FAQ: Image Stabilization

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FAQ is a new ongoing series of B&H Explora posts regarding frequently asked photography-related questions. Topics we plan on covering include cameras, lenses, flash, accessories, and photo technologies. Many of the questions we’d like to answer will be based on feedback from our in-house experts at the B&H Chat lines and online sales. We’ll also choose topics based on listener feedback, so if there’s a topic you’d like us to address, let us know about it in the Comments field that follows this post.

Our first FAQ topic is image stabilization, an interesting and very useful feature that has become increasingly complicated over the past few years, with different types and methods available.

1. What is image stabilization and why is it a big deal?

Image stabilization, or IS, as it’s often abbreviated, is a technology that enables you to take sharper, blur-free pictures with your camera by compensating for camera movement that can introduce blur. Though typically associated with cameras and lenses, image stabilization is a feature commonly used to minimize, if not eliminate, the blurring effects of shaky hands when using binoculars, video cameras, telescopes, and even smartphone cameras.

2. What causes camera shake?

There are a number of causes of camera shake, the most common culprit being unsteady hands. A strong stiff breeze that catches the open end of your lens shade can also be enough to rob you of a tack-sharp photograph. When shooting with wide-angle lenses, camera shake isn’t as noticeable, due to the wide angle of view being recorded. But if you tend to handhold telephoto lenses, image stabilization becomes an increasingly significant factor for guaranteeing sharp results.

3. Are there different kinds of image stabilization and how does IS work?

There are two types of image stabilization: optical and digital. Optical IS can be located in the lens or camera body. With optical image stabilization, tools such as electromagnets are used to float one of the elements within the lens with gyroscope-like steadiness. When movement is detected, the IS system causes the lens element to shift instantly in the opposite direction of the shake, which helps cancel any blurring effects. In-camera image stabilization works similarly, except instead of a floating lens element, the camera’s sensor shifts.

The advantages of lens-based image stabilization have tended to be increased effectiveness with longer and larger telephoto optics. One of the key advantages of in-camera image stabilization is that any lens you couple to the camera becomes image-stabilized regardless of whether the lens itself is IS-enabled. The best-case scenario today is a combination of both, in a system that can make sure both in-lens and in-camera stabilization are working together.

Digital image stabilization, aka electronic image stabilization, neutralizes camera shake via software. Digital IS is most commonly found in point-and-shoot cameras, action cameras, and camcorders. Overall, optical image stabilization is a better technology for eliminating camera shake. However, some cameras can use both to create an ultra-stabilized image.

4. What’s the slowest shutter speed you can handhold and still get sharp results?

The generally accepted rule for safely handholding a camera is based on the focal length of the lens. On a full-frame 35mmm camera, the slowest shutter speed you should use is a speed equal to the focal length of the lens. If you are shooting with a 100mm lens, you should shoot at 1/100-second or faster. With two stops of IS, you can theoretically handhold the camera at 1/25-second with good results. However, the results will depend entirely on the lens and your personal ability to hold the camera steady.

5. Are there other names for image stabilization?

Depending on the manufacturer, image stabilization goes under the names Vibration Reduction, or VR (Nikon), Image Stabilizer, or IS (Canon), Optical Stabilization, or OS (Sigma), Shake Reduction or SR (Pentax), Vibration Compensation, or VC (Tamron), and POWER O.I.S (Panasonic).

6. Is image stabilization better than a tripod?

When it comes to stability, nothing beats a sturdy tripod. However, when a tripod is neither available nor an option, image stabilization enables you to handhold your camera at shutter speeds notably slower than normal, depending on your choice of IS-enabled camera and/or lens.

7. Can image stabilization be used when the camera is mounted on a tripod?

Modern image stabilization systems have no problems remaining on when mounted on a tripod. The only concern would be that if you leave them on, there is potential for the IS system itself to introduce shake, since the sensor or lens element is not fixed in place.

8. Is image stabilization recommended for stills and video?

Yes. Image stabilization improves image quality by diminishing image blur due to camera shake, whether you’re shooting individual still images or capturing them at 24 frames per second.

9. If my camera is IS-enabled, why would I consider buying a pricier, wider-aperture lens?

Good question. A camera with a lens with that opens up to f/1.4 can be used at much faster shutter speeds than a lens that only opens up to f/4. The flip side of the equation is that wider-aperture lenses enable you to focus your photographs selectively with much narrower bands of depths of field.

10. How can I minimize camera shake if my camera system doesn’t have image stabilization?

There are several steps you can take when shooting at slower than recommended shutter speeds. For starters, if your camera has an eye-level viewfinder, definitely use it. Composing photographs at arm’s length using your camera’s LCD offers far less stability than holding the camera with both arms braced against your ribcage and the viewfinder held up to your brow. The more points of contact you have between you and your camera, the steadier the camera. Leaning or bracing yourself against a sturdy pole, fence, tree, or post is another way to stabilize your camera before taking the photograph.

Another thing you can do is just before you (gently) press the shutter: exhale. When you take a breath, your body tenses, which increases the likelihood of camera shake.

If you have an FAQ topic you would like us to delve into, let us know in the Comments field. We’d love to know what interests you!

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3 Comments

Allan--

Here's a question I have about Image Stabilization (with particular reference to Olympus IBIS): Does IBIS serve people with shaky hands by counteracting a tremor, or does it serve people with steady hands by letting them handhold longer shutter speeds?  It strikes me that that is a significant difference but I don’t know whether or not it makes a difference to the camera, if you see what I mean.  (I used to be able to handhold Kodachrome II.  Sigh.  At 76 with shaky hands I have found that holding the camera out from my body with gentle pressure on a neckstrap is now steadier than the classic camera-to-brow, elbows-tucked-in-to-body technique you recommend above.)

Walter Foreman

Hey Walter,

Your question is a good one and my guess is that IS would help dampen the effects of your hand tremor when hand-holding your camera. How effective? That would depend on the extent of the tremor, the effectiveness of how you hold your camera, the focal length of your lens (the longer focal length, the higher the likelihood of camera shake), and the speed and angle-of-entry of the wind swirling around in your lens shade (No joke!)

These and other variables determine the effectiveness of your camera's IS system. That said, have you tried using a small tablepod as a chest pod? I have a Leica tablepod and ballhead I've used for decades (any sturdy adjustable tablepod or ultra-mini tripod will suffice) and often as a camera brace when shooting under low light. With the camera and lens mounted on the ballhead, I spread the 3 legs across my chest, lock it in place, and now have 4 contact points (2-hands, my chest, and my brow). I  nailed my first cover cover of Boating Magazine shooting this way at sunset with a 500mm lens at 1/15th-second ... on a floating dock... sharp as a tack.

You should also shoot in continuous mode - the faster the better. Though I'm a strong advocate of shooting one frame at a time, when shooting under low light, flowers blowing in the wind, or other shoot-or-miss-it situations, I always go for the highest frame rate, choose the keepers and file the rest of the take.

Lastly, before you press the shutter, exhale. When you exhale, your body relaxes, your pulse drops a bit, and you are now at your steadiest. Give it all a try and keep shooting.

AW

Allan--

Thanks for the detailed advice and various suggestions! 

I have one of those Leitz tabletop tripods.  I bought it back in the mid 70s but cheaped out on the ballhead part and bought a somewhat heavier and less elegant Brooks model (which has always served me well, despite the price).

Walt

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