If you’re a sports or wildlife photographer who periodically likes to put the proverbial pedal to the metal and crank out a rapid-fire series of several dozen frames in a few seconds, you may already know that this takes a bit of pre-planning—not only in choosing the right camera but setting it up for burst-shooting success. Here’s how to optimize your camera for burst shooting.
Start by choosing the right camera for the job. When it comes to firing off several frames in quick succession, the first place to look is for a camera capable of shooting at a high frame rate. Measured in frames per second (fps), the speed at which a sports photographer can fire through a moment of action is capped by the maximum frame rate of the camera. There are tremendous options available from every manufacturer in both DSLR and mirrorless formats, though mirrorless cameras have an edge because they can use an electronic shutter to achieve extremely high frame rates. Great options for fast shooting include the Canon 1DX Mark III (20 fps), Nikon D5 (14 fps), Panasonic Lumix G9 (60 fps) and Sony A9 (20 fps).
Next, pay attention to the media you’re using. Video shooters know the importance of fast write speeds as their cameras record the immense data that comes with shooting 4k video at a high frame rate and bitrate. But if you’re a still-only shooter, your CF and SD cards may be fine for most things but fail at tasks that require top-of-the-line throughput. Luckily, when shopping for a new SD card, data transfer rates are printed prominently in marketing materials and media specifications because they’re so important to video and high-speed still photography.
If you’re using an older card with a write speed of, say, 10 megabits per second (expressed as 10 MB/s), your card itself could create a bottleneck even though the camera buffer and frame rate are capable of working faster. Instead, arm yourself with state-of-the-art media with very high data transfer rates. The number most often boldly proclaimed is typically the card’s read speed, but it’s the write speed you need to ensure. A new SanDisk Extreme Pro UHS-II SDXC card may tout 300 MB/s right on the face of the card, but that’s the maximum read speed. Its maximum write speed is 260 MB/s, and an ideal choice to prevent a bottleneck when shooting high-resolution, RAW image files in burst mode.
Next, it’s time to choose the appropriate camera modes, from focus mode to file size, shutter type and format.
If you’re using a mirrorless camera, you’ll find higher frame rates with the electronic shutter than when using the mechanical one, so first make the switch to electronic shutter mode.
The focus mode will impact on the speed at which a camera can work. Prefocusing on a spot and switching to manual focus ensures zero focus delay, followed by single-shot autofocus, which focuses just once before firing the burst. Continuous autofocus, however, will slow down the frame rate as the camera attempts to refocus between each exposure. The Panasonic Lumix G9, for instance, can shoot 20 fps using continuous AF, and that’s great, but switch to single-shot autofocus and it triples to a whopping 60 fps.
Speaking of focus, consider using a medium to small aperture in order to increase the latitude when it comes to missing focus. If you’re shooting wide open with a telephoto lens, it’s awfully easy to miss focus by a millimeter or two. At ƒ/8, however, you buy yourself more room to miss and still get a sharp image.
Take note, too, that file size can limit the amount of data the camera can hold in its buffer. At lower resolutions, or when shooting JPEGs instead of RAW files, the buffer will accommodate many more frames before requiring a photographer to stop and wait for the processor to catch up.
Lastly, give some thought to the type of burst you’ll need to capture. Are you hoping for five frames in a single instant or a run of dozens of frames across several seconds? For the former, the fastest frame rate your camera can provide is likely to be ideal, whereas the latter may require a medium or lower frame rate option that many cameras provide. Otherwise, you run the risk of filling the buffer before the sequence you’re photographing is complete.