How to take incredible iPhone photos using burst mode

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Most people discover their iPhone’s burst mode feature by mistake – when they press the shutter button too long. Maybe you haven’t discovered it at all! In this article I’ll explain how it works and why you’ll want to use it to take even better photographs.

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Processed with VSCO with s3 preset

Burst mode is an incredibly powerful feature of the iPhone. It allows you to take up to ten photos per second – which is comparable to even the best professional digital SLR cameras available today.

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How to use burst mode

You’re probably thinking it’s going to be difficult to use such a powerful feature. Well, you’re wrong – it couldn’t be easier. In your iPhone’s native camera app, select either the ‘Photo’ or ‘Square’ shooting mode, frame your shot and simply press and hold the shutter button. Once you’re sure you don’t need any more photos, simply release the shutter button.

It’s worth noting that you’ll end up with a lot of photos this way – if you hold the shutter down for 10 seconds you’ll have about 100 photos! Not only will this take up a lot of space on your iPhone but it’ll take you longer to sift through them to find the best shot.

Luckily the iPhone makes managing all these extra photos relatively simple by grouping together all the shots you took in one burst – which we’ll refer to as a ‘stack’. You can then access these photos and choose the best ones to keep – discarding the rest in one go. To select/discard photos from a ‘stack’ find it in your photos app (easily identified as its represented as a stack of images) and tap on it. In the top-left corner of the image you’ll see the words “Burst (10 photos)” for example.

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Then tap the “Select” option and you’ll be presented with all the images as a sideways-scrollable gallery. Tap on the photos you like (a blue circle in the bottom-right corner shows you’ve selected the photo).

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You can select as many as you like. Then tap ‘Done’. You’ll then be asked if you want to “Keep Everything” (which keeps the original burst sequence but also makes individual copies of the photos you selected and puts them in your camera roll), “Keep Only 3 Favourites” (or however many you selected), or “Cancel” to continue selecting.

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If your subject is going to remain approximately the same distance from your iPhone throughout the burst mode then it’s a good idea to lock focus and exposure first as this will keep the focus and exposure constant and give the iPhone less to do. However, if your subject-to-iPhone distance is likely to change during the few seconds you’re in burst mode then it’s best to let the iPhone decide on focus and exposure itself.

So – why would you want to use burst mode?

There are many situations where burst mode is really useful – but the simple answer is “whenever just taking one shot would be too risky”. Obviously the only ‘risk’ here is the risk of not getting the shot you want. Naturally a stationary subject – e.g. still life or a landscape – can be captured perfectly with just one shot. You might check the photo, reframe and shoot again but the subject isn’t going anywhere and probably isn’t going to change much in-between shots. Which leaves us with situations where the subject is moving, changing or behaving in an unpredictable way.

Below are several examples of these types of situations:

1. Street Photography – Capturing the perfect stride

Often with street photography we want to capture our subjects candidly, not reacting to the terrifying thought they might be having their photo taken. It’s difficult to take a single, well-timed photo when you’re trying to appear like you’re not taking a photograph. This is where burst mode can help. Simply aim your iPhone where your subject will likely be, slightly before they get there, then press and hold the shutter button until they’ve passed. Afterwards, you’ll have several shots to choose from – where the subject is in the perfect position, and the perfect stride.

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In the photo below I aimed my iPhone at the wall and waited for an interesting subject to pass. In this case, it was a cyclist – but you could use a passing pedestrian. I shot in burst mode because there were faster vehicles passing at the same time and burst mode allowed me to get at least one shot without a vehicle in it.

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2. Lively, active children jumping around

Capturing the joy and energy of our children playing together is one of the most rewarding aspects of mobile photography – but it’s so difficult to do it justice with just one shot as the kids are charging around at great speed. Burst mode greatly improves your chances of getting a shot where everyone’s face is in shot and they’ve all got great facial expressions (hopefully smiles and laughter!).

In the shot below it was important to capture my son Ben in mid-air – but it was tricky to time it just right. The solution was to use burst mode which allowed me to pick the best of several shots and discard the rest.

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3. Sporting activities

Sports and competitive activities often involve a lot of fast-paced action – and even the pros will resort to burst mode to capture the decisive moment – so next time you’re photographing your kids playing football, soccer, rugby, hockey, etc. from the touchline, remember to use burst mode and you’ll be sure to get a shot you and they will be happy with.

