You may have heard the term “spray and pray”. It refers to the idea that some photographers simply run off a burst of shots and hope one turns out. It’s a derogatory term, and one that suggests those who use burst mode have no clue. In many situations, nothing could be farther from the truth.
Sure, there may well be some ‘spray and prayers’ who have yet to master the basics of composition, lighting, colour and exposure. But they would be poor photographers even if they shot one frame at a time. The reality is, if you shoot action, wildlife, events or even portraiture (to a certain degree), and, most importantly, know your stuff, ‘spraying and praying’ is a brilliant technique and one you shouldn’t be afraid of just because a bunch of know-nothings on the internet say so.
There are two main reasons for this, particularly when it comes to a field like motorsport. Firstly, a burst of shots will increase your likelihood of capturing the moment. You can kid yourself and think your timing, knowledge and photographic awareness and skills will allow you to capture the perfect moment every time, just with a single shot. The reality is, while you get better with practice, the likelihood you’ll nail everything like that is zero. When shooting motorsport, there are simply too many things likely to happen in a split second to even think that’s realistic. Do you think I would have captured the moment above without using burst mode? Maybe. But the chances would have been very small. Like winning the lottery small.
Away from the action shots, when shooting drivers, crew and other folk around the paddock, there are just too many infinitesimal changes in facial expression that happen every moment to ensure one shot will get the one you want. That’s before you think about the problems of people blinking, either. Ever wondered why the paparazzi shoot a million frames a second? That’s why. You can see the difference just a split second makes in the two shots below.
The second main reason you should shoot burst mode is because it reduces vibrations and thus camera shake. When you shoot one frame at a time, even when you’re very smooth at squeezing the shutter button, you will likely introduce movement each time. By holding down the shutter over several frames, you decrease the likelihood of shake over every frame bar the first and last in the sequence.
Admittedly, there are a few caveats to shooting burst mode, but they are relatively minor. First, if you use a cheaper DSLR, you will generally be limited to only about four frames-per-second. This means fewer chances to catch the moment. However, four frames a second is still better than the two or three you’re likely to get shooting one frame at a time.
Second, on either mirrorless cameras or cheaper DSLRs, you may run into what’s called buffer lock-up. The memory buffer is the storage used to hold image data before it’s written to your card. Cheaper cameras have small buffers, which can fill up fast when using burst mode and actually freeze the camera until all the frames have been written. However, this lock-up only tends to happen after about six to eight frames or so, which is generally more than you’d be shooting in one go anyway.
Finally, there’s the question of memory use and wading through hundreds more photos than you might have shot originally. True, you will eat up memory cards and hard drive space quicker. But memory cards are cheap, and you can delete all the shots you don’t use. Plus, sorting through all those extra photos is actually quicker than you think. When I first started shooting burst mode, I was terrified I’d spend an hour or more extra after each shoot just eliminating junkers. In reality, it added less than half an hour, which in the context of spending hours on selecting and processing shots, is very little. And when shooting burst gets you that one shot you’d have missed otherwise, extra sorting time or not, it’s worth it.