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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, MEGA O.I.S., 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 previously possible.

The rule of thumb for capturing sharp, handheld imagery is that you shouldn’t handhold a camera at shutter speeds slower than the equivalent 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 capture sharp images of still objects with a 500mm lens at speeds down to 1/60-second, a 300mm lens at speeds down to 1/30-second, and a 20mm lens at speeds down to 1/2-second.

The problem is that, while setting up a new camera 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 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.

Lens-based stabilization: Camera and lens system when still

There are two types of image stabilization (IS): lens based and in camera. Lens-based stabilization uses a floating lens element, which is electronically controlled and shifted opposite to any camera shake recorded by the camera. In-camera systems work similarly, but will physically shift the image sensor to compensate for these movements. As for which form of image stabilization is better, there are pros and cons for both sides.

Lens-based stabilization: Camera and lens system jerked downwards, producing camera shake

The advantages of in-lens image stabilization include smoother performance when using longer focal length lenses. 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. 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.

Lens-based stabilization: Correction made by IS lens group

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.

Camera-based stabilization: Camera and lens system when still

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 and starts moving around, even when the rest of the camera is completely still. This introduces motion objects to your camera system and brings with it blurriness. This is one of the key reasons to turn off image stabilization.

Camera-based stabilization: Camera and lens system jerked downwards, producing camera shake

Many systems feature specialized modes for panning action and this should be used when shooting action and other subjects that require constant side-to-side motion. However, some older lenses and entry-level systems may not have this option, or may not operate properly when panning, resulting in more blurring. This is an instance when it may be beneficial to turn your stabilization system off.

Lens-based stabilization: Sensor shift ameliorates camera shake

Also, another reason one could come up with to shut down their stabilization system is battery life. Electronically controlled and measured, IS will eat up battery power. This is especially true with larger lenses and larger sensors, which inherently require more energy to move around.

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, 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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What a great forum!

I have a Lumix GX8. I have a Lumix 14-140 lens with IS switch.

Would you recommend turning off the camera IS and turning on the lens IS? I hold my camera for most photos and want IS on. Just wondering your thoughts on best configuration.

Thanks so much in advance.

I have a Sony a7rii and I'm using a Sigma 24-105mm with a Sigma MC-11 adapter.  The lens has stabilization.  The body has stabilization.  Which do I use?  Is it bad to have both on?  

Hi Deebo,

As you already have all the equipment, it is going to be the best bet to simply try it with your current shooting style. Though, as long as there aren't any issues when using the adapter, it should be no problem using both at the same time. If that is problematic however I would probably default to the camera's stabilization.

Hi, I want to know, if I'm using a handheld stabilizer, should I use image stabilization?

I'm asking that because I don't know if it helps reduce the shake or not since the handheld removes alot of shake but is the lens able to still do the job?

Hi Guillaume,

There is unfortunately no clear answer to this question. I would guess that if you left the lens/camera IS turned on it wouldn't be harmful and could help. But, it really depends on the type and quality of the stabilizer that you have. You are really going to have to do your own testing with your specific equipment to figure out what works best for you.

Alright thank you for the reply :D

Hi, I have just purchased a Sony Cybershot HX400V which is very good so far. However, there only seems to be 3 'image stabilization' modes; Standard, Active and Intelligent Active-and from what I gather from forums there is no option to turn it OFF. I noticed that the image on the monitor was drifting whilst having the camera locked down on a tripod. Is there any way to solve this issue?

Hi Steve,

This is a bit unusual, but I can't seem to find any documentation that says you can turn it off. One thing that might affect this is your shooting mode. Sometimes certain settings are only accessible when in Manual or other "pro" control modes such as program, shutter priority, and aperture priority.

Hi B&H,

I had a question about IS on video. I recently acquired a 24-105mm Canon L series F/4 and heard a faint grinding/whirring noise coming from the lens itself. I called into the shop I bought the lens from and they said the sound will appear on every single L-series lens and it isn't just mine. The noise bugs me because sometimes I don't have access to my external microphone and I am primarily a videographer but would love to take photographs. Is it true that it is on all Canon L-series lens..? Any suggestions or recommendations? 

The noise only comes on when Image Stabilization is on*

Hi Cora,

At first I thought it was your AF, but if it only comes on when IS is on then its probably something you can't really do anything about. If you have the original 24-105mm the issue is that these older Canon lenses are not designed specifically for video and don't take that into account. The newer lenses however should be just fine in video with new motors that are silent specifically for this reason. The only advice I have is that you should look at some newer Canon lenses, especially the STM lenses, as they are designed with video in mind.

I am using a tripod with a  150-500mm sigma an a 150 - 600 tamron lens..... I just read this and now second guessing my photos since I was chasing a snowey owl for the last week here in PA.......... I had the VR on for both len's ........... and can not figure out why they are just a little out of focus

I shoot a Nikon 3200 on the one... and 3100 on the other... I know they are entry level Body's so could this be my issue, have the VR on........ ???

