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

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Image stabilization, or “vibration reduction,” “O.I.S.,” Optical SteadyShot, SR, VC, VR, MegaOIS, and other equally catchy monikers, are technologies that enable photographers to take pictures under lighting conditions that once upon a time would have been considered too iffy for capturing sharp still images.  Depending on the make, model, and vintage of your IS-enabled camera or lens, image stabilization allows you to capture sharp pictures at shutter speeds three, four or five times slower than normally possible.

Note: The rule of thumb for capturing sharp, handheld imagery is that you shouldn’t handhold a camera at shutter speeds slower than a shutter speed equivalent to the focal length of the lens. This means a 500mm lens shouldn’t be handheld at speeds slower than 1/500-second, a 300mm lens slower than 1/300-second, a 50mm lens slower than 1/50-second, and a 20mm lens slower than 1/20-second.

Add image stabilization into the mix and suddenly you can now capture sharp images of still objects with a 500mm lens at speeds down to 1/30- to 1/15-second, a 300mm lens at speeds down to 1/15- to1/8-second, and a 20mm lens at speeds down to 1 to 2 seconds.

The problem is that while setting a new camera up for the first time, many shooters turn the camera or lens’s image stabilization on and never look back, figuring “If I need it, it’s on,” but depending on the make, model or vintage of your particular camera or lens, that may or may not be such a good idea.

Before getting into the nitty-gritty of the subject, it’s important to clarify a common misconception about image stabilization, which is that it enables you to “freeze” fast-moving objects at slower shutter speeds. This is totally false. Image stabilization only allows you the ability to capture sharp images of static subjects at slower speeds. Moving objects will be equally blurry or streaky—and in some cases blurrier or shakier with the IS turned on.

There are two types of image stabilization (IS): lens based and in camera. Lens-based image stabilization is a process in which gyroscopically controlled electromagnets shift a floating lens element orthogonally to the optical axis along the horizontal and vertical plane of the image in the opposite direction of the camera movement, which effectively neutralizes any signs of camera shake. Depending on the make and model of the camera or lens, measurements are taken about 4,000 times per minute for seamless on-the-fly stabilization corrections.

In-camera IS works in a similar manner, but instead of a lens element, the camera’s imaging sensor is shuttled about in the opposite direction of the camera’s movements in order to similarly dampen the effects of camera shake. As for which form of image stabilization is better, there are pros and cons for both sides.

The advantages of in-lens image stabilization include smoother performance when using longer focal length lenses and the ability to see the effectiveness through the camera’s viewfinder. The downside of lens-based image stabilization is that it’s not available as an option for all lenses and it adds to the cost of the lens. But then again, if you don’t need IS you often have the option of purchasing a non-IS version of the lens, or at least something similar.

The pros of in-camera image stabilization are that you gain the advantages of IS technology with any lens you can mount on the camera for considerably less cost than multiple IS-enabled optics. The downside of in-camera image stabilization is that it’s less effective at smoothing the bumps when shooting with longer focal length optics when compared to lens-based image stabilization.

The most basic form of image stabilization is Dual-axis image stabilization, which is designed strictly for handheld imaging and should be turned off when you mount your camera on a tripod. If you mount the camera on a tripod (or similar stable platform) without cutting the IS, you risk creating what’s called a feedback loop, in which the camera’s IS system essentially detects its own vibrations, which are picked up and amplified by the tripod, which in turn forces the camera’s IS system to work increasingly harder to quell the elevating levels of camera shake. Worst case scenario:  things spin out of control and your camera ends up in the repair shop.

Many newer IS systems can detect when the camera is secured to a tripod, or have a “Tripod” mode that automatically compensates for the added resistance of the tripod, or shuts the IS function off entirely. If you already own an IS-enabled lens or camera or plan on purchasing one, make sure you read the fine print in the product manual to verify the type of IS system with which the camera or lens is equipped.

An additional downside of many simpler dual-axis IS systems is that they hamper smooth side-to-side panning action. By design, dual-axis IS systems interpret and react to pan movements as shake movements, which results in jerky, uneven sideways pan motions when shooting stills and video. To remedy this issue, lens manufacturers have updated many of the newer IS-enabled optics with a Pan Mode, which allows for smoother, jerk-free panning motions.

Note: Camera and lens manufacturers use differing nomenclature to describe similar forms of functionality. Make sure you read the fine print when researching the features of camera/lens IS systems.

If you shoot with a camera that features in-camera IS (i.e. Sony Alpha/Minolta, Pentax, Olympus) and plan on using a third-party lens that also features an IS system, turn off the camera’s IS system and rely on the lens’s IS system to smooth out the bumps in the road. Running both systems simultaneously will most certainly compromise your ability to hold things steady, not to mention cause damage to one or both of the IS systems. 

