Motion Photography Techniques: Panning, Smearing & Freezing

Introduction

When taking a photograph of a moving object, the photographer has the flexibility to choose between several relevant techniques in order to pass the feeling of motion to the viewer. This tutorial will cover the most relevant techniques: Panning, Smearing & Freezing.


Freezing

Freezing is a very common technique. Given a scene with an object that moves at a certain speed, the photographer can capture it with a high shutter speed and freeze the action.
In practice, this is the default amateur motion photography technique as in most cases it doesn’t require any advanced knowledge from the photographer.

In order to achieve an accurate focus it is recommended to enable the camera focus points according to the object location in the planned composition. This way the photograph can be taken without recomposing while taking the photograph, a step which will obviously cause lost of focus while capturing high speed motion.

A common problem is in scenarios in which there’s not enough lights in the scene, resulting in a low shutter speed and a blurred moving object.
In order to achieve the best result it is recommended to work with the camera in aperture priority mode (Av in Canon / A in Nikon) and consider the following variables according to the scene motion speed & the available light:

  • Aperture – Aperture can be widened to enable lens highest speed (a first step can be to simply use the lens widest aperture).
  • ISO – ISO can be raised in order to achieve fast enough shutter speed.
  • Focal length – If ISO & Aperture modifications are not providing satisfactory results, considering going for a shorter focal length.
  • Flash – In certain scenarios, flash can be used to add lights to scene (we will not dive into it in this tutorial).

Panning

Panning is a photography technique performed through capturing an object in motion while moving the camera in parallel to the object. By moving the camera together with the object, the object remains sharp and the background becomes blurred. The background blur is a result of the motion and is in the opposite direction of the object motion. This help us both to pass the feeling of motion and to isolate the object from the surrounding. Even if there are other objects in the same distance from camera (that would normally be in focus together with the prime object being photographed), they will be blurred  due to the speed and direction differences.

There are two ways to set your camera to perform panning:

  • Set the camera to shutter priority mode (Tv in Canon / S in Nikon) while setting the shutter speed to be slow enough to capture the motion but not too slow that the entire image will be blurred, considering both the object speed and the selected focal length.
  • Set the camera to fully manual mode, define the shutter speed according to the above instructions, define the aperture according to the desired depth of field, once both are set, measure the scene light and set the ISO to the appropriate value in order to receive accurate exposure.

I find the first method to be more simple but less accurate, definitely the method to start with.

Once the camera is set, the next step is to track the moving object. Due to the fact that during the exposure the viewfinder is usually unusable (unless you have a rangefinder), it’s recommended to start following the object ahead of pressing the shutter button in order to gain the feeling of motion for the sharpest result.

In order to achieve the best results, follow these guidelines:

  • Select the right shutter speed for the specific scene, consider object speed & selected focal length.
    For example, when bicycles pass 4-5  meters in front of a camera with 24mm lens, shutter speed can be between 1/20 Р1/30 to receive smooth panning.
  • Remember that in order to set the right shutter speed the ISO and Aperture can be modified.
  • If ISO and Aperture are not enough to lower shutter speed, Neutral Density (ND) filter can be used to further lower the shutter speed.
  • Set the camera to continuous shooting mode – it’s more likely to capture great panning when taking a sequence of photograph than when taking only one…
  • Start Following the object in the viewfinder ahead of clicking the shutter button.
  • Remember that the camera movement axis should only be in the object movement in order receive sharp result.
    The best way to achieve it is to wind up in the direction from which the subject is coming, and when unwinding, stand in a normal position, legs and arms and torso. The goal is to stand with the torso facing at an angle away from the origin of the subject, then twist the torso to match that of the subject’s vector. Then, slowly unwinding into a natural position, which is much smoother than the other way around.

Smearing

In a way, the opposite of panning is smearing. Smearing is photographing with a shutter speed slow enough that the objects to be photographed are blurred in their motion. Due to the fact that the target objects are slightly blurred. The technique is mostly relevant in scenarios in which one would like to “tell the big story” (and not to for portraits/closeups work).

In order to achieve a professional look in which the smearing does not look “accidental” there must be sharp object(s) in the photograph. In the example above, you can see the runners being blurred while the man standing in the front and the people in the back are all sharp. This way the image both feels professional and passes the feeling of the runners pace.

Technically speaking, the guidelines are similar to panning. The only difference is the requirement to stay stable while photographing (which might lead to a bit faster shutter speeds to receive sharpest result).

Hope you liked the tutorial. Feel free to drop comment, will be happy to hear your opinion…


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