Why do we need image stabilisation? There are sometimes that you take what appears to be a great photo, a keeper, one for the portfolio. You import it into your editing software of choice and start to prepare it for the big time, exposure, color, sharpness. Wait a minute, sharpness! When you zoom the image to 100% there is a slight fuzziness to it. At screen size it looks sharp but when you pixel peep the apparently sharp lines are not. There is a softness, an indefinable lack of clarity. What you are almost certainly seeing is camera shake. Its even more defined when we shoot video. The harsh motion of an unstabilised shot can make video difficult to watch.
Why we get Camera Shake
Camera shake happens to us all. It is more likely with a longer telephoto lens and a slower shutter speed. However it can also happen if your shooting technique is not so perfect. It will also be a permanent aspect of shooting video off tripod. There is, however a piece of hardware that can help reduce camera shake. It goes by the acronym VR, or IS, or OS or…. The fact is many manufacturers call it different names but in reality it is image stabilisation. Image stabilisation was born in the video business where the move to smaller better definition cameras freed up videographers to shoot handheld. This in turn required a way of reducing the inherent movement found when hand holding.
Canon were the first to market with image stabilisation, adding it to their formidable range of broadcast video cameras. The technology eventually found its way to their still camera range too. Paarticularly in their SLR lenses. It is now an important feature of any DSLR or Mirrorless camera that has aspirations to shoot video. So lets take a look at the three main types of image stabilisation technology available.
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This is the primary choice for DSLR users. Known as optical stabilisation it is a direct offshoot of the aforementioned Canon video stabilisation. Known as IS by Canon, VR by Nikon and OS by Sigma it uses tiny sensors and gyroscopes to predict the way your camera is moving, then using equally tiny motors, it attempts to counter that movement.
Because the system is tied to the lens it is thought to be the most efficient of the image stabilisation technologies. It can give an extra four stops of stabilisation to an image. This means that if shooting with a telephoto lens, the slowest shutter speed you can use to achieve good sharpness is 1/250th of a second, with lens based image stabilisation, you may be able to use 1/30th or even 1/15th of a second.
The primary cons to lens based stabilisation is that it is specific to the lens and indeed adds significantly to the cost and weight of the lens.
Born of the digital age and original developed by the now defunct Konica Minolta but further developed by Sony. Sony bought the technology from Minolta when the latter folded. Sensor stabilisation uses similar technology as lens stabilisation except the sensor and motors are attached directly to the camera’s sensor. When movement is detected the sensor is moved to counteract it. The obvious advantage to this system is that it will work with any lens however due to the limitations on how far and quickly you can move the sensor, the actual stop increase that you can gain is only 2-3 stops. This is still a significant advantage though over not using any image stabilisation.
A more recent development has been the introduction of 5 axis stabilisation. This is where a combination of in camera and in lens stabilisation work together. It is particularly good for video creation where it can give a very stabile image when handholding and moving with the camera.
This third option uses the processing power of the camera’s CPU. This analyses the movement in the image in real time and counteracts it using software. When the shot is taken the image is cropped in to counter any movement. The more movement, the more cropping will occur. This technology was developed from lower end video cameras. As such it has become a low cost solution found on more budget end compact cameras. It is not as efficient as the previous two examples.
Image stabilisation as with many tools in photography should not be seen as a cure to camera shake more as a way to potentially reduce it. It should be combined with good technique and understanding of shutter speed to improve sharpness in your shots. A couple of final caveats, when using any type of image stabilisation, remember to switch it off it it is not requires, it can take considerable battery power an hence reducing your battery life and also switch it off if using a tripod. Image stabilisation is constantly working, if your camera is locked off on a tripod, the lens or sensor is moving even though the camera is not, meaning you might actually reduce the sharpness.Important to