Image Stabilization And You

How to choose and make the best use of stabilized cameras and lenses
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In-Lens Image-stabilizing Unit

For the sharpest shots, a tripod is essential, but you have to carry it with you and set it up each time you want to make a shot—not great for capturing a bighorn sheep that suddenly bursts into view and is gone just as quickly. Handholding allows spontaneous freedom of movement, but camera shake can blur your images, especially when using slower shutter speeds or longer focal lengths. When using a tripod isn’t possible or practical, you want image stabilization. There are two types of stabilization systems, each with its own advantages.


In-Camera Image-Stabilizing Unit

Canon was the first to offer stabilized lenses when it introduced the EF 75-300mm ƒ/4-5.6 IS USM zoom for its EOS cameras in 1995. The “IS” means the lens contains an optical Image Stabilizer—a system of sensors that detects camera shake and a group of lens elements that moves to counter it. As a result, users could get sharp shots two shutter speeds slower than possible without stabilization. For example, you could get pictures at 1⁄50 sec. that were as sharp as shots taken at 1⁄200 sec. without stabilization.

Today’s IS lenses have doubled that to four shutter speeds. It’s important to note, however, that with any handheld shooting—with or without stabilization—how slow you can shoot depends in part on your skill, as well as the shutter speed and the focal length in use.

Canon followed with more IS lenses and today offers around 25 of them. Nikon was next to introduce its VR (Vibration Reduction) lenses, with similar effects. More recently, Sigma introduced a series of OS (Optical Stabilizer) lenses, and Tamron has its VC (Vibration Compensation) lenses. All of these lenses mean you can shoot sharper images handheld, and that’s a wonderful thing.

Nine years after Canon introduced that first stabilized lens, Konica Minolta gave us the first stabilized DSLR with an anti-shake mechanism that moves the image sensor to counter camera movement. While Konica Minolta is no longer making cameras, the sensor-shift stabilization method is found today in DSLRs from Olympus, Pentax, Samsung and Sony (the latter having acquired Konica Minolta’s DSLR technology in 2006).

The result of all this is that today you can shoot stabilized no matter what brand DSLR you prefer.

Tips For Using Stabilization

1. It takes the stabilization system a moment to detect shake and stabilize the image, so depress the shutter button halfway to activate the system, then wait for it to do its thing before fully depressing the button to take the shot. Earlier stabilized lens models can take a second or more to stabilize the image; newer ones are faster. With a stabilized lens, you can see in the viewfinder when the image has stabilized. With in-camera sensor-shift stabilization, there’s an indicator that lets you know when the system is functioning. If you use Live-View mode, you can see on the LCD monitor when the image is stable, with both in-lens and in-camera stabilization systems.

2. You can switch the stabilization system on or off, whether in-lens or in-camera.
Since the system does draw power, it will cause the battery to wear down more quickly than if you don’t use it. I haven’t found this to be a problem with my stabilized gear, but it’s something to keep in mind if you’re down to your last battery and it’s running low.

3. If you use a lens with stabilization on a camera body with stabilization, switch one or the other system off; don’t try to use both in-body sensor-shift stabilization and in-lens optical stabilization simultaneously.


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Image-Stabilized Lenses

In-Lens Vs. In-Camera Stabilization
In-lens and in-camera stabilization each has its strengths and weaknesses, but both work very well and will give you sharper images than you’d get without stabilization when shooting at slower shutter speeds.

In-lens stabilization can be optimized for the specific lens, which can make it more effective than sensor-shift stabilization, especially with the really long focal lengths. In-lens stabilization stabilizes both the recorded image and the viewfinder image, so you get a steadier image for composing and focusing. The drawbacks are that you have to buy stabilized lenses to get stabilization, and stabilized lenses are heavier and more costly than non-stabilized lenses.

In-camera sensor-shift stabilization works with any lens you attach to the camera, so you don’t have to buy special stabilized lenses. The main drawback is that it stabilizes only the recorded image, not what you see in the viewfinder. So you can’t really see how stable the image is until after you shoot it—unless your DSLR offers Live-View operation.

