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Automotive photography 9: Panning, rolling and action shots


John Jovic

Panning and Rolling shots are probably the most commonly used techniques to show a car in action although rig shots have become very common too. Panning and rolling shots are quite different from each other in that panning shots are taken from a stationary position whilst rolling shots are taken of the subject car from another vehicle travelling at the same speed as the subject. Rolling shots look often very similar to rig shots except that the amount of blur possible in a rolling shot is much smaller than that which is possible in a rig shot.
This is a fairly typical panning shot.
1/45th sec, 85mm at F9.5, ISO 100, Canon 40D (1.6 crop)

This is a fairly typical rolling shot.
1/45th sec, 28mm at F9.5, ISO 100, Canon 40D (1.6 crop)

Panning, rolling and other types of action images will be discussed here whilst rig shots are covered in great detail in the links below so will not be expanded upon here.

Rig Shots 1: What is a 'rig shot' ?
Rig Shots 2: Rigs for automotive photography
Rig Shots 3: A brief history of rig shots
Rig Shots 4: Partial Rig Shots
Rig Shots 5: Full Car Rig Shots
Rig Shots 6: The mechanics of rig shots
Rig Shots 7:
Rig shots are not for the foolhardy

Rig Shots 8: Do Vacuum Cups damage paint or panels?
Rig Shots 9: Selecting the optimum shutter speed for rig shots
Rig Shots 10: Composition and locations for rig shots
Rig Shots 11: Filters for rig shots
Rig Shots 12: Common problems, dust flare, vignetting

Panning shots

Panning is a technique where you are photographing a moving car from a stationary position using a low shutter speed to depict a sense of movement, speed or action. Although panning is a simple technique there is an element of experience (practice) which is as important as any amount of theory, tips or tricks. The most important point is to be as smooth as possible when following the subject (car, truck, bike, bicycle, skateboard, surfer, whatever) you are shooting. This ONLY comes from practice and not from technology such as image stabilised (IS/VR) lenses which can often make matters worse.
1/20th sec, 100mm at F2.8, ISO 200 with Canon 20D (1.6 crop)  

1/30th sec, 115mm at F2.8, ISO 400 with Canon 20D (1.6 crop)


Locations for Panning shots

Finding a place to shoot panning shots is not always easy because you normally want to avoid distracting backgrounds such as business names/signs, other cars, shadows from trees or power lines or objects which might protrude from the car like a tree from a persons head in a portrait. You also need a place where you can have the proper distance between yourself and the car, without obstruction between you. A smooth road is also much better than one which is bumpy and where the car will be bouncing around as it passes you.

Camera or exposure mode

The aperture setting is much less important than the shutter speed as the shutter speed will determine the amount of movement and blur in the image. Set the camera to Shutter Priority exposure mode so that you can select an appropriate shutter speed. Let the camera set the aperture automatically based on the required exposure.

Selecting a shutter speed

If the shutter speed is too low (long) then there will be too much movement and blur and then you may not get many acceptably sharp shots (keepers), if any at all. On the other hand using too fast (short) a shutter speed will show very little movement in the background or wheels so the images won't have any sense of speed or movement. They might all be sharp but what’s the point if they don't show any sense of movement? The goal is to find a shutter speed which will give you a decent amount of blur in the background and wheels and a reasonable number of keepers for the session, maybe only 30% or less, but you only ever need one shot! You could also use a very slow shutter speed and have way more blur than might be deemed normal or acceptable but it might be the effect you are after and as long as an important part of the car is sharp, maybe the grille, or the driver, or the number/name on a race car, then that is probably OK too.

The shutter speed you choose will also depend on the reliability needed from each frame that you expose. For example, some cars may only be good for a single pass, for what ever reason, so you need to be sure to get it right the first time. This is best done by erring on the high side and getting less wheel/background blur than might be desirable. If you have the option to have lots of passes then you can start at a high shutter speed, and get a few frames 'in the can' and then shoot the rest at slower and less reliable shutter speeds but which will probably deliver much stronger images albeit a smaller selection to chose from.

The easiest way to select the shutter speed is to convert the cars speed into miles per hour and then use the reciprocal (1/Mph) of that speed as the shutter speed.

For example, if the car is moving at 100kph (60 mile per hour) then shoot at approx 1/60th of a second. If the car is moving at 60kph (40 mile per hour) then shoot at approx 1/40th of a second. This is only a guide and a starting point but it's certainly in the ball park and a small adjustment one way or the other will probably give you the effect you are after. If you are shooting race cars then you might be panning at 1/250th and still getting a considerable amount of blur, simply due to the higher speeds involved. The shutter speed also depends on the lens (and your distance to the car) and even the way the car is moving past you, or towards you such as might occur on a race track. If you use a reasonably wide lens then you can shoot at even slower shutter speeds, but this takes trial and error to see what works for you and what is acceptable.

