Panning for Golden Pictures
Look at the picture above: the motorcycles are obviously moving at great speed. The background is an even blur of colour, with all distracting details lost in a featureless smear. The bikes in the foreground, though, are pin sharp and every detail of their sponsored logo's can be read. The overall impression is that of a really fast-moving, dramatic action sport, which is exactly what we were aiming for.
How panning works
To achieve a nicely panned shot, the shutter should be released while the camera is swung along the same plane as the moving subjects. The aim is to keep the part of the image which you wish to see sharp, in the exact same position in the frame.
The shutter speed should generally be set at a reasonably low speed, which will allow the background to blur during the exposure, but the exact speed is dictated by the speed at which the subjects are moving. A slower moving subject will need a slower shutter speed to achieve a nicely blurred background.
This, strangely, means that it is harder to keep a slow moving subject sharp, because you would have to keep it in the exact same position of the frame for a longer period.
The perfect pan
To achieve a smoothly panned shot, it is best to start following the subject before the shutter release button is pressed, and to follow through until after the shutter has opened again. This will create a nice even pan and will help you to avoid jerkiness.
Another good trick is to pre-focus the lens on the spot where you would like the moving object to be when you take the picture. First, set the camera in manual focus mode, then take a good look at the scene, taking into account the spot where you expect the action to occur. Focus the lens on this spot and wait. When the moving object comes into view, start following it along in the viewfinder, but do not adjust the focus. When the object reaches the spot, snap and follow through.
Voila, a perfectly panned picture!
One legged aid
The best gismo ever designed for panning is, of course, a monopod. A monopod is like a tripod, but, you've guessed it, with only one leg. It gives the photographer the stability needed to achieve a smooth swinging motion while not hampering freedom of movement.
Monopods are of course not only designed for panning, but they might as well have been, because they make a darn good job of it.
If you don't have a monopod and don't feel like splashing out the cash, you can always use a tripod, but extend only one of the legs. This is not an ideal solution, because tripods are generally a bit cluttered around the top, and a swinging swivel or tilt handle may just take someone's eye out if you're not careful. But it is a pretty close second, and at the very least should be able to show you whether or not it is worth investing in a monopod.
And for those poor snappers who don't have a tripod? Well, an old Indian trick that I learned in the army, is to tie a piece of string around the lens. Drop the string down onto the ground and step on it. Now pull it taut. This will force the camera to move on an even plane. Try it, it really works!
Never give up
This technique, like anything worth knowing, takes a lot of practice, so be prepared to come home frustrated the first handful of times.
Once you've mastered it though, it will transform your sport pictures and you will be the envy of lesser photographers.
And as you become a master, you will start to use it on all sorts of subjects where you never imagined you would. You may even start using it when shooting wildlife in the park.