Aircraft Panning Basics

B65E7358Panning Shots – The Practice is Worth it!

It takes practice and patience to develop a good panning technique, but the shots captured will make you proud.  Chances are you already have some of the basics down and just don’t realize it.  Panning relies on good form and a steady motion – similar to a golf swing, skeet shooting and other activities.  Here are some quick tips to get you started:
  • Stance
    • Spread your feet about should width apart – provides a stable platform and good balance
    • Don’t move your feet or your shoulders – pivot at your waist
    • Consider the arc of your pan, and face closer to your ending position – twist back to get to your starting point
      • This places what should be your best balanced position towards the end of your pan, allowing for better control
  • Holding technique
    • There are many ways to do this and not necessarily “one” right way – this is how I do it:
      • Press the camera against your face to increase stability.  A larger, cushioned eye-cup can make this more comfortable and effective
      • Tuck your elbows into your side, increasing stability
      • Lean slightly into your shot – this will create a more stable “triangle” between your face, front hand and tucked in elbows
  • Settings
    • Shutter speed will be limited by your panning technique, with propeller driven aircraft requiring the most skill.  Begin your practicing with no lower than 1/750th of a second shutter speed and move down as you become comfortable
    • Checkout the article on Air Show Shutter Speed to learn more about proper settings and the different scenarios you will encounter

P 51 Mustang<br /><br />
1 160th Shutter    and 200 MPH

  • Select your target
    • While you can use multiple focus points, I’ve found it best to use the single point selection option – and lock it on target
    • Pick a spot on the aircraft, place your focus point of choice on it and keep it there (yes, easier said than done)
      • This doesn’t have to be the center point.  As illustrated below, your target won’t necessarily have a viable center spot

Aperture 1

  • Aim and move
    • Once you’ve locked your focus point in place, practice your panning
      • Depending on your target and the arc it’s traveling, the speed will not be constant – you’ll have to adjust with your target
    • The bike shot below (shutter speed of 1/ 180th) was extra difficult as the bike and plane were not traveling at the same rate of speed for most of the run.  20 images yielded only one that was sharp enough.
Aperture 2
  • Follow through
    • You want to shoot on continuous – as fast as your camera can go.  With practice you’ll surely get better and have more “keepers” but even the best rarely achieve better than a 50/50 average keeper rate on difficult targets
  • Start early . . . end late
    • Begin your shooting sequence a second or two early – it will give you time to get the “rhythm” and allow your image stabilization to spin up
      • Use image stabilization?  Well, it depends.  Read up on your camera / lens.  Some systems have a special setting for image stabilization during panning
    • At the end of your series of shots, keep the motion going past the point of action.  You will naturally tend to slow down at the very end and you want to ensure you’re still in rhythm when your last shutter click occurs
  •  Practice
    • There really is no substitute for it, and it’s amazing how much better your equipment seems to work when you practice!
    • Don’t get discouraged.  Action shooting has a lot going on, focus on one issue at a time (panning, lower shutter speed captures, exposure, composition) and build up gradually.  Want to learn some other Air-show basics, check out this article from the beginning of the 2012 season.

P-51C at 1/125th shutter speed

Have fun and stay in focus!



5 comments so far

  1. Bella Remy Photography on

    So with that stance, when you lean into the camera you don’t lose your balance? For me, I’d totally wobble. This is a great post and will help me so much when trying to get those bird in flight shots.

    • imperfectphotog on

      Thanks! I should have been more clear, you lean in slightly from your waist – just enough to alter the weight distribution slightly. It helps to kind of “lock everything together”.


  2. […] Panning: how to perfect your rythm […]

  3. Leslie Harris on

    Are you taking continuous shots as you pan, or only one when the subject reaches the area that you want it to be in?

    • imperfectphotog on

      Hi Leslie,
      I start focus tracking and panning early in the approach – but don’t start shooting until the target is comfortably in the frame. Then I start shooting as fast as the camera can. Especially at slower shutter speeds, you’ll want to have multiple images to choose from.

      For focus tracking you can either use the shutter button (depressed half-way) or set-up one of your buttons on the back to activate your focus separately. Here is a link to a great tutorial on back button focusing.

      Take care,

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