Pan Blur Technique and Barren-Ground Caribou

Pan blur of barren-ground caribou (Rangifer tarandus groenlandicus)

Before getting to the point of this post, let me just quickly say thank you to all of you who have been reading and following Clicks & Corks so far: this new blog was officially launched on February 10 and less than a month later it has had over 1,000 views, 210 comments and 71 followers. Your support and your active contributions to C&C are nothing short of exceptional and they are a phenomenal reward to the effort that goes into trying to publish quality content that hopefully many of you may find interesting and worth reading or viewing. Once again, thank you.

But let’s move on to today’s subject: pan blurs. Pan blurs are fun to do and sometimes they may offer a solution when freezing an action shot either is not an option or would not yield an interesting enough visual result (as would have been the case with the running barren-ground caribou cow and calves (Rangifer tarandus groenlandicus) that are portrayed in the image above).

Successful pan blurs convey a sense of motion in a painterly, sort of impressionistic way, as if the “light painter” behind the lens (all photographers are essentially painters who rely on the qualities of light instead of paint and paintbrushes!) had chosen a quick, thick and essential brushstroke style.

The situations in which I find myself using the pan blur technique the most are those when my subject is in motion and either light levels are so low that attaining a fast enough shutter speed to freeze the action would be impossible or impractical (as is often the case when photographing at the fringes of the day in the outdoors or in dark indoor contexts, such as a poorly lit gym or ice rink) or the subject and the context the subject is in are not interesting enough to be captured in a crisp, detailed shot that freezes the action. In these instances, instead of not taking any shot at all, I switch to pan blur gear and see what I come up with. A desire to convey a strong, visual sense of speed when photographing a fast living thing or object in motion may be another very good reason to resort to a pan blur.

Should you be wondering how to make a pan blur, just follow these steps:

  • Stick a telephoto lens on your camera;
  • Set your exposure using the M or S modes and pick a fairly slow shutter speed (how slow depends on how fast your subject is and how “streaky” you want your background to be, but somewhere between 1/8 and 1/60 sec should get you in the ballpark most of the times);
  • Set your AF system to an active tracking mode;
  • Position yourself such that your moving subject will be in front of you and its trajectory will run from one side to the other (left to right or right to left);
  • Stand still and, by rotating your torso/arms, aim your camera to the side your subject is supposed to come from;
  • As soon as your subject is in sight, lock focus on it and start tracking it by panning your camera in a fluid motion in sync with your subject and keeping it in the frame;
  • When your subject is by and large in front of you, without stopping your fluid panning motion, trip the shutter to expose one or more frames;
  • Keep tracking your subject for a few more moments just to make sure not to interrupt your panning when the shutter is still open.

The whole point of this technique is to blur the background and the moving parts of your subject (e.g., the limbs of a living thing, the wheels of a vehicle…) while retaining some key part of your subject relatively in focus (such as the head of a living thing or some distinctive feature in a vehicle).

Variants of this technique include the use of a flash set to rear curtain sync, which accentuates the sharpness of the subject while retaining the streaky background, or extreme pan blurs. Extreme pan blurs call for even slower shutter speeds so that not only the background but also the subject is blurred, although to some lesser extent than the background: when successfully performed, these shots may yield even more artistic, painterly abstract results, which can be equally rewarding.

Pan blurs are kind of hit and miss by definition, especially with fast moving subjects, so be prepared to take several practice shots to master this technique before using it in any important situation.

If you would like to see more images of mine, feel free to browse my Galleries.

As per my copyright notice, please respect my work and do not download, reproduce or use the image above without first seeking my consent. Thank you :-)


13 thoughts on “Pan Blur Technique and Barren-Ground Caribou

    1. Stefano Post author

      Hi Maureen, I guess you refer to one of the images in the caribou gallery on my web site.
      I know what you mean, but that image is actually a documentary image of the culture and way of living of the people of Inuit who live in Canada’s Northern province of Nunavut. Some 28,000 of them live there and still follow most of the same practices of their ancestors. Hunting caribou is a an integral part of their history and culture. They do not hunt them for fun or as a “sport”, theirs is subsistence hunting. I have spoken to several of their old people and for many of them caribou is still the primary component of their diet. It is difficult to explain what I mean unless you go and see for yourself (which I realize may be an unlikely option). In that land Inuit and caribou are both part of the same ecosystem, that they share: Inuit are one of the caribou predators, much like wolves are. I hope this makes sense to you.
      Thanks for your comment.

      1. maureenjenner

        Thank you so much for getting back to me. I have a hatred of guns, in any form, but I guess a quick, clean shot is the least painful way to cull or kill as well as to fill the larder. Keep those wonderful shots/photographs coming in.

    1. Stefano Post author

      Thank you, Kimberly! I think your husband is absolutely right: you should give it a shot as the results can be stunning!
      Glad you found my post a source of inspiration 🙂


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