|This Article Features Photo Zoom|
|The AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm ƒ/2.8 ED VR II lens features in-lens stabilization.|
Image-stabilized lenses and cameras let you capture sharp, handheld photos at lower shutter speeds than ever before, while supersensitive sensors let some DSLRs shoot in the dark. So is it time to retire your tripod?
Sony SLT-A55, Olympus E-5 and Pentax K-5 cameras provide sensor-shift stabilization.
Most experienced photographers agree that a sturdy tripod is the best tool to use when shooting in low-light situations without a flash. Because tripods reduce camera shake and other vibrations, they enable you to use slow shutter speeds to balance exposures or extend the depth of field in your photos by using small apertures—all while keeping your ISO setting low to maximize image quality. But now that image-stabilized lenses and camera bodies are readily available, and supersensitive, low-noise sensors are appearing in the latest DSLRs, are tripods losing their mass appeal?
That's a trick question, since another key tripod benefit is to support the mass of equipment pros and advanced shooters truck with them, including heavy cameras, long lenses, WiFi adapters and battery packs. With the arrival of HDSLRs, the load increases with accessory microphones, rack-focusing devices and video lights. Add the benefits that fluid heads provide for video panning and tracking, and tripods actually may increase in popularity.
Which Is Better: Lens IS Or Camera IS?
If you're a dedicated DSLR still shooter who likes to travel light, a tripod may soon be the last option you choose for improving your low-light photos and depth of field. Your most affordable and lightweight option is either an image-stabilized lens or a camera body with built-in sensor-shift IS.
How well do these two systems reduce vibrations, and is one better than the other? The answers depend on a number of factors, including the camera brand you own, your physical traits and the subject you're photographing. Currently, manufacturers such as Canon, Nikon, Panasonic and Sigma only offer lens-based image stabilization (called IS, VR, Mega O.I.S. and OS, respectively) for their DSLRs. On the other hand, Olympus, Pentax and Sony only offer DSLR models with sensor-shift IS. Note: Even if you purchase third-party IS lenses from Sigma, Tamron or Tokina to use with a sensor-shift body, only one IS system will work at a time.
Claims for both types of image stabilization range from two to four stops of improvement over the maximum recommended shutter speed for cameras and lenses without IS (see "The Reciprocal Shutter Speed Rule" sidebar). That means that if the slowest recommended shutter speed is 1⁄200 sec., without IS, you may be able to capture sharp handheld shots all the way down to 1/12 sec. with a lens or camera, providing a four-stop advantage. In my experience, however, and based on several lab and field tests I've done, improvements from the best IS lenses and IS cameras are rarely higher than three stops—and that advantage is only reachable when using telephoto lenses with focal lengths over 100mm. With normal and wide-angle lenses, IS improvements are less noticeable and not as obvious on either system. The benefits of IS also decrease at higher shutter speeds, so if you dial in 1/400 sec. with a 200mm lens to reduce vibration from a moving vehicle (or from the four cups of coffee you drank), or chose 1/600 sec. to freeze action in the scene, the IS won't significantly improve the shots.
The Reciprocal Shutter Speed Rule
Before turning on image stabilization, what's the lowest shutter speed you should use while handholding a camera in order to prevent visible camera shake blur in your photos? (Subject motion blur is a different problem.) The answer varies based on the focal length of the lens being used and is calculated using the Reciprocal Shutter Speed Rule: 1/Focal Length. For example, if you're shooting with a full-frame camera and your zoom lens is set to 200mm, your lowest shutter speed should be 1⁄200 sec. Of course, that assumes there's enough light for the camera to set an aperture that produces a proper exposure. (If not, you'll have to dial up your ISO.)
At that suggested shutter speed and faster, most images should appear sharp in a 4x6 or an 8x10 print (assuming correct focus and a stationary subject). Below that speed, images probably will show unwanted blur caused by the photographer (or environment) shaking the camera.
Several factors can modify the rule. If your DSLR uses a smaller APS-C or Four-Thirds sensor, you have to use the 35mm-equivalent focal length in the equation (multiply the actual focal length by 1.5x, 1.6x or 2.0x, depending on the sensor). For example, on a Nikon D5100 with a 200mm lens, the reciprocal shutter speed would be 1/(200 x 1.5) = 1⁄300 sec.
