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How to Creatively Photograph Action Scenes

Updated on September 29, 2012
A VW Beetle captured using the Panning Technique.
A VW Beetle captured using the Panning Technique. | Source

You must have seen some really great photographs of moving subjects such as the one above that are relatively sharp but also having blurred streaks of slower or stationary elements. The subject pops out amidst a blur of motion. This is a really neat effect that can be produced naturally via a simple principle.

Freezing the motion

Before we get to the technique to create such shots, let’s take a look on capturing moving subjects with regular photographic technique. This regular technique involves you using a high shutter speed to capture a sharp photograph of your subject. You’ll basically be freezing the motion, such as in the case of taking a high shutter speed photograph of a marathoner running the homestretch -- even the very beads of sweat leaving the runner’s body will be frozen in mid-flight. This technique works, and what you will have to do is to compensate for the high shutter speed with a wide aperture, a higher ISO value or a combination of both. Flash may be an option, but in sports this is generally frowned upon as the flashing of light may distract athletes. No photographer wants to be the cause of an own goal or something!

The Panning Technique

Apart from the regular technique just discussed, there’s another technique that is highly recommended when taking action shots. This technique is commonly used by photographers who capture images at racing events. The technique is called panning, and as the name suggests it involves moving your camera across a plane. But not only does it involve such movement, but also using a slow shutter speed. When you use the regular technique of basically holding your camera in one position to take a shot of a moving object with slow shutter speed, your image will turn out with the subject being blurry and possible the other elements of your photograph will be blurry mess too due to camera shake. Obviously, that wouldn't work out very well. This is why you’ll have to use the panning technique, using your camera to follow the motion and speed of the moving object and taking shots along your panning motion. There’s no need to stop the motion -- in fact, you need to continue the motion! What will happen is that your subject will turn out relatively sharp with everything else for the most part motion blurred. That’s the great effect that the Masters use.

Here are the steps:

  1. Set your camera to Shutter Priority (SP or S) mode.
  2. Set your shutter speed to about 60 (1/60th of a second). This is a recommended speed to start off with. Depending on the speed of your subject you may decrease or increase a bit. Take it as a trial and error routine and test out what works best for you.
  3. Set camera to use all autofocus (AF) points.
  4. Use continuous focus (AI Servo in Canon and AF-C in Canon and Sony) as you half-depress the shutter release button.
  5. Use the panning motion and click away as you please paying attention to focusing beeps.

Practice, and change settings to suit your style

Now this is really an easy technique that needs practice. Play around with it and try taking your shots from different angles and you pan away. The good thing about these steps is that you won’t have to worry about your exposure settings too much. With Shutter Priority mode, all you need and can change is the shutter speed -- the camera adjusts the aperture value automatically for producing a reasonable exposure. Although you get a ‘piggy back’ with this, you’ll still need to check if the images suit your style and liking. On a more advanced level, you can also use your D-SLR on full manual, and set both aperture and shutter speed to your desire. You could use the SP route first and get a clue of what settings to start off with, make a mental note of them, and transfer those settings to Manual Mode. Whichever method you use, the real deal is to effectively pan. You can pan horizontally, vertically or whichever direction your subject is moving and capture some breathtaking photographs -- some of which may surprise even you.


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    • theblackedition profile image

      Shane Brown-Daniels 5 years ago from Jamaica

      Good question unvrso :) Truth is that it's already a task to get larger objects sharp using the panning technique. For a smaller subject such as 'a falling drop of water' it's better to freeze the motion altogether with a very high shutter speed, which can be compensated for with a large aperture. Not saying that it isn't possible, but it's definitely more challenging to do.

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      Jose Juan Gutierrez 5 years ago from Mexico City

      I read your hub and liked the panning technique. I think it really can capture great pictures. Does this technique work with other moving objects like a falling drop of water?

      Voted up and useful?