How Effective Is an Image Stabilizer?

Get the lowdown on this popular feature for DSLR camera systems

by Peter K Burian

Although camera equipment with image stabilizers has been available for years, there's still a dispute as to whether a system of this type is really useful. Some photographers insist that only a tripod can provide blur-free images, while others insist that a stabilizer mechanism is all they need in most circumstances. In my experience, a tripod is certainly valuable but it's prohibited in some locations (as in a museum or castle), while in other situations, it's simply not safe or practical (as on a busy urban street).

Stabilizer Diagrams
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Image Stabilizer: Distinct Technologies

Whenever you cannot use a three-legged support accessory, there is a question you should ask yourself. Exactly how effective is the image stabilizer mechanism in your equipment? In other words, what is a "safe" shutter speed to use with some confidence of getting a blur-free photo? There's no single correct answer for everyone in this debate but as a starting point it's worth knowing exactly how effective a camera shake compensating system is.

An image stabilizer - in the lens or in an Olympus, Pentax or Sony DSLR body - certainly compensates for camera shake to some extent but its effectiveness can vary widely. The technology used by each manufacturer differs and even within a single brand, it's more effective with certain lenses than with others. And any stabilizer provides a greater benefit at a longer vs. shorter focal length. Finally, some people are just naturally more steady than others so the results they get may not be typical at all.

Stabilizer Diagrams (photo at right): At one time, stabilizing devices were installed only in lens barrels (as in the Sigma illustration, bottom) but more recently, in-camera "sensor-shift" systems have become just as common (as in the Sony illustration). Naturally, every manufacturer uses its own proprietary technology, so the effectiveness can vary depending on the DSLR or lens you use. Photos Courtesy of Sigma and Sony

Stabilizer Yellow
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Image Stabilization: Read Test Reports

One way to determine the effectiveness of a particular digital camera or lens based system is to read several test reports; you should be able to find some using a Google search. Many - though not all - reviewers do comment as to their own findings re: stabilizer effectiveness. Granted, each of three reviewers may provide an entirely different estimate about the same camera or lens. So which one should you believe?

Stabilizer Yellow (photo at right): There's no doubt that an image stabilizer is valuable when shooting in low light at a low ISO level (at a long shutter speed). But it is worth conducting tests or reading reviews to determine how effective your equipment is at various focal lengths and shutter speeds. (135mm; 1/10 sec.; ISO 100) (c)Peter K. Burian

Digital Image Stabilizer: Do Your Own Tests

Well, there’s really no way to be sure. Frankly, you’ll need to conduct your own tests with your DSLR and favorite lens at various focal lengths. Then, check to see which Review indicates a similar stabilizer benefit with the same camera or lens. But after doing so remember this. We're all steadier at certain times of the day than at others. So take a conservative approach when you find a great photo opportunity. Don't rely too much on the stabilizer. Use a faster shutter speed, and/or brace the camera on something solid; when possible, use a tripod.

Tip:And finally, try a technique that has worked very well for me when a tripod was not available. When using a long shutter speed in hand-held shooting, take three photos of the scene. Later, view them at 100% magnification on a computer monitor; one of the three will usually be sharper than the others. This will be your "keeper"; simply delete the others.

More Information

Peter K. Burian teaches two photo classes online - Mastering the Digital Camera and Photography and Mastering the Canon EOS Digital Rebels - at BetterPhoto's digital photography school online.

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About Author Peter K Burian

Author: Peter K Burian

To learn more about photography, explore the photography classes offered here at BetterPhoto.