Camera shake also varies by body weight, breath control, physical traits and environmental factors, so use the suggested speed as a starting point and then consider increasing your shutter speed if you've had more than one coffee, and you're cold and tired, or if you're shooting from a vibrating car or platform.
|A Selection Of Lenses With Built-In Stabilizers|
|FOR 35MM AND DIGITAL SLRS|
|Canon EF 100mm ƒ/2.8L Macro IS USM||15/12||11.9 in.||1.0X||67mm||3.1x4.8||1.4 lbs.||$1,049|
|Canon EF 200mm ƒ/2L IS USM||17/12||6.3 ft.||0.12X||52mm||5.0x8.2||5.6 lbs.||$5,799|
|Canon EF 300mm ƒ/2.8L IS USM||17/13||8.2 ft.||0.13X||52mm||5.0x9.9||1.7 lbs.||$4,879|
|Canon EF 300mm ƒ/2.8L IS II USM||16/12||6.6 ft.||0.18X||52mm||5.0x9.8||5.2 lbs.||$6,599|
|Canon EF 300mm ƒ/4L IS USM||15/11||4.9 ft.||0.24X||77mm||3.5x8.7||2.6 lbs.||$1,399|
|Canon EF 400mm ƒ/2.8L IS USM||17/13||9.8 ft.||0.15X||52mm||6.4x13.7||11.8 lbs.||$7,999|
|Canon EF 400mm ƒ/2.8L IS II USM||16/12||8.9 ft.||0.17X||52mm||6.4x13.5||8.5 lbs.||$10,499|
|Canon EF 400mm ƒ/4 DO IS USM||17/13||11.5 ft.||0.12X||52mm||5.0x9.4||4.3 lbs.||$6,399|
|Canon EF 500mm ƒ/4L IS USM||17/13||14.8 ft.||0.12X||52mm||5.8x15.2||8.5 lbs.||$6,999|
|Canon EF 500mm ƒ/4L IS II USM||16/12||12.1 ft.||0.15X||52mm||5.7x15.1||7.0 lbs.||$9,499|
|Canon EF 600mm ƒ/4L IS USM||17/13||18.0 ft.||0.12X||52mm||6.6x18.0||11.8 lbs.||$8,899|
|Canon EF 600mm ƒ/4L IS II USM||16/12||14.8 ft.||0.15X||52mm||6.6x17.6||8.6 lbs.||$11,999|
|Canon EF 800mm ƒ/5.6L IS USM||18/14||19.7 ft.||0.14X||52mm||6.4x18.1||9.9 lbs.||$12,499|
|Canon EF 24-105mm ƒ/4L IS USM||18/13||18 in.||0.23X||77mm||3.3x4.2||1.5 lbs.||$1,099|
|Canon EF 28-135mm ƒ/3.5-5.6 IS USM||16/12||19.2 in.||0.19X||72mm||3.1x3.8||1.2 lbs.||$450|
|Canon EF 28-300mm ƒ/3.5-5.6L IS USM||22/16||2.3 ft.||0.3X||77mm||3.6x7.2||3.7 lbs.||$2,649|
|Canon EF 70-200mm ƒ/2.8L IS II USM||23/19||3.9 ft.||0.21X||77mm||3.5x7.8||3.3 lbs.||$2,499|
|Canon EF 70-200mm ƒ/4L IS USM||20/15||3.9 ft.||0.21X||67mm||3.0x6.8||1.7 lbs.||$1,329|
|Canon EF 70-300mm ƒ/4-5.6L IS USM||19/14||3.9 ft.||0.21X||67mm||3.5x5.6||2.3 lbs.||$1,599|
|Canon EF 70-300mm ƒ/4.5-5.6 DO IS USM||18/12||4.6 ft.||0.19X||58mm||3.2x3.9||1.6 lbs.||$1,329|
|Canon EF 70-300mm ƒ/4-5.6 IS USM||15/10||4.9 ft.||0.26X||58mm||3.0x5.6||1.4 lbs.||$559|
|Canon EF 100-400mm ƒ/4.5-5.6L IS USM||17/14||5.9 ft.||0.20X||77mm||3.6x7.4||3.1 lbs.||$1,675|
