I grew up in Melbourne where trams were an intrinsic part of the landscape. Catching a rattling historic W-Class tram along the St Kilda Esplanade was not only a novelty but also an important part of my day to day journey. The smell of the brake pads, the open window fanning salty sea wind into your face, the embarrassment when the girl sitting across from you noticed you were looking at her through the reflection of the window. It was convenient to step off directly onto the street, the beach, the cinema, the carnival. Long or short, wherever you wanted to go, a tram would inevitably take you there. And if there was not a tram line... it probably was not worth visiting.
I knew that Melbourne had the world's largest tram network, and by extension, every other system was smaller. The genuine surprise when I started globetrotting, was realising that so many world cities that I had admired (from my humble Melbournian chair) did not have trams at all. So when I floated into cities like Lisbon, Berlin or Prague, I was left with a warm nostalgia and a quiet enthusiasm with the electric streetcar, kindling childhood memories of adventure.
When photographing trams, I have a few standard shots I usually get: the tram in front of a monument or beautiful building, a detail shot, and a panning shot of a tram. In our recent blog about the Tram №28 in Lisbon, I had some people ask me how I shot my panning tram images, so I thought I would share my insight here.
The fundamental principle of panning is to slow down your shutter speed and pan with a moving object, trying to keep them relatively in focus while the world behind distorts into a passing blur. Many factors come into play when choosing a shutter speed: the speed of the object, the stability of your hand or whether you have a tripod. In my experience, I found shooting 1/30 in Shutter Priority was a good starting point; from here I would decrease or increase my speed depending on whether I was too sharp or too blurry respectively.
Whilst it is easier to get the entire tram in focus when it is perpendicular to the camera, but I enjoy it when the tram comes towards you at an angle. The front of the tram will be sharp(er), whilst the rear remains blurry, creating an accelerated sensation of motion.
In either case, you will want to get the front of the tram and the driver's cabin as your point of focus. I shoot in high-speed continuous shooting mode (this is where the ten frames per second of the Nikon D500 really comes in handy). I have my focus set to single point, continuous focusing and place my focus point on either the left or right of my image depending on the direction of the tram. Then I wait patiently and fire away.
You do not need everything to be tack sharp, but you will still need to recognise what you are looking at to give your eye something to linger on. By starting to move before you trigger, and continuing your follow through after the last shot, just like a golf swing, will help you steady your sequence.
I've heard some people say that the background does not matter because it will be blurry anyway, but this is misleading - It absolutely matters. The colours, shapes, exposure, will all play a large part in the final result of the image. Scan the scene for a background that will compliment your tram. For a maximum blur, you will want your background close to the tram.
Even though our images will be affected by a beautiful motion blur, this doesn't mean that standard compositional rules don't apply. Techniques such as leading lines, the rule of thirds, giving your subject proper leading space, negative space, etc., all play just as important role as a regular photograph. You will only need to understand how the panning will affect your final image and keep this in mind when composing your shot.
Handheld vs Tripod
Handheld panning shots are very adaptable and can capture a wide variety of variables, such as the vertical axis you might need - shooting a surfer riding a wave, a BMX rider jumping a hill or a jockey doing horse jumps. It is simple to set up, and easy to manoeuvre, but tripods and monopods do lend themselves quite well to horizontal motion. By using a tripod for a tram, it allows us to shoot slower and with a much longer lens without compromising on the sharpness of our subject.
There is a huge hit to miss ratio in shooting panning shots. The vast majority of my images were too blurry to use. For this blog, I reviewed hundreds of images to make my selection. With so many variables the best advice I can give is to keep shooting and continually review your images to see what is working and where you can improve. One of the great things about shooting trams is you know there will be another one passing by in a number of minutes. Let me know how you go by posting your best panning shots in the comments below.
Author : Alexander J.E. Bradley
Alexander is the founder of Aperture Tours: professional photography guided tours, designed to help you get the best out of your camera whilst exploring wonderful cities with a local. A professional photographer for over a decade Alexander enjoys shooting the surreal by mixing dreamlike qualities into his conceptual images.