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A guide to panning in Tokyo and how to take it up a level

Panning in the Streets of Tokyo - EYExplore

What is panning and what should I pan?

Panning is matching the speed of something that’s moving and capturing it with a slower shutter speed, thus creating the illusion of movement in your shot. It is sometimes referred to as dragging the shutter. As for what you can pan, as long as it moves generally left to right or vice versa it can be panned. Taxis are a common target for my panning and what I’ll use them as examples here for the most part.

The settings

One of the most important things when it comes to panning is having the correct settings for the situation. Too fast a shutter speed and the effect will be to subtle but if it’s too slow you’ve turned the difficulty level up to 100. For example if you’re panning taxis and you want a decent chance of nailing most shots, you would go for 1/30th and then construct your other settings around that. A shutter speed of 1/30th should provide relatively consistent results, but keep in mind that panning is definitely a technique that improves with practice.

Panning in Tokyo - EYExplore - Taxi Driver 1/20sec
Taxi Driver – 1/20sec

As for aperture and ISO it will depend on the lighting conditions. You may find higher apertures useful to give you an increased depth of field. As for ISO, auto can be used or it can be set relative to the aperture and shutter speed. I generally use auto focus with little issue, but if the camera is struggling to catch focus it can be set manually. As you improve your consistency one can extend the shutter time to say a 1/20th. Now, as you can imagine this makes it tougher, but can make for a more spectacular result. Another factor that will have a bearing on the shot also is the speed of the vehicle. For example, if you are panning race cars at a track the right shutter speed may be faster.

The camera setup I use doesn’t have the luxury of image stabilization, but if your camera has it, it’s worth testing if it is or isn’t your friend in this activity. Try with and without and compare your results and you will soon know.

Panning in Tokyo - EYExplore - Scooter Rider
Scooter Rider

Speed matching and single shot vs continuous shutter

Matching the speed of the passing vehicle is vital for the shot to work. Personally I find it easier to shoot through the viewfinder, but this will really depend on what you are used to. There is really no wrong or right answer here as long as you can get the shot. The other thing I do is rotate the top half of my body with the camera up to my eye, but once again if you can get the shot by just rotating just your arms and hands then that’s fine. Another thing I also find useful is to focus in on an individual part of the car and then keep it in the same part of the frame at all times. For example, the front side door handle or wing mirror make good targets.

In general I use two approaches, one civilized and the other less so. The civilized approach is capturing one frame at a time in single shot mode and thinking about when to hit the shutter. Basically catch focus, track the subject physically with the camera to match its speed, push the shutter button and follow the object for a little longer after pressing the shutter button (to ensure a smooth blur). The other is what can be best described as the spray and pray method. This involves going into machine gun mode or continuous shutter mode. With this method once you catch focus you fire off shots until the object is no longer in your desired framing.

Both modes have their advantages and disadvantages. Single shot is useful if you have a small window to work with like capturing a taxi over a zebra crossing for example. Machine gun mode on the other hand is useful if the object is a little further away and you don’t mind tearing through shots like there is no tomorrow.

Machine gun mode is also useful as a diagnostic tool if you are struggling to nail the shot. As you look over the individual frames the subject should be in the same spot in each frame, which indicates you are matching the speed of the subject. If the subject is moving forward or back in the frames, it indicates you are panning too fast or too slow (getting ahead of or falling behind the subject). Either way the subject will not be as sharp.

Panning in Tokyo - EYExplore - Panning Sequence 1/30sec
Panning Sequence – 1/30sec

Framing

Framing is nearly as important as what you choose to pan. For instance, if you’re panning taxis at night there’s not much point if you don’t have some nice lights in the background. So, look for backgrounds that compliment your subject, or at least do not detract from.

Next focal length plays a role. The longer the focal length the harder it will be to maintain a steady shot. On the other hand, if you’re using a wide angle lens up close then it will be difficult to get the whole car sharp as the vehicle’s distance to you is not as consistent. While getting the hang of it, it may be worth panning objects like cars at a medium distance using a focal length of around 35mm to 70mm. This should result in a typical car taking up a good portion of the frame but leaving plenty of room to spare.

Finally, shooting from a lower position is also generally better as it means the background will consist more of the city lights and less of the road.

Panning in Tokyo - EYExplore - Taxi Shinjuku 1/10sec
Taxi in Shinjuku – 1/10sec

Taking panning to the next level

Generally speaking if you are panning objects at a medium distance it will start to get harder to get consistent results as the speed gets below a 1/15 sec, of course depending on your skill and your camera’s image stabilization. But there is a hack to get results below a 1/15 sec or even slower and it requires traffic passing in front of the vehicle you are panning.

If you can pan a vehicle with traffic passing in front of it and using the continuous shutter, you can use the other vehicles as a screen so you aren’t actually panning the subject vehicle for the full exposure time. As the vehicle you are panning emerges from or disappears behind the other traffic its time being expose in the frame is limited, meaning you are only actually panning it for a shorter duration. It effectively makes the shutter speed for the subject faster, while keeping a slow shutter speed for the background.

Also, it’s important to keep in mind that with some cameras, this technique works better with manual focus (pre-focusing on a certain distance) because the AF may get confused when a car passes between the camera and the subject.

As a consequence this also creates interesting lights, colors, and patterns in front of the vehicle while also allowing relatively sharp results at slower shutter speeds. The important thing here for this to work is to track the vehicle as it passes behind the other traffic and shoot as if you know where it’s going to be. You will likely end up with a lot of missed shots, but when you nail one the results are spectacular in my opinion.

Panning in Tokyo - EYExplore - Taxi Shinjuku 1/10sec
Another taxi in Shinjuku – 1/10sec
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