Shooting action isn’t always about freezing the action. There are times when you want to convey a sense of motion so that the viewer can get a feel for the movement and flow of an event. Two techniques you can use to achieve this effect are panning and motion blur.
Panning has been used for decades to capture the speed of a moving object as it moves across the frame. It doesn’t work well for subjects that are moving toward or away from you. Panning is achieved by following your subject across your frame, moving your camera along with the subject, and using a slower-than-normal shutter speed so that the background (and sometimes even a bit of the subject) has a sideways blur but the main portion of your subject is sharp and blur-free.
The key to a great panning shot is selecting the right shutter speed: too fast and you won’t get the desired blurring of the background; too slow and the subject will have too much blur and will not be recognizable. Practice the technique until you can achieve a smooth motion with your camera that follows along with your subject. The other thing to remember when panning is to follow through even after the shutter has closed. This will keep the motion smooth and give you better images.
Panning can take a lot of practice before you stumble upon the correct shutter speed. During the Chicago Marathon I was able to take several practice shots of the wheelchair division as they crossed my path. The speeds achieved by the athletes were incredibly fast, so it took several test shots before I was able to dial in the appropriate shutter speed. Aided by continuous mode and Shutter Priority, I was able to achieve the perfect shot (Figure 5.9), albeit through trial and error.
Another way to let the viewer in on the feel of the action is to simply include some blur in the image (Figure 5.10). This isn’t accidental blur from choosing the wrong shutter speed. This blur is more exaggerated, and it tells a story (Figure 5.11). In Figure 5.10, I wanted to capture the strumming of the guitar player’s hand. I felt that the motion of the hand told a better story than simply freezing the motion.
Just as in panning, there is no preordained shutter speed to use for this effect. It is simply a matter of trial and error until you have a look that conveys the action. I try to show an area of the frame that is frozen—for instance, in the shot of the musician above the guitar may be frozen, or still, but the hand is moving. In the shot of the couple in Figure 5.12, the couple had paused momentarily. This helps lend visual contrast and adds to the story of the photo. The key to this technique is the correct shutter speed combined with keeping the camera still during the exposure. You are trying to capture the motion of the subject, not the photographer or the camera, so use a good shooting stance or even a tripod.