Panning—Motion 101

Panning is a photographic mind game. But a very cool mind game.

Technically, you should not be able to show motion in a still photograph. After all, the image on the paper is not moving; it’s not going anywhere. But your mind takes the blurred image and tries to make sense out of it. “Aha!” it says. “That’s not a blurry picture; that’s a horse and wagon moving very fast. I get it.”

Part of our delight in “reading” pictures is the I get it part.

Panning is nothing new. It’s been around almost as long as photography itself. Originally it was forced on photographers who had no hope of capturing fast moving action without moving the camera in synch with their subjects. They simply lacked film that was fast enough to give them a fast shutter speed.

Racehorses and early motorcar races were enticing subjects at the turn of the century. Photographers discovered, to their delight, that they could get reasonably sharp images and that they really liked the streaked backgrounds resulting from swinging the camera along with their subject.

The joy of that discovery never seems to fade. Discovering this little trick was one of the most thrilling stages of my early photography. I must have been 13 or 14 years old, playing with my dad’s old folding Ansco (he’d moved further up the photographic equipment ladder by then). The camera had one shutter speed: 1/50th of a second—hardly enough to stop a lazy butterfly. I had a beagle named Dixie who was like a streak of lightning when it came to chasing rabbits. No way to stop that motion with a 1/50th-of-a-second shutter speed.

Panning was the answer. I must have picked up the technique from one of the photography magazines of the day. I remember thinking: You move the camera during the picture? How’s that going to work?

Slowly, the concept dawned on me. If I panned along with my racing Dixie—that is, if I moved the camera in perfect synchronized motion with her as she flew by—she would actually remain in almost exactly the same place in the picture! The rest of the image would be blurred, but since she was glued to one spot on the film she would be fairly sharp.

It worked! Dixie was sharp—well, my kind of sharp at that time—and the background was wonderfully blurred. When I raced out of the darkroom to show the picture to my parents, they offered a tone of incredulous awe. That tone of their voices was music to my ears. Later that summer, the same picture elicited similar accolades from the judge at the county fair. She gave me a blue ribbon (before moving on to judge the canned tomatoes).

I was hooked.

Almost every student photographer I’ve ever taught has the same aha! moment when they finally get the idea. But while the concept is simple, the execution has many ways of going wrong.

So here are a few tips to up your percentage of keepers. Panning is a percentage game. One in ten good shots is major league success. One in 100 is not out of the ordinary. But that one will be worth your trouble.

  • Understand the basic concept. Panning works when you move the camera in perfect motion with the subject. It’s not enough to just swing the camera from side to side. You have to move it in perfect synch with your subject.
  • Choose the right subject. Generally (and up to a point) it is easier to pan with a fast-moving subject than a slow one. Sprinters running sideways to you are great examples. They are moving fast enough that you can pan smoothly with their motion, and they are running in a straight line. People walking are almost impossible; they are too slow to get much blur and it’s difficult to pan smoothly. Football players are tough because they move erratically.
  • Use Manual Exposure or maybe Shutter Priority metering. Whichever you choose, the object is the same. You don’t want the shutter speed to change while you are shooting.
  • Pick a good shutter speed. This is important; however, there is no “correct” shutter speed for panning. The longer the shutter speed, the more blurred the background will be. A long shutter speed will make your subject pop out from the background, and that is good. But the longer the shutter speed, the more difficult it is to get the subject reasonably sharp. It’s a balancing act. As a starting point, let’s go back to the example of the sprinters running across the picture. Try anything between 1/8 and 1/60 of a second. Beyond 1/8 of a second it’s really tough to get sharp, but it can be very interesting. Above 1/60 of a second, the camera will probably stop too much action and ruin the effect. Except for low-flying jets at air shows. Then you might need 1/500 second, and that brings us to our next problem.
  • Find the right background. The right background is almost as important as the right subject. The background must have some detail in order to produce the pleasing streaks you are looking for. That is why the jet is a bad subject for panning when it is up against a plain blue sky. Pan all you want but the sky will still be a featureless blue. Nothing will look as if it “moved.” On the other hand, backgrounds with too much contrast will often make bad backgrounds for panning. Just one person in a white T-shirt can create an unsightly white blob in your photograph. Choose carefully.
  • Use the viewfinder correctly. Your viewfinder is your friend when it comes to panning. The best trick is to find a focusing mark in your viewfinder and put it on your moving subject. Now, try to keep that point perfectly aligned with your subject. Crosshairs would be perfect, but we don’t have them in camera viewfinders, so we have to make do with what we’ve got.
  • Practice panning smoothly. Fluid, smooth motion is the name of the game. No jerking, no rushing, no hesitation. Stand with your body facing where you ideally want to shoot the picture, then rotate your shoulders to pick up your subject in the viewfinder. Start shooting before your subjects reach the ideal point; keep shooting after they pass that point. Follow through just like a good golfer. And practice. Good panning shooters literally go out and just practice their movements.
  • Go for the Goldilocks Effect. The combination of subject motion, panning, and shutter speed is not a precise science. Don’t be afraid to adjust to conditions.
  • Try. Evaluate. Retry. Experiment! There is no right way, just infinite variables that can produce interesting results. For instance, if instead of “panning” you could rotate your camera at the same speed as the turning of the carnival Ferris wheel, you might get something cool. Now try to imagine other moving objects you can synch with. By the way, looking back, I see that I shot the horse and carriage in Spain at 1/6 sec at f/9. (And yes, I shot a lot of bad shots to get this one.)

