Reader Assignment: Showing Time Using Panning & Blurring

By David H. Wells Back to


Most people think of freezing a moment in time as the best way to make a great photograph. Using a high shutter speed to stop action is one way of conveying time in a photograph, but other ways, when used correctly, can be just as compelling. Panning and blurring are the other ways to convey a feeling of time in a photograph. What do they have in common? They both involve slower shutter speeds. The art of panning is all about moving the camera with the subject, so that it appears sharp and the background becomes blurred. An example of successful panning is when the subject separates from other elements in the composition, and in the best panning images, there is a feeling of speed or motion. A car whizzing by on a racetrack is the classic example of this, with the car clear and sharp and the background is a blur of horizontal lines.

Blurring involves the similar use of a slow shutter speed with the camera is fixed in one place. The general scene is rendered sharp and clear while certain moving parts of the scene appear blurry (because they move during the time the shutter is open). A time exposure of a waterfall is the classic example of this with a sharp landscape with blurry (moving) water.

Panning is a skill that takes lots of practice. Find a place where there is lots of movement that is parallel to your shoulders (and parallel to the film plane of the camera). The important thing is that the movement is in front of you, moving from one side to the other, such as left to right (though it can be the other way too.) Objects that move straight towards you or away from you, are less successful as panning images since the movement is not that pronounced as far as the camera is concerned. Most people find that a street with cars going by works well for this. A place where horses run or people walk or bicyclists ride all work. To get good at panning go to that same place numerous times, looking at your work in between each shoot to see what you are getting right.

1. Set the camera to continuous shooting mode so you take more than one image as you pan. Press the shutter gently to get more pictures and thus not disrupt the smooth panning motion of your camera.

2. Have a smooth follow through during the entire panning motion in order to get the best images. If you stop prematurely, your images will also show that abrupt stop.

blurring, panning, david h wells, photo technique, reader assignment

Street Life in Hanoi, Vietnam 2011. ISO Speed: 200, Shutter Speed: 1/10, Aperture: f/6.7.

3. I find I have the best luck with focus when I pre-focus on the spot where the moving object or person is going to end up. The autofocus on modern cameras is good but I never want the autofocus jumping in and out trying to find a place to focus while panning.

4. Turn the internal stabilization, vibration reduction or any other camera stabilizing technology in your camera OFF. Most of that technology is so good it will either cancel out the panning altogether or give you choppy looking results.

5. It is much harder to pan with a tripod. You will learn a lot more if you learn to pan holding the camera at eye level. The key to this is having one hand, under the camera body and your fingers wrapped around the lens, so the palm of your hand supports the camera.

6. The art of panning is picking out one part of the subject matter and keeping that in the same place in your viewfinder as you pan. Typically that would be the driver of the car or the windshield. I have had the best luck using one of the autofocus markers inside my frame as a guide that I keep fixed on the point in the scene I want to keep constant as I pan. The autofocus bracket is only a guide since I am NOT using actual autofocus as I photograph.

7. I have learned that to follow the subject as it moves in front of me, from one side to the other, I am most successful when I “pick it up” in my viewfinder and start to follow it when it is very far to one side and then pan/follow it all the way to the other side. I will typically pan a very wide span though I only make two or three frames when the subject is right in front of me, when the movement of that object is perpendicular to my lens.

8. Position yourself to do the panning with your shoulders parallel to the movement of the subject. Then almost wind yourself up by swinging far to one side, as you await the subject you will be following, which will be coming from that same side. As you follow the moving object, panning with it, you almost unwind as you move all the way the other direction.

9. What shutter speed to use? That depends on your subject matter. Fast moving cars will still result in panning at speeds as high as 1/125 of a second, which is a speed that shows no panning if you are photographing people walking. I tend to start about 1/15 of a second and then adjust up or down based on what I see on the back of my camera.

blurring, panning, david h wells, photo technique, reader assignment

At a crowded fish market in the heart of the oldest part of Dhaka, Bangladesh, 2005. Using Bogen/Manfrotto table top tripod. ISO Speed: 100, Shutter Speed: 1/3, Aperture: f/13.

Blurring, by comparison, seems easier, though it presents challenges too. Though a tripod is one option, using a full-size tripod in certain venues (like city streets) is almost impossible. I prefer a table-top tripod which enables me to hold the camera steady during slower shutter speeds and allows unusual camera placement, such as a lower or higher perspective. Though it seems obvious, the key to a good blurring image is finding a venue with one or two planes of activity amidst a scene where the rest of the venue is not moving. A city street corner can be ideal since the street itself never moves but the cars are rapidly going by.

Digital imaging has empowered us to be able to take a photo, look and then revise that photo based on what we see on the back of our cameras. When making images with blurring (and panning) this is incredibly valuable. To get the best blurring (and panning) images, make a few frames, look at them carefully and then make more frames based on what worked or did not work in the last set. Things that I watch out for are backgrounds that do not blur into nice, non distracting lines when panning or foregrounds that distract the viewer’s attention from the main moving subject when blurring.

Panning and blurring are great techniques that enable the photographer to tell a different kind of story about time, as compared to simply stopping action with a high shutter speed. All three approaches to time are simply tools that help you become a better photographer. And like so many tools in photography, mastering them takes practice, practice, practice.

photo technique and Photo Synesi ( have teamed up to offer subscribers a discount on an individual portfolio review by David H. Wells based on the assignment Showing Time using Panning and Blurring. Subscribers can get $9 off* a $19 Snap photo review. To get your $9 off look for the special code that begins with PTPS on your mailing label. Digital subscribers will find their code on the email that announces your digital issue. Not a subscriber? Subscribe today at! After you make the images, visit>Community>Portfolio Reviews to participate in the review process. The code is only applicable to this particular assignment. Select reader reviews (written and audio) with the photographers permission, are featured on

1. Find a place with the ideal combination of movement and a fixed background environment.

2. Photograph that venue, using both panning and blurring techniques. Use both strategies to help you see how panning and blurring the exact same place creates very different images. Revisit that same location at least twice to repeat the technique till the tools become automatic.

3. Review your photographs on the computer, figure out what did and didn’t work, and if necessary go back to the same venue and make additional photographs. Select ten images for the Snap Review. Visit>Community>Portfolio Reviews for exact submission details.

*Assignment submissions are accepted starting November 1, 2012. The final deadline for submitting this assignment is December 30, 2012.

FREE OFFER FOR ALL READERS! We also are giving away 10 FREE SNAP REVIEWS FOR THE ASSIGN- MENT! Open to Subscribers and Non-Subscribers! To enter, send an email to:, with the heading FREE REVIEW RAFFLE-PANNING.

Editor’s Note: Are you in a camera club or Meetup group? Please share this assignment—it’s a great way for you to get feedback outside your group! And, when your members participate in this assignment we will feature their review and photographs on our website. Watch for the next assignment in our January/February 2013 issue.

About the Author

David H. Wells
David H. Wells is a freelance documentary photographer affiliated with Aurora Photos. See his work at: He specializes in intercultural communications and the use of light and shadow to enhance visual narratives. Twice awarded Fulbright fellowships for work in India, his photography regularly appears in leading international magazines. A frequent teacher of photography workshops, his blog, The Wells Point, appears at As an Olympus Visionary, Wells has been contracted by the camera company to produce images and provide feedback on new product lines.