to illustrate the difference that changing your settings will have.

photo of a running child
A crazy Christmas reindeer runs past her reindeer dad. This is the a straightforward image taken without panning. The image is static other than the blur of a child. It’s just confusing.
running child with panning
This is the same scene with panning, but the exposure was too long at 1/6 sec. The background is too blurred, it loses context.
running child with dad
Better! 1/10sec, and Reindeer Dad’s involved so there’s more of a story going on too.

And to back up another blog post that it’s not about the camera, this final shot was taken on my camera phone, and is a circular pan.  I’ve swept the camera round in a path to match the roundabout.  There’s only a small blur on the feet and background, but it’s enough that, when compared with the pin sharp eyes, you get the effect of motion.

child spinning on a circular panning technique shot


For more in depth tips, take a look at this article from Digital Photo Secrets.

Feel free to contact me if you have questions. Let me know how you get on!

Panning – How to freeze a moving object to depict speed
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