Some thoughts on Image Stabilization

I got a question today about my thoughts on image stabilization and I thought I would share on the site as well.  I know a lot of you are long glass users and this may be a beneficial topic.  This is primarily written from my own experience and use over the years.  Your findings might be different.  Again, it all comes down to what we are shooting and the variables at play.  So here goes.

Image stabilization I feel was primarily a tool offered to compensate for your hands shaking.  The general rule was that we needed 1/focal length for shutter speed to eliminate seeing hand motion in an image.  So if you have a 200mm lens, then you need to shoot at 1/200 minimum to eliminate your hand vibration.  This varies with different hands.  I generally need a stop more with certain lenses.  This completely is irrespective of the subject and subject motion.  This is only dealing with out own generated vibration.  This ends up looking like motion blur, but it is from our hands.  Take two images at 100mm at 1/25 of a second.  One on a tripod and one handheld.  You will see your own motion blur.

As a tool, image stabilization is tremendously helpful.  I’ve been able to shoot by hand focal lengths I considered not hand-holdable at one point just fine with the latest stabilization we have.  The E-M1mkII has amazing stabilization based on the sensor.  Lots of lenses have it too.  And some cameras today sync the two up for even more amazing stabilization.  6 stops?!?!?!?!  That is insane.  And it works.  But when do we need it.  And a lot of discussion revolves around using it or not at high shutter speeds.

The old general rules that have worked tried and true over the years still seem to make sense.

Am I on a tripod?  No need for stabilization.
Am I faster than my focal length?  No need for stabilization.
Am I on shaky ground or a moving platform like a boat?  Maybe I need it.
Am I hand-holding below my focal length in terms of speed?  Yup I could use it.

Thom Hogan wrote an article about Nikon’s stabilization system and he touches on a lot of very interesting things.  My experience in the field mirrors much of what he says.  I highly recommend reading this.  Much of it applies to other brands as well as in-body stabilization too.

So when it comes to fast shutters like 1/500, 1/1000, etc… what’s the deal?

Especially if you are shooting at faster speeds, using IS, using continuous autofocus, and shooting multiple frames per second.  There is a LOT moving around in there at an insane pace in very short time spans.  Something has got to give.  I would think, right?  Lot’s of elements are in motion, starting and stopping, changing direction, it’s an amazing little symphony of parts doing quite the job.

Thom Hogan’s explanation of the frequency issue of the stabilizers is interesting as well.  That alone would make me do my own testing to see if I can tell a difference at 1/1000, 1/500, 1/2000, etc…  And how big a difference are we really talking about?  I am not posting pictures with this post because the variables on what gear is used, it’s weight, my hands, ground type, coffee level, etc… are all enough to make any of my tests pointless for someone else.  I recommend you do your own evaluation.

All in all this has really been more of an issue as long lenses get more hand hold-able.  Why is VR needed on a large canon 600mm lens?  Ever held one?  Yup…it is going on a gimbal or a monopod.  I can’t hand hold it.  IS on glass like that was good for panning when the shutter speeds are dropped.  In general though…I can’t hold that glass for long.  Even the 300 2.8 lenses.  Now with Olympus however…a 300 F/4 is comfortable in hand.  As is the Panasonic 200mm.  Things change and we need to be well aware of this.  To be honest, I still prefer long glass on a mount even if it is smaller.  Just because we can now handhold insane focal lengths doesn’t mean we can treat it like it is a portrait lens.  Handholding long glass? I recommend IS for sure.  I recommend high shutter speeds even more though.  Even more than that, I recommend you be aware of your scenario and adjust accordingly for the result you ultimately want.  Things change.  I’ve shot while very ill before and even with IS on my images were shaky that day.

Three notes in my experience however:

1.  This depends on intention.  If I am shooting handheld outdoors with a fast lens, or going between dark and bright ambient lights at an event for instance…I am just going to leave it on.  My shutter might be 1/4000 outside and 1/125 inside.  I don’t actually care if my VR is on or off as long as my shot is stable.  And I probably don’t have the time to turn it on and off.  It is the last thing I am thinking about in that environment.  The shots won’t show enough of an impact to me for what the deliverable image is.  If I am at a sports event where I am strictly shooting long glass at high speeds I am more prone to just turn it off.  This leads us to point 2 however.

2.  It depends on my ability to see and track my subject.  One side benefit of IS is that the view in the finder is stabilized.  This is even more so if you are unsteady due to hands or environment or footing.  I often have left IS ON just so my viewfinder remains steady.  Knowing that my shots would suffer slightly.  It was better that I could see and track my subject and get the shot, than struggle to keep composition and possibly not get the shot the way I wanted it.  I highly prefer a stabilized view.

3.  It depends on megapixels.  The higher your megapixel count, the more vibration prone issues will appear in the image.  Then again, this also depends on size displayed. When I am after absolute quality… I can get away with all kinds of things at 12 megapixels.  At 24 megapixels I pay attention to my form a lot more.  At 40 megapixels camera vibration of all forms gets my complete attention.  Beyond 60 megapixels the only thought on my mind is how to keep the camera and its surroundings still shot to shot.
All this is just food for thought.  Check out Thom’s article.  It’s a worthy read.  What has your experience been with IS?

5 responses on "Some thoughts on Image Stabilization"

  1. I bought an Olympus M43 body specifically because of its image stabilization, and have been very happy I did so. I only take photos casually, but being able to use long shutter speeds with a tiny prime lets me get respectable results in less-than-ideal light with a tiny package that I can put in my jacket pocket.

    If you are being limited by hand shake, 3-4 stops of image stabilization more than “make up for” the relatively small sensor on M43 cameras.

  2. Thanks for this Tony I share your thoughts. I shot sports using a 400mm canon it was always supported. However I shot nature with it & it was never supported. The caveat was that in nature I was always shooting at fast speeds or that was the objective & if I wasn’t I would employ the IS feature. I now have the 300mm F4 Olympus that I combine with an OMD 5 MKII. Its like a feather in comparison but theres the rub this smaller lens seems less stable. So I employ the IS more often. And to be fair I only just got the lens so its taking time to get used to it.

  3. The IBIS on my Olympus OMD E-M1MkII is unbelievable. I’m 65 now and found I was getting quite a bit of camera shake with my Fuji cameras and with my Nikon D500. That prompted me to rent one for a weekend of testing.

    Bottom line, I bought one with the excellent 12-40mm f2.8 lens. I shoot editorial stock and can get away with handheld images down to 1/20th a sec which is a huge help to me. I just leave the IBIS on and have even used it in continuous focus / continuous shooting mode, tracking subjects, with no issues.

    Can’t wait for the next generation E-M1 Mk3!

  4. Hello Tony,
    I have found that image stabilization using long Nikon telephotos on a tripod is quite effective at controlling shutter or mirror induced shake. They even recognize the lens is on a tripod and change the stabilization routine. I would think that if manufacturers keep adding long glass to MFT systems this would be something to consider too.

  5. Shakes generated from your hands hardly matter when you are shooting manual, but yes image stabilization can help when the shakes are too much, and you should immediately have at least 3 stops. Thanks for writing this.

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