Simple Tips for a Successful Photography Contest

  • Identify your objectives.

To start with, identify the reason why you want to come up with a photo contest. No matter what your purpose may be, put it in writing and include metrics that will monitor your progress.

For example, if you want to boost traffic, consider the number of visitors and page views as your main metrics. However, if you plan to develop an engaged community, your key metrics are the amount of registrations, uploaded photos and actions such as likes and comments.

  • Give what people want.

People join contents to win prizes. Therefore, to encourage them to participate, reward the winning photographer accordingly. Prices do not have to cost a lot. They can come in the form of gift cards, discounts or as simple as an acknowledgement. As an example, you can feature the winner’s picture on your homepage even as you benefit from their content.

  • Make it smart.

Define your contest with this practical acronym, which stands for the following:

Specific: Describe the contest rules in details, including its duration and the way to notify the winner. Choose a catchy contest theme and make sure that photos are related to the theme. This should be easy to understand so that there won’t be any random photos.

Measurable: Identify the way a winner is selected (number of votes, views or panel selection) and make sure that the rules are understood from the start. According to experience, the best way to boost traffic and engagement is through votes among social networks.

Attainable: Since anyone can take photos, more people can participate. So, make sure that your user base has a lot of people who can participate. Moreover, avoid too many restrictions with regards to submission terms.

Relevant: The prize should be something valuable and worthy of the contestant’s effort. Make sure that the prize is directly related to your products or services.

Time: The contest should take place within a specified timeframe. People get easily bored or lose interest when contests take too long. The most ideal duration to encourage more contestants is two weeks.

  • Awake the Creativity of Your Viewers

People can be very creative with their camera, a Photoshop edit or an app grain. Photography contests let participants go beyond their limits when there are less restrictions imposed on them. For instance, when your contest is sponsored and participants are supposed to take photos of a product, do not add to the limitations. In case you are planning to launch your products, you can let contestants design the poster to advertise them. You will be amazed with the ingenuity of some contestants.

  • Make it Viral

The world of social media makes it simple to share photos. Your contest can benefit from the use of social media tools. When you let people vote, for example, they can share their submission with contacts and increase the quantity of referrals and activities about your contest.

One more way to benefit from social networks is to let potential contestants contribute from them, such as uploading a photo from Tumblr or Facebook. This makes the submission procedure easier, as well as allows participants to note down the submission on every feed.

 

Wishing for More, Working to Get It

Contributing editor Jim Richardson is a photojournalist recognized for his explorations of small-town life. His photos appear frequently in National Geographic magazine.

