How to Create Amazing Vertical Pan Blur Abstract Photographs – Part 1

 

What is a Vertical Pan Blur Landscape Photograph?

We’ve all been seeing cool vertical pan blur photography all over the internet recently.  They’re the latest and the greatest new cool thing.  But they’re not really that new, and they’re surprisingly easy to create.  They’ve just gotten really popular lately as more and more photographers are starting to take photographs using this surprisingly rather simple technique.  I’ve been creating vertical pan blur photographs since 2012.  Stumbling onto this technique after a self imposing creativity isolation was what I look back now as one of my creative growth spurts.

More than 5 years ago I felt that I was butting my creative head up against and plateau.  I was a good photographer producing good professional quality work.  But, I felt that I was stagnating a bit.  I felt like I was getting in a pattern of producing the same old, same old work.  My creative was stalled.

Don’t get me wrong.  I felt that I was producing good, professional quality landscape photography.  But, back in 2012 I felt that my artistic and emotional growth had fallen into a creative rut.  I recognized that and knew that I needed to do something to feel artistically fulfilled.

 

A vertical pan blur of a burnt forested hillside in the Canadian Rockies in Winter. © www.brianmerry.ca

I felt like I had more to give the Photographic World,

but I didn’t know what it was yet.  I struggled…

The Creative Pilgrimage

I basically shut myself in my office/studio for about a week and forced myself to explore the boundaries of my artistic skills searching for something.  I was on a self imposed quest to create something new that I hadn’t seen anyone create anywhere before.  But, when I started my creative isolation in search of personal growth I had no idea what I was going to discover.  Heck, I didn’t know if I’d learned anything at all.  The photographic skills that I had accumulated up to this point in my then 15 year long professional career in 2012 were honed and well tuned, like a razor sharp knife that cuts through a piece of paper floating in the air slicing through it like a hot knife through butter.  I felt like I was on top of my game, near the top of the industry, and I was.

But, I knew I had more to give.  I just didn’t know what it was yet.

During my self imposed creative exile I thought about the best photographers today and what they were creating.  I objectively assess if my skill level was up to their level and replicated their technique in my own photographs.  Practice, practice, practice.  I knew I had to be a master craftsman using the skill set that I already had before could develop something entirely new, and hopefully progressing the industry forward, pushing the boundaries of the norm.  There was something inside of me telling me that I had something different to give back to the industry, something brand new.

The Mentors;  The Masters:

I thought about my idols, the photographers of the past that I looked up to for inspiration and knowledge as I toiled exploring the weaknesses in my present creative ceiling.  I thought about one of my early inspirations, Buddy Peete, my then sister-law’s father.  He took me gave me my first and early inspiration towards photography, some 3 years before I even owned a SLR camera.  I thought about Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and the other members of the f/64 group.  I thought about Courtney Mile, Freedman Paterson, Andres Gallant and Galen Rowell.  These are the masters that I admired and studied.  The lessons I learned from them helped me to find my genera, and provided me guidance towards my future development as a professional photographer.

I thought about how Freeman created beautiful compositions by dragging his shutter during compositions in a field of wildflowers on a windy day.  Also, Ansel Adams was one of the first landscape photographers to truly master the fine art of photographic printing with such a high level of skill that his photographs spoke loudly about the emotional story that they screamed to tell the World.  I thought about the first Great artist who taught me about how gentle gradations of tones could grip a viewer with such force that the power of his photographs of simple things SCREAMED FINE ART at the highest level.  I thought about how these true legendary artists in photography didn’t read about the craft of photography in a book, they felt it and then wrote the pages in the tombs that later defined an industry.

These masters felt their way towards pushing the new limits of the industry.  They set the standards and then proceeded to break through them, time and time again.  Creatives don’t follow, they create.  They blaze new trails in which the industry sometimes follows.  I felt I had something to give, something that would help to stir photographers towards their next level.  A new way of seeing through the lens.

This is the period of time when I discovered creative pan blurring.  But, was I the first to purposefully create photographs like this?  I didn’t know.

