…and probably enough to mention, especially when it comes to nailing a good car panning photograph. You know the ones; nice sharp, side-on image of a car that is pin sharp with blurry background and blurry wheels.
The great thing about panning photographs is they convey the speed, put the car in context of its location, don’t involve hanging out of another car (like tracking shots) and don’t need clamped-on rigs and mad Photoshop skills (like rig shots). If you’re good, you can just point, pan and shoot.
While still nowhere near mastering the art of the car panning photograph (in fact, still cocking up more often than not), it might be useful for any budding snappers for a recount of some errors and solutions encountered on our numerous attempts.
Get a shot in the bag
You can be so intent on using manual settings to get the perfect amount of movement and sharpness that you actually end up with nothing useable. In motorsport particularly, you need to get a sharp shot first, then worry about the pretty stuff because you never know…an incident on the first lap might mean the cars never pass you again. Stick it in auto mode and get a safe, useable shot in the bag even if it isn’t full of blurred backgrounds and wheels.
Pick your angle
Ever noticed that most pictures you can buy from track day photographers get your car at a front three quarters angle? While it can also be tricky, getting a moving shot of a car at an angle leaves less room for error as you should easily get the whole car in frame and often have more time to snap away.
The downside to this is that it’s not strictly a panning shot, so while the wheels might be moving, the background is kind of static.
Even when seemingly side-on to a car you may still be at a slight angle too, but it can still work even if the further parts of the car are a bit out of focus
The closer you are, the harder it appears to be…especially if you’re shooting something travelling at decent speeds. Too close and you might struggle to pan properly, resulting in an ‘artistic’ effect like this:
Ideally you might find it easier being some distance away, where you can keep the car in your frame and shoot it through the section you want.
One tip we were given was about foot positioning and it seems to help. As you need to try and be smooth and steady as the car pans through the section you’re shooting it was suggested you adjust feet accordingly. Set yourself up as if you were shooting the car as a static vehicle in the position you want to get the shot. Keep your feet in that position.
As the car comes into sight twist your body to get it in your viewfinder. With the car moving, twist your body back while following it in your viewfinder. By the time it’s in the ‘shooting zone’ you’ve decided upon your body should be nice and steady as your feet are already in the right place. This helps keep things smooth and reduce shaking…important if using longer exposures. You should also aim to keep panning through the other side of that ‘shooting zone’ to help nail a smooth shot – much like swinging a golf club after you’ve hit the ball.
You camera is likely to have an option for shooting more than one shot at a time i.e you keep your finger depressed on the shutter and it will automatically fire off a number of shots. This is a great way to try and ensure a good shot. If you get 6 shots of one car passing, the likelihood is that at least two of them will be spot on.
Too long an exposure and you’ll have a blurry mess, too short and you’ll miss any of the speed-blur that makes a great panning shot. This picture could probably have done with a longer exposure;
For head on action a fast shutter speed with a wide aperture might be better, but for panning shots the general school of thought seems to be that between 1/60secs and 1/200secs is the right kind of area. Some people even shoot down to 1/8scec but it will depend on the situation you’re in.
You can sometimes forget to adjust the ISO rating, we’re at 100 ISO figuring the image will be of higher quality. But sometimes it would make a lot more sense to increase the ISO rating to lighten things up without having to adjust exposure or aperture. This picture was shot at 100 ISO and, forgetting all the other failures in it, the ISO could have done with being much higher to stop it being quite so dark at least!
The picture above also highlights how important a good background is though. While a longer exposure might have helped, the fact there was not much in the background to actually blur will always mean you won’t get a cracking panning shot. This picture, found on the internet, shows the benefits of a busy background;
The taxi is probably going slower than the Cosworth in the image above it, but the lights in the background help make it look decidedly quicker.
There are two options with focussing; trusting auto focus or using manual focus. If you have a high quality lens then the auto focus should be able to keep up without too much fuss. However, if you’re using lower end equipment then you need to try manual focus. Obviously you don’t want to be changing focus manually while the car is coming into frame, so set the focus on the point of the road or track where you intend to take the shot. You might not get it straight away (we don’t) but keep trying!
We still need plenty of it, but over time we’ve certainly learned a few bits that help out. While you may take something from this little guide, there’s no better way to get better than to throw yourself into practicing your panning shots with all shutter fingers firing. Even if it’s just from the side of the road at passing traffic, you’re bound to figure out a lot of things for yourself. Good luck too…and if you get some crackers feel free to share them on our Facebook page!