Panning for Creative Effect

Panning is a technique used to freeze a moving subject while still conveying a sense of speed. However, panning doesn’t have to be just about capturing movement; it can be used to bring new life to stationary objects, creating works of art. I’ve come to love exploring with slow shutter speeds as the results are really unpredictable. In this article I tell you how I go about capturing images like the one above.

Panning is traditionally used to convey a sense of speed when capturing moving – especially fast-moving – subjects.Byfollowing the moving subject across the frame with your camera during an exposure, you effectivelyreduce the rate of movement of the subject, whilst capturing a sense of movement in the blurred/streaked background. It takes some practice to master, but is a great technique to use in especially sports and action photography. In high-speed action photography, panning is sometimes essential to freeze action, as even a shutter speed of 1/2000s or 1/4000s won’t satisfyingly freeze a speeding car or motorcycle on a track across the frame close to the camera. With an absolute sharp panned image the speed of the subject relative to the movement of the camera is zero. By slowing the shutter or movement of the camera, one can blur or streak the subject across the frame. Panning can also be used to capture stationary objects creatively, however, and in this article I want to focus on that.

Some basic rules need to be adhered to for successful panning. First, one needs a relatively slow shutter speed. Second, the camera needs to move very smoothly on a horizontal or vertical plane (or if your subject requires it, a diagonal plane). Whatever the subject and shutter speed, the object of panning is always to achieve a continuous smooth movement of the camera. This can be done handheld, but mostly, when using this technique to photograph stationary objects, it is best to use a tripod for support to minimise image distortion.

What I love about panning, especially when photographing stationary objects like the ocean’s horizon or the boles of trees in a pine forest, is that you can pretty much shoot anytime of day and you will achieve some sort of success in creating a rather different-looking abstract image. The high-contrast effect of midday light penetrating a dense forest can be as appealing as the low contrast effect of a foggy winter’s morning in the same forest. The creative license is yours to do with as you please.

Traditional panned image freezing a moving subject in the frame at a slow shutter speed

What you need to create panned abstracts: 

  • A tripod
  • A DSLR and lens of your choice
  • A filter of some sorts for the purpose of minimising light reaching the sensor, such as a polarizing filter or a circular ND filter
  • A very slow shutter speed of 1 second or more
  • A very small lens opening to let in least amount of light so that your shutter can stay open for longer periods of time
  • A remote shutter release is good to have, but not essential
  • Lots of memory space
  • Some relatively straight lines to photograph
  • Patience

Some young spring bulbs in a dense, dark piece of wood catching a spot of light and made into an abstract image

With your camera set upand your lens aimed at a scene with predominantly vertical or horizontal lines, start moving the camera up and down, or left and right, along the linesof your scene. While moving the camera, press the shutter to open while continuing to make smooth repeating movements with the camera rested on a tripod, until you hear the shutter close again. You can also try panning at different speeds for different results. Faster shutter speeds (up to 1/125s depending on the brightness ofyour scene) will work fine, but depending on the amount of light available in your scene, the effects won’t be the same. What you want are smooth streaks of light across the frame, while still being ableto make outmore or less what the picture is about. If you are going to be using this technique in a high contrast environment, it is agood idea to significantly under-expose your image, and shoot in RAW so that you have options in post-processing.

Below are some more examples I shot in a pine forest.

Hues of the image changed in Lightroom to add to the abstract painted effect.

Panning with some trees near the camera in front and some trees a little way off create this interesting curtain effect.

Forest on fire! Again, hues were meddled with a bit to create this fiery abstract.

Why don’t you try playing around with this technique? Have fun with it!
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