How has burst photography changed the way we perceive action?

Cool Camera Stuff Image Gallery Burst photography lets us create a slow motion film in pictures. What can it tell us about the way things move? See more pictures of cool camera stuff.

Have you ever created your very own homemade animation movies? One activity many of us might do while we're bored or in a particularly creative mood is to create a flipbook. With a notepad full of several pieces of paper, you can draw a series of pictures on each page. The images aren't just random, however: Each successive image is a slight variation on the one that came before it. If drawn correctly, it should represent some kind of movement or action. The best part, of course, is the end result. By flipping the pages of your flipbook you can make an athlete perform a spectacular feat or sail a boat through choppy waters.

Although it may seem like a fairly simple way to represent motion, the homemade flipbook animation described above is the same principle that makes films, both live action and animated, work.

A still photograph, on the other hand, might seem very different from a film at first glance. Although they're projected on a two-dimensional surface, movies record action and give the illusion of depth and movement, as the nickname implies. Photographs, on the other hand, are moments frozen in time -- when we look at a picture we can hold it in our hands and determine that it exists on a two-dimensional sheet of film.

­One area of photography that performs the jobs of both still photography and filmmaking is burst photography. You've probably heard of the technique, and you might even be able to perform burst photography yourself with certain digital cameras. The art allows people to take a rapid sequence of pictures within a very short amount of time. Although we normally associate photography with still life and moments captured in time, burst photography has a lot to do with motion. To learn more about how photography can actually affect the way we look at how things move, read on.

What Happens During Burst Photography?

Photographers shoot the action during the first round of the 108th U.S. Open on June 12, 2008, in San Diego, Calif.
Photographers shoot the action during the first round of the 108th U.S. Open on June 12, 2008, in San Diego, Calif.
Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images

Burst photography achieves the same relative goal as filmmaking does -- both techniques record several frames of film in a very short amount of time. If you were to look at several individual frames of a soccer player kicking a ball, each picture would look fairly similar to the next. In fact, looking at two successive images you wouldn't see much movement at all -- the soccer player's leg would seem to have barely moved, and the two pictures might even look like copies of each other.

But when the frames are placed one after the other, we're presented with the illusion of movement. Each individual image actually becomes very important. If you took out a small chunk of frames within a film strip, the movement would appear to jump irrationally from one spot to the next.

The way burst photography records film is slightly different than how people shoot a movie. When a director of a film yells "action," the film inside the camera is rolling vertically past a lens at 24 frames per second. A camera performing burst photography, on the other hand, relies on rapidly opening and closing its shutter and shifting the film stock through the film gate (or processing the data, if the camera's a digital one). Average cameras on the market take between three and 10 pictures per second, but newer cameras can take as many as 60 still pictures per second or record movies at frame rates as high as 1,200 frames per second.

Burst photography has a wide variety of practical uses across several professions. Scientists wishing to study motion for instance, can take a rapid sequence of photographs of falling objects to look at the effects of gravity. For example, if a physicist wanted to drop a bowling ball and a feather simultaneously inside a vacuum to see which one hit the floor first, he could use burst photography to determine the outcome. (He'd find, of course, in a vacuum, both objects hit the floor at the same time.)

Sports photographers often use burst photography to capture as many shots as possible. One of the biggest advantages of the technique is that it allows you to take several pictures and choose the best possible photograph. Instead of pointing and shooting once while a basketball player drives toward the hoop and hoping you get a decent shot, burst photography gives you a better chance of getting the magazine cover photo.

Sports trainers can also use burst photography to help players understand the mechanics of their technique -- if a baseball player is going through a slump and wants to improve his swing, recording his motion with burst photography can isolate several important parts of the action and provide helpful clues for improvement.

Whatever its use, the main draw of burst photography is the ability to shoot continuous movement and isolate any number of still images. With camera technology only improving, the chances for seeing the invisible and selecting the perfect shot are getting better and better. For lots more information on photography and capturing the moment, read the next page.

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  • Brown, Margaret. "Burst Modes - and How They Work." February 2005.