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Image Stabilization

When you can't or won't use a tripod, these technologies steady your hand
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Image Stabilization

There are two distinct image-stabilization technologies employed to prevent blurry photographs when shooting at slower shutter speeds. Lens-shift stabilization, as the name implies, is achieved through moving elements in the lens barrel itself. Canon’s IS and Nikon’s VR technologies are both of the lens-shift variety. Sensor-shift stabilization occurs within the camera body rather than the lens. The primary advantage to sensor-shift technology lies in the ability to use any lens and get a stabilized image. Panasonic, Pentax, Samsung and Sony all have sensor-stabilization camera models in their lineups.

A tripod is required gear for serious landscape photographers and long-lens wildlife specialists. It assures that the camera won’t move during exposure, thus eliminating image blur caused by camera shake, and it will lock in a composition so you have time to study it carefully without accidentally changing the frame while squeezing off the shot.

Sometimes you have to shoot without a tripod, however, perhaps because carrying one over rough terrain would be too cumbersome or because something happens too fast to set one up. Fortunately, there are great solutions for those situations: cameras and lenses with built-in image-stabilizing features.




300mm f/2.8G ED-IF AF-S VT Nikkor
300mm ƒ2.8G ED-IF AF-S VR Nikkor
Sony DSLR-A100
Sony DSLR-A100
Pentax K10D
Pentax K10D

There are two basic types of stabilization used in D-SLR systems today: lens-shift and sensor-shift. Each has its advantages.

Lens-Shift Stabilization

With lens-shift stabilization, sensors in the lens detect camera shake, then the system shifts a group of internal lens elements to counteract the motion and keep the image from moving on the image sensor (or film, as stabilizer lenses can be used on 35mm SLRs as well as D-SLRs). Because the image is stabilized before entering the camera, you see a stabilized image in the viewfinder, too. That’s a big advantage of lens-shift stabilization. Another advantage is that camera shake at longer focal lengths is more easily dealt with by moving lens elements than by moving the image sensor. The drawback is that you have to buy special stabilizer lenses, and stabilization might not be available in the focal length you want.

Canon, Nikon, Sigma and Leica offer stabilized lenses (see Table A). Canon’s stabilized lenses carry an IS (Image Stabilizer) designation, Nikon’s is VR (Vibration Reduction), Sigma’s is OS (Optical Stabilizer) and Leica’s is MEGA O.I.S. (Optical Image Stabilization). Canon’s IS lenses can be used only on Canon EOS SLRs. Nikon’s VR lenses can be used only on Nikon and Fujifilm SLRs. Sigma’s OS offerings are available in mounts for Canon, Nikon and Sigma SLRs. Leica’s current offering is a 14-50mm Four Thirds System lens that can be used on all Four Thirds System D-SLRs (which are offered by Leica, Olympus and Panasonic).

Sensor-Shift Stabilization

Sensor-shift stabilization moves the image sensor itself, instead of lens elements, to counteract the effects of camera shake during handheld shooting. The big advantage of this system is that it works with all system lenses, not just specific stabilizer lenses. The draw back is that only the recorded image is stabilized; the image you see in the viewfinder isn’t. Most sensor-shift cameras provide a viewfinder LED that indicates when and to what degree the stabilizer is working.

Konica Minolta’s pioneering Maxxum 7D and 5D sensor-shift D-SLRs are no longer in production, but Sony’s DSLR-A100, Pentax’s K100D and K10D, and Samsung’s GX-10 all currently offer sensor-shift stabilization.

Gyro Stabilizers

Canon EF 400mm f/4 DO IS USM
Canon EF 400mm ƒ4 DO IS USM
Panasonic Lumix DMC-F250
Panasonic Lumix DMC-F250
Samsung GX-10
Samsung GX-10

It’s important to note that lens-shift and sensor-shift stabilization systems don’t prevent the camera from moving; rather, they compensate for the movement. There are also separate gyro-stabilizing units on the market that can be attached to cameras. These are even more effective than the built-in systems and can be used with any camera, but they add bulk and cost. Kenyon’s units contain two gyro wheels (to stabilize both pitch and yaw) that spin at more than 20,000 rpm (it takes them six to seven minutes to reach operating speed) and are very effective at stopping camera shake. These units can be used in conjunction with stabilizer lenses for maximum shake elimination.

