• Paolo Ferraris

Understanding your Camera's Drive Modes

The camera's Drive Mode refers to the camera behavior when we press the shutter release button, when it comes to taking the shot.

Carpe diem! Catch the moment.

Camera drive modes Canon, Nikon, Sony. What are the different camera modes?


But first, let's talk about the shutter button for a moment.


The shutter button is present in every camera brand and model. It is the button you press when you want to take a picture. In modern cameras, the shutter button serves a double purpose.


When you start pressing the button, the button will go down in its casing and at a certain point, your finger will feel resistance. The button will be harder to press. That means you have reached the halfway position.


When you press the shutter button halfway you camera activates and performs three preliminary basic tasks. It searches for and locks the focus. It meters the scene, meaning it does an exposure reading and gives us the magic triplet, the combination of Aperture, Shutter Speed and ISO number appropriate for the scene we are about to photograph. It gets ready to take a picture with all the other secondary settings in place (image stabilization, white balance, noise reduction, face detection, Dynamic range optimization, etc.)


In a nutshell, when we press the shutter button halfway the camera gets ready to operate. If we keep on pressing the button, the camera will eventually release the shutter, expose the sensor and record the image on our memory card.


Drive modes explained. Single Shot Drive Mode.


The first drive mode we will examine is the standard preset mode you will find on your camera.


Its function is very easy and straightforward. Every time you fully press the shutter button the camera will take one shot. To take another shot you will have to raise your finger and press the shutter button again. The camera will go through the same preparation process we introduced previously. Focus lock, Exposure lock, and secondary settings lock.


This is the drive mode you will use, I hope 99% of the time. I will explain in the last section of this post why this is my favorite shooting mode. Let's anticipate that with this drive mode every shot counts. Every shot is a personal, pondered, thought out photograph. Single shooting gives the photographer time to think through the process and apply changes if the previous shots don't generate the desired technical or creative result.


It is also a selection conscious shooting mode. The other drive mode we will examine in this lesson will produce a considerable extra amount of pictures per photoshoot. All these images will have to be reviewed and most will be discarded in the selection process, which is the first step in the post-production workflow. Culling your RAW files gallery, making your final selections is a very different proposition on 200 pictures compared to a 2000 images gallery.


Overshooting will make the time spent in front of your computer monitor skyrocket and will reduce the time you can spend with your family, with your friends and enjoying your favorite free time's activities.


Continuous Shooting Mode. Burst Mode. Burst photos.


Continuous shooting or burst mode is the drive mode that allows the photographer to take a sequence of images with a single press of the shutter button.


If Continuous shooting is your setting, every time you press the shutter button and as long as the button stays pressed, the camera will keep on shooting at a rate depending on the shutter speed and depending on the top frame rate per second, or FPS, specified by your camera manufacturer. For example, let's say a camera has a top 9 FPS continuous shooting speed. It means the camera can take up to 9 shots every second the shutter button stays pressed.


Now let me tell you right away that I don't like this shooting mode. Truth is, I hate it. It will make you go back home with your cards full of useless, mostly bad pictures and it is undoubtedly a highway to become a distracted, sloppy photographer.


Having said that there are a couple of situations when I think it would still make sense to shoot in continuous drive mode.


The first one is when the objects or the people we are photographing move fast and in an unpredictable way. Think of sports, wildlife, photojournalism situations when events happen quickly, with random and unscripted timing. In these cases, burst mode is the way to capture events that are too fast for our eyes and for our reflexes to follow. In some situations, the only chance to capture a good shot is to take a sequence of pictures.


Frame from a burst mode sequence

For example in this photoshoot for a hotel chain, my assistant tossed a bowl of salad and vegetables up in the air. Our goal was to freeze the motion of these props and use salad and veggies as a floating background. The problem was that these edible objects flying in the air were too fast and their movement too unpredictable. With just one shot I couldn’t be 100% sure I could freeze the action and get an eye pleasing distribution of the props. So in this case, I shot the scene in burst mode, in continuous drive mode, and then I chose the frame that was closer to my desired effect.


Another situation when it makes sense to shoot in continuous mode is when the event cannot be replicated, cannot be staged again and lasts only for a brief moment in time. Let's think of world leaders shaking hands or other historic events that are so important but last only a fleeting moment. Burst mode, in this case, can be the only way to make sure you capture the right, the essential moment in time that will make history.


Digital camera modes explained. Drive mode button on camera.


Paolo's take:


In this post, we have examined two shooting modes, two drive modes and I've given you my opinion on which one I believe the good photographer should use in 99% of the situations: single shooting mode. Let me remind you why.


Photography is not the art of taking countless pictures hoping that one will turn out good. Cameras are not machine guns. We have discussed situations when shooting in burst mode might make sense. Shooting an event that is fast, unpredictable and that cannot be replicated. For an event extremely important and that happens in one single instant, yes, shoot a burst of images and pray for one to be good.


For all the other situations, which should cover the majority of your professional life as a photographer, shoot in single drive mode.



What mode do professional photographers shoot in?


A good photographer knows when to press the shutter button. Becoming a good photographer entails knowing where to be and when to catch the instant.


This is my advice for both of you, young and experienced photographers: prepare. Anticipate. Pay attention to the world in front of you and think. Find the right spot, the right angle, the right point of view. Follow the event with an open mind. Life always gives you cues on when the moment is right.


Following a live event with your attention and your intelligence will heighten your senses, it will hone your skills, it will get you in synch with the flow of life, which is the ultimate subject of photography.


Concentrating deeply on the scene you are photographing will let you catch the right moment better than a random burst of images. The photographer who pays attention becomes part of the scene and if you're part of an event you will get its rhythm in you.


Shooting in continuous mode on a daily basis will turn you into a lazy and sloppy photographer. It will cram your hard drives with useless images and it will make your image selection sessions unbearably tedious.


Two thousand years ago, the Roman poet Horace wrote the famous sentence "Carpe Diem" which means: "seize the day, seize the moment." This wise advice is still valid today, especially for photographers. Pay attention, be in the right place at the right time, know when to press the shutter button and you will seize the moment forever.


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