Do You Need Image Stabilization?

Almost nothing will ruin an image more than blur that results from camera shake. Some systems have image stabilization built into the camera, but many systems choose to put it in the lens. To understand this, you first need to understand the different types of blur effects that can ruin your images.

Different Types of Blur

Camera Shake

Camera shake is a common problem that can cause a blurry image. How do you tell if your images are suffering from camera shake? Take a look at the image and remember what the camera was focusing on. For argument's sake, we're going to say that you were using someone's face as your subject. Assuming that the camera focused sharply and accurately on your subject, proceed to determine if there is blur that looks like something was moving around in the frame (also called trails). If you can clearly see all the details, then you've got a sharp and blur-free image. If you can see trails of some sort on the subject you were focusing on, then your images are suffering from camera shake

Out of Focus Image

Your photos are out of focus when the details in your subject are soft. You can tell the image above is not in focus because the intention was to focus on the camera but it is blurry. However, the blur here is a nice, smooth, and creamy out of focus look that is characteristic of faster aperture lenses. This was shot with a Canon 85mm F/1.8.

When an image is in focus, you can clearly tell.

As you can see in this image, all the details of this Lomography Action Snapper are very clear. To make absolutely sure that your camera isn't misfocusing, calibrate your viewfinder's diopter by turning the dial to either + or -. Have your camera autofocus on an image and then look into the diopter until you see a clear image in the viewfinder.The diopter adjusts the viewfinder according to your eyesight.

For more technical users, their lens can also be calibrated in order to ensure their camera is focusing. In that case, the Spyder LensCal is a great item to help.

With Stabilization

The following images were shot after six cups of coffee to simulate the unsteadiness that one may encounter.

This image was shot on a Canon 5D Mk II with 24-105mm F/4 L IS at 105mm, 1/50th of a second, F/4 and at ISO 800 using spot metering and focusing on the "FM10" characters. Image stabilization was on, resulting in a much sharper image. As you can see, there is no camera shake in the 100% crop of the image below.

The details are very clear and blur free despite shooting at a slow shutter speed. The rule of thumb is that your shutter speed should be the reciprocal of your focal length. Since this photo was shot at 1/60th of a second and at 105mm, the image stabilization was able to compensate shaky hands.

Without Stabilization

Like the previously shown image, this image was shot on a Canon 5D Mk II with 24-105mm F/4 L IS at 105mm, 1/50th of a second, F/4 and at ISO 800. This time though, image stabilization was off and camera shake became very apparent.

This image has a lot of blur and upon even closer glancing, you can see some trails. This is camera shake. Had the image stabilization been turned on or shot at above 1/100th of a second at a higher ISO,this image may have been sharper.

Another way to ensure that your images will be sharp is to shoot at the reciprocal of your focal length. Meaning that if you are shooting at 100mm on your 35mm full frame sensor camera, that you should shoot at 1/100th of a second. To be fair, there are professionals that can shoot down to 1/15th of a second with image stabilization enabled and still shoot photos without camera shake. Many of these image stabilized lenses and systems allow for up to three to four stops of stabilization. 

Do You Need It?

So how do you tell if you need image stabilization or not? Well, if you use Canon, Nikon, or Panasonic and are seeing blurry photos with trails, then you'll need to perhaps shoot at a higher shutter speed combined with a higher ISO setting and a wider aperture. If that combination doesn't do the trick, then it's time to consider purchasing an image stabilized lens.

Other systems like Olympus, Sony, and Pentax put the image stabilization into their camera bodies. This is done by moving the sensor around inside the camera body to compensate for camera shake. This makes any lens attached to the camera image stabilized.

When you're not using a tripod, what do you do to not get camera shake in your images? Let us know in the comments below.

Discussion 4

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What about shooting at longer focal lengths? Say shooting at 300mm at 1/500th a sec, does it play a role having IS? 

As stated above, if you are shooting at the recipricol of the focal length of your lens (i.e., 1/300 sec or faster with a 300mm lens, or 1/500 sec or faster with a 500mm lens), then the speed of the shutter is usually fast enough to eliminate blur caused from camera movement.  Do note, however, this does insinuate that you can easily hand-hold the lens steadily.  As large aperture long telephoto lenses tend to be larger and heavier, the WEIGHT of the lens may cause you fatigue and cause you to be unable to hold the lens steady.  For this reason, a monopod or tripod would be recommended.  Also, with the large aperture lenses, most of the larger manufacturers actually have a mode for using stabilization when using a large lens on a tripod/monopod to reduce the extra vibrations caused by the volume of the lens.  However, I do not recommend using stabilization on telephoto zoom lenses with mid-range apertures (f/4-5.6 lenses) if shooting at the reciprocal shutter speed (or faster) as the motor may actually introduce some movement in the image in some cases.  Only consider it if you are using a large aperture telephoto lens and your manufacturer has or recommends using stabilization when using the lens on a tripod/monopod.

I am a novice and just getting into DSLR cameras.  I have settled on the Canon T3.  Fortunately a friend encouraged me to reach out to you guys for advice and guidance, and your help has been invaluable.  Thank you.  Can I ask for someone to please clear up the image stabilization issue?  There are two packages offered by B&H both offer the T3 with the 18-55mm lense the difference is in the second lense.  One is offered with a 55-250mm lense, that package is $449.  The other is offered with a 75-300mm lense for $399.  When I questioned the reason for the lower price of the package offering presumably the superior lense, the explanation that was given to me was because the 75-300mm did not have image stabilization and that I would want to consider a tripod in order to take an ideal photo with it.  However, based on your post, it sounds like image stabilization is almost a hinderance pertaining to "lenses with mid-range apertures (f/4-5.6)" like the 75-300mm lense offered in this package. Is it possible that I could be just as happy with a lense without image stabilization or more so based on the detriment to the photo caused by the "motor movement" put in place to eliminate exactly what I am trying to avoid? For a novice like me, when would I be looking to take advantage of the image stabilization technology that most manufacturers are using to seperate themselves from the competition?

Any clarification on this is greatly appreciated.

The Canon 75-300mm lens in this package is a basic quality telephoto zoom lens.  One can use this lens effectively without a tripod outdoors and indoors where there is sufficient light for faster shutter speeds.  It is not as useful for indoor situations where the lighting is poor and the subject matter is active, such as an indoor high school basketball game.   The recommendation of using a tripod with this lens is good in the event that one needs to take longer exposures of still subjects such as landscapes.

Image stabilization is useful feature for shooting still subjects at slower shutterspeeds than one was previously able to at without the feature.  It will not be useful for freezing moving subjects.  Indoors and in lower light it would give better exposures however any moving subject/aspect of the image will be blurred. 

The Canon 55-250mm lens is Canon’s answer to an entry-level telephoto zoom lens with stabilization…in this case it is an EF-S type lens vs the other 75-300mm lens being an “EF” type.  (EF-S can only be used on APS-C format cameras, the EF can be used on both full-frame and APS-C format cameras.) The inclusion of the Image Stabilization feature in the 55-250mm lens does add a slight cost to it.  If it were me, I would opt for the kit with the 55-250mm lens just to have the added benefit of being able to get better advantage of getting a better shot in low light.