Introduction to Panning
How do you do that blurry background that you see in motorsport images? The answer is Panning. Panning is one of those photography techniques that takes practise, practise and more practise to master. Panning basically means setting your camera to a slow shutter speed and moving your camera at the same speed as the car is moving in your frame. When you get it right, this creates a car perfectly in focus with motion blur on the background like this image....
This image was taken at 1/25th second at 244mm. f/10 ISO 250. BTRDA Rallycross at Croft 2018
How to do Panning
Step 1: You can start panning by facing the direction that you want to take pictures at. Then turn your upper body so that its facing the point where you can see the cars entering your view. For example if you want to take the picture when the car is halfway around the corner, stand at halfway around the corner and turn your upper body so that its facing where the cars enter the corner.
Step2: As soon as the car enters your view, focus on one particular part of the car, if its a single seater focus on the drivers head or if its a closed cockpit car focus on one of the drivers sponsors.
Step3: Then rotate your camera using your upper body and keep the part of the car that your focusing on in the same position in your frame whilst your panning. Then start taking pictures just before, during and just after the car is parallel to you and continue to pan with the car after you have finished taking pictures. So take around 3-5 images each time the car goes past you. This helps to make sure that you get more in focus and will make panning smoother.
Step 4: Start by doing parallel pans, this means that you take the picture so that the car is directly parallel to you (like the above image). It depends on how fast the car is moving as to what shutter speed to use for this, but try around 1/80th second to start with if the cars you are photographing are racing on tarmac. If your photographing cars racing offroad (like rallycross or rallying) start at around 160th second.
Step5: Go to the slowest corner at the racetrack you can find and practise. The aim is to get the car perfectly in focus, if most of your pictures are not in focus then try using a faster shutter speed.
Step6: Don't worry if all or nearly all your shots are out of focus or blurry, panning takes a lot of practise, if you keep at it you will get better at panning.
Moving on from the basics
Once you get more comfortable with panning, try using slower shutter speeds like 40th second or even 10th second! You can also move on to do panning images at a 20 or 45 degree angle to the car. These images are harder to get in focus, and I suggest using a faster shutter speed than you normally would do for these shots around 1/3 to 2/3 stops faster (2 clicks on your shutter speed to the right) See below for an example of an angled panning picture:
This image was taken at 1/30th second at 600mm. f/11 ISO 100. Rallycross at Lydden Hill
How can I get more of my pans in focus?
What determines this is a number of factors:
Distance from the car/ focal length (how far zoomed in you are on your camera): The further you are away from the moving car the easier it will be to get it in focus, as its moving at a slower rate in your frame. Also, the smaller the focal length (the further zoomed out you are), the easier it will be to get the car in focus, for the same reason. For example taking a picture at 18mm 50 metres from the car will be easier than doing a pan at 50mm at 50 metres away from the car. This is because the car is smaller in your camera's frame and therefore moving at a slower speed relative to your camera.
- The angle which you are to the car: I touched on this earlier, but if your photographing at a position where your photographing parallel to the car, it will be easier to get your images in focus than taking pictures at a 45 or 20 degree angle to the car as the car is moving at a slower speed in your frame.
Use a monopod, a monopod is basically a pole with an attachment on the end for you to attach your camera. It can add stability to your camera and can increase your chances of getting more of your pictures in focus, especially when taking pictures at slower shutter speeds. This applies for using large heavy lenses like a Sigma 150-600mm or similar, if your using a midweight to lightweight lenses (ones generally smaller than 300mm), it is generally a better option to handheld your camera instead, unless your photography on level ground. This is because using a monopod can restrict your movement whilst your panning on uneven ground.
- Shutter speed: I mentioned this earlier, but I will include it here again, taking pictures at a faster shutter speed will mean more of your images will be in focus, but you will have less motion blur in the background. If too many of your pictures are not in focus then increase the shutter speed, if your background is too static then decrease the shutter speed.
- Focusing point: When I do panning pictures, If I'm taking pictures of single seater cars I always try and keep the focus point i'm using on the drivers head and aim to keep it there whilst I'm panning. If I'm taking pictures of closed cockpit cars I keep the focus point on one of the sponsors logo's. That helps to maintain that the car is moving at the same speed in your frame as your panning the camera.
- Car Speed: The faster the car the harder it is to pan at the same speed as it. Try moving to a slower corner, as it will be easier to get the pictures in focus.
Moving the Camera: Try and pan as smooth as possible, one thing I try and do is make myself as comfortable and relaxed as possible when I'm panning so that I can get as smooth a panning rotation as possible. So I will do small things like try and make sure the monopod is at the right height, make sure the ground I'm standing on is as flat as possible, slow down your breathing, etc.
What Shutter Speed should I use for panning?
When you start learning panning I recommend what I said above, that you start at around 80th second doing parallel pans, and then when you've got the hang of that, start using slower shutter speeds or doing angled pans. After that, its up to you, there is no right or wrong answer as to the ideal shutter speed it simply depends upon what type of pictures you want to take and what style of images you like.
For slow pans most people use shutter speeds from around 1/5th to 1/15th second. For the faster pans they are around 80th to 160th second or go in between the two of them. Its down to your personal preference as to what end of the scale you use, some photographers rarely use shutter speeds below 60th second whilst some others mostly use slows pans and some use both ends of the scale. Just bear in mind that the slower the shutter speed you use the lower the hit rate (number of images you get in focus) will be.
This image was taken at 1/50th second at 252mm F/11 ISO 100. Tomasz Weilgosz at Lydden Hill
This image was taken at 1/10th second at 51mm. f/14 ISO 100. Formula Ford Festival at Brands Hatch
As I mentioned in the first paragraph, panning takes a lot of practise before you feel comfortable with it, don't be put off if you images are out of focus or are too static to begin with, keep practising and you will get better. I hope this guide will help you learn panning, if you have any questions about panning or anything else relating motorsports photography you can contact me here