The Art of Panning :: Motorcycle Photography

Motorcycle Action Sports Photography by AKPHOTO

Tracking a moving object with a camera to capture the motion, or "panning" as it is commonly referred to, can be a fun and exhilarating part of photography. However, it can be equally as frustrating when the resultant images are severely blurred and lacking any detail whatsoever. While I am by no means an expert at panning, I am sharing my recent experiences with panning and photographing motorcycle races at High Plains Raceway in Colorado. I hope this may help others who may be trying the panning technique for the first time.

Gear and Accessories

A key factor in being able to capture an object moving at a high rate of speed is the ability to shoot rapid sequential shots while maintaining focus on the subject. While a camera with a fast drive mode is not entirely necessary, it does improve your chances of getting a sharp image. The fact of the matter is, when shooting fast objects such as motorcycles on a racetrack, not every image will be in focus. Since you know you are going to have throw-aways it's best to improve your odds up front by shooting as many images as practical. As a Canon guy I'd suggest the semi-professional 40D which has a max burst of 6.5fps (frames per second), or the 7D which tops out at 8fps in high speed continuous drive. If your budget allows, the 1d Mark IV has a blistering burst rate of 10fps. Keep in mind, these burst rates can only be achieved with ideal lighting conditions. Additionally, these camera models have AIservo or "focus tracking" modes that try to anticipate the next plane of focus when shooting continuously. This type of feature is extremely beneficial when shooting moving subjects in a rapid fire continuous (burst) drive mode, so you don't have to worry about focus between shots.

With the proper camera for the task at hand, don't forget to have a good memory card handy. With very fast shutter speeds it will be necessary to have a memory card that can keep up and write the images as fast as you take them. I personally shoot with the Transcend 32GB 400x Compact Flash cards and have never had any issues with write speed. With two of these bad boys, I can get almost 2500 images out of my 7D.

I would consider this the bare minimum for working on panning. To increase your odds of getting sharp images, I'd strongly recommend you use a lens that incorporates image stabilization (IS in the Canon line), with an IS mode selection switch for vertical/horizontal stabilization.

Stopping the Motion

Different camera settings can yield vastly different results. Throw in varying camera angles, and you can really start having some fun. For now, I'm just going to touch on the two most widely used methods. The first is what I'll refer to as Stopping the Motion. This is by far the easiest method for capturing fast moving objects and can produce extremely sharp results. If this is your first time attempting panning photography, I would recommend starting here. To "stop the motion" as I call it, use an aperture priority mode on your camera and open your lens to its widest aperture setting. With my 70-200mm f/2.8L lens I cranked it all the way open to f2.8. At this setting my camera's sensor is seeing the greatest amount of available light, and in the conditions I was shooting in my shutter speed was well above 1/1000sec.

Stop the Motion - Motorcycle Racing Photography (click to enlarge)

In the image to the left, I began focusing on the racer, Ricky Orlando, as he appeared far down the straight, and started shooting once focus was achieved. I panned my camera lens from right-to-left to follow the rider's path down the track. My right hand was holding the camera body and continuously pressing down on the shutter button, while my left hand stabilized the heavy 70-200mm lens while tracking the motorcycle. I tried to keep the bike centered in my frame as best as I could - and this is where the "art" of panning comes into play. As there is no specific advice or rule that will make you an expert your first try... you simply need to get out in the field and practice the movement in the real world.

In this specific photo, the racer was photographed fully zoomed in at 200mm, with an aperture of f2.8 and ISO 200. Using aperture priority mode, this resulted in a shutter speed of 1/2000sec., which is extremely fast. As a result of the fast shutter speed, almost all of the movement in the image is frozen, hence my description of Stopping the Motion. What I mean by this is, the motorcycle looks static, as if it's sitting at a stop - balanced on two wheels. You can see the spokes on the wheels, the holes in the brake rotors, and you can almost make out the individual links in the chain. In the full resolution RAW file, I can even read the handwritten notes on the fairings. Although there is a very slight motion blur in the pavement, the image as a whole appears to be a static shot. Some people like this result - as it is a crisp image - but there is no visual representation of the speed of the racer.