Recently an old picture brought new rewards. For several reasons.

While putting together a new show for our gallery, I riffled through the files looking for examples of my aerial photography over the years. The show’s simple (but catchy) title: Bird’s Eye. Because we own our gallery, I was free to pick whatever images I liked to put on the wall. (That’s one of the delicious freedoms of being a gallery owner. Going broke in a creative way is another one.)

Almost immediately I thought of this image of wheat fields in the Palouse region of Washington State. It had never seen the light of day. Yet I remembered well the day I took it—a fresh summer one, puffy clouds casting fast-moving shadows across harvested fields.

And those amazing field patterns. Wheat farming in the Palouse is a dry-land affair, mostly un-irrigated and done in dusty fields that get little rainfall. So its farmers decided long ago to grow a crop every other year, allowing meager moisture to accumulate over two years to grow one good crop. Hence, the fields are planted in the strips that undulate over rolling hills in such geometric splendor.

It was perfect for my visual story for National Geographic magazine. Many of my stories—this one on sustainable agriculture—have been improved by views from the air. High above, the world is chock full of visual answers to questions of geography and form that are difficult to perceive from the ground.

So 20 years after I shot the image, I got out the slide (remember those?) from the thousands of sheets of slides in the file cabinets (remember those too?) and stuck it in the scanner on my desk. Scanning is time consuming, which is why the vast majority of my pictures will never be scanned into digital form and thus will never see the light of day, either. Just the facts of life in our digital age.

While working up that image, I recalled more details of the day spent above the Palouse in a Cessna 172.

A photographer’s paradise. And a gullible photographer’s doom, as well.

It’s all too easy to get lulled into complacency by the easy visual pickings. Up there, flying with a master pilot and the hawks and eagles, it’s easy to believe that a camera pointed in any random direction will produce a masterwork. It won’t. Back on the ground and looking at the images, failure will loom just as large. What looked fascinating and monumental in person will all too often look like random, small-scale chatter in the pictures.

Time for a reality check. Pictures still need composition and centers of interest, even when taken from an airplane. I knew that very well on the morning I took this photograph because I have failed at it so many times in the four decades of my shooting career. Which is why I knew I had to do two vital things: organize the patterns in the frame and find something to be the focal point of the image. When I found the farmhouse and barn gleaming white at the end of a field I was pretty sure I had it. After that, it was an issue of figuring out the angle and how the field patterns could be made to line up. So I asked the pilot to circle a few times while I pondered the various possibilities. On one of the passes I saw how the one strip came looming out and ended among the freshly cropped wheat, replete with the patterns of the combine tracks. That was my angle.

Getting the plane in position to shoot it was another matter. Giving directions to a pilot (who, no matter how able, can’t see though your viewfinder or into your head) is not always easy. And you want to be low and close to avoid lots of atmospheric haze. It took us over a dozen passes to get it right that morning, flying in toward the fields, almost getting it, then going around again to have another pass while making small corrections in flight path and position.

But I wanted more and was willing to work to get it.

I also wanted the clouds—the whole glorious atmosphere of that day—in the picture. That meant two things: shooting a very wide-angle lens vertically, which would make positioning the aircraft even more critical, and hoping for the clouds to cast shadows in the best places. Many times we would come around into position just as a shadow went over the farmhouse! Fortunately, my pilot had the patience of Job. I don’t know if he had ever flown another photographer with my manic obsession before, but he joined in the incredible jubilation when we finally got it. While I was whooping for joy, a small grin of satisfaction crept over his face.

Then the picture slid into oblivion. Good as it was, it didn’t make it into the story in National Geographic magazine, and before the era of the web, it just went where most photos went: into a cozy slide sheet among many thousands of slide sheets in the drawers.

For 20 years. Until last week, when I started putting together the show for our gallery with the hope that there might be something worthwhile to pull out from the archives.

