How to: Moving subjects photography,

Panning tutorial and tips.



Biker, panning

Biker, panning, Canon 7D, Canon EF 100mm 2.8L IS macro USM, 19 point AF, ISO 100, 1/100s, f/5.6.


How to photograph moving subject?

Why should I learn how to take a picture of something moving? Photography lets us capture just a moment in life. Photography is not just a frozen moment of time, each photo bears a thought inside it, the thought that a photographer wants to share. Motion is the sense of many processes of life, I dare to say even more: motion is life itself. That's why it is important to show motion in a photo image. Below we will discuss some technical and artistic techniques representing motion in photographic images.

One deals with moving subjects when shooting sports, vehicles, wildlife, birds, and in many other cases. Mastering moving subjects shooting techniques can make one's images spectacular or even thrilling.

Black kite attacks, Canon 40D, Canon EF 200mm 2.8L II USM, ISO 100, 1/1600s, f/4.0, India.


Composition is the first thing to remember when shooting moving subjects. The rules were invented to be broken, that's for sure, but one must learn them before doing so.

Placing your subject along frame diagonals emphasizes motion perception or creates the illusion of motion, when distinctive signs of motion are absent, for example when shooting vehicles (cars, trains, etc.). Vertical lines that stand in a way, placed perpendicular to the motion direction visually brakes subject motion. At the same time, lines that are slanting and parallel to the direction of motion increase the sense of motion and make the image more dynamic. For example, road markings on a moving car shot enhances the impression of motion.

If the moving subject leaves visible trails, like dust behind a car or a riding horse, splash from a boat or vapor trail behind a plane, one should compose the frame so the trails align with image diagonals. This will make image more expressive.

It is important to leave free space in front of a moving subject, so it will have a room where to move. A viewer will perceive the end of motion, when the subject is pressed against a frame edge. One can use this technique in some cases, like shooting near a finish line, but usually it is much better to leave free space in front of a subject.

Cormorant in flightCormorant in flight, Canon 7D, Canon EF 200mm 2.8L II USM, 19 point AF, ISO 100, 1/1000s, f/5.6.


Precise timing is as important as a good composition when shooting moving subjects. It is not all that important when shooting subjects like cars, trains, planes or boats that look the same static and in motion. The viewer can guess that it moves by revolving parts (like a car's wheels or planes fans) or trails left behind like dust from a car or splashes from a boat. These subjects don't change their shape in motion, so the shooting moment should be chosen by the composition requirements.

But when the subject is a living being it is another story. In this case, motion is driven by constant cyclic movement of limbs - legs, feet, fins or wings. Precision timing is a decisive factor here, as one needs to press the shutter button at the exact moment. It is very easy to get an inharmonious shot with a character unnaturally frozen in an awkward posture, if one doesn't take movement phases into account.

Motion of almost any living being consists of a cycle of phases that permanently sequential transform into each other. As a rule at the transition point between phases motion stops for a moment. This moment corresponds to a change in direction of a limb movement, for example the upper point of a wing flap. At this nodal point wing reaches maximum height and starts to descend.

Let's look at a walking man. Feet movements occur in an alternate directions (relative to the human body): forward and up (foot ascent before a step) and then down and backward (foot is on the ground, step with another foot starts). It is easy to notice that at the upper nodal point foot stops for a moment before descending to the ground and making a step.

Similar nodal points are easy to find in different sport exercises and other creature's movements. One should watch the subject for some time before shooting to define all phases and find the best times to take a photograph. Transition between phases at the nodal point is the best for taking a picture from both technical and artistic sides, as a rule. It is the most expressive moment that is relatively easy to catch, and it allows slower shutter speed without blurring a subject due to movement slowdown.

Moments away from the nodal point shows less sense of motion. One should avoid shooting in the middle of the phase, as limbs usually stick together or with the body, what doesn't look very attractive. Such images don't express motion and look bad. One can get the most lifelike shots, if the viewer could imagine both phases: one that just finished and a new one that is starting over.

The photographer should freeze only one moment in such a way that the image shows the sense of both previous and following stages of motion, when photographing living beings. Thus shooting exactly at the nodal point is not the best from the artists point of view, it doesn't show fast motion in the best way. One may get a feeling of frozen or stopped motion when taking an image at the nodal point precisely. The most expressive motion shots are made just before or slightly after the nodal point. It is easy to catch these moments after some practice.

