Ultimate Guide to Panning Photography

What is Panning Photography?

Panning is a technique used in photography to capture a moving subject in a still image. It is done by moving the camera with the subject at the same speed so that the subject is in focus while the background is blurred.

In this article, I have shared my personal experience with panning photography and my approach to getting a blurred background.


Panning Photography, Bicycle Rider
A Bicycle Rider Captured in Motion

How to get motion blur in the background by panning

The blur in a panning photo is created by the movement of the subject and the camera. To get the most blur, you need to use a slow shutter speed. This will allow the camera to move more before the shutter closes, creating more blur. As you start learning photography in detail you begin to come across terms like motion blur, panning photography, or capturing moving objects, zooming, and many others which you really want to try out once you see the photos clicked by others, using these techniques. Some practice and some technical knowledge will ensure that you are able to capture interesting photos with the use of these superb techniques. While I’m writing this article, I’m still in the practice stage but couldn’t wait to share the knowledge I’ve gained on one of the above-mentioned techniques i.e. panning. This particular technique allows you to capture motion. And, by that I do not mean you freeze the subject to get it completely sharp, but, you shoot a subject that is in motion in such a way that most of your subject is sharp but the background gets a motion blur effect, ultimately giving a sense of motion in your capture.

Motorcycle Rider with a Blurred Background
Motorcycle Rider with a Pillion in Motion

While panning is something that almost every photographer must have tried early on, but, for me, it started when I was learning the basics of photography at the National Institute of Photography, in Mumbai. For one of the practical sessions, we were taken to a place called Aarey Colony in Goregaon, Mumbai where we had all gathered on one side of the road and were supposed to practice panning on the passing vehicles. You can imagine about 15-20 people, with cameras, standing on the side of the road and clicking almost every passing cyclist, biker, or for that matter, every vehicle, even a car. During those days, I didn’t yet own a DSLR and thus I used a point & shoot Canon PowerShot A710 IS which had some manual control in terms of aperture and shutter along with the ISO.

What we were taught on that day, meant that we had to pick a shutter speed that is slower than what we would normally use. This is considering the fact that the moving subjects are at a normal speed and nothing as fast as a race car or a race bike. When the subject is visible to you, you can look at its line of motion and guess the position at which it will be when it is right in front of you. Now you can lock your focus in the same plane and then move your camera with the subject and press the shutter in a timely manner to ensure that in the shot, the subject is right in the position where you wanted it to be. My plane of focus was that part of the road which I could safely assume, would be the line of motion of the subject.

A Horse Cart Captured in Motion
A Horse Cart Captured in Motion

A few articles that I had read some time back mentioned that you could use flash to ensure the sharpness of the subject. However, I was wary of that and didn’t try using flash. But when I experiment again with this technique I would definitely want to try out results with flash as well as further lower shutter speeds and faster subjects.

Here are some basic tips to capture motion blur using the panning photography technique:

  • Shutter Speed is Important

    The shutter speed you use will depend on the speed of the subject and the amount of blur you want. For a slow subject, you will need a slow shutter speed. For a fast subject, you will need a fast shutter speed. In most cases, the shutter speed must be slower for medium-speed subjects. This could be anything in the range of 1/8 to 1/30. For superfast subjects, you may be required to use slightly faster speeds i.e. 1/100 to 1/200 sec. Faster objects will require a slightly faster shutter to ensure the sharpness of the subject. This is something that we learn and perfect as and how we experiment.

  • Focus accurately for sharper subjects

    To get the most blur in your panning photo, you need to focus on the subject. If the focus is off, the blur will be minimal. While the background is going to be motion-blurred as that is the main purpose of this technique, it is very important that your subject appears to be sharp. Here what I mean is that if it’s a cyclist, the face and hands may appear sharp but there are chances that the feet, which are also in pedaling motion, may appear blurred. That is acceptable. Another example would be a horse cart, the passengers, rider, etc and their faces would be sharper and the wheel, along with the legs of the horse/s would appear blur since they are also simultaneously in motion. So again this should be acceptable. But ensure something about the subject is sharp to get a good panning shot.

  • Light Conditions

The amount of blur in a panning photo is also affected by the light conditions. In low light, the blur will be more pronounced than in bright light.

  • Plane of Focus

    When shooting with the panning technique for subjects like vehicles, bike riders, cyclists, and runners, you can safely assume, that these subjects will maintain their line of motion so importantly you can lock your focus to that plane and press your shutter when the subjects arrive in that plane thus ensuring that focusing is not an issue.

  • Usage of Tripod

    In the case of subjects with a steady line of motion, you can use a tripod to ensure there is no vertical movement.