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4. Candid portraits

Portraits are notoriously difficult to shoot – not least because our subjects are often shy or self-conscious – and their poses and facial expressions can be awkward or forced. Shooting with burst mode allows you to photograph your portrait subject more candidly and frees them up to be more natural and less static.

5. Group shots

We’ve all taken that one photo of a large group of family or friends only to find later on that half of the group had their eyes closed or were looking the wrong way. Very frustrating! By using burst mode we are much more likely to get at least one good shot where everyone’s on point, without having to keep reframing, shooting and checking the results as your subjects patience wears ever thinner.

6. Capturing the unexpected

Sometimes a scene unfolds in front of us before we’ve even realised what’s happening – and there isn’t always time to predict what will happen next. In these moments, using burst mode lets you capture opportunistic events – such as this unexpected touching of hands between an elderly relative and a grandchild.

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Few subjects are less predictable than animals – whether they are our pets, birds in the garden or inhabitants of the local zoo. Once you’re roughly in the right spot to shoot, use burst mode for several seconds and you could have a competition-winning shot on your hands.

The doves in the photo below were swooping in and out of the ancient building we were exploring – but too fast to photograph in one shot with any degree of control. Using burst mode it was possible to capture the dove flying past the doorway.

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I love photographing the birds on our bird feeder but the birds fly so fast and spend so little time on the feeder during a single visit that they can be challenging to photograph.

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I position my iPhone close to the feeder (sometimes on a tripod, sometimes on a clamp attached to the base of the feeder) and shoot remotely with a bluetooth remote shutter. Holding down the shutter button for the short time the birds are on the feeder always gives me a usable shot.

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7. Windy conditions

Capturing the effects of the wind on a subject – such as grasses, leaves, hair or clothing – can create compelling, emotive results, however it’s hard to get it right in one shot. Yet again, the iPhone’s burst mode comes to the rescue.

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8. Photographing water splashes or waves crashing on the shore

Another near-impossible shot to get right with a single shot is when you’re trying to capture a splash (maybe someone jumping into a puddle) or the crash of a wave on the shore.

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Using burst mode pretty much guarantees you’ll get the perfect shot.

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9. Whenever timing is critical

Sometimes you know you’ll only get a tiny window of opportunity to shoot your subject. This is when burst mode really helps. In the photo below taken from a moving taxi cab I knew I’d only get one chance of a shot of Big Ben through the traffic and trees – so I simply pointed my iPhone out of the window and held the shutter button down until the opportunity had passed. This was the only shot I could use – and it was exactly what I wanted. The shadowy statue behind the tree was a bonus!

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10. Macro Photography

If you’re using your iPhone with a macro lens attached and you’re hand-holding the iPhone it’s often difficult to keep your subject in focus as even the smallest changes in distance from the subject can drastically affect what’s in focus and what isn’t. This is mainly due to the incredibly shallow depth-of-field we get with macro-lenses and close-up subjects. Rather than positioning your iPhone, shooting once, then checking the image to see if it’s in focus, simply use burst mode to take 10 or 20 shots. It’s likely at least one will be just perfect.

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Important: Make sure you’ve got plenty of available light when using burst mode

It’s important to remember that the darker your subject or scene is, the slower the camera’s shutter speed will need to be. Slow shutter speeds and fast-moving subjects nearly always result in blurry photos – and using burst mode is no different – you’ll need a lot of light to ‘freeze’ the action of fast-moving subjects. So, try and ensure your subjects are well lit (bright daylight is good) and that you don’t introduce additional movement by keeping the iPhone still. A little trick you can employ is to manually reduce the exposure by tapping on the iPhone screen and sliding your finger down. This will result in faster shutter speeds which will freeze the action better, however the resulting images will be darker. You can bring the exposure and brightness back up again in most photo editing apps such as Snapseed, however you may end up with some graininess and noise – but that’s better than blurry shots.

Lastly, if your subject is moving in a certain direction, follow that direction as you shoot. This is called ‘panning’ and minimises the difference in camera/subject speed which helps to reduce blurring. We’ll cover this in a future tutorial.

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