On a final note, it is well worth mentioning that for the sharpest results when photographing still subjects, nothing beats a camera mounted on a sturdy tripod with the image stabilization turned off. This is because image stabilization, by its very nature of using motion along one axis to counter motion in the opposite axis, often creates varying degrees of image degradation of its own, whereas a camera firmly coupled to a stable tripod and tripped with a cable or remote release with the mirror locked in the up position will in almost every instance take a sharper picture.

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I note your comment about conflicting lens and body IS systems but one thing bothers me a little. I use an Olympus PEN at times with a Panasonic 45-200mm. I've become convinced that the Panny lenses for mFT are better than Olympus' own, although often heavier. This is a stabilised lens and,of course, the PEN body has a four setting stabiliser.

You suggest turning off the stabiliser in the camera. This requires a trip into the menu. However the lens has an on/off switch and it's easy to just turn the lens off. It's also better from my point of view as I'm always going to use the lens like this - I don't have a Panasonic body. Also when I switch back to the unstablised 20mm, for instance, I'll want to have the camera stabiliser working - and I'm the kind of person that would forget to re-enable it in the body! Further, the body's stabiliser has three modes - general, horizontal panning and vertical panning and I may wish to use those

Is there really any difference between turning off the lens stabiliser or the body stabiliser? Disabling the lens, if you can, would seem to make a lot more sense.

very practical comment. if its harded to get to (body IS), people will probably resort to flipping the lens switch off. 

I have a D90 with an AF-S 18-105 3.5-5.6 G ED and an AF-S Nikkor 70-300mm 4.5-5.6 G ED. I have been shooting kids soccer games with the 70-300 at 300mm or close. I know there are a lot of variables that get in the way of getting those images sharp. I use the sports setting and as such the cammera tends to user a rather wider apperture than say an F8 which is actually the sharpest apperture for that lense. I'm currently mounting the cammera with the 70-300 lense on a monopod (CF) to increase stability and reduce some of the cammera shake but I'still wondering whether VR should be turned off.

It seems to me that VR should be turned off for shooting action sports with a long lense mounted on a monopod. What's your take an advise on this?

Thanks,

Rene Perez

I came across this helpful bit of advice in the May 2012 (issue 155) of DIGITAL PHOTO Magazine and thought that I would pass it on. A reader wrote in asking if his/her lens was broken (they were using a Nikon D7000 and 24-120mm f/4 G AF-S ED VR Lens) with a tripod and their shots were blurred when they zoomed in on the camera screen. The reply was; “ if you have Vibration Reduction (VR) switched on it reduces the camera shake when shooting hand held shots at slower shutter speeds, when placing the camera on a tripod it actually has the opposite effect and can blur your images. This is because the elements inside the lens are still moving in an attempt to counteract any camera movement, and as your camera is stationary, these tiny adjustments are enough to soften your shots slightly during the long exposure. The good news is it’s an easy fix. Just try taking the shot again, but this time, make sure that the VR option is switched off on the lens, and this should fix the problem.” Has anyone else come across this? It is something that I was unaware of and I would be interested in your feedback.

——————————————————————————————————————————————- Since posting this article I have spoken to a customer service rep. at NIKON AUSTRALIA. He has told me that he discovered the same problem and, after speaking to a “professional photographer” has since left the “VR” setting “OFF” unless conditions dictate otherwise. He also mentioned that it can happen with “ANY” lens with “VR” and is not just a problem with one brand of equipment. He used the phrase “lesser equipment” but what else could he say and keep his job…LOL The “VR” setting is basically there for old farts like me who hate the cold…LOL OK! OK! That’s not quite true….. It is there to compensate for slow shutter speeds, hand shake, wind etc. As I said; it depends on what conditions dictate at the time of shooting. But, on a tripod, it can prove to be a problem whether you take Macros or landscapes. As I stated in the post above it was something that I was unaware of and, after going through Owners manuals and all of the other information that I have on the camera I couldn’t find mention of this anywhere. Neither could I find it mentioned on the net. So if I hadn’t read the article in “DIGITAL PHOTO” I wouldn’t have been able to pass this information on to you and any others who read this.

I ran across this older article when trying to find the answer to this question:

When using Image Stabilization on a tripod, does it need to be turned off if one is depending entirely on flash? Flash is so fast, I wondered if neutralizes the effect of the IS.

The article deals with stills, but I have run into a video issue. I have a Canon SX40HS on a tripod shooting in 1080p HD video with the IS left on. At certain points in the video of a freight train doing about 40 mph, I can see an effect like ripples on the surface of a pond whenever the audio spikes.

This is a great piece of information. I had my IS on when shooting a close-up of a flower, the mirror was locked, I had a problem with my cable....end result blur. I never really understood that you have to turn off IS when you are anchored to a tripod. Thank you.

*External Vibration*

We do a lot of work with a Canon Vixia camcorder on a tripod up in the back of an auditorium. Many of these auditoriums are dual use spaces where the seating folds up and collapses against the back wall. Vibration is a VERY BIG problem - even with a large heavy tripod with sandbags to weigh down the tripod. Every time people climb the stairs or (especially when) they stomp their feet.