Seeing the Speed

The next technique is what I call Motion Blur. Achieving motion blur is a great photographic effect, as it adds the feeling of movement and action to an image. However, getting the desired background motion blur while maintaining sharp focus on a moving subject can be a difficult task. To start, you will need to adjust the settings on your camera. Begin by stopping your lens down sufficiently to slow the shutter speed to 1/250 or 1/200sec. Alternatively, you can use a shutter priority mode and manually set your shutter speed. I suggest 1/250th or 1/200th as a good starting point for motion blur photos. You can use slower shutter speeds to obtain more dramatic motion blurs, but getting a sharp image of your subject will be more difficult.

The shooting style for motion blur will be the same as previously described. You will want to start focusing on your subject prior to the point where you want to capture the "best" shot. This will allow the camera to begin tracking focus on the subject, while you pan the camera along with the subject's path of motion. Keep in mind that, when shooting/panning perpendicular to the plane of motion (as along the main straight of a racetrack), your panning speed will change as the subject crosses in front of you. When the subject is farthest away from you, the lens panning speed will be slower. When the subject is directly in front of you, the lens panning speed will be at its fastest. Once the subject passes, the panning speed will slow down again. This is where an image stabilized lens play a key roll, as it can minimize blurring of the subject during the panning motion. Some photographers also use a monopod when panning with slow shutter speeds, to further assist with the panning motion.

Motorcycle Panning - click to enlarge

The result of a good panning technique will produce a relatively sharp subject with blurred surroundings. In the image to the right - which was one of eight shots in a sequence - I captured the racer just as he crossed the finish line. In this image you can see the background grass, track surface, and checkered finish line are all blurred, while the rider is noticeably sharper. In this specific shot I used a shutter speed of 1/125th, which is why the racer is not entirely crisp. My panning movement simply was not smooth enough. A faster shutter speed most likely would have produced a sharper result. Still, the appearance of motion has been achieved. The brake rotors and chain are blurred, and you can almost see through the wheels due to their rotational speed. No more spokes!

For a point of reference as to how I shot this image, see the graphic below. I depict the racer, the camera location (where I was shooting from), and the finish line, along with the starting point of focus.

Photography Panning Graphic

The green dots are approximate representations of everytime an image of the racer was captured. The dots are further apart at the point perpendicular to the camera, since this is where the bike was moving fastest relative to my position. Since the bike was moving at its fastest relative to me, I was panning faster, which resulted in a greater distance between images.

Final Thoughts

While the two techniques I described here are a good introduction to high-speed motion and motorcycle race panning photography, they are only scratching the surface with the types of options available to you when shooting moving subjects. When you get a good technique down you can start shooting from different locations on track to see what kind of results you get. Shooting at the apex of a corner, or the crest of a hill can yield stunning results. Also don't be afraid to change your angles; try shooting a rider from the front, back, and sides. You can also change the location of the motion blur... By incorporating a tripod and shooting a still image of the track while racers fly by, the track will be crisp while the motorcycles will be blurred! The creative options are really endless!

To develop your panning technique, my best advice is to simply head outside and practice photographing cars in a parking lot, or on a street to hone your skills. Just shoot from a safe location! Your practice with real world scenarios will translate directly to the track, and vastly improve your technique. I know many photographers who research technique days on end, but are lost in the field because they never actually take time to practice!

Keep in mind there's no "right" way to pan, just try to find a technique that works best for you and your gear. You'll find that a good panning technique will be obvious once you start your image sorts; while you will surely have some images that are a blurry mess your first time trying it, you will find a few crisp keepers that stand out above the rest. Those are the ones that make you say "wow!" And to improve your keeper rate, just keep heading outside to practice, practice, and practice some more.

Working on panning in the field is the best way to perfect your technique!