Do you want to capture action shots of kids running, birds flying, sports players dunking, split-second moments on the streets, and more?
Well, you can – if you know how to use your camera’s burst mode, that is.
Burst mode, also known as continuous shooting mode, allows you to shoot a series of rapid-fire images without stopping. Depending on your camera’s capabilities, you can record 5, 10, 20, or even 60 images per second, and each one offers another opportunity to capture a once-in-a-lifetime action image.
In this article, I’m going to share everything you need to use burst mode like a pro, going from the basics all the way up to advanced continuous-shooting guidelines.
Let’s dive right in.
What is burst mode?
Burst mode is a camera function that allows you to capture a series of photographs in quick succession. With burst mode activated, you can hold down the shutter button, and your camera will rattle off a set of photos.
The specific burst mode speeds vary from camera to camera; low-end and older cameras offer burst modes in the 3 frames-per-second range (i.e., 3 photos per second). Class-leading sports cameras offer 20, 30, or 60 frames per second. And the average camera offers 6-12 frames per second.
Unfortunately, most camera burst modes are not unlimited. As you take photos, your camera’s buffer – where images are stored before being added to your memory card – fills up. Once the buffer is full, your burst mode will stop working (at least until the buffer frees up space, at which point you can start shooting bursts again).
There are exceptions when shooting lower-quality images or when using top-of-the-line cameras, but generally speaking, if you hold down your camera’s burst mode, it’ll eventually freeze up.
High-speed continuous vs low-speed continuous
Many cameras offer a variety of continuous shooting modes (or speeds), and the availability of a particular mode depends on several factors.
Your choice of autofocus can play a role. AF-S tends to allow for faster continuous shooting speeds compared to AF-C. The quality and size of the files also matter; if you’re capturing JPEGs, compressed RAW files, or cropped files, you may be able to shoot at higher speeds. The type of shutter you’re using will affect the speed as well, but I’ll delve into that later.
Now, you might see two burst speeds often labeled “high-speed continuous” and “low-speed continuous.” High-speed continuous generally offers a few additional frames per second compared to low-speed continuous, but from a practical perspective, what’s the difference? In other words, how do you choose one mode over the other?
If you’re working with ultra-fast action, such as a car race or a bird in flight, selecting the higher-speed option is essential. Otherwise, lower-speed continuous shooting will likely be sufficient. Remember, it’s about matching the speed to the subject to create the perfect shot.
When should you use burst mode?
Technically, you can use burst mode all the time. Assuming you don’t hold down the shutter button for too long at any one time, you can capture a burst of images every time you find a new subject.
However, I don’t recommend you use your continuous shooting mode constantly. For one, this will encourage you to get lazy with your photography – you’ll shoot in bursts and you’ll never learn how to time beautifully composed images. Plus, constant burst mode will produce a huge number of files. Your memory cards will fill up insanely fast, and so will your hard drives.
Instead, I suggest turning on burst mode when you know you’re photographing action, or when you’re about to see a once-in-a-lifetime moment.
For instance, if you’re shooting a sports game, you might leave burst mode on for the entire event; that way, whenever something interesting happens – a slam dunk, a turnover, a buzzer-beater – you’re ready to capture the essential moments. Same if you’re photographing fast-moving wildlife or birds, a child’s soccer game, or a dog doing an agility course.
Burst mode is also perfect for capturing moments that are unmissable (even if they don’t involve action). If you’re photographing your child walking across the stage at graduation, burst mode will all but guarantee a shot of them accepting their diploma. If you’re photographing a portrait subject, burst mode will increase your chances of capturing an evocative expression or pose. And if you’re photographing a street scene, burst mode will help you record split-second interactions, such as spouses making eye contact.
By the way, you can also use burst photography to capture technically difficult scenes. If you’re manually focusing on a flower at high magnifications, you could fire off a series of images as you slowly adjust the point of focus, and you’re more likely to get a nice result.
Here’s a list of photography genres that use burst mode on a regular basis:
- Sports photography
- Pet photography
- Bird photography
- Wildlife photography
- Street photography (sometimes)
- Event photography (sometimes)
How to use burst mode (step by step)
Now that you’re familiar with the definition and importance of burst mode, let’s look at how you can use it for the best results.
