Using Continuous (Burst) mode in photography

Burst mode (also known as continuous or sports mode) in photography is when a camera takes numerous continuous shots within an extremely short period of time. It is most useful in sports but many photographers also use it while photographing children or taking group shots. On most high-end cameras, using a burst mode is as simple as setting the burst mode setting and holding shutter release button for as long as you want the camera to take shots. Most cheaper models and point and shoot cameras however, will limit how many images can be taken within a burst.

When to use Burst mode

Continuous mode icon on Canon 5D MarkII

There are several situations where a burst mode can come in handy with sports being the most obvious example. Picture an acrobatic skier flying through the air. You may only have 3 seconds to take your shots while the skier is catching air. Most mid-range DSLRs can shoot 3 to 8 frames-per-second (fps) which can give you up to 24 pictures to choose from. Some high-end cameras that target pro-sport photographers can shoot up to 14fps (like Canon 1Dx) which can create up to 42 pictures in that 3 second jump.

There are several other situations in which Burst mode can be useful. Many photographers like to use this mode while shooting kids. This is often called “spray and pray” method where hundreds or sometimes even thousands of shots are taken in hopes of capturing that precious look. Some photographers also like to use this mode in situations where you might not have a chance to do re-shoot. Picture a model in designer dress, beautifully done makeup and blow-dried hair and the shot you are looking for is her being splashed with water or milk. It would take you several hours to re-create this photo opportunity so it would be to your benefit to use the Continuous mode. Another good situation to use Burst mode may arise while shooting large group portraits. It might be useful to have extra photos to choose from if closed eyes or turned heads need to be edited in post processing (try to use tripod for this kind of scenario).

Things to consider in Burst mode

While Burst mode might seem like the easiest way to capture that precious split-second event, there are several limiting factors to be considered:

  • Most cameras have a limit to how many shots they will let you to take in Burst mode (ranging from 5 to 150 shots). This number of allowed shots is so broad because it largely depends upon numerous factors, such as megapixel count (typically the less megapixels the more shots can be taken), format (Raw format is much bigger than JPG), memory card used (non UDMA (high speed) cards may limit write speed) and exposure settings used.
  • Shooting at such a high speed means your camera will usually not write everything directly on the memory card. Instead, most cameras use a buffering system that stores images on camera’s temporary internal memory until you finish shooting. When internal memory gets full the camera stops taking pictures. It then sends images to the card. The bigger the data the longer it will take the camera to process images before you can start shooting again.
  • Some lower-end cameras have a preset number of images you can take in a Burst mode.
  • Battery life becomes a concern when shooting in raw mode. Since so many images can be shot in seconds, batteries can drain very quickly. This means that you might have to invest in some additional batteries if you plan on shooting long events.
  • Just like batteries, memory cards can also become a limiting factor. With such a large amount of images you may find yourself in need of additional space. Memory cards also have different speeds which can limit camera’s transfer rate.
  • Having such a large number of similar images can be very time consuming in post processing. You can spend a very long time just going through all the continuous shots not to mention difficulties in seeing the differences between virtually identical images. This can become a big burden in your work.
  • Many cameras have a continuous focusing feature when shooting in Burst mode, while some cheaper models might not be able to focus well in this mode. Therefore, when shooting moving object you might need to consider focus.
  • Another drawback is the inability to change camera setting during a burst. All images will have the same shutter speed and f-stop while the shutter button is pressed. If these settings were set incorrectly they will nevertheless be applied to all the shots in a burst.
  • Finally, you should consider camera’s shutter actuations. While many people think that since the camera is digital an infinite number of shots that can be taken, DSLR cameras actually have a limited number of times a shutter can actually click. Most manufactures do not devolve this number but in practice it can be anywhere from 50 to 150 thousand shutter actuations. This can deplete relatively quickly if you are shooting 20 shots per second.

Self-timer: Continuous Mode

Self-timer: Continuous mode on Canon T4i

Some cameras have an option to select Continuous mode during self-timer. This is a nice feature, especially when trying to photograph your family. As a general rule, people never stand still, even when asked to do so (particularly kids). So you can be sure that when you attempt a self-timer feature on your camera, someone will have their eyes close, look somewhere else, cover someone, pick their nose, and so on. You can try to minimize a chance or something like that appearing on your photograph by taking numerous continuous images and picking the one that looks best or combining successful shots in post processing.

Additionally, most cameras that have Self-timer: Continuous mode will even let you choose how many successive shots you would like the camera to perform. For example Canon Rebel T4i allows for up to 10 continuous shots in Self-timer: Continuous mode. You can activate this mode through Drive mode option. Please refer to your camera’s user’s guide for exact steps required by your specific camera.

Other thoughts

If you are interested in shooting in Burst mode, first you would have to find out exact limitations of your specific camera. If you are just shopping for a camera consider a body that doesn’t limit you to several shots per burst. On average, cameras with smaller megapixel count tend to have less limitation in burst count while cameras with nearly unlimited capture potential and high megapixel count tend to be very pricey. Personally, I don’t use Burst very often, except when I’m shooting sports. So when I shop for a camera Burst potential is not a top priority. However, if you plan on using this mode often, you should definitely pay attention to which cameras are best at it. Overall, Burst mode is a very useful feature and it will certainly enhance your photographic capabilities if you master its use.

This entry was posted by Alex Gumerov.

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