Cheat sheet: How to freeze a fast-moving subject

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Ever needed to freeze a fast-moving subject? Whether it's a bird in flight, a vehicle moving at high speed or someone playing sports, there are certain techniques that will help you nail the shot.

Quite what you need to do, however, depends on the subject itself – and more specifically, its position relative to you and the nature of its movement.

You could, for example, be dealing with a subject that is approaching you head-on, or alternatively, one that's moving across the scene. Of course, you might be dealing with something that's moving in a direction between the two.


How to freeze a fast-moving subject

Let's say you're dealing with a subject that is moving across the scene. You need to be able to keep up with the subject as it travels, so panning it would make the most sense – otherwise, you would have a very small window of opportunity to get it right. 

Panning is where you track the movement of the subject with the camera so that you're in sync. You essentially find the subject and move with it so that it stays in roughly the same position in the frame as it moves, and you capture one or more images as you do this.

Read more: Cheat sheet: Wide vs narrow aperture

It takes a bit of practice, and it's worth getting a good run-up so that you are moving smoothly when it comes to the point at which you need to capture your image(s), although your shutter speed is also something to think about.

A slow shutter speed used in conjunction with a successful pan will help you to get a nice blurred background and a subject that's rendered sharply against it. This looks great as it creates a real sense of motion. 

A fast shutter speed can also be used here, although the result will be a little different. You won't get as much of a blur in the background, but you stand a better chance of getting the subject nice and sharp. You may want to start with a moderately fast shutter speed and gradually decrease this as your panning technique improves.    

Read more: Cheat sheet: Depth-of-field decisions

Things are a little different when you're shooting a subject coming towards you. Why's that? The distance between you and the subject is constantly decreasing, so you need to make sure your camera's autofocus system can keep track of the subject as it approaches you – otherwise you will be left with a blurry subject.  

For a shot where you're dealing with a subject that's moving at an angle towards you, notice how the subject is moving and adjust your shutter speed accordingly so that you can keep up with it as it travels. You can usually get away with a moderately slow shutter speed here for a nice, blurred background, but your camera's autofocus system will need to keep up and your panning technique should be sound.

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Matt Golowczynski

The former editor of Digital Camera World, "Matt G" has spent the bulk of his career working in or reporting on the photographic industry. For two and a half years he worked in the trade side of the business with Jessops and Wex, serving as content marketing manager for the latter. 

Switching streams he also spent five years as a journalist, where he served as technical writer and technical editor for What Digital Camera before joining DCW, taking on assignments as a freelance writer and photographer in his own right. He currently works for SmartFrame, a specialist in image-streaming technology and protection.