Step 1: Activate burst mode on your camera
Activating burst mode depends on your camera (and it can vary from model to model, so don’t assume that all cameras from the same brand or even from the same series are the same).
In general, you’ll want to look for a Drive menu or a Shooting mode menu. Some cameras offer dedicated Shooting mode dials (you get this on certain Fujifilm models), while others offer Shooting mode buttons (several Olympus cameras feature one of these), and still others require a menu dive to adjust the shooting mode.
Once you’ve located your Shooting mode menu, you’ll want to select the Continuous or Continuous High option, sometimes symbolized as multiple stacked frames (see the icon in the bottom right corner of this Canon 5D Mark II display):
If you’ve tried and failed to activate burst mode, consult your camera manual or have a look online.
Step 2: Select the relevant focus mode
With burst mode engaged, you’ll also need to set the right focus mode. For action photography, it’s best to use your camera’s continuous focusing mode, known as AI Servo on Canon and AF-C on most other camera brands (including Nikon and Sony). Continuous focus will constantly track moving objects even as you hold down the shutter button, helping to maintain sharp focus as your subject moves across the scene and you capture bursts of images.
Alternatively, if you’ve already composed a shot but want to guarantee a good pose, a beautiful moment, etc., I’d recommend using your camera’s single-shot autofocus mode, known as One-Shot on Canon and AF-S on most other brands. Simply half-press the shutter button to lock focus, then when your subject moves into the frame, fully press the shutter button to fire off a burst.
Step 3: Carefully choose your settings
Last, you’ll need to dial in the right camera settings for your shooting situation. While these will vary from scene to scene, make sure your shutter speed is relatively fast; otherwise, you’ll end up with blurry shots (or, if your shutter speed is really slow, your camera’s burst mode won’t work properly). I’d recommend shooting at 1/250s and above for slower-moving objects, and 1/1000s and above for faster-moving objects.
Step 4: Capture a burst of images
Now the fun begins! As soon as you find a subject worth shooting, hold down the shutter button, and your camera will fire off a burst of photos.
As I explained above, it’s important to show restraint when using burst mode; otherwise, your camera’s buffer will fill, and you’ll miss critical moments. So wait until a good shot starts to materialize – if you’re using single-shot autofocus, you should generally lock focus in advance – and then fully press the shutter button to capture the perfect photo.
Continuous shooting and shutter type
Modern cameras offer two types of shutters: mechanical and electronic. DSLRs primarily use mechanical shutters, where a physical mechanism uncovers and covers the camera sensor when you press the shutter button. It’s a reliable method that’s been around for decades.
But in recent years, mirrorless cameras have pivoted toward electronic shutters. With this technology, the sensor automatically exposes the photo when the shutter button is pressed, removing the necessity for a mechanical element. It’s a major advancement that provides some distinct advantages, but it also comes with a potential drawback.
First, the advantages: Electronic shutters are generally faster than mechanical shutters, which means you can shoot at impossibly fast shutter speeds like 1/40000s, and you get elevated continuous shooting speeds, too.
Electronic shutters are also far quieter – even silent – and this makes a huge difference in event photography. Imagine working a quiet ceremony like a wedding in a church; thanks to the near-silent electronic shutter, you can shoot nonstop without worrying about distracting the attendees. Also, since there’s limited mechanical wear and tear to deal with, electronic shutters tend to last longer than mechanical shutters.
However, as I mentioned, electronic shutters do have a drawback: the rolling shutter effect. Basically, the electronic shutter exposes lines of the sensor one by one, so if the exposure process is slow enough and the subject is moving quickly, the final shot can show a distorted subject. The good news is that camera manufacturers are getting better at speeding up the exposure process, and some modern mirrorless cameras do a great job of preventing or reducing the rolling shutter!
Therefore, when you need lightning-fast shooting speeds, an electronic shutter is usually a good choice. But if you’re photographing action, especially something moving quickly across the frame, make sure you either shoot with an electronic shutter designed to eliminate the rolling shutter effect or switch over to the mechanical shutter.
