What is Image Stabilization?

October 16, 2015

What is Image Stabilization?

Camera shake is a common cause of blurriness in many photographs. This blurriness is a bigger problem when you're using a long zoom lens without a tripod or when you're taking pictures in low-light conditions where the need for a long exposure time means that the camera's shutter speed must be slower to allow for more light to reach the camera's image sensor. With a slower shutter speed, even the tiniest movement of your hand or vibration of the camera can cause your photo to be blurred.

That's where Image stabilization (vibration reduction in the Nikon world) comes into the picture.

Image stabilization technology (IS) can help with this blurriness because it reduces the effect of camera shake or vibrations. IS compensates for handheld camera shake that can cause your photos to be blurry.

In other words, Image Stabilization is a really handy feature to have and, although it's not necessary, I like having IS on my cameras and I recommend it if you are shopping for new gear.

Lens-Based Stabilization vs Sensor-Based Stabilization

There are two basic configurations for Image Stabilization.

Lens-Based IS

Some camera models feature an Image Stabilization system housed within the lens body. Canon, Nikon, and Panasonic all use in-lens stabilization. With this type of system, a floating lens structure works to compensate for any camera movement.

What is Image Stabilization?

The advantage of in-lens stabilization is that it can be designed specifically for that lens. So lens-based systems can be optimized for a particular lens, making the system very accurate. Inn addition, in-lens stabilization can also make composing and focusing easier since the image is stabilized as it moves through the lens optics and that means that the image that you see in the viewfinder of the camera is stabilized.

But there is a disadvantage to lens-based IS systems and it's that you have to purchase IS lens and they are more expensive (and heavier too) than non-stabilized lens.

Camera-Based IS

Other camera brands use in-camera Image Stabilization. Sony, Pentax and Olympus all put the image stabilization mechanism into their camera bodies.

In-camera IS works by moving the image sensor to offset camera shake. For this reason, in-camera IS is sometimes called Sensor-Based Image Stabilization.

The biggest advantage of camera-based IS is that you can use it with any lens, which can mean that it's a significantly less-expensive option.

The disadvantage is that the image that you see in the viewfinder is not stabilized and that can make for a tougher time focusing and composing.

What about Electronic Image Stabilization?

So far, we have been talking about stabilization systems that operate via a mechanical (also called optical) mechanism.

But you may come across a camera that features Electronic Image Stabilization, sometimes called Digital Image Stabilization or EIS.

EIS works by using the camera's onboard software to digitally simulate image stabilization. This works differently on each camera. One camera may use an anti-blur filter to accomplish this; another camera may increase the camera's ISO setting. ISO is a measurement of the light sensitivity of your image sensor. When the ISO is increased, the image sensor requires less light to properly expose the image meaning that the camera can shoot at a faster shutter speed, which minimizes blur from camera shake.

Whatever the specifics, digital image stabilization isn't particularly effective. I recommended that you avoid it and look instead for a model that employs a mechanical/optical mechanism.

A Few Tips…

Here are a couple of things to keep in mind about image stabilization.

  • Turn Image Stabilization off when your camera is mounted on a tripod. This is important because, while IS is great for reducing the blurriness of a handheld camera, it can actually add blurriness when used with a tripod-mounted camera. That's because the IS system is still looking for movement to correct and, in doing that, can actually add blur when it doesn't find any.
  • Consider switching IS off when it's not necessary to conserve your camera's battery power. Keep in mind that Image stabilization becomes most important when you are shooting in situations without sufficient light to get a fast enough shutter speed. The general rule of thumb is that you shouldn't handhold when you are working at shutter speeds slower that the lens focal length. So if you are shooting with a 300mm lens, handholding the camera lens with a shutter speed slower than 1/300-second will result in shaky images. That's when you will want to either use a tripod (my preference) or use IS. So flip it on whenever you are shooting in low light such as sunset, sunrise, and indoors without a tripod but leave it off otherwise especially if battery power is an issue.
  • Keep in mind that Image Stabilization takes a few seconds to kick in. So be sure to take the two-step approach when pressing the shutter button to give activate the system and then give it time to do it's thing before taking the shot.
  • And, finally, if you are using a lens with IS on a camera that also has image stabilization, make sure to turn one of them off.

For Further Reading…

Image Stabilization on Tripods

Image Stabilization: When to Use it and When to Turn it Off

Lens Stabilization vs In-camera Stabilization

Do You Need Image Stabilization?

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