Action Photography Settings And Shooting Techniques For Dynamic Motion Blur

The Secret to Shooting Action Using Slow Shutter Speed

In sports and action photography, sometimes freezing the action isn't the best way to capture it. Here's how slowing down your shutter speed may be the best way to show the the action.

When we think of sports photography, the first thing priority seems to be: Stop the action. Fast shutter speeds are action photography settings freeze subjects in mid-motion, but they're not always the best way to capture the feel of the action. You can add a dynamic element to your fast-moving subject matter by using slow shutter speeds and moving the camera with the subject. It's called panning. It's tricky but with practice can be a great way to capture the flavor of the action. Here's how it works.

What is panning?

Panning is a technique used to accentuate movement in photography and videography. The results can make a jogger look like a sprinter! To execute this technique, move your camera as fluidly and steadily as possible, parallel with the movement of your subject. In layman's terms: Follow your subject like a steady hawk! Using a tripod with a panning head helps achieve this effect, but is not entirely necessary. An example of an appropriate tripod for panning would be the Zeiss Universal Aluminum Tripod with panning head.

The following images were taken straight out of the camera. I shot the following images handheld, with a Canon 5D equipped with a Canon EF 75-300mm f/4.0-5.6 III autofocus lens, in manual mode with a low ISO:

© Jena Ardell

Camera Settings

Your camera should be set to shutter priority or manual mode with a shutter speed between 1/15  and 1/60 sec, depending upon the speed of your subject. You may need to shoot a few test shots to determine your shutter speed. Using a slower shutter speed will increase blur; while a faster shutter speed will reduce blur. The key is to find the shutter setting that allows your subject to appear sharp, but the background to appear blurred.

© Jena Ardell
If your shutter speed is too slow, too much of your image will be blurred.

© Jena Ardell
If you’re shutter speed is too fast, not enough of your background will be blurred.

Find what works best for your situation and remember to keep your movement as parallel to the action as possible. This is where a tripod comes in handy!

Autofocus should be set to continuous (Nikon) or Al-Servo (Canon) in order to maintain proper focus of your moving target; your center autofocus point should be selected. This allows your camera to focus quickly on your moving subject. Continuous shooting mode (or burst mode) should also be selected to ensure you have at least one shot where your subject is perpendicular to your camera—that’s usually the sweet spot for these types of images.


Using a telephoto lens may require a faster shutter speed since camera shake is the main culprit of out-of-focus panned images. A wide-angle lens creates less camera shake and allows longer shutter speeds, but will require more movement from the photographer in order to achieve the look of a panned image.


If you are not using a tripod, you basically become the tripod. Keep your feet firmly planted on the ground, being sure to only twist your torso in the same direction as the moment, while following your subject in the viewfinder. Hold down the shutter release button to fire a rapid succession of shots. Follow through after you have completed shooting to ensure smooth lines of action.

Don’t be discouraged if you have to shoot 10 or more shots before one decent image arises. Once you become comfortable panning under natural light conditions, you can add fill flash to create different effects. Flash is also necessary for action shots taken in low-low conditions or at night.

© Jena Ardell

Panning does not work if your subject is moving toward or away from you. Your subject has to be moving across your field of view in order to show any kind of movement.

© Jena Ardell

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