To Burst or not to Burst ?

Is 'burst mode' - when you set your camera to continuous shooting - the best way of catching high-speed action?

I'm not so sure.

Last weekend a big motor-racing championship race came to the tiny town where I live.

No, it wasn't Formula 1 (even though Michael Schumacher and Alain Prost live just down the road from here).

It was the 2009 European radio-controlled Buggy Racing Championships and, naturally, I went along to get some action shots.

The 'cars' were only about 40cm long. Their 'drivers' were in a stand beside the track. But, nevertheless, the racing was fast and furious. The buggies streaked down straights, skidded around corners, rattled over 'washboards' and leaped great jumps.

Now, the difficulty with any motor-racing photography, whatever the size of the vehicles, is getting a sense of action. Use too high a shutter speed and the cars will come out looking as if they're parked. Use too low a shutter speed and everything will be a blur. You want the shutter speed to be just fast enough to give some motion blur, but not too much.

Location is important too. A shot on the straight is generally pretty boring. To get an idea of the action you want to capture tyres skidding, smoke swirling ... something to give a sense of speed and drama.

I positioned myself where the buggies roared off a ramp an into a sand-pit. I wanted to catch the moment of landing at high speed, the sand flying.

I switched to 'burst mode', which gives me 9 shots per second with my camera (a Nikon D3), panned around to follow a selected buggy as it came into view, and operated the shutter button at the crucial instant.

This is the sort of thing I got, time and time again ...

Well, maybe my reactions aren't quick enough.

But also, I was panning with the car, then pressing and holding down the shutter button when I thought the action was about to begin.

Immediately my vision through the viewfinder flickered on and off as the shutter operated so it was more difficult to follow the buggy.

On top of that, do the maths. Let's be generous (and make the maths easier) by saying that my camera could take 10 pictures a second. That's one picture every 10th of a second. If the crucial moment of action lasts 1/100th of a second (which is not an unreasonable assumption) I only have a 1 in 10 chance of catching it.

Of course, I didn't calculate all that at the time. But looking at the images I was getting I could see I was doing something wrong.

So I changed tactics.

I switched off 'burst mode' watched where the cars tended to land and focussed on that spot. Then I still panned round smoothly with a selected buggy that was approaching, but only operated the shutter once, as close to the instant of landing as possible.

This is what I got ...

Now, I'm not saying that every shot thereafter was like that. I got a lorryload of duds. But I began to catch many more dramatic ones.

The human eye and human reflexes are still a match for modern technology.


Darren Hector said...

That's why I always keep both eyes open when panning flight shots of birds - close the eye that's not in the viewfinder and you'll lose it every time.

Alistair Scott said...

Great tip Darren! Thanks.

Jacqui Marie Photography said...

Great shot Alistair and a really strong illustration of the power of the human eye over what would otherwise seem to be a perfect technological solution. Thanks.

Alistair Scott said...

Thanks Jacqui. It was several hours standing in the hot sun, every now and again blowing the dust off my camera (those little racers raise a heck of a lot of dust) and breathing in the fumes from whatever it is they burn.

But when I get a few shots like that it's very satisfying.