Whether you're capturing running water, stilling seas, or abstracting patterns long exposures provide a perfect strategy for visually conveying the energy of nature
Panning is a technique in which you move the camera parallel to the subject. The subject remains relatively sharp, while the background blurs due to the motion of the camera. This is a great technique for moving wildlife or birds in flight.
I will use shutter-priority auto (Tv or S) since I am looking for a very specific shutter speed and the depth of field is nearly irrelevant—everything but the moving object will be blurry anyway. I usually start with a shutter speed of 1/15 sec and modify if needed. If there is too much blur in the moving subject, I will speed up to 1/20, 1/25, or 1/30 sec. For subjects that are moving too slowly for a good effect, I’ll try a slower shutter speed. It pays to experiment until you get the effect you want.
A tripod isn’t necessary when panning and will probably be more of a hindrance than a help. Set both autofocus and drive modes to continuous, and turn on image stabilization if you have it. (Many newer lenses will automatically stabilize along the opposite axis you are panning; older lenses have a manual switch for panning mode.) Use a smooth turn of the torso and begin focus-tracking the subject well before you shoot.
Gently press the shutter release and hold it down to take many exposures. Continue to track the subject until after the exposures are taken, which will help avoid the tendency to stop panning once the shutter is pressed.
The more blur you capture in your image, the more abstract the moving subject becomes. I like to see literal elements in the image, with just a hint of blur to give it a dynamic feel.
Panning for Abstracts
Panning stationary subjects or scenes vertically or horizontally is a great long-exposure technique that creates a dreamy, painterly look (click here for a slight diagonal pan). One ideal situation is a forest or stand of trees with many strong vertical elements within it. Here, you can pan the camera vertically along the prominent tree trunks during a long exposure. Horizontal panning of a clean, even horizon along a coast can also produce some beautiful results.
Shutter speeds of 1 to 6 seconds are best for these images, but you should try others on your own. Pan slowly with a long-er exposure, or quickly with a shorter one. Try keeping the camera still for half of the exposure and moving it though the other half; this imprints more literal elements of the scene while introducing just a touch of blur.
Stretch it Out
Your camera’s meter helps give you the right exposure for shutter speeds of 30 seconds or less. But what if you want or need an exposure time of several minutes? Try this: In manual-exposure mode, select 30 seconds for the shutter speed, an ISO of 100, and the appropriate f-stop for depth of field considerations. During late twilight, early dawn, or if using a strong ND filter, your meter will likely indicate underexposure.
Now, increase the ISO in full EV steps until the meter indicates correct exposure. If it’s two steps—for example, ISO 100 to 400— then double the exposure speed for each step, here 30 seconds to 2 minutes. Then reset the ISO back to 100 and the exposure mode to Bulb.
Shutter speeds of several minutes can transform a raging ocean into a smooth, creamy, luminous sea, and a sky full of afternoon clouds into dynamic streaks of light that span the sky.
Richard Bernabe is a professional nature and travel photographer from South Carolina. He has written many photo instruction books and leads workshops and tours all over the world.