The sublime art of panning, or how to fail in Chicago and succeed in London.

Panning, excitable teenagers on Youtube will tell you, is a technique used in photography where the camera rotates on its Y axis in order to keep a moving object in focus. If done well, the result will be a striking photo where the subject is crisply detailed, whilst everything around it will be blurred, conveying the idea of movement.
Now, the idea of myself tinkering about with a camera’s settings is so absurd not to be worth considering. Fact is, you could put me next to an orangutan, give both of us exactly the same DSLR and I guarantee – no, I swear – that he’ll learn to shoot in manual mode sooner than me, and with a lot less profanities.
Still, one Sunday in Chicago I set off with the declared intent of doing panning photography.
Much in the same way that one doesn’t quite turn to criminality by himself on a rainy Wednesday afternoon, this desire had to be born from semewhere. Every fire has a firestarter, and mine was our company photographer: an amiable Scotsman with glasses, a predilection for chequered shirts and the odd habit of calling people “Dude”, due to, I suppose, to an excessive consumption of the Big Lebowski. Anyhow, one day I bumped into him; one thing led to another and here we were, watching photos on the screen of his phone. There was one of a particular American town – could be Houston, could be Phoenix, they all seem carbon copy of each other to me – with a black musclecar speeding on one of those devilish concrete overpasses they have over there. You can just but glimpse the overpass, the skyscrapers and stuff, because it’s all blurred. All there is to see is the dark, powerful vehicle. The details are so crisp I can gaze at the tattoos snaking up the driver’s elbow.
At that point, a small voice inside my head began chirping “I wish I knew how to do those photos”.
So, one day, armed only with a couple of indications from the McDude, a fraction of the gear and none of the talent I set off, stalking cyclists in Lincoln park and motorcyclists downtown. Immediately, I realised that something was amiss.

Everyone seemed to be going too slow: cyclists crawled at a pace that would’ve made the fixie brigade in London apoplectic with anger, and bikers seemed more interested in cruising by than to do wheelies. Perhaps it was because no one wore helmets and didn’t want to crack their skulls open, but things didn’t seem to be going very well. All I had to show was some snaps, still as if painted by a Medieval miniaturist.
Undeterred by the American debacle, upon my return I dived again in the wide world of Youtube, taking copious notes on instruction of youngsters peppering their parlance with adverbs such as “Totally”. Finally, a modus operandi came into play, a delicate balance of shutter speed and lenses. I was ready to try again.
Sunday morning brought the end of the heatwave that had turned the parks yellow and the people nuts. Clouds flew across the sky as if in a rush to go somewhere, and the temperature had turned decidedly British again. Wrapped in a windbreaker and shorts, I headed to one of the bridges that links Chiswick with Richmond, waiting for the great Lycra transhumance that is the London Prudential 100. Because, I figured, if one wants to get the hang of panning, where better to do it than at a race with thousands of cyclists?
And, sure enough, they started to arrive. I checked the screen after every burst, hoping to see the long-awaited photos… but no. Perhaps I’m too fast, I thought, and slowed the shutter speed. Then…

It’s hard to describe the sensation of satisfaction that I got from this photo. But soon, a lot more started to flood in.

Cyclists were everywhere. Groups were so ubiquitous that I began seeing double. Or perhaps triple. Or quadruple?

I moved on the bridge, grinning uncontrollably. And I wasn’t the only one with a smile on his face, or so it seemed.

As soon as I realised I was missing out on the ladies, an occasion came.

Then, sadly, the weather closed down on us. It was to rain for the whole day, a hell of an anticlimax after 2 months of sun.

I returned home absolutely drenched, my windstopper – valiantly protecting the torso –  turning into a sort of a waterfall. Pathetic as it might sound, I felt as if I’d achieved something big, something worth making a big song and dance about. Me, the guy who couldn’t take a decent photo not even if he tried, finally succeeded.
Click below for more; if you are one of the cyclists in these photos, first well done! Second, please do let me know if you want them taken offline or if you’d like a full-res version of any of them.

