How to take awesome panning shots

For those who aren’t sure what this term means, panning is the action of taking a photo of a moving subject while standing still. This doesn’t just apply to cars – you can take a panning shot of an aircraft, a runner, or even a dog. Indeed, you can pretty much take a panning shot of anything that moves.

Panning shots are not the same as tracking shots (your camera moves in parallel with the subject) or rig shots (your camera is mounted to the subject in some way; most common with car shots, where a camera is attached via poles, grippers and suction cups).

This technique is easy to learn but hard to master (and before anyone gets on their high horse, I’m certainly not implying that I have). Here are a few tips from my own experience that I hope will be useful to anyone hoping to learn or improve.

Panning – how to do it

Unlike tracking or rig shots, a successful panning shot relies on your ability to keep pace with the object that you’re following, while using a shutter speed fast enough to capture the object in detail but slow enough to blur the background. I’m sure people have their own ‘recipes’ for creating these shots, so I’ll stress that this is mine, and not a set of rules.

Generally speaking, the faster a car is moving, the better. The reason for this is that the faster the object, the faster your shutter speed can be. That’s why if you look at some of the best aircraft panning you’ll notice that the shutter speeds tend to be in the 1/400th to 1/800th of a second range.

On the other hand, the best panning shots I’ve taken of cars are probably using a speed between 1/15th and 1/30th of a second. A reasonably good rule of thumb is probably setting the speed based on the mph of the object – ie, 30mph  as 1/30 or 70mph as 1/70.

As you’re deliberately creating motion blur, keep the noise to a minimum by dropping to around ISO 200. To make sure you’re capturing in detail, I’d stick with an aperture of f/7.1 upwards, and ideally above f/11.

The rest boils down to timing, positioning and steady movement of the camera. I’d also suggest that to increase your chances of nailing the shot, switch to a burst or continuous capture mode to keep shooting as you move the camera.

NB. Have trouble holding your camera steady? Try gripping your camera like Joel Lipovetsky (and now countless others, including me) do.

Panning – where to do it

Again, everyone will have their own opinions on where to take these sort of shots. I know several people who actually prefer to do it sat beside a particular portion of the M40, but that’s not really my cup of tea…

So, here are my choice locations in London. They’re on the list because they have (a) a great shooting position, (b) an open space to give you time to catch the car moving, (c) a good backdrop, or (d) a steady stream of interesting cars to shoot. And many tick all four boxes.

1. Park Lane

A wide, reasonably open 40mph stretch of road, and providing you position yourself near The Dorchester, you’ll have great visibility to see what’s coming towards you from Marble Arch. The major downside to this location is that the volume of traffic often means that you won’t be able to get a clean shot free of other vehicles.

Positioning yourself (safely) on the central spine between the two carriageways will give you the opportunity to photograph cars coming from both directions. The trees hanging over the road can obscure the light falling onto the car and may create a dappled effect on the road below.

2. Harrods

Any of the roads around this flagship department store can probably be said to have the highest likelihood of being crammed with supercars should the weather or time of year encourage it.

Position yourself on the corner of Walton Place and Hans Road, opposite the southernmost point of the building, and you’ll catch traffic coming in from two different directions to loop around the entrance on Basil Street.

Again, weight of traffic can be an issue here, coupled with the fact that the cars are often moving at a snail’s pace because of endless drop-offs at the main door further down the road.

3. Sloane Street

There are various options for panning shots along this pricey street. The most obvious is simply to shoot the cars side-on from the pavement as they drive up and down. However, doing this usually means going wide-angle, which isn’t always ideal.

Alternatively, position yourself opposite where Basil Street deposits its traffic at the northernmost end, and capture the cars as they turn either left towards Hyde Park, or right back down to Sloane Square.

The wide pavements mean you won’t annoy too many other pedestrians while you sit and wait, though I’ve seen others standing on postboxes to get their ideal shot here, which isn’t something I’d recommend!

4. Sloane Square

Venture further down the road to Sloane Square and yet more options open up. A blend of traffic heading in and out of Knightsbridge, Chelsea, Battersea and Victoria travels over this square, so finding a spot right in the middle of it tends to prove rewarding.

The main considerations here are the number of people walking over the square (ie, look where you’re going before you peer down your viewfinder) and the various objects that will get in the way of the car if you don’t time the shot well.

Trees, railings, bollards, lamp posts and the fountain in the middle may all find their way into the frame, but if you manage to shoot between them, it can lend depth to the composition.

5. Berkeley Square

This may be my favourite spot to shoot, predominantly because it’s not jam-packed with supercars and their owners, but tends to present a more varied range of cars (for the record, the answer to the question “Can you pan a Hummer H3 limo?” is “Yes, you can”).

Tuck yourself into the corner of Charles Street and the square, or better yet next to the bike stands in the middle of the junction at the southernmost end (it’s a roundabout on Google Maps, but not in real life).

From this position you can catch cars swinging around and back up the square towards Oxford Street, as well as those turning left onto Curzon Street to head out to Piccadilly and Park Lane.

The backdrops are varied (the greenery of the square plays the chunky facade of Lansdowne House), the cars plentiful, and the speed just right for capturing – in my opinion – the perfect panning shot.

So… go forth and pan! And share your efforts with me @torquespeak or in the comments.