What is a Camera Pan? [Essential Guide]

Camera Pan
Camera Pan

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In this article we look at a camera move that’s subtle and often underrated… the panning shot. It may seem simple, but when used well, it’s seamless and very effective.

We discuss what a camera pan is, why it’s used, where you’ve seen it, and key things to consider when aiming for the perfect pan shot.

So without further ado, let’s explore the hidden power of the camera pan.

What is a Camera Pan?

In cinematography, a camera pan is a simple technique that is achieved by rotating the camera left or right. It’s the simplest way to guide a viewer’s attention within a scene.

In fact, the word ‘Pan’ derives from Panorama, which means a picture containing a wide view.

This is not to be confused with a tilt shot, which is where the camera angles up and down from a fixed axis.

That being said, it can be combined with other movements such as tilt, zoom, and tracking shots, but in this article, we’re going to focus on camera pans from a fixed position.

Why Use A Pan Shot?

Overall, pan shots can be used in many ways to shape the tone, style, and narrative of a film. For example:

  • Set Pace & Tone
  • Immerse Viewer
  • Establish Location
  • Track Subject
  • Introduce Character
  • Reveal or Hide Information
  • Reframing
  • Transitions

Camera pans are so effective because it’s similar to how we experience daily life. Every day, we scan our environments from side to side, spotting objects of interest, and deciding to interact or not. The camera pan is a direct extension of this natural behavior. It’s like looking around.

Questions To Ask:

To get a clearer picture during pre-production ask yourself the following questions:

  • What are you trying to say with the shot?
  • What do you want the beginning and end of the pan to look like? This helps you fill in the blanks between these two objectives. 
  • What is the tone of the scene? This helps you decide the pan quality, speed, length, and framing.
  • What mini-story can unfold all within one shot?

A pan shot is an essential skill to practice. It gets better with time. Also, the more you do it, the more creative ways to use it will come to you.

Panning Shot Examples

Below, we have a variety of notable scenes using camera pans that produce effective results.

No Country for Old Men (2007)

The Cohen brothers are great a using classic filming techniques. In the opening scene from No Country for Old Men you see a series of beautiful Texan vistas. After seeing static shots of the great wide open, a panning shot introduces a character who is now detained by law enforcement. 

Grand Budapest Hotel (2005)

Wes Anderson is a big user of the pan shot. Very often he uses 90-degree pans to give you a sense of space, and to see what the character sees. This is also effective for comedic reveals.

Black Swan (2010)

Aaron Aronofsky is a big user of POV shots to get you to feel the emotional state of the characters. In Black Swan (2010) you get a sense of the character’s instability and chaotic life. During her ballet spins, the whip pan enhances the dizzying effect.

Back to the Future (1985)

Here’s an example of a full pan movement from Back To The Future (1985). This is a great example of storytelling all within one shot. It not only covers the theme of time but also provides plot points revealed later in the film.

As you can see from the examples, there are many types of pan shots to choose from. Below we explain what they are and how they’re used.

Types of Pan Shots

Depending on the goals of the shot, below are several types of camera pan shots to consider.

Whip Pans

One of the most widely used camera pans is called the ‘Whip Pan’ aka the ‘Swish Pan’. This simple technique is used for a variety of effects. For example:

  • Transitions
  • Motion Blur Effect
  • Control Direction of Attention
  • Dizzying Effect
  • Transitions
  • Character POV
  • Passage of Time
  • Energetic Fight Scenes
  • Cause and Effect

Here’s a video example from the two films Whiplash (2014) and La La Land (2016) cut together. Both films are frequent users of the whip pan.

Full Movement

A full movement pan consists of a 360-degree view of a space. It reveals the most information in one shot.

This shot from Jim Carrey’s show Kidding (2018) is combined with a tracking shot, but you can see the story telling power of a full pan shot.

Synchronized Movement

Next, you have synchronized movement. This is where the camera is directly paired with the movement of the characters or action. Keeping a moving subject in a fixed area of the frame is visually pleasing for the viewer.

Eye Level Pan

An eye-level pan follows the action from a character’s point of view. This is also known as a motivated camera shot, shifting your attention to see what the character sees.

Pan Away

Pan away shots are an effective way to spark the viewer’s imagination.

You can see this in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992). The horror of witnessing a man’s ear cut off is suddenly relieved by panning away from the action. The gruesome moment is concealed, and the viewer is left to fill in the blanks.

Pan Shot Factors

The cause and effect of your pan shot depends on a few factors such as pan quality, length, speed, and framing.  Let’s look into them in more detail.

Pan Quality

The pan quality has to do with the style of the camera movement.

One option is a smooth and controlled pan using a tripod or gimbal. This way you can lock down the tilt and keep a consistent horizontal framing throughout the shot.

The other option is going handheld, which creates a shaky realistic shot. This makes the viewer feel as if they’re in the action.

Pan Length

The length of your camera pan determines how the viewer feels during the shot.

For example, a long pan used for an establishing shot produces a reflective state. This allows the viewer to soak up as much information as possible. Long pans also have the potential to tell a mini story all within one shot.

Next, you have the short pan, which is a simple reframing method. This can be used to switch between facial features during a close-up. A short pan can also be used to reveal an unexpected character within a scene.

Pan Speed

The speed of your camera pan will determine the tone of the shot.

For example, a slow pan is a great tool for building tension. A slow reveal of a dark eerie house puts the viewer in a state of anticipation, maybe something will appear, or maybe it won’t. Either way, it opens them up for a surprise.

On the other hand, fast panning shots energize the scene. By forcing the viewer to quickly follow the action, you ramp up the excitement. You see this often in car chases, on-foot pursuits and fight scenes.

Framing

Panning shots allow you to land on different compositions all in one shot. 

One great compositional technique used for a pan shot is the rule of thirds. For instance, when tracking a moving subject, align it with one of the two vertical lines with looking room.

In addition, align your background with one of the horizontal guidelines to compose a really beautiful shot.

Camera Pan Pro Tips

To achieve a great pan shot here are a few quick tips:

  1.  Using a tripod gives your camera the smoothest pan possible. Also, by locking off the tilt, you get a consistent horizon line.
  2.  Hold your breath while panning to minimize any unwanted movement.
  3.  Use the Rule of thirds to align objects in your frame
  4. Use your body to set up the shot. First, plant your feet and hips in the direction of the landing position of your pan shot. Then, reverse coil the upper half of your body to the beginning of the shot. This gives you the full range of motion needed to cover the distance of the movement.

Wrapping Up

To sum up, you can shape the pace and tone of your story with the very basics.

There are so many ways to make your shots compelling with the camera pan. It’s an essential skill for any filmmaker’s tool kit.

Next time you watch a movie, look for the pans. Then, make notes about what you liked about it and how it added to the film’s narrative qualities. Keep this list handy and you can refer to it when you need inspiration to shoot your scene.

Lastly, the best way to get better at this technique is to practice. So get out there and start panning!

Author
Marcus VanWormer
Marcus VanWormer
Marcus is a freelance director, cinematographer, and video editor based in Brooklyn. He has a diverse background in film production working with companies like ABC, CBS, Jeep, Harley Davidson, and Levi's. His passion is storytelling. Follow him on Linkedin.
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