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Living with Photography: Choosing Your Drive Mode

By Norman Chan

Why I'm an advocate for continuous shutter, if you can keep up with photo filtering on the fly.

Every photographer has their own preferences when it comes to the camera settings they use for everyday shooting, but it's easy to get locked into one set of settings without experimenting with what else is available. This was the case for the Drive Mode for my camera. For the longest time, I was very comfortable using Single Shot. It served the purposes of my on-location workflow: frame up a shot, find focus, hold my breath, tuck my arms in, and snap a photo. But I've since abandoned the Single Shot method and have found that there's a better Drive Mode alternative for almost every photography scenario.

Let's quickly review what a camera's Drive Mode is and what options may be available to you on your camera (every camera model is different). This is the setting that determines what happens when you press the shutter button. Most cameras, including point-and-shoots, have at least three Drive Modes. There's Single Shot mode, usually indicated by a single rectangle, which means the camera will take a single photo immediately after you depress the shutter. There's Continuous Shutter (or Burst Mode), which looks like a series of stacked rectangles, which tells the camera to keep on taking photos in succession as long as you keep the shutter button depressed. And then there's a time-delay Drive Mode, which sets the camera to take a photo at a predetermined number of seconds after you press the shutter.

Other Drive Modes that cameras may have: Single AF Burst, which is faster than Continuous Burst because the camera doesn't recheck focus between shots, Remote Shutter, which lets you take photos with a wireless trigger, and Silent Mode, which reduces the audible sound of the physical shutter at the cost of continuous shutter speed.

The Drive Mode I'm now most accustomed on the Canon 6D is the combination of Continuous Shutter + Silent. And when mounting the DSLR on a tripod, I set my camera to the 2-second Timer Mode. Here's why both of these modes are preferred over Single Shot.

As it turns out, the very act of depressing the shutter button can have an effect on the sharpness on your photo. When shooting handheld, no matter how steady your grip is and how well you can control your breathing, pressing a shutter on top on the camera will shake the body every so slightly. That may not matter when shooting at over 1/100 shutter, but it can mean the difference between a sharp and blurry photo in low light conditions--where you're constantly trying to find a balance between ISO, aperture, and shutter speed.

This even can happen when the camera is mounted onto a tripod. In that scenario, the Timer Delay Drive Mode mitigates the effects of shutter depression. You frame up, press the shutter, and take a step back and wait for the camera to do its thing. This is extremely useful for long-exposure photography, which can be ruined by a little bit of shakiness at the beginning of the exposure. It's less effective for portraiture than for still life, so it's a setting to adjust on a case by case basis.

On location, Continuous Shutter reduces the effect of handheld shakiness because your finger remains depressed while the camera shoots a few photos in rapid succession. I love the Silent shutter option on my camera, and find that it doesn't detract from the Burst speed enough to make a difference (since I'm rarely shooting action shots that require 4+ FPS).

But the question then is how many photos to take in succession before releasing the shutter? Some people use a method of holding down the shutter and moving the camera around their subject to get as much coverage as possible in that photo opportunity. That can produce dozens of photos per subject, which makes filtering and post processing a chore. My strategy is to time the shutter hold so my camera takes just three shots. And here's the trick: after taking those three photos, my muscle memory is now trained to immediately press the photo review (playback) and magnification button to compare those three photos, spot the one I like, and delete the other two. This on-the-fly filtering, if done speedily, gives me the opportunity to switch up settings and framing if necessary to get another series of photos immediately after without wasting an unreasonable amount of my subject's time (important at events).

Filtering in real time is a huge time saver, since photo review and processing happens quicker in-camera than after importing a RAW photos into Lightroom. Two factors are important when reviewing and filtering photos in real time. First is having a good LCD display on the camera that's high-resolution enough to let you spot differences between photos. This is why I don't recommend people buy Sony's NEX-3N over the older F3, since the 3N has a worse display. Second is that you should set your camera's default playback magnification to a comfortable zoom level to let you quickly hone in on the area of focus (eg. the subject's eyes). Even though my DSLR can go up to 10x zoom for reviewing photos, I default to 4x so I can find the focus point and then zoom in to compare sequential photos.

On-the-fly A/B testing is one of the most powerful tools you can use when shooting on location. No matter how good of a photographer you are, you will always be able to find differences in two sequentially shot photos. No two will be exactly the same; one is guaranteed to be preferred over the other, for any host of reasons. For example, here are two sequentially shot photos I took of Adam last week. I took half a dozen photos in rapid succession, since I didn't want to use up too much of Adam's time, and was easily able to identify the weaker of two nearly identical photos.

So those are my brief thoughts on Drive Mode. It's a elementary concept that most experienced photographers have mastered, but it's also a setting that I bet many beginner photographers neglect. Regardless of your experience level, what Drive Mode do you shoot at, and why?