Behind the Shot: Le Mans Nighttime Panning

1/30 , f/3.2 , ISO2000 Canon 1dMK4 + 300mm f2.8 L IS

Motorsports at the Le Mans 24 Hours has come up before in the Behind the Shot series because it presents a great man challenges to any photographer. This time we’re looking at a typical panning shot, where a very slow shutter speed is used, combined with a panning motion of the camera. When you pan with the car and keep it in exactly the same place in the frame, the car stays sharp whilst everything else around it becomes blurred.  This is done to create a sense of speed, and the 1/30 of a second shutter speed for this shot might be a far cry from what you might imagine is needed to capture a photo of a car doing close to 150mph at this point on the track.

The problem that faces motorsports photographers is trying to make it look like the cars are going fast. If you freeze the motion of a car using a fast shutter speed, it’s almost impossible to tell the difference between that shot, and one that was taken if the car was simply parked on the track and not moving at all. This is why a good panning technique is important for this kind of sports photography, but it can be used for any sports where the subject is in motion.

Panning at speeds as slow as 1/30 can take a bit of practice so it’s best to start at a faster speed like 1/250 and then slowly work your way down through the shutter speeds, moving to the next one once you have nailed a good one at the current speed. You don’t need to wait until you are trackside to practice this, you can do it on any road with any cars.

For this photo of the #1 Audi, I pre-focussed on the track because I knew exactly where it was going to be. The cars follow the same line around the corner each lap, so I like to take one task out of my hands, or the camera’s hands whenever I can. Simpler is usually better. With the distance between me and the car never changing, there was simply no need to use autofocus.


Next I set my shutter speed and then dialled in the rest of the exposure manually because night scenes like this with high contrasts between dark and light areas are tricky for the camera’s metering sensor to read. As the car approaches from the left I got it into my viewfinder and began following it and panning long before I pressed the shutter button. This helps you get it in the right spot in the frame, and helps to get into a smooth panning motion at a constant speed. As the car passed the spot on the track at which I had focussed, I fired off a couple of shots.

In this part of the track there are some great coloured lines on the inside of the corner and I knew they would look great when they were blurred by the pan so I deliberately positioned the car at the top of the frame, leaving plenty of room for the yellow and blue at the bottom. Both the car and the lines are strong visual elements in the shot so they balance each other out nicely this way.

Another thing worth pointing out is that when you pan with a long shutter speed like this, the motion of the wheels is also blurred and this helps to add to the sense of speed, just as the blurred track does.

Equipment Used for This Shot

Photo of author

Dan Carr

Founder of Shutter Muse, full time photographer and creative educator. Dan lives in the Canadian Yukon, but his wanderlust often sends him in search of images all around the world to meet the needs of clients and readers alike.

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