Cars at Speed - Panning by Dom Miliano

Dom Miliano taught photography for seven years. His photographs have been published by AutoWeek, Cavallino, Excellence, Forza, Corvette and Bimmer Magazine, Porsche Panorama and in several automotive books.

In the first installment of this series, I outlined some of the techniques I use to take “salon” or posed pictures of cars for magazines, books and my own pleasure. But my editors also require that every photo shoot contain pictures of the subject car “at speed” – capturing sharp, well composed images that convey the excitement of actually driving it.

There are a couple of proven techniques I use to accomplish this so if you want to make exciting pictures of cars in motion, here’s how I have done it for nearly 40 years. The first one we’ll discuss is called Panning. We’ll go over others in future installments. 

Tight crop front 3quarter view_edited-1

Panning – Unlike taking posed pictures of cars, where my camera is usually mounted on a rock solid tripod, taking pictures of cars in motion requires that you hand hold the camera to your eye and swing it in an arc as it passes by at speed. This technique is called “panning” and the motion is analogous to swinging a tennis racquet or a baseball bat. You need to be smooth as you follow the car in the viewfinder and gentle when you press the shutter button.

If you imagine a car moving in front of you, from left to right, you would frame the car as it approaches and track it in the center of the focusing screen. As it crosses in front of you, gently click the shutter and like swinging a tennis racquet, make sure to continue to follow the car through its path across your shooting position .

 dont need whole car in shot




These days, I use the auto-focus tracking mode on my cameras (check you manual to see if yours can do this). This has greatly enhanced the number of sharp pictures I get in each session. However, auto-focus isn’t a necessity; you can get sharp pictures with manual focus cameras and lenses. Just make a decision where you want to capture the picture of the car as it passes, pre-focus on that spot and as the car passes, click the shutter when it crosses through your pre-selected spot. (Naturally, making sure you don’t change the focus setting of the lens!)

Of course, as with posed pictures, the background, lighting and composition are all still critical. As with salon sessions, I prefer late day or early morning light coming from behind me. I prefer non-distracting backgrounds like stone walls, fields of withered corn stalks and ocean or open water views. And I try to capture the whole car in the center of the frame from a low angle so I can see light under the car.

  turbo speedster_ at speed





However, sometimes capturing the center section of a car – cropping off the rear and nose in the picture – can give interesting results.

But the most important thing to do to make a successful image is to match the shutter speed you use to the speed of the passing car. Since most of the pictures I take are on public roads, I limit the car’s speed to 20-30MPH. First, it’s safer for everyone and at that speed, I have a bit more time to frame the car as it approaches. Plus, at that speed, I can usually click off more than one image as it passes. My digital SLR (single lens reflex) camera will shoot up to 7 pictures a second when set to the high speed setting and I always us it when panning. Finally, you have to set your camera to “shutter priority” and select a relatively slow shutter speed so that as you pan, the wheels, the foreground and background show “motion blur”. The actual speed you need for your shots depends a lot on the lens you use. If you shoot with a 100-135mm lens, try shooting at 1/100 to 1/160 of a second. If you use a longer lens (200mm or higher) then you can move the speed up a bit but if you set it at 1/400 or higher, the car, wheels, background and foreground will be frozen – giving a picture that looks like the car was parked on the side of the road.  

NOTE - I usually employ a two-way radio to call the driver of the subject car so that I can send the car toward me at the right time to prevent regular road traffic from interfering with the shot.     

And while I do this kind of shot all the time, I have to admit, the percentage of sharp, well composed “keepers” is around 50%. The causes for these un-sharp pictures are many and varied. It could be I had too many espressos in the morning or not enough sleep the night before but often it’s the fact that I didn’t warm up (like you do in tennis, golf or baseball) so that my muscles are ready to behave. I try to do some practice swings of my camera through the anticipated path of the car and I find that this really helps. So please, don’t get discouraged if your first attempts are less than you want. As with most things, practice makes perfect.

One final point, some new lenses have a feature called “vibration reduction” (i.e., Nikon) or Image Stabilization (i.e., Canon) that helps damp the impact of camera shake. Other camera manufactures have these features built into the camera body (e.g., Sony) but regardless of the way it is employed, the stabilization feature will increase the number of “keepers” you get.    

Next time, we’ll discuss shooting action pictures “car to car” – a most challenging but exciting way to create pictures of cars at speed.

BMW Z1 shutter speed too high