A Viewfinder Darkly

Photography tips and tutorials

Using Panning in Motorsport Photography

March 8 2011

by Philip Northeast

Capturing a speeding car so the background is blurred, indicating motion yet keeping the subject as sharp as possible.


Lamborghini capture with shutter speed of 1 /125s

The basic object of panning is keeping the camera pointed at the same spot on a moving subject, while the shutter is open. This keeps the image of the subject sharp, with the background blurred by the camera motion.

Applying this technique to motorsport, the aim is to keep the body of the vehicle sharply in focus, while using a slow enough shutter speed to allow the wheels to blur indicating the car is moving.

The technique is positioning the subject in the viewfinder of the camera’s and trying to keep it in that same position as the subject moves past you. While you are following the subject in the viewfinder, squeeze the shutter release. Do not jab, as this will upset a smooth rotational motion and make everything blurred. Follow through with your turning motion until after the shutter operates to make sure you do not change your turning speed while the shutter is open.

What Shutter Speed

A number of factors influence the choice and common shutter speeds vary from 1/90 sec to 1/750 sec. Beginners should use faster shutter speeds, and then progressively select slower speeds as their expertise builds. The faster the speed of the subject, the faster the required shutter speed to keep the body of the subject sharp. This is counterbalanced the proficiency the photographer’s at using the panning technique. Experienced sports photographers use slower shutter speeds, creating more of contrast between a blurred background and a sharp moving subject.


A Ford at the fastest point on the track – shutter speed 1/500s

In motorsport, even at the same spot on a track, there may be different shutter speeds for different classes of machines. The fastest cars need a faster speed than the slowest class of cars. This speed variation also applies to fast straights and slow corners.

With a variety of speeds there is no right shutter speed, it is a matter of experimentation and practice for each location. As you become more experienced, it becomes easier to get it right for a new location.


One problem is trying to position the subject in the viewfinders frame. It is more difficult to get perfect composition of a moving subject compared to a landscape photo. The ideal is to try to achieve the basic aim of filling the frame with the subject.

Unfortunately, for beginners to panning it is easy to cut off part of the subject. One solution is to zoom out, or if you are using a prime lens, move back a bit. The big advantage of modern digital cameras is the LCD screen for immediate reviewing of your shot. Use this to check your framing and adjust where necessary so you have some shots to work with when you arrive home.


This is one of the sports photography situations where a manually focusing the lens is just as good, if not better, than autofocus operation.

F3 racing car

F3 racing car with ashutter speed of 1/125s

For autofocus operation, set your camera for continuous operation and, if possible, select the focus sensor in the centre of the frame. Then the camera should keep the car in focus as you follow it along that section of the track.

This helps minimize shutter lag, as the camera does not have to confirm focus before releasing the shutter. When manually focusing, select the spot on the track for the best framing of the subject, and then focus on that point.

Rotation and Release Point

With a spot picked out, based on framing and focus, choose a consistent body orientation towards that point on the track. For example, face towards a point just before the focus spot and turn your upper body to begin tracking the car as it approaches. As you track the car in the viewfinder, when feel you are facing straight ahead, start squeezing the shutter release to capture an in focus, perfectly framed shot. It can take some practice to get the timing right, and to track the car smoothly, so expect your first efforts to be candidates for the trash can.

originally published by suite101.com

Panning works on water – shutter speed 1/125s


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