Note: Understanding when to use each shutter type can significantly impact your photography, so don’t be afraid to experiment and see what works best for you!
Tips for using your camera’s continuous shooting mode
Looking to improve your burst mode shooting? Here are a few handy tips to help you level up your images:
1. Don’t hammer the shutter button
Burst mode is powerful, but to get the best results, you need to handle the shutter button with care. It’s easy to press down hard on the button when using continuous shooting mode, but this actually leads to increased blurriness due to camera shake.
Instead, lightly press the shutter button, almost as if your finger is rolling off its surface.
The idea behind this gentle touch is to eliminate as much vibration as possible. This becomes especially important when you’re working at slower shutter speeds or when shooting at high magnifications. Think of it like holding a glass of water filled to the brim – any sudden movement can cause a spill. By treating the shutter button with finesse, you reduce the chances of a “spill” in your photo, keeping those images sharp and clear.
2. Think about your compositions
While the excitement of action photography and the use of burst mode might draw your attention to shutter speeds and timing, composition remains a key factor in creating stunning images. You might think that capturing the perfect moment is everything, but how you frame that moment is equally crucial.
As you shoot, it’s essential to ask yourself: Where should each element be placed for maximum impact? What are the relationships between the objects in the frame?
Even in the midst of fast-paced shooting, guidelines like the rule of thirds can help inform your compositions. Similarly, the rule of space, which involves leaving space in the direction your subject is moving or looking, can add dynamism to your shots.
Remember, every shot, even the ones taken in a split second, tells a story. Make sure your story is visually compelling by thinking about composition – even when using burst mode.
3. Bring plenty of memory cards
Continuous shooting mode will fill up your memory cards far faster than you might expect. Imagine shooting at 10 FPS for just one minute. You’ll end up with a whopping 600 photos! So if you plan on capturing action and using burst mode, make sure to carry plenty of memory cards.
I recommend grabbing a memory card case and filling it up with 64 GB (or larger) cards. Take the entire set with you whenever you plan to photograph action. It’s like packing extra batteries for a long journey; you never know when you’ll need them, but having them on hand can be a lifesaver.
Burst mode is an exciting feature that opens up new photographic possibilities, but without enough storage, you could find yourself missing out on incredible moments. Make sure you’re well-equipped to handle the excitement and intensity of continuous shooting!
4. Shoot in good light for maximum sharpness
We all know the importance of light in photography, but when capturing action, light becomes even more vital. The lower the light, the slower your shutter speed, leading to softer, less sharp images. Even when using burst mode, having insufficient light can lead to disappointing results.
For truly sharp shots, you need to keep your shutter speed fast – and to do that, you need good lighting. The golden hours, the time shortly after sunrise or before sunset, are perfect for capturing well-lit photographs. The middle of the day also provides strong light, but be careful, as this light can be harsh and unflattering.
If you find yourself needing to shoot in low light, boosting your ISO instead of slowing down your shutter speed can be a viable option. It might increase the visible noise in your images, but a bit of noise is preferable to a blurry mess.
5. Use burst mode in low light
Although it’s ideal to shoot in good light, sometimes you’ll find yourself working in dim conditions. In those situations, burst mode can actually be your ally in getting sharper shots.
When you press the shutter button, you create vibrations that may lead to blur. The harder you press, the more the camera shakes. Burst mode minimizes this issue because you need to press the shutter button only once for each burst. The subsequent images in a burst-mode series are likely to be sharper than the first shot.
It may seem counterintuitive to think that burst mode, which is often associated with action and sports photography, can be handy in low-light situations. But understanding this principle can save a shoot when the light isn’t cooperating.
Burst mode in photography: final words
Now that you’ve finished this article, you know all about continuous shooting photography – and how it can improve your results.
So spend some time testing it out. Find an action subject, and have fun firing off bursts of shots. You’ll get better at using burst mode, and you’ll start to understand your camera’s capabilities and limitations.
Now over to you:
Do you plan to start using burst mode? When do you think you’ll use it? Do you have any burst mode tips? Share your thoughts in the comments below!