Image stabilization (IS) is a photography technology/technique that helps eliminate or reduce camera shake-induced blurriness and wobble from photos and videos respectively. The stabilization effect can be achieved through hardware or software. The functionality helps when there’s no tripod available or much light around to capture images or shoot videos. In fact, a point-and-shoot camera with IS can at times capture better images than a digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera without IS. That’s not always the case, however, and it also depends on the photographer.

Image Stabilization Types

Image stabilization can either be built in the camera body (image sensor) or lens, or the effect could be achieved digitally. Basically, there are three image stabilization techniques: optical image stabilization (OIS) or lens-based stabilization, sensor-based stabilization, and electronic image stabilization (EIS). Most camera manufacturers stick to body-based stabilization because that’s more affordable, while there are some other camera makers who prefer lens-based stabilization. Cameras made by Olympus, Pentax, Samsung and Sony have in-built stabilization. Nikon and Canon cameras have lens-based stabilization. Though the end results with both IS techniques are fairly identical, there’s a difference in execution. Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of each.

Lens Stabilization

Lens with image stabilization built in. Image credit: Flickr
Lens with image stabilization built in. Image credit: Flickr

When the stabilization happens in the lens, the photographer can see it in action. This is what professionals prefer since it helps them with photo composition. When in the body, the stabilization cannot be seen in the viewfinder. Moreover, lens stabilization has more features to make IS more effective. For instance, certain IS lenses have the “active” mode feature for shooting from a moving boat or car.

Lens stabilization handles long shot stabilization much better than sensor-based stabilization because the lens has a much bigger area to move and compensate for the right shot. Sensor stabilization is quite limited in this aspect since the sensor built into the camera cannot move as much. 

Camera lenses come with or without stabilization. Cameras dependent on lenses will have to stick with stabilized lenses to not lose out on the IS feature. Moreover, IS lenses are expensive than non-IS lenses. Also, lens stabilization may cause annoying sounds while shooting videos, which get picked up into the footage audio.

Sensor Stabilization

The biggest benefit of camera-built stabilization is that it has more lens choices. Third party, older, and other different types of lenses (stabilized or non-stabilized) can be attached to the camera body and the stabilization would still work. When an upgrade is needed, only the camera body has to be changed; the wide variety of lenses already purchased need not be replaced.

Camera-based stabilization is much cost-effective since incorporating stabilization into the image sensor is cheaper than making IS-equipped lenses. This is why smaller camera equipment manufacturers go with body-based stabilization. Also, lenses without IS don’t make sounds during video recording.

Usually, lenses with IS are heavier and expensive. They are also a tad more fragile since there’s one extra hardware component that needs to be handled with care. Lenses without IS don’t have these issues.

Cameras with sensor-based stabilization don’t offer much stabilization when capturing long-distance shots or when using telephoto lens. With increasing length of the lens, the sensor has to move a lot more to make up for the camera shake. But since the space available to the sensor for movement is limited, the stabilization effect isn’t much.

Digital Stabilization

Digital or electronic stabilization system uses software to work its magic. It’s the least expensive and quicker of the three as there are no physical parts use to stabilize shots; all of the stabilizing happens at the software level. Despite being snappy, this IS technique is the least professional of the lot because the stabilization is achieved at the cost of degraded image quality. The IS system zooms in on the subject whenever it’s turned on, resulting in loss of image resolution.

OIS is a better technology but that doesn’t make it the best in all scenarios. In all the three cases, stabilization won’t help much if the camera is being deliberately or violently shaken. The image stabilization system you end up choosing would greatly depend on the kind of visual footage you want. In case the requirements mandate the highest image quality, OIS or sensor-based stabilization would be a better option. If picture quality isn’t top priority, and there’s more a need for less bulky and smaller stabilization equipment, EIS would be ideal. Remember, some cameras may have both OIS and EIS.

Brand Names and Marketing

Image stabilization has been around since the 1990s, and different camera companies have given the technology their own unique branding. Canon sticks with the “image stabilization” naming convention; Nikon, on the other hand, prefers the “vibration reduction” branding. Similarly, other brand-specific terminologies are shake reduction (Pentax and Samsung), and super steady-shot (Sony). Even smartphone brands prefer branding the technology – for instance PureView (Nokia).   

Such unique branding efforts could denote an OIS, EIS, or any other image stabilization technology. Therefore, it’s wise to cross-check what stabilization type the camera really offers before buying. People who prefer lens-based stabilization won’t be happy if their camera has digital stabilization.

Image Stabilization and Low-Light Photography

IS makes its presence felt the most in low-light photography. When capturing images during late evenings or early mornings or when indoors, the amount of light entering the camera is decreased in comparison to bright light scenarios. As a consequence, the shutter speed slows down to let in maximum light possible into the camera so that the images turn out as vivid and dynamic as possible. This shutter speed delay means the photographer would have to wait a bit longer for the camera to take the image. This increased waiting period heightens the possibilities of camera shake, which image stabilization supposedly takes care of.

Need for Image Stabilization

Image stabilization is a handy feature, but it’s not always needed when capturing images or shooting videos. For instance, when taking pictures at high shutter speeds, image stabilization would offer no real benefit. This is because extremely fast shutter speeds negate the possibilities of any accidental or unintentional camera shake hurting the image. Also, with a tripod around, image stabilization becomes irrelevant. Modern IS systems are intelligent enough to sense tripod usage, and can automatically turn themselves off.

The stabilization feature helps when the majority of pictures are being taken indoors or during evenings. Also, when there are too many places to cover and you don’t want to carry your tripod around, image stabilization becomes invaluable. And if you generally have shaky hands and cannot stand anything but clear images, image stabilization is a must-have.