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Image stabilization, explained: Inside the camera tech that keeps out the shakes

Camera shake can leave video viewers feeling like they just stepped off a roller coaster without the actual thrill of the drops and loops. And for still photographers, shake creates detail-obscuring blur. Image stabilization — whether it’s called Vibration Reduction (VR), Optical Stabilization (OS), or Shake Reduction (SR) — can help fight the shake of long lenses, hand tremors, or even moving while shooting.

Image stabilization has become a headline feature on mirrorless cameras and smaller action cameras. DSLRs, save for Pentax, typically do not have in-body stabilization systems, preferring lens-based stabilization. This alone can sway some users to move from DSLR to mirrorless — or to choose one mirrorless brand over another if the latter doesn’t put stabilization into its cameras (we’re looking at you, Canon).

Why do you need image stabilization?

Image stabilization fights the movement of the camera to create sharper still photos and steadier videos. A camera with image stabilization can shoot at much lower shutter speeds than one without, creating a cleaner, crisper low-light image than the alternative of raising the ISO, which introduces noise. The reciprocal rule suggests that a 100mm lens shouldn’t be shot lower than 1/100 second shutter speed — but with stabilization, you can push that shutter speed even lower. That allows photographers to shoot in low light, or to use big lenses without a tripod.

Stabilization also helps in smaller, but important, ways. It stabilizes your view through the viewfinder even before you take a picture, helping you keep your subject in the frame right where you want it. This is particularly useful when working with long telephoto lenses which can otherwise “bounce” all over the place. In the same way, stabilization also helps your autofocus system by keeping the subject steady under the same focusing points, giving you a better chance at tack-sharp accuracy.

But the specifics of your camera’s stabilization can be tough to decipher. What’s the difference between optical and digital stabilization? Is in-body image stabilization better than lens stabilization? What do camera companies mean when they advertise “5-stops of stabilization?” Here’s everything you need to know to answer these questions and more.

What is optical image stabilization?

Optical image stabilization is the type of stabilization that happens as the photo or video is being captured, not after, through parts inside the lens or camera body. This type of stabilization has a mechanical component to it, as physical parts inside a lens or camera move to counter the shake introduced by your hands and body.

Daven Mathies/Digital Trends

There are two different types of optical image stabilization. Traditionally, it was built-in to the lens, and such lens-based stabilization is still common today. A gyroscope reads the camera movement, while certain elements within the lens can move in response to it, resulting in a steadier image.

Optical stabilization can also be housed inside the camera body itself. Sensor-shift stabilization uses a gyroscope to move the sensor, rather than a lens element. While many mirrorless cameras use in-body stabilization, DSLRs traditionally used only lens stabilization, as this allows the effect of stabilization to be seen through the optical viewfinder. Mirrorless cameras, being live-view-only, are able to preview stabilization whether it is lens- or sensor-based.

Both lens stabilization and sensor stabilization will result in an image with less blur or steadier videos. Sensor stabilization is often more convenient, because any lens can be stabilized. Stabilized lenses are often more expensive, so working with a stabilized body can be more cost effective than buying several stabilized lenses.

Finally, for some systems, in-body and in-lens stabilization can be combined, resulting in even more stabilizing power. For long lenses, however, an in-lens system often works better than an in-body system as it can be optimized for the lens’ focal length.

Finding out if a camera has in-body stabilization is as simple as looking at the specifications. (It may be abbreviated as IBIS, for in-body image stabilization).

For lenses, whether or not stabilization is built-in is more obvious, if you can decipher the jumble of letters and numbers in the name. Each manufacturer has a different name for image stabilization, but if you see any of these designations in the lens name, it’s stabilized:

  • Canon and Olympus – IS
  • Nikon – VR
  • Sony – OSS
  • Fujifilm, Panasonic, Leica – OIS
  • Sigma – OS
  • Tamron – VC

What is digital stabilization?

