You know that rapid-fire sound that a pro’s camera makes when she’s shooting fast action? That’s called “continuous shooting mode,” or sometimes “burst mode.” It’s exactly what it sounds like it is—you push the shutter button, keep your finger where it is, and your camera takes a rapid series of photos until you release the button.
Most modern DSLRs have continuous shooting mode—and some compact cameras do, too. If your camera has this ability, make use of it. Continuous shooting mode can save the day when you’re shooting fast action, because without it you might not be quick enough to click that shutter button at exactly the right moment. Let’s take a look at how continuous mode works and when it’s most useful.
Ordinary vs. Continuous Shooting
In normal shooting mode, you’re wasting time. Now, this isn’t a problem if you’re shooting a relatively stationary subject, but a subject that moves presents a separate set of challenges. If you’re in normal shooting mode, your camera will refocus after each release of the shutter button (unless you’re using manual focus). That’s a lot of time between shots—yes, it can be measured in fractions of a second, but when your subject is moving fast, fractions of a second can mean the difference between capturing the moment and missing it.
Let’s say your subject is a car, a horse, a running child or a skier. Anything that moves fast is going to present a problem for you in normal shooting mode—but if you switch to continuous shooting mode, you’ll take a rapid series of images across a span of just a couple of seconds. What you’ll end up with is a large collection of images to choose from instead of just one or two—and that means you’ll have much better odds of capturing the perfect moment out of that very brief window of opportunity. In the above image, the photographer almost certainly used burst mode—short of luck, there’s no other way to get a shot like that one.
Another great thing about continuous mode is that it’s a lot more economical than it used to be—today we have memory cards that are capable of capturing and storing a ton of images, and if you don’t like most of them you can just delete the bad and keep the good. This leaves you free to take as many photos as you need to in order to maximize your chances of capturing the best possible photo.
Let’s look at a couple of specific examples—check out this image of a racecar crossing the finish line. Racecars move very fast, maxing out near 200 miles per hour. If you stood near the finish line and tried to shoot a car as it passed the checkered flag and you weren’t using continuous mode, you might not be fast enough to hit the shutter button at exactly the right moment. There’s the forward motion of the car and there’s the slight shutter lag that all cameras have, and all of that amounts to your best guess about when the right moment to press the shutter button might be. Sure, you might get lucky—but you’re more likely to miss the shot. In continuous shooting mode, however, you can start firing before the car gets to the finish line, and you can keep going until after it passes you by. Now you’ve got a series of photos of the car approaching, crossing and passing the finish line—and at least one of them is likely to be exactly the image you were looking for.
Ready for action
I like to keep my camera in burst mode all the time—sure, you don’t really need it to take portraits or to photograph landscapes, but what if your portrait subject decides to dance a jig halfway through the shoot, or a herd of mustangs chooses that exact moment to go galloping across the desert. Putting your camera in continuous mode means you’ll be ready for that fast action when it happens, even if you’re not anticipating it.
Pro Tip: Remember our earlier discussion about the value of pre-focusing on moving subject? When you’re in continuous mode, that’s a great time to use this trick. Try to anticipate where your subject will be and then pre-focus on that spot by pressing down on the shutter button halfway. When your subject arrives, press down on the button the rest of the way, and keep your finger there until the moment passes.
What you should know about different cameras
The newer your camera is, the more likely it is to offer a continuous shooting mode. But you should be aware of exactly how fast your own camera’s continuous mode is—budget model point and shoot cameras, for example, may have a continuous shooting mode of sorts—but it may only be a few frames per second. Newer cameras and DSLRs can do a lot better than that—some models can even take as many as 14 frames per second! Now, that doesn’t mean that you should go out and buy a new camera so you can get more frames per second, but it does mean that you should be aware of your own camera’s limitations. The more frames per second your camera is capable of, the less lucky you have to be when those fast-action photo opportunities come around.
Avoid “spray and pray”
You may have heard the expression “spray and pray” when talking about continuous shooting mode—it’s important to recognize that continuous shooting mode is not the answer to all your photography prayers. When someone uses the expression “spray and pray,” they’re generally referring to an over-reliance on continuous shooting mode—in other words, photographers who think that if they just keep their finger on the shutter button then they can blunder into a good photo without having to think about things like camera settings and composition. Continuous shooting mode should never be a substitute for good photography practices—use it when you know the moment is right, and make sure you proceed it with smart analysis of your camera’s settings and some thought about how you should be composing the image. Think about where the light is and how you might be able to change your camera angle to make a more compelling photo. In short, don’t just put your finger on the shutter and pray for an awesome shot—you’re a lot more likely to get an awesome shot if you use burst mode only after thinking about your goals for the photo.
Muybridge Mutt by Flickr user Christopher David Black
Continuous shooting mode is one of the “secrets” of pro photographers, and it’s one that you can use right now to improve your own photographs. As long as you have good light and a fast shutter speed, you can capture great images with continuous shooting mode, and luck will have very little to do with it. Once you try continuous shooting mode, I’m pretty sure you’ll never look back.
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