If you learned how to take photos on an old fashioned SLR camera, complete with $8-per-roll Kodak film (not counting processing fees), then the idea of shooting in burst mode (called "motor drive" in those days) was probably terrifying. Unless, of course, you had financial backing from the newspaper you were working for, or a wildly successful photography business, or maybe you just inherited a small fortune from a wealthy uncle and could afford to burn film.
Lucky for us modern digital photographers, the days where lots of shots meant lots of money are gone. Today most DSLRs (and many point and shoots, too) can shoot in burst mode, which means you can increase your chances of capturing that amazing shot without having to spend your inheritance on film.
[ Top image Flo Oktomat by Flickr user fotologic]
Before we start, I'm not advocating "Spray and pray". This very derogatory term is used to describe burst mode when it's used as the only photography technique for a situation; if you're shooting every scene in the blind hope that if you keep that shutter button down you'll end up with one good shot out of a few hundred, then you're missing something. You're not taking the time to evaluate the scene and your subject. You're not thinking about background, light and composition. If you find yourself forgetting everything you ever learned about photography when you switch to that burst mode, then switch away from it for a while. Only use it when you've taken some time to evaluate the situation. You'll find that you get a lot more useable frames out of burst mode when you slow down in between and give some thought to what you are shooting.
How to use Burst Mode
The speed of your camera's burst mode (also called "continuous shooting mode") depends largely on your camera. Some cameras can only shoot two or three frames per second, while others can shoot 10 or more, and the technology of course is always changing.
Burst mode is pretty ridiculously simple to use, but it is an optional feature on most cameras, which means you have to find it in your camera's settings and select it before you can use it. Nikon DSLR cameras, for example, have burst mode as a switch on the front of the camera body - you can select single frame shooting mode, continuous low (CL) or continuous high (CH). Those last two settings are customizable in the camera's menu: you can set up your camera to record two or three frames (give or take) at continuous low, or you can set up continuous high to record more than that, up to as many as your particular camera model is capable of. Now, why would you want your burst mode to record fewer images than what your model is capable of? Well that depends on what your goals are. More on that in a minute.
When should you use burst mode?
Burst mode is a great choice anytime you're taking photographs of a moving subject. One obvious example is when you're shooting sporting events - athletes move fast, and with single-frame shooting it's very difficult to anticipate the shot you want to capture and press that shutter button in time to get the perfect shot. Burst mode is almost a requirement when shooting sports, unless you have luck on your side.
But burst mode is good for other situations, too. Children can be difficult subjects because like athletes they are constantly in motion. Animals are the same way. But you can also make use of burst mode in other situations, too. Group photos are an excellent example, because as I'm sure you know it's extremely difficult to capture everyone in a group at the same moment with their eyes opened, their smiles natural, and their hands relaxed (as opposed to scratching their noses or swatting a mosquito). Shooting a burst of a dozen or more images will give you a good chance of catching each one of your subjects at their best. And if not all at the same time, you can always cut and paste in Photoshop.
Finally, don't rule out burst mode for subjects who are mostly sitting still, either. When you ask someone to pose for a photograph, you may get just that - a posed photograph. People tend to tense up and look a bit fake until they hear that shutter fire, and then they relax a little afterwards. Shooting a number of consecutive images rather than just one may mean you'll capture your subject looking more natural in that fifth or sixth image.
Once you've shot a bunch of photos in burst mode, you can either combine them into a single shot using special software, choose the best ones and display them as a sequence, or just pick the best ones to stand alone. There's a lot of creative potential for burst mode, so it pays to play around and see what you like.
The Drawbacks of Burst Mode
Yes, there are drawbacks, which brings us back to those customizable settings.
Write speed. Your camera may not necessarily be capable of writing the images to your memory card as fast as it is able to capture them. Instead, it moves each frame to a buffer, where that frame is stored until it can be added to the card. If you take a whole lot of shots, you will have to wait until all those pictures have been added to the memory card before you can shoot anymore. This may have the exact opposite effect of what you were going for when you chose burst mode in the first place - you may miss the ultimate shot because you were having to wait around for all those other shots to land on the memory card. In this way, burst mode becomes a bit of a gamble. That's why it's important to use those customizations - you may not want to take more than a couple of shots in burst mode, depending on what your goals are. Think carefully about what you're shooting, how fast it's moving and whether or not you're willing to wait for your camera to write all those images.
Memory card and battery limitations. Another problem you may run into is memory card consumption, or battery consumption, whichever comes first. If you're at an event where you are shooting a lot of frames in burst mode, you may find that you've used up your battery and/or are out of memory cards before the event has ended. It's a good idea to have an understanding of what burst mode does to your particular camera's battery life before you go to an event like this; it is also a good idea to bring along a lot of memory cards. Particularly if you are saving your photos in RAW.
Focusing. Don't forget that a moving object is hard to keep in focus. When you're shooting sports or other fast-moving events, you'll need to have your autofocus set to continuous focusing mode - but even that may not be a perfect solution. When you're shooting a lot of frames even continuous focusing may not be able to keep up, and you'll end up with some blurry shots.
Time. You may or may not have the kind of time required to weed through hundreds of photos until you find that one great shot out of several hundred.
Think carefully before you decide to shoot an event or a scene in burst mode. Does the situation warrant taking a lot of continuous shots? Can you slow down for some shots and speed up for others? The key to successful burst mode is to use your mind, even while you're blindly pressing that shutter release button. If the term "spray and pray" applies to the way you use burst mode, you're using it wrong. If it doesn't, then burst mode can be an extremely useful way to capture a whole lot of great images rather than just one or two shots out of a whole lot of bad ones.
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