Truck, panning, Canon 7D, Carl Zeiss Distagon T* 2/28 ZE, ISO 800, 1/20s, f/5.6.


There are two main methods of photographing moving subjects. The easiest is to freeze a subject with very short shutter speed. When we are taking photos in a good light, for example outdoors on a sunny day, getting short exposure time is easy due to plenty of light. The minimal shutter speed necessary to get a sharp image depends on subject speed, but it is the relative speed in frame, not absolute speed value. It depends on subject size and speed and distance to the subject. For example a plane flies fast, but is very large and fills a frame when it is very far away. Because of the large distance to it, a plane moves relatively slow in a frame. Shutter speeds of 1/500s and faster are enough to take a sharp image of almost any vehicle. The shorter shutter speed always gives sharper images, so if you don't have enough experience to estimate shutter speed for a given subject set it as short as possible.

When shooting vehicles that have revolving parts like car's wheels or helicopter's fans, it is better to use slightly longer shutter speeds, about 1/200s. In such case a vehicle would appear sharp, but rotating parts would be blurred and make a shot more dynamic.

Shutter speeds of at least 1/250 - 1/500 is required when shooting sports or running animals.The shortest shutter speeds should be used when shooting birds in flight, especially small ones. It is advised to use at least 1/1000s sometimes even 1/4000s is not enough to freeze wing's motion completely, for example if you shoot humming birds.

Maraphon runner, Canon 40D, Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM, ISO 200, 1/15s, f/6.3.


Panning photography. Photographs with a very short shutter speed that freeze subject's motion very rarely express speed and fast motion. Such shots appear static with a very rare exception. Most expressive shots of fast moving subjects have only some parts in sharp focus, other parts of the image, especially background is blurred along the direction of motion. This effect is achieved when shooting with panning. Panning is not very hard to master, but it makes moving subjects shots impressive.

But how we can get a sharp subject on a blurred background? That's simple, the camera should move so that the subject remains in the same point of a frame during the exposure. Shutter speed should be long enough to blur the background into parallel to the motion direction stripes.

Panning is easy to learn with the right approach. There are a number of panning "tutorials" that suggest learning panning technique on pedestrians as they move slowly. I strongly disagree with the authors of such writing. This is utter stupidity, as a walking man is one of the toughest subjects for panning. You will be probably disappointed with the results if you try to master panning using pedestrians as subjects. Taking a panning shot of a walking human is not easy as a subject moves slowly and doesn't move straight along horizontal line. Moving camera slowly for a relatively long time and tracking human's movements is a hard task.

Police car, Canon 7D, Canon EF 100mm 2.8L IS Macro USM, ISO 100, 1/60s, f/6.3.


Cars are the easiest subjects to master panning technique. It will be easier to learn if they move fast. I recommend a 70mm to 150mm lens for an APS-C format cameras and 100mm to 200mm lens for full frame bodies. Shutter speed should be 1/60s-1/100s for cars driving at 70-100 kph. (45-60 mph). Shutter priority or manual shooting mode is preferred for panning. Focal lengths mentioned above better suit for learning panning technique, as it is difficult to pan with a wide angle lens, because the distance to the subject would change during exposure, and only a part of the subject may be in focus, have a look at truck photo. A long telephoto lens may be not easy too, as it is more tricky to hold at relatively long shutter speeds.

Panning technique explained: Stand facing the road with your feet shoulder-width apart, put left foot half-step forward, right half-step backward, and slightly bend your knees. The stance should be stable and steady. Hold a camera with both hands with elbows leaned to the body. Turn your body to the side where a car should appear. Secure your subject in a frame and track it turning your body around smoothly, your feet should stand on the ground. Don't track a subject with your hands only, turn upper part of your body in one swing to move smoothly. Get the best composition during tracking movement and very gently and smoothly press the shutter button. You should continue turning your body when shutter button is pressed and slightly after that moment, this will allow the camera to move smoothly and evenly during the exposure and the background will blur in beautiful straight lines. Use your camera burst mode to improve results.

