P-51D

When It Works!

P-51D

The image above is a North American P-51D (aka – Mustang), from the 2010 Planes of Fame Airshow in Chino California.  The reason I choose this photo is because it illustrates the title of this post “When It Works”.

What exactly works in this photo?  A couple of things in this case.  The 1st is the moving aircraft is relatively sharp, you can even see the pilot in the cockpit.  And the 2nd thing is the prop, it’s very nicely blurred!

Whether you’re taking pictures of moving cars, planes, kids, or dogs, there is one technique that will help you capture a sharp image of your subject, and that is Panning.  Panning, along with adjusting some of your camera settings, will put you in a position to increase your odds at getting some great images!  Please note that I said “increase your odds”, not guarantee!

Let’s talk about camera settings first.  I use Canon gear so a couple of the terms may be a little different if you use Nikon or Sony or another brand.  You’ll need to look in your camera’s manuel for your specific camera.

One of the 1st settings that I change on my camera is the Auto-Focus mode.  For moving objects, I like to use AI-Servo.  For Canon, this means continuous auto focus.  When I push the shutter down half-way, and the camera focuses on my subject, it will continue to adjust focus as the subject moves.

The next thing I do is adjust my camera to either Aperture Priority or Shutter Priority.  For events such as a baseball game, I’ll use Aperture Priority because I want to control the depth of field (how much of the scene is in focus from before the foreground to the subject, and the background).  Airshows are when I use Shutter Priority.  The reason for this is because I want to use a slow shutter speed on older propeller driven aircraft to get the props to blur.  In order to achieve this, I usually shoot with a shutter speed of 1/160 of a second.

And now let’s talk about the tricky part – Panning!  When you use a slow shutter speed with a moving object, you usually end up with fuzzy photos.  Typically you’ll want to use a fast shutter speed (the rule of thumb is to go no slower than the focal length of your lens, i.e. 300mm lens, set shutter speed no less than 1/300 of a second).  Here’s an example of what happens with you use a fast shutter speed with moving prop-driven aircraft:

P-40 Warhawk

Notice in the photo above how the propeller is almost frozen.  While there’s a hint of motion blur, I’d still call this shot a failure (especially if you compare it to the photo of the P-51 at the top of the page).  The body of the plane (a P-40 Warhawk) is mostly sharp, but the shot overall does not meet my criteria of a successful, “keeper” because of the prop.

The difference in camera settings are subtle, but enough to kill this image.  For some reason I changed the shutter speed to 1/800th of a second.  Why would I do this?  Beats me, it was too long ago to remember!  More than likely I just wasn’t paying attention and forgot to set my camera correctly and just started shooting when the action started.  It happens to everyone!

Here’s another example of what happens when the camera settings are off:

Heritage Flight

The shot above is of a Heritage Flight.  This is when older WWII Warbirds fly with something more modern, an F-16 in this example.  Again you see that the bodies of the planes are mostly sharp, and so are the props.  I was disappointed when I saw this and checked the settings to see that I had left the shutter speed at 1/200th of a second.  Just enough to stop the propellers and loose the blur.

There is one success to take away from my examples, and that is the Panning technique I spoke of.  In all 3 photos, the bodies of the planes are mostly sharp.  That’s because in spite of my shutter speed, I employed this technique to keep my subject sharp and in focus.  By tracking my target as it passed in front of me, having the camera set to continuous auto focus, pressing the shutter and following through as it passed by, I was able to achieve the desired result – a sharp photo of the body of the plane even with a slow shutter speed.

Fortunately I’ve had a lot of practice over the years.  I really like things that go fast and have been able to try many camera settings while taking pictures.  The one common thing about photographing things that move is the Panning technique.  I use Panning for fast moving objects when using slow shutter speeds to keep them in focus.  I also use Panning for fast moving objects when using a fast shutter speed to freeze the action at that critical moment.

The trick is to practice, practice, practice.  You could try it out in your backyard with your kids, or with your dog.  Try setting your shutter speed slow, and see if you can get your dog to chase a ball.  As your dog is running, start Panning, press the shutter and follow through the shot.  If you were successful, the dog will be in sharp focus and the background will be streaked and blurred.  If not, everything will be streaked and blurred.  But that’s ok, just try again!

Here is an example of using a fast shutter speed and Panning for a kids Baseball game.

Baseball, sliding to 2nd

I used my Canon 60D with Tamron 200-500mm lens with these settings:

  • F/5.0
  • 1/2500 sec. shutter speed
  • Aperture Priority
  • ISO 400
  • AI Servo
  • Focus point set to center
  • Partial/Spot Metering
  • High speed shutter – 5.5 frames per second

As the kid sliding to 2nd base began his run, I started to Pan.  I pressed the shutter as he centered in my viewfinder and continued to Pan as he ran down the baseline.  The result is the photo above.  There were others; some had the player cut off, out of frame, blurry, or not in the peak moment.  It was this photo that I felt was the most successful in capturing that peak moment of action with the ball just entering the 2nd baseman’s mitt, and the opposing player sliding into 2nd with a spray of dirt frozen in the air.

If my explanation didn’t make sense, here’s a link that might help – Panning (camera).

I hope this helped a little.  If not, or you have questions, go ahead and post them and I’ll do my best to answer.

Until next time – Happy Shooting!