Like digital zoom, digital stabilization is generally inferior to the optical type. But advancements to the technology have made some digital systems a headlining feature, and rightly so.

Digital stabilization is pretty much only used for video. It happens after the video is captured by cropping the image and reframing it automatically for a smoother output, albeit with a reduced field of view. Anytime a video is cropped, pixels are thrown away, which is why optical stabilization is still superior to the digital type.

Digital stabilization is getting better, however. GoPro’s impressive HyperSmooth uses scene recognition and, rather than universally applying a steadying algorithm, analyzes how that scene is moving. The computer crops the footage based on that movement, and the crop is only 10 percent. Given how rough action camera footage often is, the steadier HyperSmooth video almost always looks better than a non-cropped, non-stabilized version.

360 cameras have a unique advantage when it comes to digital stabilization. Since the camera captures a full spherical area around it, it has infinite freedom to reframe the active field of view without cropping, resulting in superior stabilization without throwing away pixels.

Optical vs. Digital stabilization: Which is better

Unlike optical stabilization, digital stabilization only works with video. Digital stabilization won’t help you take photos in low light,  for example. That makes optical stabilization the obvious winner for photography.

Optical stabilization still comes out on top for video in most cases too, however. With an optical stabilization system, you don’t sacrifice any video resolution. Think of optical stabilization as having a mini gimbal built into the camera. A gimbal is smoother thanks to its much greater range of motion, but for having nothing extra to carry, optical stabilization can be quite effective.

While image stabilization is an advantage to most shots, sometimes the feature should be turned off. If the camera is mounted on a tripod, for example, the stabilization system can actually work against itself. Some camera lenses have an “active” mode, which is designed to use while shooting from a moving vehicle, or different modes for panning versus standing still. Consult your manual for details.

In most cases, stabilization is a big plus. The optical type, however, can make the camera body or lens a bit larger than similar lenses without stabilization. (That’s why the Nikon Z 50 does not have in-body stabilization like the Z 6, for example). In most cases, the benefit of stabilization outweighs the added size, particularly for long lenses and working in low light.

In cameras too small for optical stabilization, digital stabilization is necessary. While the average digital system isn’t anything to get excited about, GoPro’s HyperSmooth and DJI’s Rock Steady are examples of digital stabilization done right, and make a huge difference for video.

Why is stabilization rated in “stops?”

This long exposure was shot without a tripod, thanks to 7.5 stops of stabilization. Hillary Grigonis/Digital Trends

Image stabilization systems are typically either three-axis or five-axis systems, which refers to the number of directions the system can move to counter shake. A three-axis system will reduce the camera’s movement three different ways, while a five-axis system offers the maximum stabilization possible, working across pitch, yaw, roll, and vertical and horizontal shift.

But along with the number of different directions of movement the system corrects, image stabilization is also rated by stops. This specification tells you how much you can reduce the shutter speed by to still get a sharp shot using that stabilization system. A stop, in photography terms, simply refers to doubling or halving the amount of light in the image. For image stabilization, each stop refers to how many times you can cut your shutter speed in half and still shoot handheld.

A stabilization system rated at 5 stops can cut the shutter speed in half five times and still get a sharp shot without a tripod. For example, if you are working with a 125mm lens, the slowest shutter speed that you can typically use is 1/125. But, with a five-stop stabilization system, you can cut 1/125 in half five times — which means you can theoretically shoot down to 1/4 of a second.

The rating is based on the best-case scenario — so a 1/4-second shot may still be a bit of a stretch. But, those numbers help you compare different stabilized cameras and lenses. A lens that’s rated to 3 stops won’t be able to go quite as low as a lens that’s rated to 5-stops.

5-stop stabilization is excellent  — but not the best. Olympus has managed to get up to 7.5 stops on its flagship OM-D E-M1X when paired with specific lenses. That allowed us to shoot a 10-second long exposure without a tripod.

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