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Learn Digital Photography with Sandro Dzneladze

Sports Photography Panning — To Blur or Not To Blur

Written on Oct 06, 2011 by Sandro Dzneladze
Sports Photography Panning — To Blur or Not To Blur

So you’re photographing a kids little league baseball game and you want to capture the essence of the game, but all of your shots thus far look like awkward freeze frame images of kids looking like they are about to fall to the ground or everything is so blurred that it is difficult to see who is doing what. The same thing happens at an automobile race, where you get simple static looking pictures that do not convey the speed at which the cars are actually travelling. The shots you get for some reason don’t send the message or have any dynamics you desire to evoke emotions from the viewers. It is hard to determine what is wrong and how to fix it. We tend to focus so much on taking sharp clear images of static unmoving subjects that when faced with a moving subject we are out of our element. The answer might lay in panning your camera and in answering the question, “To Blur or Not To Blur?”

When photographing sporting events or activities, the photographer is faced with the challenge of getting the right composition to capture the events that unfold as the contest progresses. The hard part is that the subjects are not static; they are in motion. This means that the photographer is going to have to move the camera with the subject to get the shot. Moving the camera in this fashion is called “panning”. When you pan your camera, you can achieve sharp, crisp, clear images or you can get blurred backgrounds and motion with the focal point of the image in focus. The settings on the camera and the technique you use will determine how the final image looks and feels.

In some cases, blurred backgrounds add to the fast-paced feel of the moment and at other times, freeze frame or stop motion can convey intensity and concentration. The difficulty is in finding the right balance between sharp focus, good composition, blurred motion, and proper exposure. There are not hard and fast rules when it comes to panning and blurring your images. You will have to practice and find out for yourself. However, there are some things that will help you create the image you have in your mind’s eye; here are some tips that may help you in the future.

Creating Static Blur and Motion Clarity

The goal in this type of shot is to have the static background (normally sharp and clear) seen as blurred while the moving subject (normally blurred) sharp and clear. You can achieve this by lowering your shutter speed and panning with the moving subject. The particular settings will vary based upon light, the speed of the subject, and your proximity to it all. A good place to start is to set your shutter speed to 1/30th and pan with your subject as it moves by. Press your shutter release when you want to capture the image but keep the camera moving during and after you release the shutter. This will help keep the moving subject in focus and the background blurred. The blurring comes from you moving the camera. Think of this process as controlled and intentional camera shake.

If you have a camera that has an auto focus tracking feature, then you will be able to keep the moving subject in decent focus. If not, then you will have to find the area in which you want to release the shutter, focus on it, and switch the auto focus feature to manual. Then when the subject begins heading towards your shot point, you pan the camera with the subject and release the shutter when the subject enters your pre-focused area.

Depending upon the shutter speeds you use, you may find it easier to use a tripod or monopod that will allow you to pan your camera smoothly. The smoother you pan, the better the overall image will be. Be aware that, in this type of shot, the subject will rarely be in ‘perfect’ focus. The subject will usually have a bit of soft edges because of the nature of the shot. However, you can still achieve a well-focused shot if you practice.

If you are close enough for a flash to effect the subject, the additional light can really help exaggerate the overall look of the static motion blur and make your subject really ‘pop’ and separate from the background. Take some time to practice this technique until you can achieve the exact effect you desire. Changing the speed of your pan can cause different effects as well. A race car speeding by with the rear of the car blurred while the front is in focus is a great example of this kind technique being used properly and effectively.

Panning With No Blur

If you want to capture your subject in total clarity and freeze them in motion, you will have to use fast shutter speeds and have plenty of light. The shutter speed will depend upon a few variables and the best thing you can do is take some test shots and make adjustments in the field. This technique is very straightforward and sounds simple, but it will still take a lot of practice to get it right. It works great for objects and not always so great on people. People in motion and in sharp focus tend to look awkward unless you get just the right timing to release the shutter. You can still create dramatic images, but you will need to work hard on getting the right timing and angles to make the picture turn out properly.

In the end, the question of “To Blur or Not To Blur” is up to you. Find what you like, practice the techniques, and use them when necessary to capture an image that will communicate and convey the message you desire.

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