Slow Shutter Panning - How To Guide with Mitch Pearson-Goff

Slow Shutter Panning - How To Guide with Mitch Pearson-Goff

July 11, 2019

I have recently had a number of images signed with the Artist Collective. These images are a series of ocean and wave panning photographs. I love these kinds of shots because you can create a painterly effect and convey a sense of motion.

I have always enjoyed photographing the ocean but this technique provides creative opportunities to portray one of my favourite subjects in a different way. When I've posted these kinds of ocean abstract images on Instagram I generally get quite a few queries regarding the technique and the settings I use. So I thought I would write a blog post about it. Some photographers don't like to share their techniques but that isn't an approach I like to take.

In this tutorial, I will cover the equipment required, settings, basic technique, and final tips so you can get out and create your own abstract ocean images. There are multiple applications for panning but the two types of panning shots I want to cover in this tutorial are wave panning shots and ocean/horizon panning shots. See the examples of each below.

Wave panning - 1/8 second, f/8, iso 500 - Tripod/Monopod


Ocean/Horizon Panning - 0.4 seconds, f/11, ISO 100 - Handheld



1. Camera

Ocean/Horizon Panning - 0.4 seconds, f/11, ISO 100 - Handheld

Clearly having a camera seems rather obvious but if you are about to purchase a camera with the intention of trying panning photography then you need to make sure it has either a manual mode or shutter priority mode. Manual mode gives you more freedom, flexibility and overall control of your camera and its settings. I always recommend shooting in Manual mode.

2. Lens

For these types of shots, I tend to use a long lens. I usually shoot with my 70-200mm as it allows me to fill the frame and isolate the natural subject from what would otherwise be a chaotic scene. I have also got some great results with my Canon 24-105mm f/4 Mark II.

3. Tripod/Monopod

You can do panning shots handheld and I have taken a lot of shots that way. However, to ensure you minimise vertical movement when panning, a tripod or monopod is recommended. A tripod with a panning head also makes the process easier. This will make more sense under the technique section. I don't actually own a monopod but if I am taking panning shots I tend to just extend a single leg on my tripod which basically makes it function in a similar way to a monopod. There are many tripod brands available with

different materials, mounts and designs. I use the Manfrotto 190 and it meets all my needs. I like Manfrotto tripods because they provide an excellent combination of features including load capacity, size, stability, transportability, and construction quality.

4. Filters

Again, this is not absolutely necessary but it does help when trying to keep the shutter speeds longer when the conditions are bright. The main filters used to extend shutter speed are neutral density (ND) filters. An ND filter blocks out or reduces the amount of available light which results in the shutter needing to be open for a longer amount of time to obtain a correctly exposed image. These filters come in a variety of strengths and also different designs such as circular screw-on filters or square and rectangular drop-in filters. I have used B+W, Lee and I am now using Nisi ND filters. I love the quality, optics, and design of the Nisi filter system.

Alternatively, sometimes the strength of an ND filter can be too much so using a polariser can achieve a similar result and assist with using longer shutter speeds. As I previously mentioned you don't have to have filters and you can achieve these kinds of images by shooting at sunrise, sunset or in conditions with particularly low ambient light. Most of the wave and ocean/horizon panning shots I have taken have been without the use of filters.

 Image Settings - 0.6 seconds, f/11, ISO 100 - Handheld



So this varies depending on the ambient light and conditions you are shooting in. The key for achieving the painterly effect with the wave panning images is to use a slow shutter speed. How slow? Well, that depends on a number of variables including the speed at which the wave is moving. Ultimately you will get a feel for the optimum shutter speed through practicing these techniques. I'd encourage you to experiment with various speeds to see the different results you can get. With the luxury of digital cameras, this is something you can achieve easily.

I have shot panning shots at various shutter speeds from 0.5 seconds to 1/15 of a second. I generally start at around 1/15 of a second and then adjust accordingly. While it is subjective there is a point at which there is too much blur in these kinds of images or not enough blur. My ISO and aperture depend on my target shutter speed and the ambient light available. I usually have my ISO set between 100-500 and an aperture anywhere from f/4 to f/16. For wave panning images I set my focus to AI Servo mode whereas for ocean/horizon panning I set my focus and then switch to Manual Focus. I will explain more about this in the technique section.


Image settings - 1/8 second, f/16, ISO 200 - handheld



The technique for panning shots is to keep the panning movement as smooth as possible while minimising any vertical movement. I will summarise the technique I use for wave panning and ocean/horizon panning as they do vary slightly. I'll start with ocean/horizon panning as that is the more straightforward of the two techniques.

For ocean/horizon panning, whether handheld or on a tripod/monopod, I recommend doing the following:

  1. Point your camera out to sea with a zoom lens (70-200mm or equivalent).

  2. Compose your scene to feature a section of the ocean that has multiple sets rolling through. These sets are what creates interesting horizontal lines and contrast in the image.

  3. If you can match up the lines of swell with a colourful sky then you'll have the ingredients for a beautiful shot.

  4. A word of warning with horizons, they need to be clean and free of objects like boats or rocks. The reason for this is because those items will look like a solid blurred blob in your image. If this is unavoidable then make sure you pan through the entire object so that it appears as a consistent part of the image. It can be difficult to visualise this but if you take a panning shot with headland or object on the horizon you'll understand what I mean.

  5. If your composition does feature the horizon then set your focus on the horizon and before switching to Manual Focus. This primarily because the focal length won't be changing and you don't want to inadvertently change the focus when initiating a panning shot.

  6. Use a 2-second delay for the shutter and start panning. This ensures that you are panning before the shutter fires which avoids any vertical movement associated with pressing the shutter.

  7. Do your best to keep the horizon level throughout the pan. I find this easiest with a tripod but you can do it without.

  8. Pan relatively quickly. When I first started doing panning shots I would pan slowly because I was conscious of keeping the horizon level and minimising any vertical movement. Now I pan quite quick and find that the lines of swell remain sharp and level.


Image settings - 1/15 second, f/11, ISO 500 - Handheld


For wave panning, whether handheld or on a tripod/monopod, I recommend doing the following.

  1. Start with positioning yourself to be parallel to the waves. Sometimes this may not be possible but as long as you aren't front on to the wave you will get some great textures and lines either on the face of the wave or trailing off the back of the wave. This position is also important so you can shoot into the eye of the wave and pan with the movement of the wave.

  2. Set your drive mode, also known as shutter mode, to highspeed continuos.

  3. Set your focus to AI Servo this is because the wave is constantly moving. If you are shooting parallel to the wave you can potentially set your focus and then switch to Manual Focus as your focal length isn't necessarily changing but I prefer to use AI Servo to cater for small shifts in the distance between myself and the wave, particularly when every wave is different and can be unpredictable.

  4. Look through the viewfinder and line up a wave as the wave begins to form, depress the shutter whilst continuing to pan the camera at a speed that keeps up with the movement of the wave.

Image Settings - 1/10 second, f/4, ISO 500 - Handheld


Final Tips

  1. I find sunrise and sunset are the best times of day to experiment with panning. It is when the light is at its best. I particularly love sunset at my local beach as the light and colour reflect off the surface of the water and off the face of the wave.

  2. Offshore winds can create fantastic conditions for capturing wave shots.

  3. Keep at it. This kind of technique, particularly when panning moving waves, can be tricky but it is worth the patience and perseverance.


My selection of artworks is available here