Rough-legged Hawk © Moose Peterson
Rough-legged Hawk © Moose Peterson
Photo captured by D1H, 300f2.8 handheld on Lexar digital film

Success in photographing flying birds comes in large part from properly using the technique of panning. This is a technique many have heard of, but few use effectively. While I've touched on this in a recent Shutterbug article, I wanted to go into greater depth for JOURNAL readers. There are really a couple aspects of panning which are essential for success: the combination of mechanical technique and aesthetic desires.

The goal of panning is to obtain sharp images of moving subjects. In this process, the movement of the subject is communicated by the blurring of the background. This combination makes panning an essential technique for wildlife photographers. The ability to obtain sharp images that communicate should be the goal for all of us!

The Mechanics

I'm sure you can all quote this as you read along. Panning is accomplished by moving the camera/lens to track the subject, firing the camera while continuing to track the subject until after the shutter is finished firing. Well at best, that's the beginning basics because the technique of panning needs to go farther than that to be successful.

You must first stabilize the camera correctly whether you're hand holding or using a tripod. Whether hand holding or shooting with a lens on a gunstock, the principle is the same. First, hold the camera with your left hand, palm up so the lens rests in your palm. This uses gravity in our favor as it forces the lens into our hand. Next, brace your elbows against your sides, tucking them in. You want to avoid imitating birds by having your arms flapping at your sides. Next, press the camera against your forehead (best if done with an eyecup that acts like a shock absorber). Now think about your tripod for a moment. Doesn't it have three legs coming to a point where the camera is attached? Are you creating three points of contact with your elbows tucked in and camera against your forehead? Now this is the methodology I've used for a decade and it works for me. Give it a try.

Next, you want to establish a “Kill Zone.” The kill zone is a predetermined zone where we actually fire the shutter and take the picture. This is only a small portion of the actual area we physically travel through during panning when focusing on the subject. Lost yet? Let me explain this in another way.

You want to photograph the bird when the bird is heading towards or beside you, not going away from you (avoiding the butt shot). When setting up your pan (taking into account background and lighting), try to set up knowing the direction from where the bird is coming from and heading to.

Let's say in this example that's going to be from left to right. The Kill Zone would be the area from where your left arm is held out nearly straight from your side to the area covered as you swing your arm until it's basically straight in front of you. This is nearly a 90 degree arc. This would be the Kill Zone for birds flying left to right; the same analogy would apply to the right arm for birds flying right to left. Whether shooting hand held or with the lens on a tripod, this is the zone where you pan and fire. Once the subject is basically in front of you, you stop shooting (this is a generalization and not a rule carved in stone).

The Aesthetics

Setting and knowing your kill zone must take into account the background and direction of the sun. True, some great bird flight shots happen off the cuff, what we like to call a “surprise attack.” But the great ones are planned for, where the background and lighting not only isolate the subject, but also bring drama to the final image.

You must look at the background differently than if you were taking a typical “static” image. You must remember when panning that the background will be a blur and you'll capture more background in the image than if you were taking a static scene. When setting up your kill zone, if at all possible, look at the entire background in your kill zone for out of the ordinary colors or shapes. Look for elements that when blurred and combined with the other elements of the background would stick out like a sore thumb. You have no idea as you pan when exactly you're going to press the shutter. So you want as much useable background you can muster.

Now many shooters prefer a blue sky background. That's cool and something we can all relate to. All you have to worry about with a blue sky background is exposure. But if you look at the really incredible flight shots, you'll more often than not find these photographs to have a blurred background from panning. There is always something special about them as if they are almost the colors of a watercolor painting that have melded together. This mood setting element is what brings drama to your flight photography.

The sun or lighting is really the easy part of the equation. The best situation is when the light is on your back and the subject is flying either towards you or parallel to you so it's frontlit. Any drama the light might have from a sunrise, sunset or storm is even better.

Go out and practice, have fun with it and make panning a technique you can rely on. If you're not comfortable with selecting backgrounds for panning, just go out and shoot some backgrounds as if something were flying in front of them. Take a static shot and one panning, get back to the light table and compare them. You can easily teach yourself what to look and watch out for. In the process, you'll become better at panning with the camera either hand held or on a tripod.

The great masters of panning are masters because they understand and use all these techniques and elements to communicate motion. The fact that their subject is sharp is the icing on the cake.

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