Pan’s Labyrinth

Seems like there’s plenty of panning going on these days.

Can’t open a magazine without seeing someone panning this, panning that; two photography mags I read over the weekend ran articles on panning birds in their March issue and two more focused on panning motor vehicles. Thom Hogan is panning fowl. Ken Rockwell is probably panning Leica, too (but no one cares). The pan is in, man.

But why?

Panning as a technique is popular because it is one of the best ways you can effectively communicate speed and motion through the photographic image. Panning is not something Guillermo Del Torro does in his spare time. And it is becoming more and more popular as people discover things to speed up and slow down.

Panning has been around as long as cameras have had adjustable shutter speeds. If you could get that shutter down low enough, you could try your hand at panning. Yet panning isn’t easy; freezing motion in one part of an image – an animal’s eye, the fender of a racing car, for example – is difficult. Incredibly difficult. Thom Hogan suggests that he has a hit rate of 1 in 76; one decent frame for every 76 times he presses the shutter. Imagine trying this on film. That’s a little more than two canisters of film spent to retrieve one usable frame. Obviously, panning has only come into vogue as a part of the digital revolution. For most photographers, anyway.

I’ve eluded to a few styles of panning – birds, motor vehicles, people – yet there are as many things to pan our there as there are things that move. I’m going to touch on a few of them here and end with a little panning + flash walkthrough, for the adventurous types out there.

Getting Started

Panning is a numbers game.

You need to start with the correct shutter speed – one that will allow you to blur a background but retain a sharp subject – in order to communicate a feeling of motion or speed. I suggest something between 1/25 – 1/50 for moderately moving subjects (cars, people on bikes, etc). Remember that the faster your subject is moving, the faster you can use the shutter; you’re going to have no problem panning a rocket at 1/100 sec. if you can move your arms that fast. But for an old lady walking to the corner store you’re going to need to slow things way, way down. Into the 1/20 – 1/10 range, give or take.


This was made at 1/20 sec. while focusing and exposing manually on an old 105mm f/2.5 Nikkor prime. While most panning pundits suggest shooting with continuous focus switched on, focusing manually is often a good idea. First, when focusing manually you can fire the shutter at any time, and not have to wait for the focusing motor to catch up to your subject and lock in. Also, in decent light, you’re going to be at such a smaller aperture – often between f/11 and f/22 – that getting “close enough” to the focus is going to result in tack sharp subjects. I don’t use a tripod or monopod when panning because it limits my mobility, so keep that in mind; you need to keep your hands steady as you roll across a plane.

1/25 sec. is my bread and butter shutter speed when it comes to panning moderately moving objects. But even then, when using a speed I’m comfortable and experienced with, it’s more miss than hit. I can fire 25 frames in a row when shooting subjects like this any come away empty handed. You really have to stick with panning and hope for the best.


Same compositional rules apply to panning that apply to other techniques; you often want to ground your photo with a strong foreground element. In this case, that foreground element is a man crossing the road in Beijing. He’s blurred out while the subject of my pan is crisp; just one more way to add dynamism to a frame.

Panning People

Panning people certainly isn’t easy. A person has so many gangly moving parts that it’s hard to keep them all in focus when they are moving. Heck, it’s hard to keep both eyebrows in focus half of the time. But the rewards can be great when you pull it off. Consider panning people who are engaged in fast-moving sports. You might like what you see.


My subject is soft, but my background is much softer. So my relative sharpness is more than enough to compensate. A good example of how manually focusing can work for you; because it was a bright, sunny day, I shot this with an aperture of f/20. Anything even close to my focus point is going to come through crisp (if I can nail the pan!)Odds_8350 Odds_8345 The sports pan. Just one more way to add drama to what should already be exciting photographs.

Using the Z-Axis

Panning objects on a horizontal plane – we’ve covered that. It’s old news. Want to add more drama and more depth to your shots? Try panning things that are coming towards you. The same principals I’ve already mentioned apply, though now you have to take into account the Z axis and effectively add a 3rd dimension to your panning technique. It’s easier than it sounds.

This tuk-tuk is coming right for me. I was panning at 1/25 sec. and f/1.8; not a lot of room for error there, really, but worth a shot. Knowing that the driver was coming at me on an angle and not crossing me on an even plane I had to make a few adjustments. I held the camera the same way I normally would when panning – following the driver, keeping him in the same space in my viewfinder – but I also brought it back towards me in line with the driver and his tuk-tuk, pulling the camera back through my frame. This one takes a little practice, but can really help you isolate a subject from the rest of the frame. All you need to do is practice pulling your shoulders back towards you while shooting. A little is more than enough, and remember to keep your movements fluid and smooth.

Flash Pan

Say you want a sharp subject; even sharper than you’d normally get when you nail the focus while panning. Say you want your subject to jump out of the frame, to have all sorts of depth and dimension. Say you want a hit rate greater than 2.4%. Say you’ve got a flash.


I used a single flash here, high and to the left of my model. The flash helps freeze the model in one place while the long exposure allows him to flow through the flash, creating a little more movement. This is one of the easiest strobist techniques to master – try it!


Here’s a flash pan done with a ringflash. The ringflash tosses out even light that wraps a subject – perfect for freezing, or slowing down a whole subject while panning. I did everything as I would with a normal pan – followed my model through the frame slowly, kept the camera steady and, most importantly, followed through out of the frame like I was swinging a baseball bat.

Flash_29865 The flash pan was made for dancing in the street. Even the on-camera flash pan… something you should be sceptical of, at best!

The Zoom Bust

While not exactly the same as panning, the zoom burst is another technique that adds the feeling of speed and movement to a frame. It’s a little easier to pull off than panning, too, though you’ll often need a steady support like a tripod or monopod to achieve ultra-sharp results. You also need a zoom lens to do it.


For this shot of the bird’s nest in Beijing I started with my camera on a tripod and selected a shutter speed that would allow me to burn in the light trails; 4 seconds in this case. I composed my photo in the frame and made a test exposure of how I wanted the outline of the building to look. Then I zoomed wide and opened the shutter. I slowly zoomed in and allowed the lens to sit at my final focal length long enough for the building to take shape and become the most prominent aspect of the photo. Simple stuff, really. My friend Simon does these very well. Take a look. And if you want to see a master ply his craft, check out what travel photographer Eric Lafforgue does with a little zoom burst and a tribal warrior.

That’s the pan. It’s a favourite technique of street and travel shooters alike because there are as many things to try this on as the day is long. Get out there, open up the shutter, and let it fly.

– flash


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