Is Digital Camera Image Stabilization Important? :: Digital Photo Secrets
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Is Digital Camera Image Stabilization Important?

by David Peterson 27 comments

If you own a digital point and shoot or SLR camera, you may have been sold on its the built-in image stabilization system. For some camera models, this is available through the lens. On others, it is in the camera. Either way, you probably want to know what it means for your photography and whether it is ultimately effective.

When is image stabilization most important?

First of all, why is image stabilization important? When is it the most useful? After all, if you are taking pictures at very high shutter speeds like 1/500th of a second, you will have no real use for image stabilization. That is because the fast shutter speed cancels out any accidental camera shaking you might do.

So really, image stabilization is the most important in situations where you don’t have enough light to get a fast shutter speed. It tends to come in handy at sunset, sunrise, and indoors. In most cases, image stabilization will give you the same image quality at 3 to 4 shutter speed stops slower than usual. This is especially handy if you don’t like carrying a tripod everywhere you go.

Use a higher aperture and get more depth of field

Using a higher aperture (higher F number) tends to increase sharpness and depth of field in your photos. Every time you increase your aperture, the actual hole the light goes through to get to your camera’s image sensor gets smaller. That means you will have to decrease the shutter speed to allow more light in. However, Image stabilization allows you to increase the aperture by a few extra F-stops. Because image stabilization allows you to use slower shutter speeds with the same results, you can use those slower shutter speeds to offset the loss of light caused by increasing your aperture.

Decrease telephoto blurring

There is one more area where image stabilization is useful, and that is with lenses in the telephoto range. Because a telephoto lens is longer and can see further away, every small shaking motion gets magnified. The difference between a telephoto lens and wide angle lens is similar to the difference between a short stick and a long stick. If you shake a short stick, the end doesn’t shake as much as it would if you were shaking a long stick. Small movements get magnified toward the end, and image stabilization helps to minimize those effects.

A comparison

Lets look at two different images taken with the same shutter speed and aperture settings. One of them uses image stabilization, and the other does not. The two following images were both taken with a Nikon D40x camera at aperture f8 with a shutter speed of 1/13 of a second. I chose a relatively slow shutter speed because the effects of image stabilization can only truly be seen at slow shutter speeds.

I am also using a Nikon 18mm to 55mm lens with vibration reduction (VR) technology. VR is Nikon’s brand of image stabilization, and it is built into the lens. Canon very creatively calls its technology IS for image stabilizer. Both systems are similar and comparable. The first image is taken with no image stabilization. I have blown up the letters on the sign so you can see the effect clearly.

As you can see, the image is slightly blurry but not all that bad. You can still read the text in the sign. Now let’s see how much of a difference image stabilization makes.

There is a big difference. You can very clearly read the letters on the sign, and there don’t appear to be nearly as many blurry sections. Image stabilization made it possible to take this image without a tripod.

Do you need image stabilization?

While image stabilization is great, at the end of the day nobody really “needs” it. It’s a nice feature to have when you don’t have that much light, and you don’t want to bring a tripod everywhere you go, but it shouldn’t be the dealbreaker that determines your next camera or camera lens purchase. Luckily, most low end zoom lenses and beginner digital SLR kits come with image stabilization these days, so it is kind of a moot point.

The best image stabilizer is your tripod. It is the safest bet when it comes to getting a blur free image at slower shutter speeds. Although there is a big difference between a shot taken with image stabilization and one without it, there is an even bigger difference when you use a tripod. The second image would have been completely blur free. If you want a sure bet, get yourself a good tripod.

Do you think that recent technological advances like image stabilization has significantly improved your photography? Let me know!

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Comments

  1. Jonney says:

    The general conception as far as IS is concerned is that if ur camera's minimum focal length is, say, 20mm, u should enable IS while capturing images at shutter speeds less than or equal to 1/20 sec.

    Otherwise, u may or may not want to switch IS on or off based on your preferences to battery usage etc. it's better to take sample images at a particular(or various, for that matter)shutter speed with IS feature on and off. You can then realize as to what works best for u.

  2. shashidhar says:

    Hello david
    i dnt use tripods n i was thinking of buying a 55-200 nikon vr lens bt at the same price we get a tamron 70-300 lens bt without vr, i almost do handheld shooting all the time so i am bit confused which one to buy, it would be of help if u suggest me with this buy.
    thanks
    shashidhar

    • David Peterson says:

      Hi,

      If you are photographing handheld most of the time, then I would recommend getting a lens with VR (vibration reduction). So go with the 55-200 Nikon. Note that Nikon also sells a 70-300 lens with VR.

      In my opinion it's worth spending more on lenses because you can keep those as you upgrade the body of your camera.

      I hope that helps.

      David.

  3. geo says:

    There is one other situation in which stabilization may be crucial. I have arthritis. I had gotten to the point where, when I travel, I couldn't take ANY of the pictures. Even in high light situations, my hands simply shake too much. UNTIL, that is, we got the Panasonic DMC-FZ20.

    An old DSLR by today's standards, but its stabilization is so good that I can take pictures with it in almost any situation, including close-up macro images! Unlike some cameras that I've seen, this one has two stabilization settings, one in which it only takes effect when taking the picture, and another in which the stabilization is always on. While it drains the battery more quickly, it's that second setting that allows me to once again take all the pictures I want!!!

  4. Bill Martinson says:

    VR / IS is a real bargain. I enjoy nature and animal photography.
    Animals are most active at dawn and dusk. Tripods are great
    and I have a few BUT I find sometimes I'm on the move and out of
    a blind. My 55-300 DX with VR on and high ISO gives me pictures that were impossible before digital, unless I spent many thousands of dollars
    For a fast 500mm lense.

  5. Ian Carter says:

    G'day Peter,
    I often shot handheld at shutter-speeds as low as 1/15sec back in the days of film, when the ASA had to stay constant for the full roll of film. I would brace the camera or myself against an immovable object and had a pretty high success rate. Now I'm 67 y.o. and I use a D7000. I gave my 18~200mm zoom with VR to my wife and continued using prime lenses and an older Nikkor 75~300 zoom. On occassions when I couldn't use a tripod, like candid street photography, I started to see a higher rate of failures and less-than-crisp images. So I bought myself a Nikon 18~105mm VR zoom. The difference has convinced me that image stabilisation really does optimise low-light, slow-shutter-speed photography for me. Older people really can't hold a camera as steady as they used to.

  6. filippo mazzarini says:

    Before I ask forgiveness for my English. I recently bought a Nikon lens 70-300mm -new- for 125 , without VR, for my Nikon D-5000 (camera isn't the best). The price seemed very good. Of course when I use I it increase a little bit the ISO and try to place it over everything I can find close me; but the photos are good! Maybe that for a 70-300 VR I would have to spend more than twice, and so I would not have bought it... A heartfelt thanks and a "so long" to David!

  7. David Peterson says:

    Hi Pax,

    No, that's a myth. However, if you are using a tripod, you should turn
    off IS to improve your camera's battery life. But it won't ever damage
    it.

    David.

  8. Pax says:

    Is it true that if you use your IS while using a tripod that the IS can be damaged using long exposures.

  9. HEctor says:

    No, steady shot hasn't made a difference in my photography

  10. Corrado says:

    Why do you always speak to Canon and Nikon? There are also other brands!!!
    For example, a glorious brand: Minolta (now acquired by Sony) has invented a very useful stabilization system, mounted on the sensor instead of the lens! The "anti shake" (now called by Sony "Super Steady Shot") probably works much better than VR and IS (expecially on short focal lenght) and you pay for it on camera body and NOT on every lens ;)

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