Choosing a lens

Lens choice is quite important and will have a significant effect on the results you achieve.

Often the car moves at a tangent to you (ie. in a straight line) whilst you are panning in an arc (pivoting at your feet). What this means is that only a small part of the car, such as the front or rear of the car, will actually be sharp and other parts will be blurred. The further the car is from you the sharper the extremities of the car will be in each image. If the car is closer to you, because you are using a short tele or wide lens, then the car will have much more blur at it's extremities due to the way it moves past you during the exposure. Even better results can be obtained if the car is shot from the inside of a large diameter bend so that the car moves in an arc instead of at a tangent.

Of course you may not always be able to choose the lens. You might be forced to use a very long lens due to being behind a safety barrier at a race track or you might not be able to get far enough from the car you are shooting, for example on a suburban street, and may have to use a relatively short tele or even a wide angle lens. However, if possible, try to use a tele zoom lens in the 70-200 range (or longer) and zoom in and out as the car comes closer and further from you. This focal length is enough to give a reasonably sharp image of the car although the extremities will generally be slightly blurred and improved as focal length increases. If you only have a prime telephoto lens then that’s fine too but you may be limited to fewer frames for each pass as the car is the appropriate distance from you to fill the frame.

Image stabilisation ('IS' in Canon parlance) can be used but it's effects can some times work against you rather than for you. IS is intended to reduce camera shake so it compensates for camera/lens movement. If you use the wrong IS mode then that will try to compensate for the panning movement itself. Canon offers 'Mode 1' and 'Mode 2' where Mode 1 is designed to minimise all movement (including panning) whilst Mode 2 is designed to reduce vertical shake but allow panning movement. Other brands of cameras will have their own terminology but the fact remains that if you do use IS then you need to understand how your camera/lens works and if it is compatible with panning, or more specifically, what kinds of panning will it benefit. Even so, IS can cause more harm than good as the panning action itself may still exceed the lenses image stabilisation ability and can lead to double images as the IS tries to compensate. IS does work very well with longer lenses and with the resulting slower pans and higher shutter speeds (due to greater distance from camera to car) so can be useful.

Focusing for panning shots


Although you can use manual focus lenses to shoot panning shots it's much easier to use auto focus lenses as long as your camera has the ability to focus on a moving subject with some degree of accuracy. Use which ever mode will actually track focus as the car changes distance, this is 'AI SERVO' in Canon parlance.

There's no point using 'one shot' or similar AF modes because the cars distance often changes as it drives past you (unless you are in the centre of a large sweeping bend where the cars distance remains about the same whilst it's in that bend). If using manual focus lenses then you may have to pre-focus on a part of the road where you intend to shoot the car but this will generally only allow you to shoot one or two frames before the car is already out of the focusing 'sweet spot'. If you have enough experience manual focusing lenses on moving subjects then following the car and adjusting focus can work just fine but if using a prime then there will probably be only a very small area where the car is the appropriate distance (in terms of composition and framing) so pre focusing is generally a better option.

Panning technique


The simple reality is that your technique or action is more important than the camera or lens or possibly anything else. When you are trying to capture a sharp image of a moving car, but with lots of background blur, then it will always be very important to try to keep the car in the same part of the frame at all times and with the minimum amount of camera shake or movement. Even if you do everything else correctly, you will ruin the image if you are not smooth in your panning movement. Every part of your action matters, even the way you press the shutter. Jabbing it will shake the camera, gently and smoothly depressing it will not.

The easiest way to make your action smooth is simply to find a stance that feels comfortable for you and to practice. Start with standing with a small distance between your feet and facing the section of the road where you intend to shoot. Keep your feet stationary as you gently pan from side to side, pivoting at your feet, and keeping your upper body and shoulders reasonably stable. Remember that you are trying to keep the camera as steady as possible so keeping your shoulders steady will help to do that. This is fairly easy over a short distance or pan but becomes more difficult as you overstretch. Your action will be smoothest over a relatively narrow arc which is ideally where you intend to shoot the car as it passes. You can practice this technique on a nearby road, with passing traffic, but be ready for the strange looks from passing drivers!

Use a monopod if you can get used to them but some people can't live with the restriction in movement that they cause. Monopods help you to pan smoothly but there's no reason you can't pan smoothly without one, given practice/experience. A very large or long tele may need a monopod but you are also far more likely to pan over a very short distance so the monopod will cause relatively little restriction.


If you are staging the panning shots then have the car driving at a constant and safe/legal speed. If the car is all over the place in terms of it's speed then it will be much harder for you to follow it smoothly as it passes you. Keeping a constant speed also allows you to change shutter speeds to suite the speed of the car.