|Nikon AF-S VR Micro-Nikkor 105mm ƒ/2.8G IF-ED||14/12||12 in.||1.0X||62mm||3.3x4.6||1.7 lbs.||$984|
|Nikon AF-S VR Nikkor 200mm ƒ/2G IF-ED||13/9||6.2 ft.||0.12X||52mm||4.9x8.0||6.4 lbs.||$5,099|
|Nikon AF-S Nikkor 300mm ƒ/2.8G ED VR II||11/8||7.5 ft.||0.16X||52mm||4.9x10.5||6.4 lbs.||$5,899|
|Nikon AF-S VR Nikkor 300mm ƒ/2.8G IF-ED||11/8||7.2 ft.||0.16X||52mm||4.9x10.5||6.3 lbs.||$5,499|
|Nikon AF-S Nikkor 400mm ƒ/2.8G ED VR||14/11||9.5 ft.||0.16X||52mm||6.3x14.5||10.2 lbs.||$9,549|
|Nikon AF-S Nikkor 500mm ƒ/4G ED VR II||14/11||12.6 ft.||0.14X||52mm||5.5x15.4||8.6 lbs.||$8,579|
|Nikon AF-S Nikkor 600mm ƒ/4G ED VR||15/12||15.7 ft.||0.14X||52mm||6.5x17.5||11.2 lbs.||$10,299|
|Nikon AF-S Nikkor 16-35mm ƒ/4G ED VR||17/12||11.5 in.||0.25X||77mm||3.2x4.9||1.5 lbs.||$1,259|
|Nikon AF-S Zoom-Nikkor 24-120mm ƒ/3.5-5.6G IF-ED||15/13||19.2 in.||0.21X||72mm||3.0x3.7||1.3 lbs.||$669|
|Nikon AF-S Nikkor 70-200mm ƒ/2.8G ED VR II||21/16||4.6 ft.||0.25X||77mm||3.4x8.1||3.4 lbs.||$2,399|
|Nikon AF-S VR Zoom-Nikkor 70-300mm ƒ/4.5-5.6G||17/12||4.9 ft.||0.25X||67mm||3.1x5.6||1.6 lbs.||$589|
|Nikon AF-S Nikkor 200-400mm ƒ/4G ED VR II||24/17||6.6 ft.||0.27X||52mm||4.9x14.4||7.4 lbs.||$6,999|
|Nikon AF-S VR Zoom-Nikkor 200-400mm ƒ/4G IF-ED||24/17||6.6 ft.||0.27X||52mm||4.9x14.4||7.2 lbs.||$6,299|
|Nikon AF VR Zoom-Nikkor 80-400mm ƒ/4.5-5.6D ED||17/11||7.5 ft.||0.42X||77mm||3.6x6.7||2.9 lbs.||$1,849|
|Sigma 150mm ƒ/2.8 EX DG OS HSM APO Macro||19/13||15 in.||1.0X||72mm||3.1x5.9||2.6 lbs.||$1,099|
|Sigma 50-500mm ƒ/4-6.3 APO DG OS HSM||22/6||5.9 ft.||0.32X||95mm||4.1x8.6||4.3 lbs.||$1,659|
|Sigma 70-200mm ƒ/2.8 EX DG OS HSM||22/17||4.6 ft.||0.13X||77mm||3.4x7.8||NA||$1,399|
|Sigma 70-300mm ƒ/4-5.6 DG OS||18/11||4.9 ft.||0.26X||62mm||3.0x5.0||1.3 lbs.||$359|
|Sigma 120-300mm ƒ/2.8 EX DG OS APO HSM||23/18||5-8.2 ft.||0.12X||105mm||4.5x11.4||6.5 lbs.||$3,199|
|Sigma 120-400mm ƒ/4.5-5.6 APO DG OS HSM||21/15||4.9 ft.||0.24X||77mm||3.6x8.0||3.9 lbs.||$999|
|Sigma 150-500mm ƒ/5-6.3 APO DG OS HSM||21/15||7.2 ft.||0.19X||86mm||3.7x9.9||4.2 lbs.||$1,069|
|Tamron 28-300mm ƒ/3.5-6.3 XR Di VC LD||18/13||19.3 in.||0.33X||67mm||3.1x3.9||19.6 oz.||$629|
|Tamron SP 70-300mm ƒ/4-5.6 Di VC USD XLD||17/12||5.0 ft.||0.25X||62mm||3.2x5.6||27.0 oz.||$449|
|Sigma OS lenses are available in mounts for Sigma, Canon, Nikon, Pentax and Sony/Minolta DSLRs, except the 18-200mm, which is available in mounts for Sigma, Canon and Nikon.