Fact checking and sharing with the World

I searched the internet and the popular photography art periodicals to see if anyone else was using this technique.  After about a year of searching and quietly creating I came across a photographer in the Southern United States creating compositions like I was.  This was the first time I had heard of this photographer, and I don’t think he had heard of me.  We probably both came up with this technique around the same time, although, I think I probably developed it first.  

I was almost certainly one of the first professional landscape photographers to start teaching this technique publically back in 2012 in my outdoor photography workshops.  I started teaching my workshops students this technique in my Banff National Park landscape photography workshop series.  Around 2012 I decide to use facebook to notify as many people as I possibly could reach about the vertical pan blur technique.  But, I still only taught it in workshops until recently.  Now. I’m going to explain this technique completely to everybody in this blog.

Selecting the Right Subject to Create your Composition:

Carefully choosing the right subject is the first step in creating a successful vertical pan blur photography.  A good subject includes picture elements that have a repeating vertical pattern.  A mature stand of absolutely straight vertical trees is perhaps the easiest outdoor subject to learn this technique.  I’ve found that a burnt mature forest near where I live in Banff that has a stand of bold vertical straight tree trunks to be excellent subject matter for this technique.

The Burn, Banff National Park.  The forested stand is perfect for creating compelling phoographs using the vertical pan blur technique.  This is the stand of trees I used to create the photograph below, but in Summer.

 

Beautiful pine beetle trees burned in the forest in Banff National Park.  This is the same stand of burnt trees as in the photograph above, but taken in summer when the shrubby vegetation on the ground was green.

 

The Camera Settings:

The settings are really quite simple.  I like to use a medium telephoto zoom lens combined with a slow shutter speed.  The setting I tend to use when photographing a vertical pan blur are:

Focal length:  100mm – 120mm

Shutter speed: 1/20th of a second.  This is not a typo.  Uses this slow of a shutter speed.

Aperture: set your aperture to produce a good average exposure for the scene you’re pre-visualizing your composition in.

ISO:  This doesn’t matter too much, but I do try to avoid sensor noise so I tend to keep the ISO around ISO 1600 or lower my Canon 5D Mark IV, which has virtually no noise at this ISO setting

The key component in the camera settings is to have the shutter speed to be about 1/5 of 1/focal length.  I’ve had the best luck shooting at about 100mm-120mm and 1/20s.

 

The Technique:

If you’re a sports shooter, or a duck hunter, then you know the concept called “Following through with your shot.”  This is the technique that you need to use when shooting a vertical pan blur abstract photograph.  Simply put, you start moving your camera along the plane in which the linear picture elements in your composition are orientated.  In the case of standing trees that is straight up and down in line with the trucks of the trees.  You start moving in the sky and/or above the treetops and continue moving straight down.  After you start moving you press your shutter as you point the camera towards the standing dead trees.  The photo clicks as you’re still moving.  After the shutter closes you are still moving along the plane of the tree trunks.  You stop moving intentionally after the shutter has definitely closed.

This is where the art and the craftsmanship comes into play.  You time the shutter release so the shutter opens and closes perfectly to create a pleasing effect.  Through trial and error, you FEEL THE RIGHT MOMENT to press the shutter.  And, honestly, this takes a few times for me to get right each time I attempt to produce one of these photographs.  I may create 20-40 exposures and only get a a couple that I’m happy with during a session.  It takes practice to get good using this technique and the failure rate is high.

In Part 2, the last part in this series, I’ll talk about how I edit my vertical pan blur photography.  Part 2 will be published in Mar., 2018.

I'm a professional photographer and recreational climber based in Banff, AB. I'm married and run my photography business with my beautiful wife, Kazue. Together we organize and lead travel and landscape photography workshops and tours in both of our homes where we grew up, Cape Breton and Japan. We also lead tours based in my hometown for the past 20 years, Banff, AB. We have been lucky to live, and now work, in some of the most beautiful places in the world.

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