When Should You Use Stabilization?
At first glance, you’d think it’s a good idea to use stabilization anytime you’re handholding the camera, but that’s not necessarily true. I switch it off when doing bird-in-flight shots, for example, for a couple of reasons.

First, stabilization slows down camera operation. After focusing on the fast-moving bird, the camera’s processor has to calculate the needed compensation and apply it. (All-out pro DSLRs, with their more powerful processors, do this more effectively than mid-level DSLRs.)

Second, stabilization counters vertical and horizontal camera motion, while birds tend to zigzag in many directions, especially when pursuing prey. So I’ll often find the stabilizer fighting me as I move the camera to track the flying bird.

Other Types Of Stabilization

Some cameras offer “electronic” stabilization. This approach isn’t really stabilization, but a clever way of referring to automatic ISO. When the camera recognizes a slow shutter-speed situation, it automatically increases the ISO setting to provide a faster shutter speed. Increasing the ISO reduces image quality, and the point of stabilization is to improve image quality, so this isn’t the best method.

While it’s true that many late-model DSLRs produce quite good image quality at ISOs in the 800-1600 range and some even higher, you can manually set a higher ISO anytime you wish with a DSLR, and I’d prefer to do it myself when necessary rather than have the camera set a higher ISO on its own. Like in-lens and sensor-shift stabilization, electronic stabilization can be switched on and off as desired.

There’s also “digital” stabilization, where the camera shifts the image itself “X” pixels to counter camera shake. This isn’t currently used in DSLRs, but is used in some compact digital still cameras and camcorders. Note that some manufacturers use the term “digital stabilization” to mean increasing the ISO rather than true pixel-shift digital stabilization.


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Image-Stabilized Cameras

Many stabilization systems have multiple modes. Canon IS lenses offer two modes. Mode 1 counters both vertical and horizontal camera shake. Mode 2 detects intentional panning and just compensates for vertical shake when you’re panning horizontally or for horizontal shake when you’re panning vertically.

Some Nikon VR lenses offer Active and Normal modes. Active is best used when you’re shooting from a moving car or boat; Normal is best used when you shooting from a stationary platform. If you’re shooting wildlife in motion handheld, try it with and without stabilization and see which works best for you with your gear.

Nikon guru Thom Hogan (www.bythom.com/nikon-vr.htm) makes a good case for switching stabilization off at shutter speeds above 1/500 sec., in part because of the sampling frequency of the stabilizing system. Try it with your gear to see if you get better results at higher shutter speeds with stabilization switched on or off.

We especially recommend using stabilization when photographing stationary subjects handheld at shutter speeds below 1⁄500 sec., regardless of lens focal length. But again, try it in different situations with your gear to see what works best for you.

The Handholding Rule Of Thumb

How slow a shutter speed can you use and still get a sharp handheld photograph? Well, that depends on a number of things, including your skill in handholding your camera, the shutter speed and focal length in use, and how large a print you intend to make. As a general rule, use a shutter speed at least equal to the reciprocal of the lens focal length. For example, if handholding a 200mm lens, shoot at a shutter speed of 1/200 sec. or shorter.

If you’re using a DSLR with a smaller-than-full-frame sensor, base your shutter speed on the lens’ effective focal length with that camera. For example, on an APS-C camera (1.5x focal-length factor), your 200mm lens frames like a 300mm lens on a 35mm SLR, so you should use a shutter speed of 1⁄300 sec. or shorter when handholding a 200mm lens on that camera. On a Four Thirds System camera, a 200mm lens is equivalent to a 400mm lens on a 35mm SLR, so you’d use a shutter speed of at least 1⁄400 sec. when handholding a 200mm lens.

Remember, though, that this is a guide, not an ironclad law. Some photographers can handhold a camera more steadily than others, and a given photographer may be steadier one day than another.

