A good photo isn’t automatic. It doesn’t matter how new or expensive your camera is; good shots don’t just happen because you press the shutter. There are all sorts of things that can ruin a shot: overexposure, underexposure, poor composition, missed focus. Regardless of what camera you’re using, things like this are remedied almost entirely by way of good technique. It’s a must that your camera have a reliable metering system and an accurate focusing system, but you, the photographer, have to make sure you’re making proper use of it all in order to minimize the number of useless photographs you make.
Go Away, Camera Shake!
Perhaps chief among factors that can ruin a shot is (unintentional) camera shake; you’ve got a proper exposure, you’ve locked focus, you’ve got a good composition…and you’re rewarded with a blurry shot. Exasperated and disappointed, you’re thinking to yourself — probably aloud — “What gives?!”
The most common culprit is shutter speed. Trying to handhold a camera at too slow a shutter speed is going to be a problem. The rule of thumb concerning how to achieve sharp images when handholding your camera is to use a shutter speed faster than or equal to the focal length of your lens. This means that if you’re using a 50mm lens, then you’ll want to set your shutter speed to no slower than 1/50. It’s an easy rule to remember and it’s generally effective, but there are time when you simply need a more powerful solution.
Enter image stabilization technology. It goes by many different proprietary labels: Nikon’s Vibration Reduction (VR), Canon’s Image Stabilization (IS), Sigma’s Optical Stabilizer (OS), Tamron’s Vibration Compensation (VC), Sony’s Super SteadyShot, Pentax’s Shake Reduction (SR). Nicknames and particular implementation methods notwithstanding, the goal of all this is to allow photographers to capture sharp images using shutter speeds significantly slower (usually up to four times slower) than would otherwise be possible.
Image stabilization technology is implemented in one of two ways: lens-based stabilization (Canon and Nikon, for example) and in-camera stabilization (Sony, Pentax, Olympus, among others).
Lens-based stabilization employs a complex system of gyroscopes, electromagnets, and floating lens elements that all work together to detect camera movement and then counteract that movement, taking thousands of readings per minute to provide on-the-fly corrections.
In-camera stabilization works by intelligently shifting the image sensor in opposition to camera movement, thereby eliminating camera shake.
While the manual provided with your camera or lens should cover how to use any provided image stabilization, some users fail to read that information and end up thinking the stabilization feature is something they should turn on and leave on.
That’s not always such a good idea.
When to Turn it Off
The most widely used stabilization technology is designed exclusively for handholding and, thus, should be turned off when mounting your camera on a tripod. You don’t have to do a lot of Googling to see just how many people have complained that their lens’ stabilization was worthless, only to discover from a more experienced photographer that it doesn’t work properly in conjunction with a tripod. It’s not supposed to. Mounting a camera to a tripod while image stabilization is turned on creates a situation where the camera’s/lens’ stabilization system detecting and trying to counteract its own vibrations. This feedback loop just confuses the camera and does absolutely nothing to eliminate blurriness. In fact, you may find that camera shake is even worse in this scenario.
Another important point to keep in mind about basic stabilization technology is that it does not enable you to freeze motion; again, it is designed to allow you to capture sharp images of stationary subjects at slow shutter speeds. Image stabilization doesn’t help with moving subjects.
Basic forms of stabilization also don’t work well when panning. This is another instance in which you should switch the image stabilizer off.
Fortunately, technology itself is not static. Some of the more recent advancements in image stabilization have brought forth systems that can tell when a camera is mounted on an external stabilizing device such as a tripod, and will automatically cancel the built-in stabilizer. Others include a “tripod” mode that can compensate for the effects of the tripod. Additionally, there are systems available that include a mode designed to stabilize panning motions.
Using a tripod to photograph still subjects — particularly at slow shutter speeds — will probably always provide the very best results; use a remote shutter release and the mirror lock up function to boost your chances of getting the sharpest images possible. The problem with that, however, is one of practicality. You can’t have a tripod with you at all times; you won’t always have time to flip the mirror up for every shot. And this is where image stabilization is a life saver. Just be sure to use it correctly.
Using image stabilization is not cheating, but don’t let it turn you into a lazy photographer. Good technique will always be your greatest asset.