Why is image stabilization important

If you own a digital point and shoot or SLR camera, you may have been sold on its the built-in image stabilization system. For some camera models, this is available through the lens. On others, it is in the camera. Either way, you probably want to know what it means for your photography and whether it is ultimately effective.

When is image stabilization most important?

First of all, why is image stabilization important? When is it the most useful? After all, if you are taking pictures at very high shutter speeds like 1/500th of a second, you will have no real use for image stabilization. That is because the fast shutter speed cancels out any accidental camera shaking you might do.

So really, image stabilization is the most important in situations where you don’t have enough light to get a fast shutter speed. It tends to come in handy at sunset, sunrise, and indoors. In most cases, image stabilization will give you the same image quality at 3 to 4 shutter speed stops slower than usual. This is especially handy if you don’t like carrying a tripod everywhere you go.

Use a higher aperture and get more depth of field

Using a higher aperture (higher F number) tends to increase sharpness and depth of field in your photos. Every time you increase your aperture, the actual hole the light goes through to get to your camera’s image sensor gets smaller. That means you will have to decrease the shutter speed to allow more light in. However, Image stabilization allows you to increase the aperture by a few extra F-stops. Because image stabilization allows you to use slower shutter speeds with the same results, you can use those slower shutter speeds to offset the loss of light caused by increasing your aperture.

Decrease telephoto blurring

There is one more area where image stabilization is useful, and that is with lenses in the telephoto range. Because a telephoto lens is longer and can see further away, every small shaking motion gets magnified. The difference between a telephoto lens and wide angle lens is similar to the difference between a short stick and a long stick. If you shake a short stick, the end doesn’t shake as much as it would if you were shaking a long stick. Small movements get magnified toward the end, and image stabilization helps to minimize those effects.

A comparison

Lets look at two different images taken with the same shutter speed and aperture settings. One of them uses image stabilization, and the other does not. The two following images were both taken with a Nikon D40x camera at aperture f8 with a shutter speed of 1/13 of a second. I chose a relatively slow shutter speed because the effects of image stabilization can only truly be seen at slow shutter speeds.

I am also using a Nikon 18mm to 55mm lens with vibration reduction (VR) technology. VR is Nikon’s brand of image stabilization, and it is built into the lens. Canon very creatively calls its technology IS for image stabilizer. Both systems are similar and comparable. The first image is taken with no image stabilization. I have blown up the letters on the sign so you can see the effect clearly.

As you can see, the image is slightly blurry but not all that bad. You can still read the text in the sign. Now let’s see how much of a difference image stabilization makes.

There is a big difference. You can very clearly read the letters on the sign, and there don’t appear to be nearly as many blurry sections. Image stabilization made it possible to take this image without a tripod.

Do you need image stabilization?

While image stabilization is great, at the end of the day nobody really “needs” it. It’s a nice feature to have when you don’t have that much light, and you don’t want to bring a tripod everywhere you go, but it shouldn’t be the dealbreaker that determines your next camera or camera lens purchase. Luckily, most low end zoom lenses and beginner digital SLR kits come with image stabilization these days, so it is kind of a moot point.

The best image stabilizer is your tripod. It is the safest bet when it comes to getting a blur free image at slower shutter speeds. Although there is a big difference between a shot taken with image stabilization and one without it, there is an even bigger difference when you use a tripod. The second image would have been completely blur free. If you want a sure bet, get yourself a good tripod.

Do you think that recent technological advances like image stabilization has significantly improved your photography? Let me know!

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