When shooting action shots many photographers will freeze motion by using a fast shutter speed. However, a more creative shot will include movement and panning is a technique that is used to put some movement in to a photograph, however the subject will remain sharp but there will be a blurry background. It is a method typically used in sports photography, where it lends itself particularly well to motorsports and in nature photography where it is used to capture moving animals and birds in flight.
When panning a slower shutter speed is used than when taking a freezing motion type of shot therefore it is an ideal technique to use in low light conditions when it is not possible to achieve the fast shutter speeds that are often required to fully freeze the shot, so this is an important technique to learn and master.
When taking the freezing motion type of images the photographer will focus on a point where the subject is going to move to and then press the shutter button at that point. For example, if taking a photograph of a motorcycle on a race track the photographer will focus on a corner where it knows the motorcycle will pass and then take the image as the motorcycle approaches. This method is not used when panning.
The panning method involves locking on to the subject and tracking it with the camera, firing off some shots as you go. When panning, it is important to move from left to right, or vice versa, in a smooth, fluid motion and move at the same speed as the subject. Once you have finished firing off the shots you need to continue to track the subject as coming to an instant stop is likely to have an adverse effect on the photographs.
The auto focus feature on most modern day cameras and lenses is superb, therefore you should leave the autofocus feature on. The most sensitive focus point on the camera is the centre point, however when panning moving subjects it is best to engage all the focus points to ensure that once you are locked on to the subject it remains locked. Selecting Al Servo mode, a feature that is found on all modern day DSLR cameras, will assist in this.
In order to increase the chances of getting the best image the camera should be put in to continuous, as opposed to one shot mode. Using continuous mode allows you to fire off a few frames in quick succession. Time is a large factor when taking photographs of moving subjects and a millisecond can be the difference between a good shot and a great shot therefore it is always worth shooting in continuous mode.
So when using the panning technique keep the auto focus feature on, select all focus points, use Al Servo mode and fire off multiple shots using continuous mode. Selecting these settings will vary from camera to camera therefore you need to read the manual and make sure you know how to do it before you go out in to the field to take photographs. There is nothing worse than not knowing how to get a specific setting when you are trying to get some photos and missing the shot altogether.