Joe and Mary Ann McDonald's

Wildlife Photography

February 2007

Question of the Month

What is the Best Shutter Speed for Panning Running Mammals?


Puma, Left, at 1/50th sec. Although this is a useable image and conveys motion, the face of the puma is not razor sharp. You'll note, also, that the legs almost disappear as they're moving even faster. Legs can literally vanish at slow shutter speeds, and that usually is not effective!

Panning, as you all know, can imply a sense of motion as foreground, background, and the area around the subject blurs, while the subject (hopefully) stays sharply in focus. In contrast, fast shutter speeds that freeze motion can reduce the sense of speed or motion as the areas around the subject are more sharply delineated.

Panning requires some skill. If a subject is moving rapidly, to insure a sharp focus, even at a fast shutter speed, you may need to pan. For example, you'll be better off panning and following the motion of a bald eagle swooping towards a fish that if you had a stationary, motionless lens position. Even at fast shutter speeds you'll probably see a blurred streak in the eye-highlights of the eagle if the camera didn't follow the subject.

At slow shutter speeds, panning with the subject is absolutely essential, but doing this correctly can be a challenge. Here's how I pan, and usually get great results.

Wolf, left, at 1/80th sec. Whether the wolf wasn't moving as quickly, or the wolf's legs weren't moving as fast, the legs are more clearly visible. Multiple shots at 1/80th sec yielded similar results. You can learn virtually everything you need to know to be a competent, skilled nature photographer at our Digital Complete Nature Photo Courses in Pennsylvania and in Arizona.

With telephotos I use a Wimberley gimbal-style actionhead that allows me to smoothly follow a subject while panning. I try to keep some part of my subject consistently in the same focusing bracket so that my panning speed and my subject's movement are in synchrony, much as a hunter would keep the crosshairs of a scope on the shoulder of a running deer, for example. If you ever fired a rifle or shotgun you know that you have almost no chance of hitting a moving target if your firearm doesn't follow the subject. The same most assuredly applies to following a running mammal with a telephoto lens.

Using a Wimberley head, or a regular ballhead if need be, allows you to keep the telephoto on a consistent plane, and minimizes the chance of up/down wobbling. If you're hand-holding your camera/lens rig, you may indeed wobble, and the resulting image has a double-image, unattractive blur effect.

Sometimes the up/down, rocking motion or gallop of your subject may create this wobbly look, and there's nothing you can do about that except use faster shutter speeds, but doing that may negate the motion/pan effect you're looking for.

So, what is the best speed for panning a running mammal?

The answer depends upon the speed of the animal. A skunk, for example, won't cover ground as quickly as a fox or a deer, so slower shutter speeds would be needed to create the sense of blur. Conversely, a comparatively fast shutter speed could be used on a galloping horse or pronghorn antelope and still achieve a blurred background.

Badgers aren't very fast, but nevertheless 1/80th sec effectively created a nice plan blur.


However, for most mammals the size of a fox or larger 1/60th to 1/100th sec will, on animals going at a reasonable pace for that animal, create a very effective blur. Mind you, if an animal is really bolting, running at top speed, you could probably double these speeds to a minimum of 1/125th and a high of 1/250th. The accompanying illustrations illustrate the effects.

Both this wolf, and the one above, have near razor-sharp faces at 1/80th sec., but the trick was effectively following the wolf's horizontal motion with a smooth, steady pan.


Previous Questions of the Month




 Camera Techniques

 In the Field

Do You Need a
Big Printer?

Can a Wimberley Head be used with small lenses?

Is a Trip to Antarctica
Worth it?

 Film or Digital?
Why you should shoot film!

 Is there an easy way to level a camera for panorama shots?

 Why is Yellowstone the best for wildlife photography in the US?

Apertures for Macro

 Why must you have
at least 2 digital backups

 Wildlife Models
Is there anything new
to shoot?

 Is the New Wimberley head worth having?

  What is our Digital Workflow in the Lab?

 Who should go Digital,
and when?

 What is our initial Digital Workflow?

Is Shooting in the RAW format worthwhile?

 Can you match the Histograms?
 How do I keep track of Digital Files?

  Is Digital Manipulation - a benign alternative to interacting in the natural world?

What is DEC? 

How can you capture a sharp image and angel hair on a windy day?  

 Is the Mark II the ultimate wildlife digital camera?

  Does the Visibledust cleaning system really work?

What do we really think about digital photography?

 What do we think of the Canon D30 digital camera?

How long will film be around? 

  The Sunny 16 rule -- is it worth knowing today?

 What is the Difference?

 How do we meter White?

 How can you save your shoulders?

  How do you shoot silhouettes?

 How would you meter these challenging images?

Why should you know Manual Mode? 

How would you meter these images?

 What is the best season to do a photo safari in East Africa?

Which Mountain Park is better for wildlife - Denali or Torres del Paine?

What is the best Car Window Mount? 

  How do you make things happen in wildlife photography?

 What are our Five Favorite Shooting Locales?

 What is the Big Lie?
Tfhe truth about Kenya's Tourism--it is SAFE!

 Which binoculars do we just love to use?

 What is the best
Game Caller?

 What is our Favorite bird-shooting location?

 How Easy is Whale Photography?

  How do we carry our film when traveling?

What Film Lab do we use, and why? 

 How can you attract insectivorous birds to your feeding stations and bait sites? 

How can you reduce contrast and the effect of wind for flower and macro photography?

 Is an L-Shaped Camera Bracket worth the Money?
You bet it is!

 Using Zoom lenses with tele-converters and extension tubes -- can you use both together?

 What the heck is the Scheimpflug Law?

  Reciprocity Failure

 What is the Best Composition?

 Are Image Stabilization Lenses Worth the Money?

 Hyperfocal Distance

  How do you determine distances?

 Should you have a depth of field Preview button on your camera?

 Flash and Tele-flash Techniques

 What is the most versatile remote release camera firing system?

 What the heck is a Plamp?

 What is the best flash for closeup and
macro photography?

 How do you shoot high-speed action images?
 How did I photograph that flying wasp?

 What is the Fotronix's
Flash System?

What is the Most Important thing you can do before a Workshop?

How did I shoot the gliding Sugar Glider?
 Is NANPA for you?  What is NANPA and how will it benefit me?

 Is it time for a summer NANPA Summit?

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