If you follow the above advice, it is possible to learn panning technique in 2-3 hours practice. Not all of the images will be usable, at first you will get about 1/10 of good shots. Don't be upset, if you practice more you will get about 50% or even more good shots later as your panning technique improves. Use your camera continuous focus tracking mode for cars, AI-servo AF for Canon. A car is a very easy target for almost any DSLR AF system, as it moves evenly and in only one direction. If a camera doesn't focus correctly for whatever reason or you have a manual focus lens, you can focus manually on a part of the road, where the car should be and shoot that way.

Air patrol, Canon 40D, Canon EF 100mm 2.8 macro USM, ISO 400, 1/500s, f/8, Russia.


Panning technique can be applied not for vehicle photography only, it may be very useful for sports or wildlife photography. Shooting living beings with panning is slightly more difficult than shooting mechanic subjects due to several reasons. First, creatures rarely move straight and evenly like vehicles, so their path is less predictable. Second, they change shape as they move, because limbs move too. And the path of a living being is not a straight line, for example a subject changes its height above ground level when running.

It requires more practice to learn panning for living beings, than it would with cars. Panning skills will be useful for all photographers as it will expand the number of visual techniques available.

One more way to show motion in a photograph is a long exposure. Long exposure should be used to show a stream of cars or people on the street, shutter speed several seconds long would make it look like a stream on a photograph, see sample image below.

Evening in Ha Noi, Canon 40D, Canon EF 17-40mm f/4L USM 0.6s, f/8, ISO 100, Vietnam


What camera should one choose for shooting moving subjects? The answer is simple. For most subjects almost any modern DSLR is sufficient to get good quality images. However some cameras can make the task easier. Cameras differ in their autofocus performance, frame rate and shutter lag. Autofocus performance depends on its speed, accuracy and the ability to track moving subject. Tracking performance may be very important when shooting fast or erratically moving subjects, good examples are sports and wildelife.

What is shutter lag? Shutter lag is the delay between triggering the shutter and when the photograph is actually taken. High-end professional DSLR like Canon 1D X or Nikon D4 has very short shutter lag of about 40ms. Semi-pro camera bodies are very fast too with about 60ms shutter lag. Entry level DSLRs are a bit slower in comparison at about 75-100ms, however it is still fast enough as it is faster than 1/10 of a second.

Focusing speed is essential, so I recommend using lenses with ultrasonic autofocus drive. Ultrasonic AF drives operates much faster, than screwdrivers, as the driving motor is placed inside a lens, not in a camera body, so it operates more efficient and preecise. If you shoot Canon look for lenses with USM focusing drive. Nikon has similar technology called "Silent Wave Motor" that is incorporated in their AF-S lenses. It is easier to shoot moving subjects with fast telephoto lenses.


Advanced professional DSLRs like Canon 1D X or Nikon D4 are the best tools for action photography as they offer the best availeable today AF system, has very fast frame rate (Canon 1D X can shoot at impressive 12 frames per second with autofocus enabled) and very short shutter lag. These cameras are very expensive, but you get what you paid for. They are equipped with more powerful battery packs, so they can focus faster, than less advanced cameras, that share the same AF sensors.

Major camera manufactureres offers less expensive cameras, that are very capable for action photography. Among them is Canon 5D Mark III, that can do almost anything as its big brother at half the price. It shares the same excellent 61-point AF system with Canon 1D X. It focuses a bit slower and shoots 6 frames per second instead of 12, but otherwise it is awesome performer. APS-C Canon 7D and new Canon 70D share the same 19 point all cross type points AF system with a very good performance and both are very fast. They have short shutter lag and can shoot at 8 and 7 frames per second respectively.

Nikon offers 3 camera bodies with the same 51-point AF system found in their Nikon D4 flagship. These cameras are slightly slower than D4, but still offer excellent performance. full frame Nikon D800 offers awesome image quality, however it's frame rate is 4fps, that may be a bit slow for action photography, but it offers very good AF and short shutter lag, and can shoot @ 6fps in crop mode. APS-C Nikon D7100 and Nikon D300s share the same AF system and can shoot at 6 and 7 frames per second respectively.

You can make excellent action shots with almost any modern DSLR, the models mentioned above are just better suited for the task.

Thanks for reading!


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