Burst mode harnesses the power of digital technology to help photographers capture the moment. Also known as continuous shooting mode, burst mode shoots a series of rapid-fire frames in quick succession. In effect, it slices a moment into a sequence of mini-moments. And from that sequence, we select the most compelling image.
I use burst mode for wildlife, sports, or any situation that calls for photographing action. But burst mode is also useful for portraits and groups to avoid catching someone mid-blink or looking distracted.
In this article, we explore how to set up burst mode in your camera and smartphone, how to apply it to freeze the action in wildlife and sports, and how it can elevate your portrait and group photography.
Setting Up Burst Mode in Digital Cameras
First, let’s define a couple of terms. Frame rate, or frames per second (FPS), indicates how many images are being captured in one-second. The Burst rate estimates how many consecutive images can be taken in burst mode before the camera’s buffer reaches capacity and slows down or stops the burst.
Entry-level cameras offer a frame rate of 4 – 6 FPS. Many of these cameras will slow down after a couple of seconds. Professional-grade cameras shoot 10 – 20 FPS and some upwards of 100 FPS; these cameras will capture hundreds of frames before slow-down.
Use a High-Speed SD Card
Burst mode increases the demand on your camera’s buffer; a faster memory card helps.
Using a fast, high capacity SD memory card enables your camera to perform at a high level.
This is especially true if you shoot RAW files; it’s less of a factor when shooting JPG files.
I recommend a Class 10 or UHS Class 1 – 3 memory card with a minimum storage of 32 GB.
The number 10 in a circle indicates a Class 10 card, and a number within a U shows its UHS Class. These specifications are circled in red in the image below.
Burst Mode Settings
Setting up burst mode varies with camera brands. Nikon and Canon call it Continuous Shooting Mode. Sony cameras label it Burst Shooting Mode. Refer to your camera’s user manual for specific instructions to navigate the menu and locate the shooting mode options.
Depending on the camera, you may have a choice of shooting a high or low burst. With some of the higher end cameras, you select a specific number of frames per second, as in the image below.
Select a Focus Mode
With the burst mode selected, set the focus mode. For action shooting, I suggest continuous focusing mode. With Canon, this is AI Servo; on Nikon and Sony, it’s AF-C. Continuous focus tracks objects as you keep the shutter button pressed. This maintains focus on moving objects while you capture a series of frames.
However, for portraits or a group setting, I would suggest going with single autofocus: One-Shot on Canon and AF-S on Nikon and Sony and most other camera brands. Half-press the shutter button to achieve focus lock. Then, fully press and hold the shutter button to capture a burst.
Set the Shutter Speed
Select the proper shutter speed, which will vary with the shooting situation. I rarely shoot below 1/2000sec for wildlife; from 1/500sec to 1/1000sec for sports. I can see going lower than 1/500sec for slower subjects.
If the shutter is set to a very slow speed, the camera’s burst mode will not function.
With the shutter speed set, adjust the aperture and ISO to get the correct exposure.
Using Burst Mode with Smartphone Cameras
The camera in your smartphone is more advanced than you may think. It is mirrorless, uses an electronic shutter, and is powered by artificial intelligence. And yes, smartphone cameras feature burst mode.
With Android phones, merely open the camera app, and press and hold the shutter button icon. The camera captures a series of pictures until you release the shutter.
Some of the older iPhone cameras work the same way. With newer models, press and quickly slide the shutter button icon to the left to initiate burst mode. Release it when you’re done.
Here is a quick video from our smartphone photography course about using Burst Mode with your smartphone camera:
Samsung’s Galaxy SIII features a frame rate of 3.3 FPS with a burst rate of 20 images. Apple’s iPhone 5S shoots 10 FPS. With the addition of special software, it delivers up to 30 FPS.
Capturing Fast Moving Subjects with Burst Mode
When it comes to sports photography, burst shooting mode is a gift. Whether it’s football, tennis, or swimming, critical moments of peak action happen in the blink of an eye. With burst shooting mode, photographers fire off a burst of shots to ensure they capture that exact instant.
I try to anticipate the action to include frames before and after the peak of the action. Of course, I end up with plenty of images that I won’t use, but I maximize the chance that I capture a special moment.
By shooting continuously, photographers can capture split-second movements, such as a basketball player dunking, a runner crossing the finish line, or a soccer player scoring a goal. Burst mode elevates our ability as photographers to document these electrifying moments.
Choose the Most Compelling Image from a Series of Shots
In post production, select the best image from a burst series. Choose the photo with the most engaging composition, an interesting expression, or the high point of the action.
I suggest culling some of the images in-camera. In the photo below, I eliminated about 10 photos in the burst and chose the one showing the batter about to swing at a pitch. This would have been frustrating without a burst.
Catching the Natural Behavior of Wildlife
Wildlife photography is especially rewarding. However, animals do not cooperate. They fly or run and engage in behaviors that last only a fraction of a second. Taking a quick succession of photos of these behaviors is challenging. So, burst mode is a true asset.
With a burst of images, photographers increase their chances of snapping captivating views of wildlife in their natural surroundings. Whether it’s a bird in flight, a cheetah sprinting, or a bear catching a fish, burst mode helps photographers obtain a series of images to choose from, ensuring they catch that crucial moment.
In the series of frames below, I selected the second frame. It was one of two frames where I managed to get the entire bird, a ring-billed gull, within the frame.
The final image below showed the Gull’s wingspan with nice highlights in the feathers from backlighting. And I caught the eye of the bird in sharp focus.
Working with a telephoto lens complicates shooting fast moving, erratic subjects such as birds in flight. Slight movements of the camera result in big changes within the camera frame. Burst mode greatly improves the chance of getting the subject in the frame with good composition.
Portrait and Group Photography
Continuous shooting is not limited to fast moving subjects. It is valuable in portrait and group photography as well. Use burst mode to catch subtle changes in expressions. I find that the beginning of a smile is often more appealing than the full smile. Also, delicate changes occur around the eyes and mouth that you’ll notice when looking through the burst sequence.
Using burst mode increases the likelihood of capturing authentic, emotive, and natural expressions.
In group settings, catching someone in a blink or looking away can ruin an otherwise great shot. Burst mode improves the chances that you capture a good shot. Shoot multiple frames in quick succession; then, pick the one where everyone has their eyes open and is looking at the camera.
Create an Action Sequence Image
An action sequence conveys movement that can’t be achieved in a single image. After shooting a burst of photos, combine them to show how the subject moves throughout the sequence. It may be a snowboarder becoming airborne, a horse jumping a fence, or a golfer teeing off.
In post processing, load the files into a stack in Photoshop, add a layer mask, use the brush tool to paint over the subject, invert the mask, and merge the two photos. Repeat the process through the sequence, merging each, then flatten the layers into a background and save. We may go into more detail with this process in another article.
Burst mode is a versatile and powerful tool for photographers. It allows us to freeze moments and capture dynamic sequences. And it’s relatively easy. Whether you’re engaged in wildlife photography, action-packed sports, portrait sessions, or simply using your smartphone to photograph your pet, burst mode can significantly enhance your results.
Remember, practice is key. Activate burst mode. Experiment with different subjects, settings, and scenarios to become proficient in utilizing this feature. Embrace continuous shooting. It offers countless creative possibilities. If you have any questions or comments, please submit them in the space below.