Early stabilization systems were good for about two shutter speeds: If you could get sharp shots handholding a given focal length at 1⁄200 sec. without stabilization, you could get equivalent results handholding at 1⁄50 sec. with stabilization. Today’s newest systems are more effective, allowing for three to four shutter speeds: You could successfully handhold that 200mm lens at speeds down to 1⁄25 sec. or even 1⁄15 sec. It’s a very good idea to do a test with your gear to see how slow a shutter speed you can handhold and still get results that work for you, both with and without stabilization.


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Stabilization is a wonderful aid, but not as a substitute for a tripod. When you can use a tripod, you’ll get sharper results that way than shooting handheld with stabilization. Many serious wildlife photographers who use a really long lens (400mm and up) will use a gimbal head with their tripod. The gimbal holds the camera steadily, but allows you to move it in any direction to track your subject.

Bottom Line
Can a stabilizer hold your camera as still as a tripod? No way. But if you work handheld, a stabilizer will give you sharper shots at slow shutter speeds than you’d get without stabilization. It’s that simple.

Stabilizer Lens Chart
Stabilizer DSLR Chart

Stabilization For Video

Now that an ever-increasing number of DSLRs can shoot video, you may wonder if stabilization can help you get steadier videos. Yes and no. DSLR stabilization systems were designed to help you hold the camera steady during a relatively brief exposure. They weren’t designed to keep a camera rock-solid for video clips of several seconds or even minutes. So, yes, the stabilizer provides for steadier handheld video shooting, but any shake at all in a video is very distracting to the viewer, so videos should be shot from tripods unless you want a handheld effect.

Also, the stabilizer makes a soft sound, which a video-capable DSLR’s built-in microphone will pick up. If you’re shooting without sound, or using an external microphone, this isn’t a problem, but it’s best not to use the stabilizer (or change any camera settings while shooting) when using the built-in microphone.


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Gyro Stabilizers

Gyro stabilizers are self-contained stabilizing units that mount beneath any camera and stabilize it very well—better than built-in stabilization systems. But gyro stabilizers are bulky and costly. These units are popular with professional aerial photographers and motion-picture camera operators, and provide the ultimate in stabilization for those who need and can afford it.

Stabilization And Tripods

Should you use stabilization when the camera is on a tripod? The instruction manuals for some stabilized lenses say to switch stabilization off when using a tripod; the manuals for others say to switch it on. So, be sure to review your lens and camera documentation to use the proper settings with your system. If you’re working from a monopod, using stabilization will probably help.

Resources
Canon
(800) OK-CANON
www.usa.canon.com

Leica
(800) 222-0118
www.leica-camera.com

Nikon
(800) NIKON-US
www.nikonusa.com

Olympus
(888) 968-4448
www.olympusamerica.com

Panasonic
(800) 211-PANA
www.panasonic.com

Pentax
(800) 877-0155
www.pentaximaging.com

Samsung
(800) SAMSUNG
www.samsung.com

Sigma
(800) 896-6858
www.sigmaphoto.com

Sony
(877) 865-SONY
www.sonystyle.com

Tamron USA
(631) 858-8400
www.tamron.com

3 Comments

    The sensor crop factor is meaningless to the 1/focal length rule. Think about it. The center of the full frame is exactly the same as the cropped sensor. If 1/200 sec is good for the center of the full frame, it is good for the cropped sensor, too. If you rotate the FF some minor angle, those center pixels get as blurred as the cropped sensor pixels. Stop spreading the nonsense of “equivalent focal length.”

    Next myth to bust – tripods and image stabilization. When the manufacturer tells you to turn off IS when using a tripod, they mean when you have your lens bolted down and tripod locked solid with everything balanced exactly as it should be. This happens so rarely that leaving the IS on is preferred. Yes, long exposures on a sturdy, well-balance over a tripod, turn it off. Otherwise, leave it on. You probably shake the camera a little pressing the shutter.

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