DC lenses are for APS-C-format cameras only; DG lenses can be used with full-frame and 35mm SLRs, too.Tamron VC lenses are available in mounts for Canon and Nikon DSLRs. Di II lenses are for APS-C-format cameras only; Di lenses can be used with full-frame and 35mm SLRs, too.
|FOR APS-C DSLRS ONLY|
|Canon EF-S 15-85mm ƒ/3.5-5.6 IS USM||17/12||13.8 in.||0.21X||72mm||3.2x3.4||1.3 lbs.||$779|
|Canon EF-S 17-55mm ƒ/2.8 IS USM||19/12||13.8 in.||0.17X||77mm||3.3x4.4||1.4 lbs.||$1,159|
|Canon EF-S 17-85mm ƒ/4-5.6 IS USM||17/12||13.8 in.||0.2X||67mm||3.1x3.6||16.8 oz.||$529|
|Canon EF-S 18-55mm ƒ/3.5-5.6 IS II||11/9||9.8 in.||0.34X||58mm||2.7x3.3||7.1 oz.||$199|
|Canon EF-S 18-135mm ƒ/3.5-5.6 IS||16/12||18 in.||0.21X||67mm||3.0x4.0||16.0 oz.||$499|
|Canon EF-S 18-200mm ƒ/3.5-5.6 IS||16/12||18 in.||0.24X||72mm||3.1x6.4||1.3 lbs.||$609|
|Canon EF-S 55-250mm ƒ/4-5.6 IS||12/10||3.6 ft.||0.31X||58mm||2.8x4.3||13.8 oz.||$255|
|Nikon AF-S DX Micro-Nikkor 85mm ƒ/3.5G ED VR||14/10||11.1 in.||1.0X||52mm||2.9x3.9||12.5 oz.||$529|
|Nikon AF-S DX Nikkor 16-85mm ƒ/3.5-5.6G ED VR||17/11||15.6 in.||0.22X||67mm||2.8x3.4||17.1 oz.||$659|
|Nikon AF-S DX Nikkor 18-55mm ƒ/3.5-5.6G VR||11/8||10.9 in.||0.31X||52mm||2.9x3.1||9.3 oz.||$199|
|Nikon AF-S DX Nikkor 18-105mm ƒ/3.5-5.6G ED VR||15/11||17.8 in.||0.2X||67mm||3.0x3.5||14.8 oz.||$399|
|Nikon AF-S DX Nikkor 18-200mm ƒ/3.5-5.6G ED VR II||16/12||19.2 in.||0.22X||72mm||3.0x3.8||19.8 oz.||$849|
|Nikon AF-S DX VR Nikkor 55-200mm ƒ/4-5.6G IF-ED||15/11||3.6 ft.||0.29X||52mm||2.9x3.9||11.8 oz.||$249|
|Sigma 17-50mm ƒ/2.8 EX DC OS HSM||17/13||11 in.||0.2X||77mm||3.3x3.6||19.9 oz.||$669|
|Sigma 17-70mm ƒ/2.8-4 DC OS HSM||17/13||8.8 in.||0.37X||72mm||3.1x3.5||18.9 oz.||$469|
|Sigma 18-50mm ƒ/2.8-4.5 DC OS HSM||16/12||11.8 in.||0.24X||67mm||2.9x3.5||13.9 oz.||$199|
|Sigma 18-125mm ƒ/3.8-5.6 DC OS HSM||16/12||13.8 in.||0.26X||67mm||2.9x3.5||17.8 oz.||$339|
|Sigma 18-200mm ƒ/3.5-6.3 DC OS||18/13||17.7 in.||0.26X||72mm||3.1x3.9||1.3 lbs.||$399|
|Sigma 18-250mm ƒ/3.5-6.3 DC OS HSM||18/14||17.7 in.||0.29X||72mm||3.1x4.0||1.4 lbs.||$479|