On screen the image looked good. Printed to 30″ x 45″, it looked very good, and it became the signature piece in the exhibit. Watching gallery visitors view the show, I can see that they always stop and enjoy that image. By extension they take away something of the wonder of that day in the Palouse. They’ll never feel everything that I felt up there in the air, never know the howling rush of wind as I opened the aircraft window for another run of shooting, never feel the sun coming through the windshield or wonder at the racing shadows. But something of all that comes through. And it is one of the blessings of photography that it can.

Video Feature: Get the Broader View From a Smartphone Camera

Summer has waned. The children are back in school. Some of you may be looking back at the vistas in your summer holiday photos and already plotting the next getaway.

If so, there is one kind of app to take along on your next vacation, especially if you found on a summer trip that the viewfinder on your smartphone was not doing justice to the beach scene, country landscape or sweeping cityscape in front of you. Known as panorama apps, these programs help stitch together multiple or moving snapshots of a view to create a wide-angle image that will do a better job of conveying a sense of scale and place than a single photo.

Using DMD Panorama is a fabulous way to learn about panoramic photo-taking because its interface makes the task simple. You simply tap the “capture” button, choose whether you want the app to auto-expose the image and whether the flash should be on, then hold the camera up to the scene.
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The phone snaps the first part of an image, then you turn it to one side to capture the next piece, and repeat. The app has a small logo on the screen that helps indicate when you have turned far enough for the next part. DMD then stitches the images together with some complicated math so that you almost cannot spot the seams in the final picture.

The app also makes it easy to save a panorama to your phone or share directly to social media like Twitter. The resulting photos can be enormous — as much as 40 megapixels. If you don’t want your phone’s precious memory eaten up by such large images, the app offers free cloud-based storage, as well as a social sharing option. The app even has an option that turns panoramas into short videos that show the whole scene, perfect for sharing on Instagram.

The app costs $2 on iOS and $5 on Android. To capture full high-definition images, it costs an extra $2.

On Android, there is an app with many of the same features, called Panorama 360. It’s free, so it’s worth trying if you don’t like DMD.

For a quirky alternative, check out PanoSelfie. This free panorama app uses the front-facing camera of an iPhone to take wide-angle panoramic selfies. This means you can appear in your own snapshot of some stunning scenery or take panoramic portraits of a group of people you are with.

As with DMD, you hold the phone up and spin it from side to side, following onscreen prompts that remind you to move smoothly and tell you when you have rotated far enough. It helps that you can see yourself in the scene as the image builds up. The app’s algorithm does a good job of stitching the images together, and it does this without distorting faces too much. The interface is easy to use, letting you control basic image qualities like brightness, noise reduction and how wide an angle you shoot.

PanoSelfie has drawbacks. It is iOS only and is ad-supported, so pop-up ads may suddenly appear. You can disable those by spending $1 in the app.

Then there is my favorite: 360 Panorama by Occipital. Its interface guides you through making panoramas, and the app includes extras like cloud storage, social sharing and an in-app panorama viewer. It also has one big bonus: the ability to create spherical panoramas. This means you capture the entire scene around you — up and down, left and right — and you can view the results either as a long, strip-like photo or as a circular projection that is absolutely stunning.

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This app makes great images, but it may take some practice to perfect your skills. It costs $3 on iOS and for Q10 and Z10 BlackBerrys.

Most panorama apps require you to stand still, spin accurately on the spot and try not to jiggle the phone. Things are simpler with an app like Circular Plus, which costs $2 on iOS.

This app takes a single standard snapshot and distorts it into a circular, panoramic-like photo that looks like the output from 360 Panorama. This effect cheats a bit because you are not really snapping panoramic views, but it can be striking. Circular Plus has a clear and minimalist interface that lets you control many image parameters for perfect results, as well as lots of special effect filters.

On Android, the $3 app Tiny Planet FX Pro is akin to Circular Plus and has a good interface. A $2 iOS app called Living Planet does the same thing. Though it has slightly fewer image-tweaking options, it can also turn videos into simulated spherical panoramas for eye-catching results.