How Effective Is Stabilization?

I’ve shot more than 150,000 images with Canon IS and Nikon VR lenses, plus several thousand more with sensor-shift cameras, and all the stabilizing systems I’ve used (Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Sony, Konica Minolta) have given me noticeably sharper images at all the shutter speeds I normally use.

Just how effective stabilization is depends on the lens focal length and shooting conditions, but I’ve found that, on average, these systems will provide equivalent results three shutter speeds slower than without stabilization. For example, if you can get sharp handheld results with a 300mm lens at 1/250 sec., you should be able to get equivalent results with that lens at a shutter speed of 1/30 sec. with stabilization. And that means you can shoot at lower ISO settings in a given light level for better image quality.

It’s worth noting that stabilization reduces the effects of camera movement, but it can’t do anything about subject movement. If your subject is moving, and you’re shooting at a slow shutter speed, there’s going to be some blur. You can use this creatively by panning the camera with the subject (to get a fairly sharp subject against a blurred background) or by locking the camera on a tripod so that stationary portions of the scene stay sharp while the moving portions blur.

Using Stabilized Gear

There’s no big trick to using lens-shift or sensor-shift stabilized gear. Just remember to switch the system on, and give it a second or so to do its thing before you fully depress the shutter button to make the exposure.

Of course, it’s also important to hold the camera properly, as steadily as possible—see your camera manual for the best way for its particular shape and configuration. Don’t get sloppy and just use stabilization as a crutch.


EF-S 17-55mm ƒ/2.8 IS USM
EF-S 17-85mm ƒ/4-5.6 IS USM
EF 24-105mm ƒ/4L IS USM
EF 28-135mm ƒ/3.5-5.6 IS USM
EF 28-300mm ƒ/3.5-5.6L IS USM
EF 70-200mm ƒ/2.8L IS USM
EF 70-200mm ƒ/4L IS USM
EF 70-300mm ƒ/4-5.6 IS USM
EF 70-300mm ƒ/4.5-5.6 DO IS USM
EF 100-400mm ƒ/4.5-5.6L IS USM
EF 300mm ƒ/2.8L IS USM
EF 300mm ƒ/4L IS USM
EF 400mm ƒ/2.8L IS USM
EF 400mm ƒ/4 DO IS USM
EF 500mm ƒ/4L IS USM
EF 600mm ƒ/4L IS USM
14-50mm ƒ/2.8-3.5 D Vario-Elmarit ASPH

18-200mm ƒ/3.5-5.6G ED-IF AF-S VR DX Zoom-Nikkor
24-120mm ƒ/3.5-5.6G ED-IF AF-S VR Zoom-Nikkor
70-200mm ƒ/2.8G ED-IF AF-S VR Zoom-Nikkor
70-300mm ƒ/4.5-5.6G ED-IF AF-S VR Zoom-Nikkor
80-400mm ƒ/4.5-5.6D ED-IF AF VR Zoom-Nikkor
200-400mm ƒ/4G ED-IF AF-S VR Zoom-Nikkor
105mm ƒ/2.8G ED-IF AF-S VR Micro-Nikkor
200mm ƒ/2G ED-IF AF-S VR Nikkor
300mm ƒ/2.8G ED-IF AF-S VR Nikkor

18-200mm ƒ/3.5-6.3 DC OS
80-400mm ƒ/4.5-5.6 EX DG APO OS

A number of stabilizer lenses provide two stabilization modes. One compensates for both vertical and horizontal movement of the camera, ideal for photographing stationary subjects; the other counteracts only vertical moment, allowing you to pan the camera to track a moving subject, such as a racing car. (If you try panning the camera in the first mode, the stabilizing system will fight you, and image sharpness may suffer.)

Some lens-shift systems provide one mode that stabilizes both the recorded image and the viewfinder image, and another that stabilizes only the recorded image. The former provides a steadier viewfinder image for easier framing; the latter saves battery power and provides quicker operation.