|Sigma 50-200mm ƒ/4-5.6 DC OS HSM||14/10||3.6 ft.||0.22X||55mm||2.9x4.0||14.8 oz.||$159|
|Tamron SP 17-50mm ƒ/2.8 XR Di II VC LD||19/14||11.4 in.||0.21X||72mm||3.1x3.7||1.3 lbs.||$649|
|Tamron 18-270mm ƒ/3.5-6.3 Di II VC PZD LD||16/13||19.3 in.||0.26X||62mm||2.9x3.5||15.9 oz.||$649|
|FOR FOUR THIRDS SYSTEM DSLRS|
|Leica D Vario-Elmarit 14-50mm ƒ/2.8-3.5 MEGA O.I.S.||16/12||11.5 in.||0.32X*||72mm||3.1x3.8||17.3 oz.||$1,199|
|Leica D Vario-Elmar 14-50mm ƒ/3.8-5.6 MEGA O.I.S.||15/11||11.4 in.||0.42X*||67mm||2.9x3.7||15.3 oz.||$649|
|Leica D Vario-Elmar 14-150mm ƒ/3.5-5.6 MEGA O.I.S.||15/11||19.7 in.||0.36X*||72mm||3.1x3.6||18.9 oz.||$1,699|
|FOR MICRO FOUR THIRDS SYSTEM MIRRORLESS CAMERAS|
|Leica DG Macro-Elmarit 45mm ƒ/2.8 MEGA O.I.S.||14/10||6 in.||2.0X*||46mm||2.5x2.5||7.9 oz.||$899|
|Panasonic G Vario 14-42mm ƒ/3.5-5.6 MEGA O.I.S.||12/9||12 in.||0.32X*||52mm||2.4x2.5||5.8 oz.||$199|
|Panasonic G Vario 14-45mm ƒ/3.5-5.6 MEGA O.I.S.||12/9||12 in.||0.34X*||52mm||2.4x2.4||6.9 oz.||$349|
|Panasonic G Vario HD 14-140mm ƒ/4.5-5.8 MEGA O.I.S.||17/13||19.5 in.||0.40X*||62mm||2.8x3.3||16.2 oz.||$849|
|Panasonic G Vario 45-200mm ƒ/4.0-5.6 MEGA O.I.S.||16/13||39 in.||0.38X*||52mm||2.8x3.9||13.4 oz.||$349|
|Panasonic G Vario 100-300mm ƒ/4.0-5.6 MEGA O.I.S.||17/12||4.9 ft.||0.42X*||67mm||2.9x5.0||18.3 oz.||$599|
|FOR SAMSUNG NX-SERIES MIRRORLESS CAMERAS|
|Samsung 18-200mm ƒ/3.5-6.4 NX ED OIS||18/13||1.6 ft.||0.28X||67mm||2.8x4.2||1.3 lbs.||$799|
|Samsung 50-200mm ƒ/4-5.6 NX OIS II||17/13||3.2 ft.||0.2X||52mm||2.8x4.0||14.4 oz.||$279|
|Samsung 60mm ƒ/2.8 OIS SSA Macro||12/9||7.2 in.||1.0X||52mm||2.9x3.3||15.9 oz.||$599|
|FOR SONY NEX MIRRORLESS CAMERAS|
|Sony 18-200mm ƒ/3.5-6.3 OSS||12 in.||0.35X||67mm||3.0x4.0||1.2 lbs.||$799|
|*Apparent magnification due to the 2x focal-length factor of Four Thirds and Micro Four Thirds image sensors.|
|This Article Features Photo Zoom|
The Canon EF 70-200mm ƒ/2.8L IS USM, Sigma 70-300mm ƒ/4-5.6 DG OS and Tamron 18-270mm ƒ/3.5-6.3 Di II VC lenses feature in-lens stabilization.
