Continuous Mode and Burst Mode Photography

Andy writes, I’ve heard about some digital cameras that can take several shots at the same time. How does this work and can I do it?
Since I don’t know what type of camera you have, I’ll provide an overview of possibilities. For all but the bare bones entry level cameras, the answer to your question is likely, yes. The camera mode you are referring to is commonly known as either continuous shooting mode or burst mode, depending on who makes the camera. For higher end SLR cameras, this often means you can simply hold down the image capture button and take pictures until you either stop or run out of card space. For the point-and-shoot style cameras, a burst mode is typically limited to a specific number of photos. Turning on a continuous capture option varies somewhat by camera. There are a few things you can do to help ensure your burst mode shots come out looking great.

  • If you’re trying to capture any moving target, whether it’s a sports action shot, people dancing or even a small child on the run, switching to a burst mode helps guarantee you’ll get at least one good shot.
  • One tricky aspect of continuous shooting is focus. Most SLR cameras auto focus throughout the burst image capture. Cheaper cameras sometimes start to lose focus if you get beyond 5 images.
  • If you always shoot in continuous mode, you’ll need to adapt a technique for shooting single shots. Some cameras are limited to capturing three or four shots anytime the image capture button is depressed. Others do recognize single image capture without needing to switch camera modes.
  • When you capture in a continuous mode, the camera often buffers the images in an onboard memory and then writes the individual images to your card after capture. Depending on how many shots you captured, this may create a significant delay between the time you stop shooting one burst of images and the time you can start shooting again. Of course this varies greatly by camera, as well. More expensive SLR models deal with this quite nicely, reducing lag.
  • Burst modes use batteries more quickly than single image capture. If you plan on doing significant burst mode capture, invest in a backup battery. It’s generally a good idea to have a spare regardless, but this becomes vital if you plan to capture lots of action shots or if you’re in paparazzi mode capturing dozens of images of a moving target.
  • If continuous mode photography is important to you, make sure you know the limitations of the camera you are buying. For instance, avoid cameras limited to only 3 or 5 shots and spend the extra money on an SLR with nearly unlimited capture. Just because the camera is an SLR doesn’t mean there’s no limit. Some of the entry level Nikon units max out around 140 shots.