The Art of Panning: Cars

Photography is about capturing moments. But what if we want to show more than a frozen moment? In this post we’ll talk about panning as a way to convey motion in automative photography. However, this technique is used for just about any moving subject.

Ferrari F-430  | Nikon D750  |  Nikon 70-200 f/2.8 VR II  |  0.9 3-Stop ND  |  1/50 sec  |  f/3.5  |  ISO 50


Panning is a way of capturing a moving object so that it remains sharp while the areas around it are motion blurred. No Photoshop required! Panning works through a combination of slow shutter speeds and following a subject during an exposure from a fixed vantage point. You want to cancel out your subject’s movement in relation to your camera by matching its speed. Ideally you get a subject with some area of sharpness, but its not required. As with anything in photography, there is always room for artistic interpretation.

Nissan R-35 GT-R  | Nikon D750  |  Nikon 70-200 f/2.8 VR II  |  1/60 sec  |  f/16  |  ISO 64


To learn how to pan, all you need to do is practice making smooth sweeping motions with your camera while taking pictures. The slow shutter speed will blur your background, and the zero net movement of your subject will keep it sharp.

Whip it good…

When you swing your camera to follow the subject, the trick is to make your upper body as stable as possible while rotating over your hips and knees. Tuck your elbows in close to your body and press your camera against your head to lock it in nice and tight. When you rotate, you want to start your pan with your body twisted. This way your shoulders are square to your subject at the point where you achieve the best composition/ background for your photo, and you’ll be at your most stable. Just like a golf swing, you want a smooth follow through as you click off frames.


When it comes to camera settings, you’ll want to set a “moderate” shutter speed like 1/125 sec to start. You’ll likely need to drop your ISO to low or base settings and stop down to f/11-f/22. On sunny days, you may want to use ND filters or a Polarizing filter to get your shutter speeds slow enough for sufficient blur.

The goal is to find a shutter speed where your subject looks like they are moving and remain sharp in some percentage of your photos. Below, the Ferrari shot at 1/125 sec on the left gives us a sharp photo, but the wheels look nearly stopped which isn’t terribly dynamic looking. The image the right, shot at 1/60 sec has more background blur and a bigger sense of movement. These cars are only travelling at 40-50 mph here, but if you double their speed, 1/125 sec could look just fine. The key is to experiment and shoot slower and slower shutter speeds until you strike the right balance between keeping your subject sharp and blurring the foreground/background.

  1/125 sec shutter speed (left) vs. 1/60 sec shutter speed (right) at 40-50 mph. Nikon 70-200 f/2.8 VR II


If you’ll be shooting all day or you’re worried about staying sharp with longer lenses, you can mount your camera on a monopod like the Manfrotto MVM500A or Induro CM34. These will help isolate some of the up/down movement that causes camera shake during longer exposures: the monopod allows your camera and lens to rotate on a single axis. The trade off here is that you lose range of motion when your subject comes closer to the camera, and it’s harder to keep your eye to the viewfinder. With practice, good results are possible both ways.


When you are just starting out, it’s best to shoot subjects that will cross left to right (or vice versa) through your frame. Cars are ideal for this. You don’t need to go to a race track to practice either, just find a busy road where you can park and shoot safely from a distance. A telephoto lens like a 70-200 with image stabilization is perfect for this scenario. Just be sure to use the “Active” VR mode on Nikon or IS “Mode 2″ on Canon lenses – they know you’re trying to pan.

Then, be prepared to shoot…a lot. Bring extra memory cards because you’ll be burning through them like crazy. It’s not uncommon to only get a 10-20% keeper rate, particularly as you drop the shutter speed below 1/50 sec with longer lenses.  Combine that with the number of images you shoot at 6-10 frames per second and you’ll be well over 1000 images in no time.

Porsche 918 | Nikon D750  |  Nikon 70-200 f/2.8 VR II  | Manfrotto Monopod |  1/60 sec  |  f/18  |  ISO 64


If you’re shooting at a race track, you’ll have better results, and more time to shoot, if you are on the inside of a corner vs. the outside. This is because the car rotates around you opposed to flying by while turning.

The most often overlooked aspect of a good panning shot is what’s actually in the foreground and background. Even though we’re trying to get a photo of our moving subject, we want to be sure there is enough texture in the area we want to blur.

Generally, you’ll get more noticeable blur if the background is closer to your subject. The further away, the less apparent your movement will be. You can compensate for this effect by using a longer lens, compressing the background distance.

Porsche 911 Carrera S | Nikon D750  |  Nikon 70-200 f/2.8 VR II  |  1/50 sec  |  f/3.5  |  ISO 50

It also helps to think about the foreground as well. Then think about colors, light, and contrast. Sometimes it’s helpful to build your panning shot around a background first. Figure out what looks good, and then get your subject to move through the scene.

Including foreground elements and background elements helps to convey a sense of speed.


With cars, there are times that its impossible to get a panning shot with the entire car sharp, especially if they are passing physically close to you. A cars large 3d shape means perspective is always changing as they move past, making it difficult to keep the entire thing sharp.

In the example below, you can see how the perspective change causes the Chevy SS to be sharp at the front of the car, but the back is distorted and blurry. You can control this effect based on what part of the car you track during the exposure. If you are getting shots where the doors are sharp but the front and back are not, you need to visually track the closer to the front of the car.

If you want to capture the entire car and have it be sharp, the time to shoot is when it is perfectly perpindicular to to your camera like this.

With other subjects, such as people or animals, it is possible to get great panning shots, but you really have to study how they move and determine what the lower limit of your shutter speed should be.


Having a clean sensor will save you a ton of hassle during editing. Because you often have to shoot very small apertures, you’ll see all the dust on your sensor. Removing it from panning shots is particularly challenging because of the linear blurring which makes retouching much more time consuming. Five minutes of cleaning before your shoot will save you hours later.


If you’ve got a subject you think would look awesome in a panning shot, give it a try! Don’t be afraid to shoot a ton of dud photos because its worth it when you get the shot!  

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