An Introduction to Panning in Motorsports

Sports photography usually focuses on capturing split second moments

– A wide receiver stretching out for the ball in the end zone
– A batter making contact with a baseball
– A powerful dunk
– A runner breaking the finish line tape

However, some moments are more compelling when motion is captured. Auto racing is a great sport to capture motion photographically. The most effective shot to capture motorsports action is the pan. A good pan showcases the speed of race cars, which is one of the main attractions of auto racing.

What is a Pan?

Introduction to Panning in Motorsports

A pan is a photograph where the camera follows a moving subject with a relatively slow shutter speed compared to the subject’s movement. What is a “relatively slow” shutter speed? It depends on the subject’s movement, the lens focal length, and the amount of blur you want to create. For example, a racecar, 1/60 of a second may be appropriate, while for a child riding a bike; a shutter speed of 1/10 of a second may be a good setting.

A good racing pan has a significant amount of background blur to showcase the speed of the car and enough wheel movement that the wheel spokes disappear. The traditional pan shows the car from a side view as the above example illustrates. Another way to utilize a slow shutter speed pan is to create a more abstract shot where a portion of the subject is in focus at an angle as shown in the example below.

Introduction to Panning in Motorsports

Pans can be taken with a variety of lenses from wide-angles to zooms. The choice of lens will influence the shutter speeds that are useable for the photographer.

A long zoom will induce more camera shake and may require a faster shutter speed to get a pan with acceptable subject sharpness. In addition, when you start moving a long zoom, the field of view changes quickly due the high level of magnification, which also supports using faster shutter speeds.

In contrast, a wide-angle lens induces less camera shake, which allows the use of longer shutter speeds. Additionally, a wide-angle requires more movement by the photographer to significantly change the field of view. A longer shutter speed is needed to capture this movement.

Technique for Shooting Pans

Panning technique can vary among photographers. Below is a technique that I suggest experimenting with when trying to pan for the first time or to improve your pans if you are not pleased with your results so far.

  1. Plant your feet shoulder width apart with your knees slightly bent.
  2. Hold the camera and lock your elbows into your chest to have a solid foundation for the camera. Don’t let your camera move beyond the locked position.
  3. Twist at the waist.
  4. Compress the knee you are adding weight to and extend the knee you are subtracting weight from slightly. This will keep the pan from having a rainbow profile where the beginning and end are slightly lower than the middle.
  5. Follow though with your movement after you have completed shooting.

Please keep in mind that panning takes practice to master. You will have to determine the best combination of lens focal length, camera settings and the speed of your subject. Try as many combinations as you can to figure out what works for you.

Camera Settings

In addition to good camera technique, having your camera set on pan friendly configuration will help to ensure best results. If your camera has the settings described below, then these are my suggested starting points.

  1. Set the mode to shutter priority. This will allow you to alter the amount of blur easily and let the camera make other critical decisions while you are shooting.
  2. Set the ISO to a setting that will allow you to achieve the shutter speeds that you are seeking.
  3. Set the focus to continuous or AI Servo so the focus will be constantly changing with the vehicle.
  4. Set the shutter to continuous or bust mode.
  5. If your camera or lens has a panning image stabilization/vibration reduction mode, enable it. If it has only one mode then I recommend disabling it.
  6. When beginning, try to shoot at a shutter speed that is faster than the focal length of your lens. For example, at 100mm attempt to shoot at 1/250. As you gain experience, you can begin to slow down your shutter.
  7. If your camera bogs down when you shoot a large number of RAW shots, then consider shooting JPEGs only.

Be prepared to shoot many frames. A good side pan requires that the camera travel in unison with the subject in both the X and Y-axis. In my experience, I find that I have to shoot 10 frames to get one acceptable shot (even more for a great one). The good news is that memory cards are getting cheaper all the time. You can quickly delete shots you don’t care for and keep the small percentage of acceptable shots.

Panning Practice (At Home)

If you are new to panning or you don’t do it frequently, below is a practice routine that will improve your panning skills in terms of keeping your movement as flat as possible.

Find a set of horizontal blinds or a chair rail. Apply the camera settings described above and set an appropriate shutter speed for the focal length. Begin taking a series of pans trying to follow a specific horizontal line as closely as possible. Below are examples using this method. The shutter speed for both examples is 1/45 of a second, they are shown at 100% magnification, and have been cropped. No sharpening or noise reduction has been applied.

The first example is a poor pan where the horizontal lines are fuzzy.

Introduction to Panning in Motorsports

In the next example below, you can see a much better shot where the horizontal lines are much sharper.

Introduction to Panning in Motorsports

Take a number of practice shots and load them onto your computer. Evaluate your results. Look for any consistent bumps in your motion or the rainbow effect. Remember to practice from right to left and left to right. Also, experiment with your settings to know how they affect your pans.

If you don’t have a good horizontal line to work with indoors, you can take your practicing outside. You can utilize a road or a fence as a horizontal reference. Again take a number of shots at various settings and evaluate your results.

Panning Practice (At the Track)

The above practice routine will help keep your pans flat. What it will not do is give you experience tracking race cars at speed. As a car approaches, its speed (as it appears to you) will increase. You will have to get used to making your pan movement faster as the car approaches you.

Start by shooting pans near the corners. The cars will be running slower than on the long stretches. Also, remember to experiment with your settings. If after looking at the LCD you are having success, begin to slow your shutter speed.

After shooting near the corners, try shooting on long stretches. You may need to shoot with a faster shutter speed in order to capture these shots. As you become comfortable with a particular shutter speed, try to lower it and see what happens. There may not be a lot of keepers in these shots, but you may get that one great shot.

Introduction to Panning in Motorsports

By the way, a good pan works in other sports too. Just be creative.

Introduction to Panning in Motorsports

Good luck.