What Is Image Stabilization?

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When it comes to buying a new camera, there are dozens of features to consider—image stabilization is one of them, and it often gets overlooked. Manufacturers use different names like vibration reduction, optical image stabilization and shake reduction, but the bottom line is that image stabilization systems allow you to use your camera handheld at slower shutter speeds (i.e. darker conditions) than cameras that don’t have this feature.

But there’s a lot more to image stabilization than just the basic definition—there’s a few different types and features, and even times when you shouldn’t use shake reduction systems. Here’s what you need to know about image stabilization.

What is Image Stabilization?

Image stabilization is technology that counteracts slight motions of the camera to help reduce blur in photos. Cameras equipped with image stabilization can take sharp images at a slower shutter speed than those without—which means that images are less likely to blur in low light.

A woman holding a camera in a one-knee bend pose in a grassy field

Depending on the type, image stabilization allows photographers to use a shutter speed of between three and five stops slower than cameras without the feature. When using auto modes, it helps prevent blur in low light, while advanced users taking advantage of manual modes have a wider range of settings possible before camera shake creates blur.

As a general rule, when using a manual mode, you shouldn’t set your shutter speed any lower than your focal length, unless you are using a tripod. For example, if you are using a 300mm telephoto lens at full zoom, you shouldn’t use a shutter speed less than 1/300, while a 50mm lens typically won’t blur even at 1/50.

When you factor in image stabilization, however, you can use a slower shutter speed by 3-5 stops, depending on how good the stabilization is. Most cameras adjust shutter speed by 1/3 of a stop at a time—so with your image stabilization on, you can use a shutter speed that’s about nine settings slower.

What’s the Difference Between Optical Image Stabilization and Lens Stabilization?

Image stabilization helps reduce blur from camera shake, but there’s a few different technologies that are behind the feature. A stabilization system steadies the shot either at the lens or the sensor. If you’re buying a compact camera, the type doesn’t matter much, but if you are buying a mirrorless or DSLR, it’s important to know the difference.

Optical or sensor-based image stabilization is built into the camera body. Arguably the largest difference you’ll see is in price. The camera body will cost slightly more—but the lenses won’t be as expensive. Since most photographers buy more lenses than camera bodies, in-body image stabilization is cheaper in the long run. Since the lenses don’t need stabilization, they also tend to be less bulky.

Lens-based image stabilization systems are more expensive if you buy multiple lenses. Manufacturer’s claim stabilized lenses are a bit more effective, but whether that amount is noticeable or not is up for debate. There is a general agreement, however, that long telephoto lenses tend to do better with lens-based stabilization instead of in-body.

And since the light passes through the lens first, lens-based stabilization is thought to be a bit better in low light. However, five-axis image stabilization (we’ll talk about that next), isn’t available in lens-based systems, at least not yet.

What’s the Difference Between Three Axis and Five Axis Image Stabilization?

Along with in-camera or in-lens stabilization, there are two more options to consider—three axis or five axis. The axis describes what types of motion the system will stabilize—three axis works in three ways while five axis compensates in five ways.

Illustration of 5 axis stabilization

3 vs. 5 axis stabilization (Source)

Three axis image stabilization compensates for pitch (tilt up or down), yaw (panning side to side) and roll. Five axis image stabilization compensates for the same three, plus movement along the x and y axis. A five axis stabilization system is a bit better than a three axis, though some may not notice a difference.

The added stabilization is most noticeable when shooting a close-up or zooming in on a far off subject. We’ve also noticed a significant difference in video quality on cameras that have five-axis stabilization systems that work for both stills and movies.

Is Image Stabilization Worth it?

Like any other feature, whether or not image stabilization is worth the extra price really depends on your shooting style. Image stabilization comes into play the most in low-light scenarios, as well as when using a long zoom or shooting macro.

If you shoot a lot of photos indoors (or outdoors in early morning or late afternoon), image stabilization will make a difference in your photos. If you use a tripod for most of your shots anyway, image stabilization isn’t necessary.

The type of camera you’re looking for also matters. If you are in the market for a super zoom, for example, image stabilization is a must if you want sharp photos when fully zoomed. If you are looking for an interchangeable lens camera, you’ll want to consider whether to spend more on the body or more on each individual lens for stabilization.

When Do I Use Image Stabilization?

Image stabilization is an excellent feature—but there’s actually a few cases where it hurst images, instead of helping. You should always switch the image stabilization system off when using a tripod. With the camera held in place by the tripod, the image stabilization system may actually try to compensate for tiny vibrations created by the camera and create blur.

When panning, either in video mode or to use the technique for capturing a blurred background with an active subject, the vibration reduction system should also be turned off, or use “pan mode” if your camera is equipped with that feature.

When shooting interchangeable lenses, if both the camera and lens have an image stabilization system, turn it off on the camera while leaving it on for the lens.

Image stabilization allows you to shoot at a slower shutter speed before blur from camera shake sets in. It’s instrumental in shooting low-light, telephoto or macro shots, while you’re not likely to notice a difference shooting outdoors in the daytime at a wide angle. Just make sure to switch it off when using a tripod or panning.