Ask David: Continuous shooting mode only takes 5 shots and then starts to buffer. Why? :: Digital Photo Secrets

Ask David: Continuous shooting mode only takes 5 shots and then starts to buffer. Why?

by David Peterson 3 comments

This week’s “Ask David” question comes from Dean Sheard. He’s a big fan of action photography, but whenever he sets his camera to continuous shooting mode, it only takes five pictures before it starts “buffering.” What’s going on here? Can he do anything to take more pictures, or is he stuck in limbo between his camera’s image sensor and his memory card (the digital equivalent of a rock and a hard place)?


Depending on his camera’s make and model, Dean might be able to do something about it. Unfortunately, he’ll have to sacrifice a little quality. Why is that? Unlike your camera’s memory card, your image buffer cannot be switched out or removed. It’s built into you camera, and if it isn’t large enough to handle all those pictures going through it, the buffer will empty itself out before allowing you to take more pictures.

How your digital camera processes images

All digital cameras process images in stages. You think you’re done when the light hits the sensor and forms an image, but that’s only the start. Just after your image is taken, it is sent to the buffer where it waits to be processed into a file that can then be sent to your camera’s memory card.

All of this is going on in the background. As a photographer, you don’t really need to be aware of it until that awkward moment when the buffer runs out of space. If the buffer is full of image data, and the camera is trying to give it more, it tells the camera to stop taking pictures so the image processor can catch up. Once the image processor has caught up, and all of the data in the buffer has been sent to the memory card, you can start taking more pictures.

But herein lies the problem, both for Dean and for you. By the time the camera has finished processing all those images, and the buffer is clear, the action you want to capture is probably long gone. If you want to take more pictures, you’ll have to start all over again.

What can you do?

There might be one way out of this conundrum, but it depends on the camera you’re using. Some cameras aren’t particularly flexible when it comes to buffering. The Nikon Coolpix 5400 (I’m guessing you have this one, Dean?) only allows you to take 5 pictures in a “burst mode,” no matter what quality settings you choose. Other cameras will allow you to take more pictures in a continuous sequence, but only if you reduce the image quality.

By reducing the image quality, you reduce the size of the file, thereby increasing the time it takes for the buffer to fill up. If your camera has this feature programmed into it, you could take a few more shots at a lower quality before your camera tells you it’s “buffering.”

The other option is a camera upgrade. Consumer-end digital SLR cameras like the Nikon D3100 or the Canon EOS Rebel T2i have bigger buffers for longer continuous shooting sequences. Higher end camera bodies tend to have faster continuous fire rates and bigger buffers to accommodate the needs of professional sports/action photographers. If you’re really into these kinds of shots, it’s a good reason to upgrade your setup.

I should also mention that the cost of memory keeps getting lower and lower every year, and that means more point-and-shoot models will start featuring bigger buffers. Pretty soon, this problem will be a thing of the past.

Got any questions? Don’t be shy! Ask me, and I’ll delve in the details for you. Just send me an email or leave a comment below.

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Comments

  1. ROB says:

    MY SONY A57 HAS A BURST RATE OF 14 FRAMES PER SECOND FOR LESSER QUALITY PHOTOS AND A QUALITY BURST RATE OF 10-12 FRAMES PER SECOND.

    THE BUFFER ALLOWS FOR ABOUT 50 SHOTS, IT TAKES ABOUT 5 SECOND TO RESUME SHOOTING AT BURST BUT ABOUT 10 SECONDS TO TOTALLY PROCESS BURSTS.

  2. Melisa says:

    Interesting.... Thank you both for the pointers! :)

  3. Elvin says:

    Hi, Depending on the camera-modell there are sometimes other things to do:
    * get a faster memory-card so that the buffer can be emptied faster onto the card (I managed to get from 5 to 7 pictures in one burst)
    * use only RAW-processing (the processor-power in the camera is less important) and process later on the computer. This needs big memory-cards and fast cards of course
    * with RAW and smaller pictures you can get the same quality of a JPG with higher quality though
    * use a 'not digital-camera' (thus analog): put a film of 36 (mostly 38/40 pictures): the speed is high until the film is full. Scan the film later 'at home' to process digitally.
    since I use Pentax, I can use my lenses on both systems (with some adjustments of course), works real good with two bodies.

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