Birds in motion – Panning

Birds in flight are up there with tricky subjects to photograph. They’re fast moving, often erratic, and keeping them in the narrow field of view of a telephoto lens requires practice. The rewards are big though – a good, sharp bird in flight shot can really capture the beautiful nature of these creatures.

But once you’ve got that skill down, why not make things more difficult for yourself?

Something I really love doing is slowing the shutter speed back down to create movement in the background, and sometimes the bird.

This is panning, and the results are hit-and-miss (more often miss than hit!). The benefits are getting a real sense of dynamic movement in your images, capturing the grace of flight, and getting images that stand out a bit from your standard flight shots. Too much movement though, and you get a bit of a blurry mess.

The key is to match up the speed and direction of your panning with the speed and direction the bird is flying. I find locking my elbows to my chest and swinging from the hips is the best way to keep everything as stable as possible, to get that smooth movement.

Simple, right?

Now try and do that on a ship that’s moving in another direction entirely. And rocking from side to side.

At this point it seems like I’m asking you to fight an impossible battle – but with practice, all things are possible.

So the results might not be as tack-sharp as you’re used to, but there’s the concept of “sharp enough”. As long as you have a reasonably sharp head/eye and the overall profile looks right, you’ll have an image that works.

It’s more important to get an image where the overall shape of the bird looks good and flows well with the background. And sometimes you’ll get lucky, and get a really sharp head with nice movement in the background!

Seabirds, albatross in particular, are my favourite subjects for panning. They have sleek, streamlined bodies and gorgeous wingspans. Panning against the moving ocean can create some really stunning backgrounds too, turning the water into silky waves.

Trying to capture the effortless grace of their flight is hard to do in a static sharp image. Even though my hit rate is almost abysmally low when panning, I’d rather get one good image that showcases that glorious movement than hundreds of sharp ones. 

How slow you push the shutter speed is up to you. I like the results I get from around 1/50th of a second, but it depends on how fast the bird is moving and how much light there is. My tip is to drop it right down to 1/30th, and work up from there until you get a result that you like.

Your panning technique is what will make or break these images – you need to be rock solid the whole way through. On a ship, I like to wedge myself against the railing, lock my elbows to my chest, and swing steadily from the hips. It definitely takes practice! On dry land it’s much easier to stand steady, but the same technique applies.  

Another  crucial aspect is taking a lot of photos. I’m set up to shoot continuously, and I’ll start shooting before the bird is in prime position, sweep right through, and shoot a little after as well. This results in a lot of crap images, but we can easily toss the ones that aren’t any use.

The point of this is that you’re not jolting the camera with the movement of your finger pressing the shutter right when you want the shot – so you eliminate a potential source of unwanted movement.

It’s often suggested to use a tripod or monopod when panning, to keep everything as steady as possible. This works on land. It doesn’t work on a ship. I also like being as mobile as possible when I’m shooting, so the occasions when I use a monopod or tripod are extremely rare. That’s not to say I don’t carry them with me! I like to be prepared for anything, but I don’t often find myself needing them.

I find it impossible to tell whether or not I’ve got a sharp panned image when looking on the LCD screen, so I tend to just ignore it after a cursory check to make sure I’m getting the type of image I want.

Going through later on the computer involves a lot of binning blurry images, but it’s a bit like Christmas when you come across a good one!

My tips for panning with birds:

  • Stand steady and swing from the hips – keep your arms locked, smooth movement is key. On a ship, make sure you’re well wedged and secure – you need both hands for panning so make sure you won’t fall over when the ship rolls!
  • Try different shutter speeds until you get an effect you like
  • Keep the eye and head as sharp as possible – stick your focus point right on it and try and keep it there!
  • Shoot continuously to keep movement to a minimum and increase your chances of getting a sharp image
  • The further away the bird is, the easier it is to pan with – use your longest focal length
  • Practice. Take lots of crap images. Practice some more.
  • If your lens has image stabilisation or vibration reduction – USE IT! Mine are always on unless I’m on a tripod (which is hardly ever)

Happy panning! If you have any questions, I’m always happy to talk.