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Panning: Painting with Light

by Ben Fuchs | December 5, 2012

© Ben FuchsPhotography in Greek means painting with light. Panning is one way photographers can practice painting with light while produce results that resemble real paintings.

The optimal exposure time for panning is (depending on the subject) about 0.8s. If it is too short, the amount of panning is often too little and the image just looks unsharp. With too long of an exposure time, however, it possible to loose the shapes and contours of the subject and have an image that looks too mushy. Experimenting with different shutter speeds will enable the photographer to find the shutter speed that is just right for a given subject.

The best motifs for panning are those which have distinctive shapes, such as trees in the forest. Forests are a probably one of the most common themes selected by photographers when using the panning technique to artistically represent a stationary subject.

The best lens for forest pannings is a 70-200mm lens. Compose as you wish, then adjust the aperture to give you the shutter speed desired. When pressing the shutter move the camera during the exposure, and the end result will be a panned image!

Of course there a unlimited ways to create a panning, and no two panned images are alike. Below I’ll explain some of my favorite panning movements to you and show some examples.

Vertical panning © Ben Fuchs

1. Strictly vertical movement

This can be achieved the best way with a three way pan-tilt head, but a ballhead or other sturdy support that allows controlled horizontal and vertical movement can work as well. During exposure, the camera is panned slowly and smoothly up or down. In the image above, I panned downwards, so the lower parts of the tree trunks are brighter.

Below is another image made in the same way as the one above, just composed on a different part of the wood.

Abstract forest © Ben Fuchs

2. Vertically with a little lateral movement

Another way to make forest pannings is first to pan vertically up or down and then pan just before the exposure ends laterally to the side. The panning movement is roughly L-shaped. This will give the trees a bright rim. The image below illustrates this properly:

Interesting tree trunks © Ben Fuchs

Below you can see another forest panning, which was also made by an L-shaped panning movement. The image noise was caused intentionally by a high ISO setting. The thin horizontal stripes are thick snowflakes flying by.

L-shaped panning movement © Ben Fuchs

Below is yet another panning also made by an L-shaped panning movement. In this case, the trunks do not appear to have a bright edge, because the lateral movement was too long. The lateral movement has brought a painterly veil over the image.

Painting with light © Ben Fuchs

3. Chaotic movement

The most obvious movement at first glance is the chaotic movement. Random vertical, horizontal, and diagonal panning during the exposure are the characteristics of this type of panning. I find it most difficult to achieve respectable results with this movement. Not every subject is well suited for chaotic movement exposures. A possible suitable motif would be a dark forest with bright (possibly autumn colored) leaves. Below there is an image in which this was precisely the subject.

Chaotic motion panning © Ben Fuchs

And yet another panning made by a chaotic motion:

More chaotic panning motion © Ben Fuchs

4. Back and forth movement

For this style, approximately 30% of the exposure time is stationary. The next step is to laterally pan to the side in either direction, and then immediately move back to the starting position till the exposure ends. It is not possible to return exactly to the starting position. Because of that, double exposure effects occur. In the following image, these can be seen in the branches and the trunks:

Back and forth movement © Ben Fuchs

Another example of this panning technique is found below. The results are unlike a classic forest panning. On the left side there are three logs. On the right side, there are branches and leaves. The bright background color comes from a cloudy sky, which was behind the trees.

Classic forest panning © Ben Fuchs

5. Rotating movement

To make a rotation panning, the camera has to be rotated during the exposure along the lens axis. This can be done with a tripod mount or freehand. It is important to note that the least amount of blurring occurs at the center of the image and this is where the main subject should be placed. Below are two examples. The first one shows autumn leaves lying on the floor. On the second one the leaves were still on the bush.

Rotating panning movement with autumn leaves © Ben Fuchs

Colorful rotating panning motion of leaves © Ben Fuchs

When creating artistically panned images, I choose most often from these five panning techniques, although there are of course other methods one could employ. Regardless of the technique you use, it is impossible to predict in advance what the final outcome will be and each exposure will look different. Often many attempts are necessary to achieve the desired result.

About the Author

Benjamin Fuchs (30) is a former mechanic and currently finished his engineering degree. He discovered his love for nature photography in 2007, and has since focused on photographing local landscapes and the details of his immediate surroundings, but he has also traveled to Norway, Italy, and the Alps in pursuit of images. Benjamin's goal is not simply to take striking nature photos, but for his pictures to capture his own creative vision. To see more of Benjamin's images, visit his Facebook site and also his blog for occasional articles.

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