The Vixia has 3 image stabilization modes - off, dynamic and powered. We've found that we have to use the powered mode when the camera zoom is set to anything other than extreme wide angle.

We've also had image & vibration problems with loud audio - sound systems with deep bass (like hip-hop music) have so much energy at low frequency that the lens/sensor of the camera is actually shaken and this blurs the image. Again - it is necessary to use the powered IS mode to counteract this noise source.

Thank you so much for this article! I am new to DSLR photography (December), and I was asking for input on the best way to shoot the Super Moon this weekend. One person recommended turning my IS off if I am using my tripod. I didn't even really know what IS was, so your article helped tremendously. :)

i ve sony slt a65 with inbuilt inmage stabilization. i am very much interested in bird photography. I am planning to buy a telephoto zoom lens. is it necessary to buy a lens with IS for my camera? like Sigma 150-500mm or will it be ok to go for Tamron 200-500mm lens. please reply urgently. thank u.

How would this be affected if using a gimble head such as a Wimberley MK2 where panning in all axis to track moving animals etc, should IS be left on on this case? Kit in use 500mm F4 IS USM on 1DS Mk3

Thanks

A bit unclear -  "...and the camera's IS system is not turned off...", so is it turned on?

I appreciate that IS enables the user to take sharper pictures in lower light etc. What I'm not sure about is whether a camera's processor changes the exposure (shutter/aperture combination)that would have been chosen if there was no IS option.

Essentially all the IS features are doing is enabling a shooter to shoot at slower shutterspeeds more effectively than they could have without the feature otherwise. 

If with a particular lens the slowest shutterspeed you could hand-hold and get a sharp image at was say 1/125th of a second, and the lens' stabilization offers a 4 f-stop gain, your new slowest effective shutterspeed with the IS feature would be 1/8th of a second.  Any aspect of the composition that is static/non-moving will appear sharp in the image.  If some aspect of the composition is moving however there will be a bit of blur.  This in essence is no different from a tripod, except that a tripod would afford you the ability to shoot at any shutterspeed no matter how slow it is.

This Article is helpful but would be better if it included information about external Stabilizers used for shooting Video and more info about video stabilization in general. Information about axises, and how many we need for what type of usage, would be helpful now that 5-axis stabilization is available in some Video Cameras. A bit of info about external Electronic Gimbal stabilization would also be useful.

A bit about Video Post-Stabilization would make this Article complete.

Here is (Part 2 of) a Video I shot on a CellPhone using DeShaker to post-stabilize the Video -- I made it extra smooth to show off my homemade Anamorphic Lens (described in Part 1 of the Video). DeShaker is a FREE Plugin for VirtualDub and is available at: http://www.guthspot.se/video/deshaker.htm .

Here is what DeShaker is capable of with a CellPhone: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rfaRjG9IETM

What about using a monopod? IS or not?

great artical, thank you. What effect if any does IS have when shooting video, wether handheld or on a tripod. Is there a rule of thumb here ? I'm shooting with the Canon 5D, about to purchase a 70-200mm there is a $1000 differance in price with or with out the IS.

Thank you :-)

When on a tripod, you would want to turn IS off when shooting video or photos.  Shooting hand held, though, IS can have a big impact on the quality of the video.  With video hand shake is going to be more evident, as you will actually see the movement, not just the effects of the movement.  IS will help smooth this out, so if you plan on shooting hand held with the 70-200mm, the IS version could make a big difference in the video you get.

Sir/ Madam

I have a canon T5i camera with ES- 18-55 IS STM lens. Should I switch of Image stabilizer switch when not using the camera ? 

Thanks

That would be entirely up to you.  When  you turn the camera off, there is no power going to the stabilization (i.e. stabilization is turned off as well).

Thansks for good information

I recently purchased a Sony AX100X camera and can't find where to set the IS function. I've read that out of the box the IS is set to default, in order to get the best out of this you will need to change the settings to Hybrid IS. The is no information on this topic in the User Manual.

Thanks!

Hi Uwe -

The only available MENU settings are:  ACTIVE, STANDARD, or OFF.

Please contact SONY for any undocumented features you may feel the camera offers:

1-800-222-SONY

Contact Sony Support

Please contact us via e-mail if you have additional questions:  AskBH@BandH.com

Thanks Mark!

I have a sonya57 I have a long lens that mounts to the tripod.  I mounted the lens and when I try to use the camera, I get an error that tells me I need to use the tripod.  Do I need a new tripod?  I have a silk, and have used it before, but never with the new lens.

If you're stabilization is on when you are using the camera on a tripod, then turn the stabilzation off.  If this is occuring with the stabilization not activated, please send an email to askbh@bhphoto.com and indicate the specific lens you have mounted on the camera and also any details about the exposure modes etc you have the camera set to when you shoot, and our agents there can then see if there is any other issue you  may be able to correct for this issue.