Compact digital cameras make great outdoor companions—they’re self-contained and easy to take anywhere. Quite a few compact digital cameras provide stabilization—lens-shift, sensor-shift or electronic—and stabilization is especially valuable with these cameras. For one thing, their small size makes them more difficult to hold steadily, especially those with longer focal lengths and those with no optical viewfinder. Holding a tiny camera at arm’s length while shooting isn’t the steadiest method, so you can use all the help you can get. I find stabilization especially helpful on hikes, when I’m trying to handhold the camera while huffing and puffing on a steep trail. Also, compact camera users rarely want to cart a tripod around, the whole point of a compact camera being “compactness.”

While some compact digital cameras offer lens-shift or sensor-shift stabilization, many utilize “electronic stabilization” that doesn’t shift lens elements or the sensor. What it does do is take data from the motion detector(s), then uses in-camera processing to sharpen the blurred images. This isn’t as effective as lens-shift or sensor-shift systems, which actually stabilize the image, making it sharper during shooting. However, this method is less costly, fits in tiny cameras and does improve images.

Canon Powershot G7
Canon Powershot G7

Some compact digital cameras feature ISO-shift “stabilization”—they provide higher ISO settings (up to 3200 with some models) than most compacts and automatically increase the ISO setting in dim light to provide faster, more handholdable shutter speeds. Faster shutter speeds are indeed an effective anti-shake measure (and they also help reduce blur caused by subject movement, which lens-shift and sensor-shift mechanisms can’t help), but higher ISO speeds result in poorer image quality than slower ISO speeds with any given camera. To counteract this, the up-the-ISO systems also generally employ automatic, advanced noise reduction to maintain image quality.

Another sharpness-increasing feature (currently found in Nikon’s Coolpix S7c) records a series of images and saves only the sharpest one.

With some systems, you must switch the stabilizer off when the camera is used on a tripod; with others, you can use stabilization with a tripod-mounted camera—again, check the instruction manual for your system.

Stabilizing systems increase battery drain, but it’s not by much. While recently testing the Canon EOS Digital Rebel XTi, I made as many as 583 shots on a single charge of the standard battery that comes with the camera, using my EF 300mm ƒ/4L IS lens’ stabilizer for every shot (and often holding the shutter button partway down for several seconds at a time while waiting for a bird subject to do something photogenic). That’s not bad, considering the instruction manual says the battery is good for about 500 shots per charge without using a stabilizer


Lens-Shift Stabilization
Canon PowerShot G7
Canon PowerShot S3 IS
Canon PowerShot SD800 IS Digital ELPH
Canon PowerShot SD700 IS Digital ELPH
Canon PowerShot A710 IS
Kodak EasyShare P850
Kodak EasyShare P712
Kodak EasyShare Z612
Leica C-Lux 1
Leica D-Lux 3
Leica V-Lux 1
Nikon Coolpix L5
Nikon Coolpix P4
Nikon Coolpix P3
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ50
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ7
Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX2
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX50
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX07
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX3
Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX01
Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ1
Panasonic Lumix DMC-LZ5
Panasonic Lumix DMC-LZ3
Panasonic Lumix DMC-LZ2
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H5
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H2
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T50
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T30
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-T10

Sensor-Shift Stabilization
Nikon Coolpix S10
Olympus Stylus 750
Pentax Optio A20
Pentax Optio A10
Pentax Optio S7
Samsung GX-10
Samsung NV7 OPS

Electronic Stabilization
Casio Exilim EX-S600
Casio Exilim EX-Z850

Casio Exilim EX-Z600
Fujifilm FinePix S9100
Fujifilm FinePix S6000fd
Fujifilm FinePix Z3
Fujifilm FinePix F31fd
HP Photosmart R827
HP Photosmart R967
Nikon Coolpix S7c
Olympus Stylus 1000
Olympus Stylus 750
Olympus Stylus 740
Olympus Stylus 730
Olympus Stylus 710
Olympus SP-510 UZ
Olympus SP-320
Olympus FE-200
Olympus FE-190
Olympus FE-180
Olympus FE-170
Samsung NV 10
Samsung Digimax i6

My recommendation? If you shoot handheld, use stabilized gear. Stabilization is especially useful in high-magnification (telephoto and close-up) and dim-light work, and when you want to make big blow-ups of the images, but it helps in any handheld shooting situation. I use it all the time.

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