Fire off as many frames as you can per run or pass using 'continuous' shooting mode. It's a numbers game and the more frames you shoot the more keepers you'll have. There is no point firing off a single frame per pass (unless there is a specific reason to do so). Another advantage of using a 'continuous' shooting mode is that you are not pressing the shutter, you are just holding it down, so there is less chance of camera shake.

Rolling shots (also called 'Tracking Shots' or 'Car to Car')

Rolling shots are shot using a tracking car from which the photographer shoots the subject car. Both travel at the same speed and side by side, or in close proximity. The subject car is photographed hand held and at relatively slow shutters speeds so that the background and foreground blur enough to give a sensation of speed whilst keeping the car sharp. You will obviously need a tracking car and a driver to be able to shoot rolling shots, and an appropriate location or road. It is often easier to shoot panning shots because an additional car and driver are not always available.
This is a typical rolling shot.
1/45th sec, 27mm at F198, ISO 100 with Canon 40D (1.6 crop)

This crop from the image at left shows one of the problems with rolling shots which is that distant objects blur far less than those closest to the camera. In the above example the nearby shrubs and trees blur dramatically whilst distant trees are still quite sharp. This effect does not occur with panning shots where distant objects blur the same as those closest to the camera.

Rolling shots are the staple action shot in new-car-magazines although the rig shot has replaced it in many cases. Rolling shots look very much like rig shots, with blurred backgrounds and a very sharp car, but as they are shot hand held the exposures must be short enough to keep the subject as sharp as possible so they often don't have as much dramatic background blur as a rig shot.

A rolling shot is easiest to shoot on a double lane highway, or wide private road such as a race track, where the car being photographed and the tracking vehicle (with the photographer in it) can travel side by side at the same speed and in total safety. Rolling shots should never be performed whilst over taking or on roads which are too short and require abrupt changes of speed. Safety is paramount. The tracking vehicle may be in front of, behind or side by side with the subject car depending on the image being shot and the direction of the light. In any case the photographer will simply photograph the subject through an open window of the tracking car. If a safety harnesses is used then it's potentially quite safe to shoot from the back of a car, boot, wagon, pickup/ute tray etc, however this would potentially be illegal on public roads so is only an option on private roads or race tracks. In fact shooting from an open car window may also be illegal if you don't have a seat belt on or if you are protruding from the car so be careful to avoid doing that.

Most experienced new-car-magazine photographers will have at least one story of a near-miss where they have almost fallen out of a car or nearly been struck whilst hanging from a vehicle, or similar. Rolling shots are potentially dangerous and are best avoided unless shot from the safety of a passenger seat with a seat belt fitted and safely within the tracking car. It is entirely possible and realistic to shoot rolling shots safely if you are willing to accept the limitations on shots and angles this also imposes.

Capturing the right combination of background blur but with a razor sharp car is dependant on several factors, such as the speed you are travelling at, the proximity of the background to the car being photographed, the composition itself such as when shooting the subject side on, front/rear 3/4 or dead on front/rear. The road surface itself will also have an effect, and it's proximity to the camera such as when shooting from close to the road surface which is possible if shooting from the rear of a ute or wagon (although potentially very dangerous and not recommended). If the road is very rough or bumpy then both the subject and tracking car will move too much and make it very difficult to achieve a sharp image of the subject car. A smooth road will allow a longer exposure and it will make it easier to follow the subject car smoothly. Choosing the best shutter speed will always take some testing depending on the circumstances and may be as low as 1/8th sec or as fast as 1/250th, but often around 1/30-1/60th at normal road speeds.

IS and VR lenses are potentially quite helpful when shooting rolling shots as they will stabilise the camera and lens from minor vibration. It is also important to reduce camera vibration as much as possible by not resting your elbows on the tracking car which will just pass vibrations onto the camera.

Other action shots

There are many other forms of action shots, including rig shots, depending on the type of car being photographed. In all cases the purpose of the image is to portray a sense of action, drama, movement or the sense of actually being there part of the action.
A circuit car may look more aggressive when it's lifting a wheel during acceleration, or maybe when locking a wheel during braking.  

The excessive camera shake/blur in this image conveys the explosive drama of top fuel drag racing.

Using a combination of strobes and motion blur can be very effective in low light situations. Good technique is still needed to keep the subject sharp in the frame whilst maximising background movement.
Interior lighting was balanced with exterior light using a strobe.
1/10th sec, 17mm at F11, ISO 100, Canon 5DII

The 'burnout shot' is a staple of the custom or muscle car magazines.

This drag car was shot with a 1/4 second exposure during which the lens was zoomed in to keep the car about the same size in the frame. The car was lit with flash.  

The car was lit with flash and with a long enough exposure to blur the background.
1/20th sec, 25mm at F2.8, ISO400, Canon 20D (1.6 crop)


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