When it is time to buy a camera, image stabilization can be something that is on the bucket list of must haves. Image stabilization makes it possible to shoot with longer shutter times than normal, preventing the use of a tripod. There are many different implementations of image stabilization, but it is not the Holy Grail. You could say image stabilization is overrated.
The claim about image stabilization being overrated may sound like click-bait, but it is not. The discussion about the lack of in body camera image stabilization in the Canon EOS R shows how many are fixed on this helping aid. With all the fuss about it, you could even get the idea that sharp images are not possible anymore without it. And yes, it is a tool that can minimize the risk of unshapen images due to vibration or hand shake, but it is not the answer to everything.
First of all, let me explain why image stabilization, or vibration reduction, is so wonderful. If you already are familiar with it, just skip this part.
Nobody can hold a camera perfectly still. We make tiny movements all the time. Often we are unaware of this. Breathing, our heartbeat, even the movement of our muscles, and our balance to stand on two legs, all these things make us constantly move a tiny bit. And if we use a shutter time that is long enough, these movements become visible because it is also moving the camera. Unless you use a tripod, of course. But we are not talking about that.
Once there was a golden rule about holding a camera perfectly still. It was based on the focal length and a 35mm film, what we call full frame today. It was said that the minimum shutter speed that still makes it possible to hold the camera still, was 1 divided by the focal length of the lens. If you used a 50mm focal length, you could shoot a sharp image with a minimum of 1/50 sec. With 24mm it could be 1/24 sec. If you used a tele lens like 800mm, the minimum shutter time would be 1/800 sec – if you are strong enough to hold that kind of lens. It is just a guideline, because some people could go beyond that 1/[focal length] rule.
Today we have sensors instead of film, but the guideline still works the same. One divided by the focal length gives a good idea up to what shutter time you can use the camera with no risk of shaking. But it also depends of the sort of sensor you use. The guideline is based on a full frame sensor, so if you use a smaller sensor the movement will be enlarged with the same factor as the crop factor. When you use a 50mm lens on a full frame camera, you should be able to shoot with 1/50 sec. But when the 50mm lens is placed on a 1.5 crop camera, the registered image has a larger magnification, so it is acting like it was a 75mm on a full frame. The minimum shutter times should be 1/75 sec.
Now comes image stabilization into the picture. The modern systems that manufacturers build into their cameras are so sophisticated that they can reduce vibrations up to 4 stops, or even more. If you have an image stabilization that can works up to 4 stops, you should be able to make the shutter time 4 stops longer than the guideline 1/[focal length] tells us. With 50mm focal length on full frame, we should be able to shoot handheld not with just 1/50 sec, but up to 1/4 sec.
That is amazing of course. So you can leave your tripod at home, or just don’t buy one. Especially when your camera has In Body Image Stabilization (IBIS), it will work with any lens you use. Shooting with 16mm means you can get sharp images hand held, with a shutter time up to 1 second (!) if the IBIS works up to 4 stops.
But it won’t stop any movement of the subject.
And this is something many seem to forget. You may use your camera hand held for 1/4 sec with 50mm, but it won’t stop your object from moving. I always think of my wedding photography, and the Canon EF 85mm f/1.4L IS, which has image stabilization. It may compensate for my shaky hands, but it won’t compensate the movements of the wedding couple. So I still need a fast shutter speed to end up with images that are sharp.
Of course this is all based on 35mm film. Today’s sensors have a much larger resolution than film in the older days. For example, if you use a 16mp camera the guideline may work, but with a 50mp sensor (like the (semi) medium format cameras from Fujifilm and Hasselblad) it probably won’t be enough. With a much higher resolution the tiniest of movements become visible so any image stabilization will certainly come in handy. Not for freezing the movement of the subject, but to reduce any shake or vibrations from the photographer.
So, this epistle is not against image stabilization at all. I love the technique and how it enables the photographer to shoot with a reduced risk of camera shake. The In Body Image Stabilization is wonderful and I think it should be built into every new camera that comes to the market. Just be aware that image stabilization it is not always necessary, like photographers that mainly shoot from tripod. More important is to realize it won’t stop the movements of your subject.
Please let me know in the comment how important image stabilization is for you and if you would consider buying a camera without it.