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24 Responses to The sublime art of panning, or how to fail in Chicago and succeed in London.

  1. lexklein says:

    I will refrain from commenting on your subtle yet insistent US city snark since I generally like you and your posts! 🙂 I share with you a less-than-simian capability with manual mode, so I am impressed by your success with this technique! I really need to make an effort one of these days to go beyond “having a good eye,” which I occasionally do, and try something new. I experimented with tilt-shift in Iceland (so-so) and actually did capture a bicyclist in a race in Ljubljana one summer that looked very much like these shots of yours. Unfortunately, it was merely a lucky accident, and I could never repeat it. Hope the skies are back to sunny in London these days!

    Liked by 1 person

    • awtytravels says:

      Hi Lexi! Hope I haven’t offended you, but… hey, certain US cities do seem quite hard to tell apart! I’m sure the same is applicable with European or Italian ones. I’ve to say, it’s quite a satisfaction to climb on the first step of the photographic ladder, it’s a bit evolving from ‘mussel’ to ‘crustacean’!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. richandalice says:

    Congrats on adding a new photo technique to your repertoire. One of my personal favorite shots from Marrakesh, Morocco:

    Liked by 1 person

    • awtytravels says:

      Hi Rich, thank you! Now I know one technique. That Marrakech photo is neat, again there’s a little voice in my head saying “Wish I did it”…. must not check flights to Morocco!


  3. Persistence sure paid off! And you definitely were persistent and determined. Well done. Peta

    Liked by 1 person

  4. J.D. Riso says:

    Great job, Fabrizio. I’m also clueless when it comes to manual. I recently tested it out when the Aurora Borealis made an appearance in northern Michigan. Not perfect, but at least it showed up. I agree that many US cities are hard to tell apart. Everyplace is filled with McDudes.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Dave Ply says:

    This is where I should pan your post with my review, but I can’t because it’s too nicely done! 😉 Panning is a photo technique I rarely try (landscapes tend not to move much). Besides, since I captured that flying barn swallow in Is Deer Hunting for the Birds I’ve probably achieved my apex, there’s nowhere to go but down.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Bama says:

    I’ve always been curious about how people manage to capture such shots using a technique called panning; but that’s just how far I get: being curious. I never really do anything with my camera’s manual setting, except for that one occasion in Kerala, India when I was watching a Kathakali performance — which was so mystifying — in a dimly-lit hall. You’ve done a really great job, Fabrizio, and now if you excuse me I’m going to watch some manual videos on YouTube made by ‘totally awesome’ youngsters. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  7. James says:

    Well done, Fabrizio! I was inspired to do something similar after seeing Jeff from Planet Bell execute it with aplomb in his posts. But he’s much more of a photographer, and has a much keener eye when it comes to capturing street life. This is a reminder that I must also start learning to shoot in manual mode… the farthest I’d go right now is cranking up the ISO when it’s too dark.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Congratulations! What an accomplishment! I’ve never even heard of panning, so now you’ve got me wanting to check out YouTube videos about it. Is the cyclist in that last photo of yours wearing a…stuffed rabbit on his head?

    Liked by 1 person

    • awtytravels says:

      Hi there, and thanks for the compliments! Yes, the guy was wearing some sort of soft toy on his helmet, I guess it must’ve been from one of his kids or something along those lines… Prudential is a fairly serious race, sometimes in other events, I’m told by cyclist colleagues, you see all sorts of interesting outfits. Plus, there’s a nudist bike ride every year in London, but I doubt WordPress would allow me to publish panning photos of that one!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Cool stuff Fabrizio! I find panning shots of bikes particularly difficult to make, as you need to find that sweet spot for the shutter speed that blurs the background but not the cyclist’s legs.

    – Verne

    Liked by 1 person

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