Understanding Image Stabilization


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Back in the day, my dad bought a Canon 35mm camera when he was stationed with the Army in South Korea.

That was the first camera I ever used, and I actually still have it to this day.

Needless to say, it’s miles away from what Canon is putting out these days…

As much as I enjoyed learning on that old film camera, it’s hard not to appreciate all the modern bells and whistles that help me (and you!) take better photos.

Image stabilization is one such feature…

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Not only does image stabilization let you dial in slower shutter speeds without the fear of blurry shots, but it also means you can keep ISO values lower, thereby minimizing noise, too.

But the manner in which image stabilization works from one camera manufacturer to the next is slightly different.

What’s more, it seems like everyone calls their image stabilization system something different.

That can get a little confusing, which is why I’m writing this post.

Let’s talk about image stabilization and see how Nikon, Canon, and Sony utilize image stabilization in their camera and lens systems.

Nikon Image Stabilization

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Nikon image stabilization is housed in its lenses and is called Vibration Reduction or VR for short. You’ll see VR in the name of the lens, like the AF-S DX Nikkor 55-200mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR II lens shown above.

Being that it’s a lens-based system, that means that you can see the effects of stabilization in the optical viewfinder, making it handy for framing up better shots.

Nikon’s VR system varies from lens to lens, and also sports different features based on the age of the lens.

For example, the first VR-enabled lenses provided around 3 stops of stability. Later versions upped that to 4.5 stops.

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Nikon’s lenses – like the 24-120mm f/4G ED VR AF-S Nikkor lens shown above – offer a variety of different settings to customize the vibration reduction to the situation. This includes normal, active, sport, tripod, and off.

In normal mode (which is the default setting), the vibration reduction is attuned for still photos, though you can also pan with subjects, too.

In active mode, the vibration reduction works to quell movement when shooting from an unstable surface, like a moving vehicle. The point of active mode is to help stabilize the viewing experience through the viewfinder such that you can frame up a better shot.

Sport mode is confined to Nikon’s higher-end telephoto lenses and offers both an improved viewing experience and better continuous shooting rates for capturing quick action.

As you might guess, tripod mode is intended for use when the camera is mounted on a tripod. The lens will then detect any vibrations coming from the tripod and issue corrective measures.

As is the case with most camera manufacturers these days, Nikon also has vibration reduction for video recording.

Learn More:

  • Tips for Buying Used Camera Lenses

Canon Image Stabilization

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Historically, Canon’s image stabilization system has been implemented on the lens side rather than the camera side, just like Nikon.

As noted earlier, the benefit of this is that you can see the effect that image stabilization has on your images when looking through the optical viewfinder.

Canon’s image stabilized lenses can sense both rotational and angular shake on both the horizontal and vertical axes. That allows them to compensate for such movements by moving the elements inside the lens to counteract those effects.

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Canon’s EF lenses (like the EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS II USM and the EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM shown above) are the company’s bread and butter for image stabilization. In fact, most of the EF lenses have numerous stabilization modes to give shooters even more leeway.

That means you can adjust the stabilization to the subject, be that a normal still photo, panning with a moving subject, or using image stabilization only at the instant the shutter button is depressed, which helps save battery.

More recently, Canon has introduced image stabilization that allows the lens to sense if the camera is on a tripod – which disengages image stabilization – and five-axis stabilization for improved stability when shooting video.

Learn More:

  • Canon 5D Mark IV: Just How Good Is It?

Sony Image Stabilization

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Unlike Nikon and Canon, Sony has historically used lens-based and sensor-based image stabilization.

The sensor-based image stabilization is known as SteadyShot Inside and is found on both mirrorless and DSLR models, like the Sony a7R II mirrorless camera shown above.

The compact line of Sony cameras and many of their lenses (like the 16-35mm Vario-Tessar T FE F4 ZA OSS lens shown below), however, has stabilization called Optical SteadyShot, or OSS.

Now, though Sony has added five-axis stabilization on its newest line of compact cameras. That helps the camera control for roll, yaw, pitch, and shifting on the vertical and horizontal axes.

All of this is done on the camera-side, that way you can use non-stabilized lenses with the camera and still get the stabilized effect.

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Another benefit of Sony’s system is that you can pair a stabilized lens with a stabilized camera body.

By using an OSS lens with a SteadyShot inside body, the lens corrects for yaw and pitch movements while the camera corrects for shift and roll movements.

It’s no wonder that Sony setups like this offer superb image stabilization!

Learn More:

  • Which is Best for You: The Sony Alpha a7RII or the Sony Alpha a7S II?

Putting It All Together

No matter if it’s called vibration reduction, image stabilization, optical steady shot, or something else, the common theme among image stabilization systems is that they work to help you improve your shots.

You can handhold your camera at slower shutter speeds and still get sharp results with image stabilization.

You can also get a clearer view of the scene through the optical viewfinder so you can compose a better photo.

Heck, image stabilization can even help you shoot better video, too.

Though the names differ, no matter what kind of image stabilization you use, you’ll find you have more leeway to get the shot you want.

If you’re still on the fence about whether image stabilization is for you, check out the video above by Moose Winans, in which he outlines the virtues and drawbacks of image stabilized lenses.

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