Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Tips for Improving Your Panning Technique

If you aren’t familiar with panning, it is the technique where as your subject moves past you, you follow it with your camera. The idea is to create or enhance a sense of motion or speed by freezing the subject, blurring the background, or both.

Never having had much luck with this technique, I decided to see if I could improve my results.

Initial Decisions
For my subject and location, I decided on cyclists riding the Martin Goodman bike path on the Toronto waterfront.

When it came time to pick a lens, I chose my 70-300mm zoom (Nikkor VR 70-300 f/4.5-5.6G). My rationale was that if I could keep the aperture wide open, and zoom in on the cyclists, I would get some good blurring of the background.

Test Shots
Once you have your lens mounted and have set up the camera the way you want, take a couple of test shots. Don’t worry yet about panning. Just make sure the basic exposure is correct. Don’t forget to check the histogram. Viewing the image on the LCD doesn’t always give you an accurate indication of whether or not there are any blown highlights or lost shadows.

Next take some pan shots. Find a comfortable stance that enables you to move smoothly and pan at a steady speed. It takes practice, so experiment with different techniques, speeds, etc. Don’t be too critical of the results at first and try not to get discouraged.

In my case, I started shooting as the cyclists approached me, zoomed out and then in as they passed me to keep them filling the frame.

Here is one of my early test shots:

  • Shutter speed: 1/13 second – too slow to get a crisp image of the cyclist, but not bad for the blurred background
  • Aperture: f/25 – not exactly the wide aperture I had planned on in my rationale for choosing the 70-300 zoom
  • Focal length: 70 mm – couldn’t get far enough away to be able to zoom per my rationale
 Here’s another:
  • Shutter speed: 1/60 second
  • Aperture: f/8.0
  • Focal length: 70 mm – same problem as the first shot
I like the way the wheels, especially the front, seem to have lost their roundness, suggesting speed to me.
Tip: Positioning the cyclist slightly to one side of the frame leaves room for him to keep moving through it.

Rethinking My Technique
Shutter Release Mode
I soon realized that I should be using Continuous Shutter Release Mode. This allows you to hold down the shutter button and have the camera record multiple images until you release it. It’s like a motor drive on a film camera that advances the film automatically to the next frame as you hold down the shutter release. On my D7000 using Continuous low speed, I can preset from 1 to 5 frames per second, or using Continuous high speed, the camera will shoot up to 6 frames per second.
Note: This will require that you have a high capacity flash card, especially if you are shooting RAW, but it will improve your odds of getting the results you are looking for.

Lens Choice
In order to fit the cyclists in the frame, the 70 mm minimum focal length of the 70-300 lens required that I be farther away from them than I could be. Furthermore, even if I could get far enough away to be able to zoom to a longer focal length, at that distance, the cyclists would have to be moving very fast for me to be able to pan quickly enough to blur the background and create the desired sense of speed.

Therefore, I switched to my 17-50mm lens (Tamron VC 17-50 F/2.8G) which has a significantly wider angle of view, allowing me to be closer to the cyclists.

On the next shot, although my horizon wasn’t level, I did manage to freeze the cyclist and provide some room for him to move through the frame.

  • Exposure: 1/50 at f/7.1
  • Focal length: 36 mm
I liked the way the spokes tend to disappear at the slightly slower shutter speed, however the background isn’t very interesting.

For the next shot I made two additional adjustments to my technique.

Exposure Mode
First, I switched to Manual Exposure Mode. Up until this point I had been using Aperture-Priority, i.e., I choose the aperture to control depth of field and let the camera choose the appropriate shutter speed for a “correct exposure”. However, as I panned from less light to more light (most of the cyclists were coming from the east and heading into the late day sun), the shutter speed got progressively faster. I also think that the camera was struggling a bit to adjust the exposures and focus in continuous shutter release mode. In any event, the switch to manual seemed to improve my results.

Second, I knelt down on one knee about 10 feet away from the bike path. Being lower meant I was more level with the cyclists.

I like how the cyclist is framed between the two blurred trees.
  • Exposure: 1/30 at f/18
  • Focal length: 34 mm
Zoom The last important change to my technique was to zoom as I panned. This allowed me to have the cyclists filling the frame throughout the pan. This technique can also create an interesting effect on the background blur if the shutter speed is slow enough that the focal length changes during the exposure.

I love the colours in this shot, especially the red pants and tires.

  • Exposure: 1/50 at f/5
  • Focal length: 45 mm
  • Slower shutter speeds created the background blur I was after.
  • Using a moderate zoom lens allows you to be close enough to the subject to blur the background as you pan, and to keep the subject framed the way you want as it gets closer or further away from you.
  • Manual Exposure Mode gives you the most control over the exposure, but if you aren’t comfortable with that, go with Shutter-Priority.
  • Continuous Shutter Release Mode improves your odds for getting good results.
This guy was a particularly good sport — too bad I didn’t think to zoom out a bit.

Happy panning!