Burst Mode: What Is It, and How Should You Use It?

by John Stapel

burst mode: a complete guide

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.

burst mode photography fast-moving plane Burst mode is great for capturing fast-moving subjects!

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.

Also, note that some cameras offer several burst speeds, which vary depending on the size and quality of the photo, the autofocus mode, the shutter mode, and more.

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.

cockatoo in the grass black and white I used burst mode to capture this moment of a cockatoo eating grass seed.

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 interest 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 walk 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:

series of close-up macro shots using burst mode to nail focus Handholding with extension tubes can be tricky. Burst mode is one way to increase the ratio of sharp macro images.

Here’s a list of photography genres that use burst mode consistently:

  • 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):

burst mode icon on a canon 5D mk II camera

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.

If you’re struggling to get the shutter speed you need, try widening the aperture or boosting the ISO.

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.

Burst mode photo bee on a flower Burst mode is good for capturing fleeting moments.

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!

Burst Mode: What Is It, and How Should You Use It?