Even if you think you have rock-steady hands, it’s easy to end up with blurry photos—particularly in low-light indoor environments where you don’t want to use a flash (in a church or a museum, for example). In these situations, the shutter has to stay open longer in order to create a good exposure. And the longer it stays open, the more susceptible your image is to the effects of camera shake or subject movement.
To help battle these problems, many camera manufacturers now offer cameras and lenses that include image-stabilization technology. But there are different approaches to image stabilization, each with unique advantages and disadvantages. I’ll help you cut through the jargon and figure out which type works best for your style of shooting.
Here’s a closer look at the stabilization options you’ll probably find at the camera counter.
Optical Stabilization Used in compact cameras and SLRs, optical stabilization is the most common image-stabilization method. Different manufacturers have different names for it: Nikon calls its optical stabilization Optical Vibration Reduction when referring to cameras, and VR when referring to lenses. Canon calls its optical stabilizer the Image Stabilizer (IS); Panasonic, the Mega O.I.S.; and Sigma, the Optical Stabilizer (OS) system.
Optical stabilization uses gyroscopes within the camera or the camera’s lens to detect camera shake, and then steadies the path of the image as it makes its way to the camera’s sensor (CCD). Canon, one of the first companies to develop this technology, employs a floating lens element that moves in the opposite direction of the shake. For instance, if you suddenly move the camera upward while snapping your shot, the floating lens element moves the other way, thus stabilizing the image as it heads toward the sensor. In SLRs, the gyroscopes are often located in the lens; in point-and-shoots, they are positioned in the body (since there is no room in the lens on these tiny shooters).
Sensor Stabilization This technology works similarly to optical stabilization: with sensor stabilization, gyroscopes located in the camera body detect shake and then move the image sensor to counteract the motion. Although it’s available on some point-and-shoots, sensor stabilization is more commonly used in SLRs. Olympus refers to this technology as Sensor-Shift Image Stabilization; Pentax, Shake Reduction; and Sony, Super SteadyShot.
Digital Stabilization Unlike optical and sensor stabilization, which actually correct the image while you’re capturing a picture, digital stabilization attempts to make a picture clearer by changing the camera’s settings or by attempting to alter the image after it has been captured. There are several different approaches to digital stabilization. One of the most useful is Intelligent ISO. Used primarily in compact cameras, an Intelligent ISO feature automatically increases the ISO, or light-sensitivity, setting when the image sensor detects a moving object. As a result, the camera is able to use a faster shutter speed to snap a picture, thus freezing the motion of the subject and reducing blur. When the subject stops moving, the camera automatically returns to a lower ISO setting. This last part is important because higher ISO settings also tend to produce more image noise. Panasonic includes an Intelligent ISO control in many of its cameras, while Fuji employs a similar approach called Picture Stabilization.
Weighing the options
When it comes to counteracting camera shake, optical stabilization and sensor stabilization are the two best options, since neither degrades the image in any way. (However, neither will help with blurriness caused by a subject’s movement). The advantage of optical stabilization is that it lets you preview an image in the viewfinder or on the LCD—so it’s the better choice for photographers who want to see the effects of stabilization before snapping a shot.
If you’re buying an SLR, there are a few more things to consider. First off, because optical stabilization takes place within the lens, you’ll have to buy a collection of image-stabilization lenses, which often cost more than their non-stabilized counterparts. With sensor stabilization, you don’t need to invest in any specialized lenses, since the camera is doing the stabilizing. However, sensor stabilization does become less effective when you use telephoto lenses longer than 300mm. If you do a lot of close-up photography, you’ll get better results with optical stabilization.
In general, digital stabilization is a less effective approach than optical or sensor stabilization. Digitally stabilized pictures tend to look less sharp and have more noise. Of the digital-stabilization options, Intelligent ISO is a good choice because it minimizes motion blur caused by moving subjects, such as two-year-old children. This is something optical and sensor stabilization can’t do.
If you’re shopping for a new camera, spend a little more money to get optical or sensor stabilization. Even better, look for a camera that offers a combination of approaches—optical or sensor stabilization to combat camera shake, and Intelligent ISO for moving subjects.
If you’re a sports photographer who likes to do a lot of panning (a technique in which you follow a moving subject with the camera during an exposure), you should look for a camera or lens that offers stabilization on a single axis. Generally speaking, image stabilizers operate on two axes, meaning that they work whether you’re moving the camera vertically or horizontally. But some cameras also provide single-axis image stabilization, which stabilizes only vertical movement as you pan.
Keeping steady without stabilization
If you’re not ready to give up your current camera and invest in one with stabilization technology, there are still a few ways to reduce camera shake.
Use a Tripod Your trusty tripod may be low-tech, but it’s a reliable image stabilizer. For best results, use your camera’s self-timer or a remote release to trip the shutter. Even if your camera is mounted on a tripod, you can still jar it when you press the shutter button.
Firm Your Grip If you don’t have a tripod handy, place the camera on a steady surface or use a firm hold to improve sharpness. Lock your elbows against your body or lean against a solid surface, and then gently squeeze the shutter button just after you finish exhaling (that’s when you’re at your steadiest).
Adjust ISO Try increasing your camera’s ISO setting from 100 to 400. This enables faster shutter speeds and should reduce blur. You’ll end up with more image noise, though, especially with cameras that have smaller sensors (such as compact point-and-shoots), so be sure to change your ISO setting back when you return to bright light.
Image Stabilization at Work: These shots were taken with Panasonic’s Lumix DMC-FZ8 compact camera, using a fully extended 12¥ optical zoom. The first photo shows the softening effects of camera shake. The second, captured with optical image stabilization turned on, is much sharper.
Night Shooting: Image stabilization allows you to take photos after the sun sets at shutter speeds as low as 1/8 of a second.
5 tips for image stabilizers
If you’re going to invest in a camera with image stabilization, you’ll want to get the most from it. Here are some dos and don’ts.
1. Conserve Batteries Turn off image stabilizers when your battery is low. Stabilizers use additional juice that you might want to save for those last few precious sightseeing shots.
2. Watch Tripods Check the manual to see whether you have to turn off the stabilizer when mounting your camera on a tripod (which you still might use when you want to jump into the picture, for instance). Older cameras require this, but many newer models automatically detect tripod mounting and compensate accordingly.
3. Remember Close-Ups Stabilization is usually more important at higher magnifications. If you use long telephoto lenses (200mm or more) or shoot in macro mode, make sure image stabilization is turned on.
4. Know Your Stabilizer Check your manual to learn about the different stabilization modes. For example, Panasonic’s $350
Lumix DMC-FZ8 has two modes. In Continuous, the camera keeps the stabilizer activated and displays the results on the LCD in real time. Shoot Only mode applies stabilization just when you press the shutter button. This consumes less battery power but doesn’t let you preview the results of stabilization.
5. Play Around Most companies provide specifications for the stabilizer’s range of effectiveness (usually measured in f-stops), but you shouldn’t rely solely on them. Some lenses with optical stabilization have a range rated as high as four f-stops, but your personal shooting technique may result in a smaller range. So test your equipment before important shoots, and find out what works for you.
[ Derrick Story is the digital media evangelist for
O’Reilly Media. He also runs a
virtual camera club featuring weekly podcasts and pro tips. ]