Look forward to hearin back

Hi Bob,

There are many reasons why this could be the case, with the likely culprits being the lenses just aren't quite that sharp, the shutter speed was too low (if the subject was moving), or a just slightly missed focus. It is possible that VR could introduce some softness, but as there are so many variations I highly advise testing equipment out before a critical shoot.

Is it advisable to keep image stabilization OFF while doing FLASH PHOTOGRAPHY?

Hi Rustom,

The answer, as it usually is, is that it depends. If you are shooting handheld with a speedlight and are doing a slow shutter with flash then IS is probably going to be helpful. If you are in a studio set up on a tripod, you'd probably be fine without it. 

Should I use my IS if I'm using a tripod but tracking a subject that is moving?

Hi Roland,

IS may help, especially if the lens has a mode specifically designed for panning subjects.

Hello,  I have a couple of Sony A6000's with several OSS Zeiss and G lenses.  I use them most for video - automotive.  I recently got a electronic gimball stabilizer for DSLR/mirrorless cameras.  I have read in forums that the IS must also be turned off when using a hand held stabilizer just like using a tripod.  The manufacturer of the stabilzer does not mention this in any of the literature.  I'm thinking having OSS on would benefit my videos since the camera is physically still moving even though it's more "stable" than just holding by hand.  I have not yet done a side by side comparison on video clips I've take.  What is your take on this?  Thanks. 

Hi Randy,

I would do some testing with your specific setup to see what works best, but if you are working handheld I could definitely see it benefit you. But, from a technical standpoint its possible that the camera/lens OSS could counteract the stabilizer's work, adding a little more movement. I would test it out if I were you, but I don't see it being a problem if it is on or off.

I have heard using a tripod you should always turn the IS off. I shoot wildlife and was wondering if this is an accurate statement?

Hi Brad,

For the most part I would agree with this statement. In theory, the tripod should be keeping your camera very still, and the addition of IS has the potential to add more movement than it would correct for, resulting in more blur. But, if you are doing a bit of panning or other quick movements to track subjects, it may be helpful to keep it on, depending on the system. As always, you are going to have to do some tests with your own equipment and style. Hope this helps.

Very useful article, straight to the important points.  Many thanks!

Excellent article! Thank you very much. Let me tell a case of disastrous over-implementation of image stabilization. I presume that by now it is well known. I have a  bridge camera superzoom, the Sony HX400v, which overall I like very much given what for me is excellent image quality. SteadyShot cannot be turned off in this camera! Even at the lowest setting (for video, as for stills the system is completely auto, activated when you touch the shutter button) it is very aggressive and recording videos using a tripod is an exercise in frustration because everytime you make a minor adjustment to the direction the camera ispointed the SS system tries to "fix" and takes a few seconds to stabilize again. This also happens in continuous still shooting mode where once you starting shooting the object starts moving around in circles in the screen (happens both hand holding and on a tripod). End of rant!

Great article.

Seems like people are saying that IS is not really useful for fast moving objects like in sports. Would this apply to birds too?

Hi Mark,

It's a gray area on whether IS has an impact on image quality when shooting action at generally fast shutter speeds (1/1000 sec or faster). However, IS can have a substatial impact on your viewfinder and can help stabilize the image to better track your subject. So, if you are birding with a long lens handheld, IS should probably be left on.

If I am shooting surfers using a canon 70-200 f4 is L at 200mm, with a canon 700D body, and I am using shutter speeds of 1/1000 or faster, should I have IS 2 switched on? Does IS make a difference at such high speeds or should I switch it off altogether?

Hi Conor,

IS has benefits beyond just stabilizing the image. While it will have less impact at high shutter speeds, it is still visible in the viewfinder, making it easier to compose while tracking fast subjects. I would test to see which works best for you, it is only a click of a switch if you find it better one way or the other.

I just read here that it might be best to choose either using lens based VR or body based VR, but not both at the same time. Then there is a side bar that says some manufactures are now allowing dual VR - lens and body together.

I'm shooting with a Nikon D5300 that has VR and a Tamron 16-300 lens that has Vibration Compensation (VC). Would I be running into issues if both were active?

Hello Jay,

In your case, the Nikon D5300 does not have in-body or sensor-based stabilization. So you will have to rely on the lens-based VR system. I am not 100% familiar with all of the D5300's settings though, and what you may find is a digital VR setting. These digital modes crop into the image, compromising image quality and I would avoid these settings altogether. Hope this helps.

I have a Canon SX50HS very-long-zoom camera.  In one place in the manual it says to turn IS off when shooting on a tripod; in another place it describes "smart IS" which automatically detects the lack of motion on a tripod and reacts appropriately.   Which is correct?

Actually, I seldom use a tripod.  I frequently take pictures of birds, which are moving targets, and for any serious use of the long-zoom capability, attach a home-made "handle" or "rifle stock" to the camera which lets me hold it reasonably steady as long as I can sit down or lean my body on a tree, etc, for stability.  There is still some wobble, and I never turn the IS off.   I have not really experimented seriously (body shake is random and many shots would have to be taken).  But I am usually satisfied with my results.  (I bought the tripod screw and nut from B & H.)