Other significant differences between both IS technologies affect the way you shoot and the price you pay for lenses. Cameras with sensor-shift IS generally work well with any compatible lens, including older ones. IS lenses tend to cost a bit more than their non-IS counterparts, so you have to factor that into the equation. However, only image-stabilized lenses can be set to show the stabilization effect through the camera's optical viewfinder. A few sensor-shift bodies let you preview the IS effect in Live View mode via the large LCD or through an electronic viewfinder (when it's available). Some shooters find using a live IS preview in either system to be advantageous, while others note how fast it drains the camera battery.
The best IS lenses also feature special panning modes or switches for use when you're tracking a moving target. These produce superior results by ignoring side-to-side motion and only reducing shake along the vertical axis. Other lenses can detect when the camera is set on a tripod automatically and turn off the IS so you can save battery life. Finally, when it comes to shooting video, both IS systems can help reduce shake to some extent, but IS lenses are generally quieter and further away from the built-in camera microphone. At least one zoom lens from Panasonic has a completely silent IS engine.
High ISO Changes The Rules For Working Without A Tripod
You may have noticed that neither the light-gathering capacity of the lens (determined by its maximum aperture) or the ISO setting of the camera is factored into the Reciprocal Shutter Speed Rule. These two features are only indirectly related to the amount of blur you can expect when shooting at low shutter speeds and, instead, determine whether you need to use a low shutter speed at all to produce a proper exposure. A brighter lens and higher ISO settings both let you use a faster shutter speed in a given low-light situation. Unfortunately, large-aperture telephoto lenses are expensive and rarely give you more than a two-stop advantage over a cheaper lens. But that two-stop advantage (for example, ƒ/2.8 vs. ƒ/5.6) is worth the price if you're an avid low-light shooter or if you want the added depth-of-field separation provided by wider apertures.
Increasing the camera's ISO to improve low-light performance can give you several more stops of improvement compared to a brighter lens or image stabilization. Many point-and-shoots do this automatically when their "electronic" image-stabilization feature is turned on. However, the price you pay for increasing ISO is a decrease in image quality. How much it decreases depends on the camera and its sensor. Most DSLRs let you dial up ISO to gain a three- to five-stop improvement in light sensitivity (compared to the camera's base ISO) before image quality becomes unacceptable. For example, assuming you own a fairly modern APS-C DSLR with a base ISO of 100, you may find images shot at ISOs from 800 (three stops) to 3200 (five stops) to be acceptable.
|This Article Features Photo Zoom|
More recently, DSLRs such as the pro Canon EOS-1Ds Mark IV and the pro Nikon D3S gave us a preview of what to expect in the next few years as sensor technology and image-processing engines continue to push the high-ISO limit. Both DSLRs can be set to an ISO of 102,400, allowing proper exposures in near-dark conditions far below the sensitivity limits of the highest ISO 35mm films (those topped out at ISO 3200, with push-processing to ISO 12,800). While 100,000-plus ISO settings produce images that are fairly noisy and have low color saturation even in these pro models, many shooters are discovering that photos shot at ISO 6400 (six stops above ISO 100) and 12,800 (seven stops) can produce remarkably good images—in some cases, rivaling the noise levels and color shot on their previous models at ISO 800 and 1600!
It All Adds Up: High Advantages In Low Light
When you combine the benefits gained from image-stabilized lenses or cameras, wider-aperture lenses and extremely high ISOs, you're looking at a potential seven- to 10-stop increase in light sensitivity when shooting handheld shots with the latest APS-C DSLRs, and a 13- to 14-stop advantage when shooting with the pro Canon and Nikon models mentioned earlier. That's compared to a digital or film camera set to ISO 100 using an ƒ/4 or ƒ/5.6 zoom lens without IS.
The real advantage goes beyond the numbers, as increased low-light capabilities allow DSLR shooters to capture still photos, and possibly HD videos, in ambient low-light situations that once were impossible to master without a tripod or additional lighting. Perhaps ghost images no longer will be limited to lens refractions.
Michael J. McNamara is a professional photographer, founder of The McNamara Report and a longtime photography industry insider. You can see more of his work at www.mcnamarareport.com.