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Forget burst rates and motor drives and work on getting that one shot
What's the key to successful comedy?
(...wait for it...)
And when it comes to photographing action, don't let anybody tell you that the key to success is a fast motor drive or burst rate. These can help, but the secret here, too, is timing.
Turn off your motor drive
If you're a pro sports shooter, you may be tempted to rely on your digital SLR's staccato burst mode (or your film camera's motor drive) and just keep the shutter release pressed as the camera captures five frames a second. While this feature's a great tool, it won't teach you how to anticipate action.
For that, you need to turn your burst/motor drive off. (Don't worry - you can turn it on again once you get your timing right. You'll find you won't need it as much!)
When you're photograping sports or other active subjects where there's predictable movement, study that movement so you can anticipate the split second when the action hits its peak.
Case in point: My aquatically-adept 10-year-old daughter and I had an entire pool to ourselves, and I had my camera. With no other distractions, I convinced her to pose for a shot of her flinging her hair back, sending water and hair flying. My goal was to get a shot of the water, frozen in air, at just the right moment. Her goal was to get a picture of herself doing something cool.
OK, it's not pro sports, but it is a classic freeze-the-action shot. To get it just right, split-second timing is required. I attached my versatile Sigma 55-200mm f/4-5.6 lens on my Canon EOS 20D digital SLR, set it to 1/1000 sec in shutter priority (let the aperture fall where it may), and of course, turned off the burst mode.
I didn't use my compact camera. Why? Most compacts hesitate, sometimes for as long as a second after you've pressed the shutter release, before capturing the image. Called "lag time," this hesitation (caused by the camera searching for something to focus on) renders virtually all compact digicams useless for capturing action. SLRs react much faster--and digital's better because you can check your progress on your DSLR's LCD screen.
Use your head
I showed my daughter what to do: stick her head in the water, count to three, lift her head up, and flip it back so the water would fly off her hair. I had her practice this a few times. I watched, getting a sense for how long the move took.
Then I started shooting. As you can see, the first few attempts failed: I caught her either too early (left shot), or too late (right). But the more I shot, the more I learned, and the better my timing got. I had my daughter count down with her fingers; at first, I got a bunch of shots where the timing was perfect, but she was holding up three fingers.
I showed her these shots in the LCD finder, and she decided that she'd put her hand in the water after counting to two.
Finally, I got it! We kept on shooting, trying variations. By the time we were done, I'd become totally familiar with the timing of the action and had a couple dozen great shots (including the shot at the top of this article) that could be used for stock, greeting cards, or just a nice, framed photo for my daughter's room.
And I didn't use the burst mode.
Now, that's good timing!