Hi Francis,

Best practice is likely to just turn it off when you use a tripod. However, if you rarely use a tripod and the camera claims a "Smart IS" mode, you likely won't have any noticeable loss of quality in your image if you always have it on.

Hi, great artical;

For a fast sport e.g cycling i use 1/100-1/250  just to clarify IS is not required shooting at those speeds?

Thanks

Hi Bailey,

It may or may not be helpful for your situation, depending on focal length and shooting style. Many modern IS systems can account for panning, which can dramatically improve your images. Also, assuming you are using telephoto lenses it seems that your shutter speed is a little slow, I would probably be up around 1/500 at least shooting cycling and with panning will be using IS. Hope this helps but you should do experiments with your equipment to see if you can get any improvements from one style to another.

I love this explanation.  Really helpful in understanding the science behind IS.  Can you point me to a similar article describing the difference between IS 1 and 2 on the Canon 70-200?  I know in general that IS 2 is for panning at slower shutter speeds, but I would love to understand the science behind that as well!

Unfortunately I was not able to find any particular articles that go indepth on the IS 2 mode.  Its essentially for panning as  you mentioned.  Most of the sites I could find discussing it were simply forum based sites with posters asking the same type of question.  Canon USA's own link discussing lens terms is also not super indepth.  Below is the link to Canon USA's website which discusses IS and other lens attributes.

http://bit.ly/1mFSWYx

I always have had the in-camera IS turned off and do not have lenses with IS and always shoot with a tripod.  However, while taking pictures on a bridge with traffic, the cars and busses would create vibration where I was set-up. I felt the pictures were not as sharp as they could have been. Should I turn the in-camera IS on in this situation even though I'm using a tripod? I use an Olympus OMD-EM5. 

Hi Mark -

You could certainly try turning the IS feature "ON", but I am not sure it will help.  You may want to try bringing along a firm rubber mat that can absorb some of the vibrations from the bridge traffic that seem to be travelling up the tripod legs to your camera.

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

There are vibration reducing pads designed for telescopes that might be useful for this, and would be much more compact.  https://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/202159-REG/Celestron_93503_Vibrat...

For the most part, the IS systems are engineered around the movement patterns from hand held use, and not so much for other movement patterns like shooting from moving vehicles.  That is not to say it isn't helpful in some situations, but becomes much more of a trial/error process.  

I have a canon SX520. Would I want to turn off the IS when shooting on a tripod for a more expensive Point and shoot?

Thanks

What would be the effect of using a lens with IS on a body that also has IS? Would it make sense to use both? 

For the majority of camera/lens combinations, you would want to choose to use the image stabilization in either the camera or the lens.  You would not want to use both at the same time. 

Hello Ralph,

Many manufacturers lately have been implementing systems that not only enable the use of both in-body and lens stabilization simultaneously, but have them work together to provide better IS than each could do alone. For example, Panasonic has their new Dual I.S. and Sony's latest a7 series cameras will automatically balance the lens and sensor stabilization for maximum benefit. But, in the case where the manufacturer doesn't have such a system, it is best to test out different configurations for your style of shooting.

I recently bought a Sigma 70-200 with OS.. When shooting handheld and with OS on in either setting, as I press to focus the image in the viewfinder jumps thus altering my composition. I then have to recompose before clicking. Can you tell me why this is, please? 

Which specific model camera are you shooting with please?

can anyone tell me the frequecy tollerance range of sony image stabilization in the RX100IV  thanks

Unfortunately, this is not information we receive from Sony.  Though, you could try contacting them directly. 

Sony

Tel: 888-476-6972 or 800-222-7669

Website: http://www.sony.com/

Sir,

Since IS is most effective for shutter speeds below 1/20 sec for say a 20mm focal length lens, does that mean that I do not necessarily need IS featured enabled on the camera while shooting at shutter speeds above 1/20sec or 1/50sec for that matter??

Thanking you,

Jonney.

Essentially you're statement is correct, however it may vary from one user to the next.  I would recommend doing a test shoot at the various speeds with the IS on and off and compare them against each other and you'll then be able to see what your personal threshold is.

Ok sir. I'll give it a go. Thank you. :)

This is a great article and really summed up the physics behind vr,is,os etc. But one thing that was not covered was wether to use it on a flycam, stedicam stabilizer. Like being mounted on a tripod, would it make things worse if VR was on when mounted on a stabilizer?

In-camera and in-lens stabilization features are not useful when other means of stabilization are being implemented.  Doing so could actually counter-act the secondary stabilization from the particular rig.  For example, a camera/lens combo with VR/IS mounted on a tripod (with the stabilization activated) can actually confuse the VR/IS to think that the unit is not stable due to its own internal mechanisms moving.

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