How to take great panning photos

By Chris Bray 23 November 2016
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Photographer Chris Bray shares his tips to take a perfect panning shot – where the subject stays sharp even as it sprints.

A GREAT PANNING shot balances movement with sharpness and clarity. The key requirement for a great shot of, say, a bird in motion, is a slow shutter speed to allow for a streaky, blurry background movement. It’s a balance: too fast and the subject won’t have moved far enough to give you any streaky background, but too slow and it’ll be impossible to track the subject without blurring the entire image.

With the right camera settings and a good eye, it’s possible to take a winning shot. Here’s how.

(Image credit: Chris Bray Photography)

Camera settings

  • Switch to Shutter Speed Mode (TV mode on a Canon, S mode for other cameras) and dial your shutter speed down to around 1/30th sec. You’ll get a feel for it, but it depends on how fast your subject’s moving – this is a good speed to start experimenting with for wildlife or cars. If your subject comes out sharp but there’s not enough background streak then use a slower speed, if the everything (including the subject) is blurry then try a faster shutter speed, or just practice panning more smoothly.
  • Set your ISO to ‘Auto’ so it’ll do whatever it has to to give you that shutter speed irrespective of lighting conditions (it’ll usually pick the lowest, ISO100).
  • Set your focus-mode to ‘AI Servo’ (‘AF-C’ or ‘tracking’ for non-Canons) so your camera will keep updating the focus to track your moving subject.
  • Enable more than just one centre-AF point, so you don’t have to be so pedantic about making sure you don’t accidentally slip the one centre AF focus point off the subject as you track it.
  • Lastly, set your camera’s ‘drive mode’ to continuous drive so you can just hold the shutter and rattle off a whole series of photos as your subject moves, concentrating on trying to pan smoothly.


(Image credit: Chris Bray Photography)

Ideally, for panning, you want to capture something that’s moving past you square-on, as subjects moving towards or away from your camera will change size and perspective, making it hard to keep them sharp. A car driving along a road is an easy subject to start with as their movement is (usually) smooth, predictable and easy to track.

When shooting a subject like a bird or animal, the problem is that their limbs or wings move up and down as the subject moves forward.  Here, blur is unavoidable – instead, focus on keeping the animal’s head and face sharp in the photo.


(Image credit: Chris Bray Photography)

If your subject is moving past a smooth, uniform background – like a clear blue sky – your pan won’t create any visual streaks or blur. For maximum effect, you want a background that has some texture, features and contrasts in it, as well as a fairly contrasting colour to your subject so it stands out.

Another issue is that photos may come out over-exposed, especially in the middle of the day. Don’t try to solve the issue by dialling down your exposure compensation to make the photo darker – that won’t help. A lot of light is captured at a slow shutter speed – you’ll need to increase the shutter speed until it can cope, even though that means less movement will be captured in the background.

Pan when light is failing

(Image credit: Chris Bray Photography)

As the Sun goes down and that amazing golden lighting starts to fade, it can be really hard to get nice, fast, sharp photos of wildlife anymore without cranking your ISO through the roof, which results in terribly grainy photos.

My tip? Stay out for an extra hour, embrace the slow shutter speed and aim to get some cool panning shots. It’s a ripe time for some creative movement photos where a bit of blur doesn’t matter so much.

Save settings

The camera settings for panning really are essentially the opposite of those you’d usually be shooting with.

It can take a little while to get your camera all set up, and sometimes the subject will have gone by the time you’re ready.  For this reason, save all these settings into a ‘Custom Mode’ or ‘User Mode’ (if your camera supports these) which lets you quickly snap to these ideal ‘panning settings’ instantly.