When soaring downhill on a mountain bike, your eyes harden, focusing on the trail ahead and the obstacles you’ll have to pop over, maneuver around or pedal through. Trees, bushes and flowers stream by in colorful lines akin to star trails seen at hyper-speed.
Capturing that motion and energy with your camera is challenging but possible with a technique called panning. It allows you to capture an object as it whizzes past, creating a blurred background while the subject stays in focus.
Panning is easy, but it often takes a few tries to achieve the desired results. The basic idea calls for the shooter to stand still and, as the subject enters the frame, track along with them at the same speed and snap away.
Most modern cameras allow you to adjust the shutter speed and aperture manually. To pan, select a slightly slower shutter speed than necessary for the available light. To help with focusing, find a location where your subject will be traveling a path next to you. For instance, in the picture here, I set up next to the trail and, while looking through the viewfinder, practiced sweeping the mountain biker’s route from side to side to make sure my view wouldn’t be obstructed. As the racer approached, I tracked him down the path, pressing the shutter release button halfway to focus. After I got the shot, I continued to pan with him even after hearing the shutter click, just to ensure the effect worked from start to finish.
Chances are the first shot will fail. If there’s not enough blur in the background, try a slower shutter speed. Make sure to adjust the aperture to compensate. If you have a hard time focusing, try pre-focusing on the spot where you want to release the shutter.
Panning experiments can be frustrating, but when the technique works it can add welcome variety to your photo cache. I recommend practicing at an event like a bike race, where dozens of riders fly past at regular intervals. You’ll have plenty of chances to try different exposures and modes to get the shot you want.