  • De-cluttered Background

    If there are too many things in the background it may appear to be distracting the viewer’s attention from the main subject. Thus it is important to consider that there is very less, happening in the background. You will see this in some of the panning photos that I’ve shared below.

More about panning.

Gallery of Panning Photography With Motion Blur

23 thoughts on “Ultimate Guide to Panning Photography”

  1. I love the effect of your photographs. I used to love photography before and enjoy taking photos. I dont know why the sudden disinterest. Or perhaps I am.now at home most of the time and no way to practice. Thanks for this share and will try to relearn and apply these techniques.

  2. lovely shots you got there! it’s a little too technical for me so i’m kind of lost. but for this panning technique we manually move the camera together with the moving object, while pressing down the shutter? You’ll need some mad skills (steady hands) for that, no? I;m guessing with just a slight vertical movement will blur up the entire picture?

  3. I wanna learn how to do that. It looks really nice and the background effect is really amazing. I’ve never heard of this technique before but it’s something I am interested in now.

  4. Wow! You had mad skills, damn. I love taking photos too, but I can only manage to use Auto. Hehe! I get really confused with how to fix the shutter speed, etc. Thank you for these, though! I would love to try this one day and get to learn more about photography.

  5. I’ve been using my iPhone for photography and honestly speaking, I’m not really good at it. I tried the techniques I have watched tutorial videos on Youtube but I still couldn’t catch a motion blur shot. Thankfully, there is an app that helps me transform photos to motion blur but it still doesn’t really feel the same.

  6. I took a photography class too but it was just a short while. So I find your post really helpful as it serves as a refresher for me. And I appreciate that you included the shutter speed needed. I’ll definitely try this when I’m out.

  7. I love to take photos but not that good to take shots the way you did, I want to learn, as of the moment is savings for a goodness camera I’m using my phone as my camera on my blog and others social media platform. I absolutely love the black and white picture. The face was captured very sharp

  8. I won’t be able to contribute a fairly detailed comment here because the post is quite technical. However, your post has inspired me to take to photography in a more involved way. I have one question- do point and shoot cameras achieve the same results as the DSLRS in this kind of photography? And what about mobiles?

  9. I thought panning out was simply zooming out. Thanks for clarifying my basic photography! I think moving photos are very hard to get. You need fast shutter, which might leave the photo to have less lighting. That’s why I admire action photos such as these 🙂

  10. wow these shots are pretty. I like that you see the speed and still the photo’s are sharp. I admire good photo’s and good photographers. You are one of them. Keep up doing the hard work. I absolutely love that motion blur background!

  11. I want to learn to this too! It really takes some practice but once you get the hang of it, I want to be able to automatically know how to blend shutter speed, aperture, and ISO to get the perfect shot. Your photos are really nice! 😀

  12. I tried doing this back in college when I still had the time for my creative side. Motion blur photography is quite tricky. You have to be able to really balance the shutter speed with the other aspects or ingredients or technicalities to be able to get it. I tried this with a mobile but it was not that good though. But I think other phones have a setting already for motion blur photographs.

  13. I don’t think can work on a phone? I had a photography class when I was in college but I don’t remember learning about panning so this is such a fantastic read. I do remember getting all confused about shutter speed and aperture during that time though haha… Regardless that I don’t have a camera other than my phone, it’s still nice to learn something new. I’d like to give it a try, see if I can actually do the tips that you said. I think it’d be interesting if I’m able to come up with a panning shot successfully.

  14. Learning photography is absolutely on my list but not for now. I love watching lovely landscapes and photos like these (with that blurry background effect). It’s so amazing how a photographer catches a perfect scene and translate it into his photos. You are definitely one of those talented photographers! Keep inspiring. =)

  15. Doing panning phograpghy is super fun! I’ve been doing this for fun for couple years with my DSL camera. Even thought you can do motion blur with photoshop I think the effect is cooler when done with camera. Good shots! I love the movement in horse pictures. 🙂

  16. Thanks for the photography tips that you shared. I sure can use all of these. I have a DSLR that I rarely use because I couldn’t be bothered to work with the settings so I’ll try your tips when I go on a photowalk again. Panning shots are great especially when done well.

  17. Very lovely shots! I do photography from time to time and have also tried experimenting with a few techniques, but not this. My DSLR could use some TLC soon as I haven’t picked it up in quite a while. Thank you so much for leaving your techniques here! I’m surely going to use them in future experiments!

  18. This has got to be one of the most difficult photography technique to master. I suspect too, even if one were to have a considerable experience, not all shots will always come out a winner. I was thinking too, this is better suited with a tripod, yes? Panning is one thing on a stable platform, but incredibly difficult when done freestanding.

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