Question: Many DSLR cameras allow for shooting at 5 or 6 frames per second (or even 8fps), but is that really necessary? I was taught to anticipate the peak of action when taking photos. It seems that shooting a long series at high speed is just hoping that you'll capture the right instant. And even at a fast burst rate, and a shutter speed of 1/500 second, the "decisive moment" may happen between frames.
Answer: A professional sports photographer may be adequately skilled to capture the peak of action with one or two shots. But very few sports and photo enthusiasts will ever get enough experience to do so. As well, there are many situations where we are not trying to capture the peak of action, per se, making high speed drive particularly useful.
In a few types of situations, it's certainly possible to anticipate the peak of action; in such cases, Single Shot drive mode may be suitable. But even then, I usually find that two subsequent photos (taken with high speed drive mode) can both be "keepers", allowing me to select the one that the subject would definitely prefer. (c) 2011 Peter K. Burian
At a high jump event, for example, you may indeed be trying to record a specific instant: the competitor at the top of the pole, just as she begins to vault over it. But at a baseball game, when your son is running toward home plate, you simply want one well-framed photo without distracting elements, with a suitable facial expression and just the right "body language". It would be virtually impossible to anticipate that instant. Shooting ten or more photos in a quick burst is the best way to get the shot you want.
The same applies to other events where the most important instant is simply unpredictable. At a bicycle race with dozens of competitors, you want to get a photo with just the right facial expressions and body positions demonstrating effort and motivation. While you might get that with one shot, why not increase the odds by taking a dozen in quick succession? (In digital photography, when there is no expense for film and processing, this makes a lot of sense.) Even after shooting numerous cycling events, I find that this is the best way to get really stunning photos.
This is an example of an event where it was impossible to anticipate the perfect instant: the dogs in just the right positions, with the ideal "expressions". Shooting a dozen JPEGs of each competitor - at 5fps - ensured that I would get at least one in each series that was close to ideal. (c) 2011 Peter K. Burian
And finally, when panning with an action subject - at a long shutter speed such as 1/15 sec. - it's worth taking many shots. That will increase the odds of getting one with an uncluttered background, a subject that's adequately sharp and well placed in the frame, minimal problems with blurring from up/down camera shake, etc. In fact, you may need to shoot hundreds when panning with high speed race cars, for example, to get a couple that you would be proud to enter in a photo contest. So, the bottom line is that there is real value in a fast drive mode because it increases the odds of getting one photo that's perfect in all aspects.
Editor's Note: Peter K. Burian teaches two terrific online photography workshops - Mastering the Digital Camera and Photography and Mastering the Canon EOS Digital Rebels - at BetterPhoto's digital photography school online. Also check out Peter's Pro BetterPholio website: www.peterkburian.com.