A guide to shooting subjects in motion through panning and other techniques


Life isn’t static, and you always have to be ready to capture its fleeting moments. Thankfully, your camera has all the features you’ll need to freeze action like magic. 

Skateboarder doing tricks by Inés Álvarez Fdez

Photo by Inés Álvarez Fdez

Although you can rely on auto functions, learning the ins and outs of your device’s other settings will definitely elevate the quality of your work.

So, if you want to take your photography game to the next level, below are simple tips to for capturing movement and creating dynamic photos.

01. Freeze action

One way to capture motion is by freezing action, which can reveal intense movements and emotions caught in the moment.

Man jumping by Drew Graham

Photo by Drew Graham

To freeze action, you need a fast shutter speed. For human subjects, anything between 1/120th to 1/400th of a second would suffice in most situations. For high-speed vehicles (or animals), you might need the fastest shutter speed possible, such as 1/2000th or even 1/4000th of a second.

Dog shaking off water from its fur by Murucutu

Photo by Murucutu

Unfortunately, since the shutter closes quickly when you take a photo, it also limits the amount of light that reaches the camera. So, if you can, use optics that feature a maximum aperture of f/1.2, f/1.4, or f/1.8 to produce proper exposure. These models are considered "fast lenses" because they let more light in than regular options, thus capturing action quicker.

Shot of a biker in the air by David Henrichs

Photo by David Henrichs

You might also find using continuous focusing (AI Servo for Canon/ AF-C for Nikon) helpful when freezing action. In continuous focusing mode, you can lock focus on your subject—your camera will automatically follow them wherever they go, ensuring you don’t miss a moment.

02. Capture motion blur

Blurred city lights taken from a car by Jakub Gorajek

Photo by Jakub Gorajek

Sometimes, however, freezing action makes the subject look static. For instance, if you’re photographing cars, it can be hard to discern whether they’re speeding by or merely parked in a scene. That’s why in certain situations, it’s better to introduce blur to enhance the illusion of movement.

Person in a hoodie with a blurred train passing by by Fabrizio Verrechia

Photo by Fabrizio Verrechia

To do this, you can also use a technique called panning to emphasize movement in your photo. All you have to do is to use a slow shutter speed such as 1/30th or 1/15th of a second. Once your subject is in the frame, press the shutter and follow the subject’s direction. Since the exposure time is longer than average, your background will have motion blur, but your point of interest will still be in focus.

Motion blur photo of a disabled cyclist by Seth Kane

Photo by Seth Kane

03. Choose the right focal length

Depending on the type of action you're planning to photograph, choosing the right focal length will help you capture the best possible compositions.

Surfer action shot by Teddy Kelley

Photo by Teddy Kelley

If you’re shooting sports, a telephoto lens will allow you to capture subjects without getting too close to the action. For extreme sports, you might want to use a wide-angle lens to capture stunts up-close.

Dirt bike rider action shot by Joe Neric

Photo by Joe Neric

Meanwhile, for street photography, a prime lens such as a 35mm or 50mm helps take photos of people candidly from just the right distance.

People walking under falling snow in Japan by Rojoyi Iwata

Photo by Royoji Iwata

A tip for street photography: use zone focusing. Just switch from auto to manual, then determine precisely the distance and area you want to focus on. This will save you a lot of time since you don’t have to refocus every time you take a photo—the particular range you’ve chosen will stay sharp, so you can capture anyone who walks into the shot.

04. Anticipate your shot

Photographing action can be a challenge because there’s a chance that you might miss out on the winning shot. That’s why it’s so crucial to prepare for the moment before it even happens. Plan ahead and find out where the action will happen, where your subject will be, and what they’re likely to do.

Motion photography of swimmers diving into a pool by Arisa Chattasa

Photo by Arisa Chattasa

For instance, when you’re photographing a race, you can expect the athletes to head toward the finish line. When you’re shooting ball sports, you can expect athletes to do a lot of running and tossing, but some of the best moments will probably happen by the goal. Even when you’re photographing strangers on the street, it helps to have some sort of idea about the direction they're heading.

Action shot of a goalie blocking a ball by Alvaro Mendoza

Photo by Alvaro Mendoza

Before the action begins, find the best position from which to take your photos and set up accordingly so that you never miss a fleeting moment.

05. Shoot in Burst Mode

No matter how prepared you are for action to happen, you’re inevitably bound to miss a few shots. Thankfully, you can increase your chances of capturing fleeting moments by using burst mode. This function essentially allows you to keep taking photos as long as your finger is pressing the shutter button.

Person doing a backflip from a boat into the ocean motion photography by Oliver Sjöström

Photo by Oliver Sjöström

Many cameras allow you to take a sequence of photos straight away. For other devices, however, you’ll still need to activate it in the menu or by clicking a knob. Feel free to consult your manual if you’re unsure how to access this setting.

Skateboarder doing airtime by Chris Brignola

Photo by Chris Brignola

The frame rate varies from one type of camera to another. Most consumer models can shoot about five frames per second, while some high-end options can take photos as fast as 24 frames per second. The faster the rate, the more pictures you can capture.

Surfer action shot by Feliper Silva

Photo by Felipe Silva

One drawback of using Burst Mode is the 'buffer rate.' After your camera has taken a certain amount of photos, it stops for a few seconds to process the accumulated data. When this happens, you won’t be able to shoot, thereby potentially missing photo-worthy moments.

Biker aerial shot by Pamela Saunders

Photo by Pamela Saunders

To avoid this, figure out how many shots you can take before your camera buffers. Be intentional with your picture-taking. Make sure you get that shot before your shutter is briefly disabled.

06. Mind your composition

Action shot of a young skateboarder by Emily Reider

Photo by Emily Reider

Composition is just as crucial in conveying movement. You can use many composition techniques when capturing subjects in motion, but the best and the most straightforward method is the rule of thirds.

Motion photograph of a man diving into a lake by Julian Paul

Photo by Julian Paul

Framing your subject in the center of the photo can diffuse action and make the shot feel less dynamic. When you frame your shot, visualize dividing the scene into a tic-tac-toe grid, then place your subject at any of the intersections. The negative space (where the subject is facing) will allow the viewer to fully visualize and imagine where the subject is going.  

07. Don’t just stick to one angle

Fisheye action shot of a skater doing a trick by Chad Verzosa

Photo by Chad Verzosa

While it’s a safe bet to take eye-level shots, you should also move around and try capturing the action from different angles. Maximize different perspectives to really capture the excitement of the moment.

Closeup shot of a baseball player sliding into base by Brandon Mowinkel

Photo by Brandon Mowinkel

For fast-action sports, high or low-angle shots can make stunts appear more visceral and intense.

Skiier sliding down a slope action shot by Nicolai Berntsen

Photo by Nicolai Berntsen

Another angle that you can apply is 'Dutch tilt' (tilting your camera diagonally). When photographing activities with quick, sharp movements (such as urban dancing), this creates visual tension and exaggerates the energy of the image.

Creative portrait of a subject in motion by David Beatz

Photo by David Beatz

Capturing subjects in motion is an essential photography skill to learn, and the best way to perfect it is through constant practice. Once you stop relying on automatic settings, you’ll realize that your camera offers a whole plethora of possibilities for shooting that you may never have discovered otherwise.

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