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Is Digital Camera Image Stabilization Important?

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Is Digital Camera Image Stabilization Important?

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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About the Author ()

David Peterson is the creator of Digital Photo Secrets, and the Photography Dash and loves teaching photography to fellow photographers all around the world. You can follow him on Twitter at @dphotosecrets or on Google+.

Comments (24)

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  1. 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!!!

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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!

  5. 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.

  6. Pax says:

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

  7. HEctor says:

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

  8. 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 ;)

  9. Anna says:

    @Ajmal – babies and children are fast moving beings. Try either the “kids and pets” mode or”sports” mode of your camera for a start. Or if you wanna do some manual settings – in “TV” mode lets you choose shutter speed. Pick anything above 1/125 and higher 1/160, 1/200 and let the camera choose the rest . try those for a start.

  10. bob says:

    Hello all,

    I am considering, buying the Kodak sport play minicam. It has I.S. Under what conditions would it be an advantage in a C.C.

    thanks

  11. Iulian Alex says:

    Hi David,
    I read that article and on my opinion, is not important to use IS or VR. For one much beter image qualitty, have need use one tripod. Stabilization image function, consume power from battery but if used one tripod, you make power economy for much moore images to capture.
    Cheers and…GOOD LIGHT
    Iulian

  12. Rob says:

    Hi David,
    Until recently I thought that IS was a bit of a gimmicky thing that was until I photographed a number moving motor boats on some rough water in fairly low light.Once I checked the images on the screen I was a convert.
    Cheers
    Rob

  13. Graham,

    Yes, it does have an effect on the battery, but no where near the effect of the LCD or having Auto-Focus on. Those are a much larger drain. I’d keep IS on and use the LCD sparingly if you are worried about battery life.

    David.

  14. Taro says:

    I accustomed to use tripod even on indoors shots, just to obtain a wide DoF and also for I’m worried of getting a blurry image. impressed with your explanation about using the image stabilization feature that can reduce the shock on the image sensor at the time of the shooting, thereby reducing blurry effect on a image as we taking it. Thank’s David, these is useful to optimize my image results with my zoomed lens f/ above 2.8.
    Realy thank’s to you.

  15. Graham Pomfret-Brown says:

    David, one point which I have never had an answer to, is If using a Canon Powershot camera with the stabilization on all the time , what effect does thios have on the battery drain , as I assume the lens shift is pefrformed by a micro motor within the lens ?
    Cheers, Graham

  16. Keith Walker says:

    What he means JJ is that the greater the F number, the smaller the hole. Generally F2.8 is as big an aperture as you can get, F22 is a very small hole which gives you a greater depth of field

  17. Frank says:

    I seldom get blurry images. Here’s what I do:

    1. make sure the camera strap is wound tightly around my elbow and pulling the camera into my hand.
    2. hold the camera touching my face for another anchor point.
    3. find anything possible to lean on.
    4. spread my legs a little for stability.
    5. breathe in fully, out fully, then half breath in.
    6. always carry a gorilla pod or the like and brace it against my chest.

    I actually had to think about these because I do them automatically now. I have no cameras or lenses with image stabilization of any kind. But then, I am an old film shooter and developed these techniques before digital.

  18. jj says:

    “Every time you increase your aperture, the actual hole the light goes through to get to your camera’s image sensor gets smaller.”

    possible typo there…

    -JJ

  19. N.E.Samuel says:

    I read your article on Image Stabilizers. I own the Nikon D80 with the original Nikon 18-200 VR. In the month of August I travelled to the Scandanvian country,that is Finland,Sweden, Norway & Denmark.Absolutly breathtaking.I was so busy clicking that I forgot to utilize the VR.At least I realised its importance.-Thanks to you for opening my eyes.

  20. ajmal says:

    Hi David, I have failed most of the times to capture my baby’s different activities…clicking his picture is a passion. But most of the times, i would get some features correct and others are blurred or shaken. How can I fix it…?? I use a Nikon D90 SLR. Thanks

  21. Nice story. Nothing really new for me, but I always like to read about photography ;) ..

    Maybe another tip for those who cannot afford IS and don’t want to bring a bulky tripod: use a natural tripod! This can be a rock, a tree branch, the roof of a car, anything.. you don’t have to get the camera perfectly balanced on it, even a support while still holding the camera gives you a lot more sharpness.

  22. Travis says:

    You didn’t really get into the difference between in lens vs. In camera IS very much. But otherwise did a pretty good explanation :)

    the high iso really helps me shoot at faster shutter speeds further reducing image blur

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