The pan-motion photo technique adds drama and movement to photos. The idea is that if you slow down your shutter speed and follow the subject with the lens as you shoot, the subject will be clear and the background will be a spectacular blur. To take pan-motion photos, you need a camera with manual controls, a moving subject, and a lot of patience and luck.

If you can, switch to manual focus so your lens doesn’t try to autofocus on the background instead of the subject. In high-traffic areas, your plane of focus can be easily predictable. A bike lane, for example, is an easy spot to focus on.

When shooting pan photography, your camera should be in continuous-shooting, burst, or bracket mode, so that it takes multiple photos as the subject moves in front of you. Because the camera is moving with your subject, the subject appears still and the background will blur.

Set your shutter

This photo was taken with a shutter speed of 1/40 and an aperture of f/8 so that the subject stayed in focus against a blurred background

If your camera has manual settings (all DSLRs and some point-and-shoots do), start with shutter-priority mode (usually labelled S or Tv on the camera dial). Review your instruction manual for how to adjust your ISO and shutter speed in shutter-priority mode so that the camera will automatically adjust the aperture for you based on how much light is available. If you’re using a manual setting, remember that the slower your shutter speed, the higher your aperture number (or f-stop) must be to keep your subject in focus.

Depending on how fast your subject is moving and how far away it is, you could pan with a shutter speed as fast as 1/100 second or as slow as 1/4. We usually like to start at 1/60 and work from there. Be careful about going
too slow with the shutter speed. Depending on your lens length, you could start to get camera-shake blur on top of the pan-motion blur below about 1/30.

A clear subject is the result of a steady hand or a tripod with a pan-tilt head. These tripods come with either a two-way or three-way tilting head and allow for the user to control one axis without affecting the others. In this case, you would want to lock all axes except the panoramic rotating one that gives you a smooth, steady view.

Choose a background

Good pan photography also depends on the quality of the background. You want the background to have nice colours and a lot of details to blur, but still let the focus stay on your subject. You can adjust your shutter speed to include more or less background detail – the faster the speed, the more detail your background will have.

Be sure to balance the light in the composition. Generally, the light that falls on the subject should be the same as that in the background, but mixing the light in your frame can make for an excellent composition if you know what to look for.

The ideal time of day to shoot pan photos is during the magical hour – that’s the time just before sunset or after sunrise. During this time, the light will be diffused and warm – great for slower shutter speeds. If you are shooting in midday sun, you may be limited by how small you can set your aperture. Stick to the shade or wait for low light if you’re limited to a fast shutter speed.

Be patient

Pan photography is just as much luck as it is skill. Be patient. Once you get the right settings and background, wait for an interesting subject to come along and snap away.