Behind the Lens: Panning can enhance sports photography

Cyclists streak through downtown Lawrence in the Downtown Criterium of the Tour of Lawrence Saturday, July 4, 2009. By using a shutter-speed of 1/20th a second and panning with the biker at center, I created a blurred background that heightens the photographs sense of speed.

Last weekend’s cycling event in Lawrence created an opportunity to use a photographer’s visual device known as panning. In fact, three photographers covering the event for the newspaper and one reader who submitted a photo online attempted the technique. Panning is a means of creating a visual sense of motion in a photograph.

The basic concept in panning is to move your camera in sync with a moving subject while using a slow shutter speed. Ideally you’ll end up with a relatively sharp image of the subject, but the background will be blurred. Since you need to use a slow shutter-speed, this technique is best accomplished with a manual camera or one with a shutter-priority setting. Accordingly, your aperture will have to change to maintain a correct exposure. But lenses have a limitation on their minimum aperture setting so you may reach a point where you can’t get a correct exposure without overexposing the image. At this point your only option is to drop your camera’s ISO to the lowest setting. This should allow you to attempt panning in all but the brightest light.

You can also capture a panning effect by having yourself and your camera be the object in motion. For instance, using the same techniques as above, if you are traveling in a train and take a photo through a window you can capture the blurred movement outside while everything inside the train will remain static. At the Douglas County Fair one year I got on a ride that had carriages on cables that circled around like a giant swingset. Using a slow shutter-speed I was able to turn around and easily photograph the children in the carriage behind me. Since we were both moving at the same speed, the children remained sharp while the fairground in the background was a dizzying blur of motion.

Here are more tips to capturing images with panning.

• Use a shutter-speed of 1/30th of a second or slower.

• Panning works best if the moving subject is on a relatively straight path and will pass parallel to where you are positioned.

• If possible, manually pre-focus your lens on a spot where the subject will pass.

• Start panning with your subject before they pass in front of you. This helps you match the subject’s speed and keeps your movement fluid as they pass by.

• After pressing the shutter continue to follow through with a smooth panning motion until the exposure is completed.