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What is Optical Image Stabilization and When to Use It

Ever have the chance to take a terrific photo and then discover that it came out blurry? Maybe you were using a longer lens, or maybe you were indoors with bad lighting. Either way, the results can be pretty disappointing, particularly if your subject has been blurred beyond what Luminar’s sharpening and clarity filters can fix. Sure, in some situations you can try taking the photo again, but if the blur was due to camera shake and you don’t have a tripod, you’re not likely to have better luck. This is where optical image stabilization (OIS) can make a huge difference.

Of course, using a tripod is the simplest solution to camera shake. But unless you carry one every where you go, you’re probably going to find at least some circumstances where you’re going to have to go at it by hand. OIS will give you that little bit of help you need to get a sharp image when shooting by hand. You can find it in various high-quality lenses, and it’s especially helpful with telephoto lenses, where even the tiniest movement can create a substantial amount of blur.

Why Optical Image Stabilization

To date, OIS is the most effective image stabilization out on the market. It takes place in the lens (as opposed to inside the camera) using a tiny gyroscope to detect small hand movements. It then directs numerous tiny motors to move the lens in in the opposite direction to your shake, all in real time. What’s unique with OIS is that the image is stabilized before it reaches the sensor. This allows the the auto focus to function more accurately, while the images seen in the optical viewfinder (of DX and FX cameras) are already stabilized and therefore contain more detail and are easier to frame. 

There are two other forms of image stabilization out there, but neither performs quite so well. Digital stabilization uses software to reduce the impact of camera shake and is the least effective. Sensor-shift stabilization (SSS), used in many mirrorless cameras, takes place in the camera body itself and works pretty well, but OIS still outperforms it.

Shopping for an OIS lens can be a little confusing, however, as each camera and lens company uses a different name for it. For example, Nikon calls it vibration reduction (VR), Canon calls it Image Stabilizer (IS), Sigma calls it Optical Stabilization (OS), etc. (For a more complete list click here.) If you’re looking at non-standard companies, make sure you know just what type of stabilization they’re using. Sometimes the marketing will imply that it’s OIS when it’s really either digital stabilization or SSS. Just remember, if it takes place in the camera and not in the lens, it’s not OIS.

Once you’ve purchased your lens, things are pretty straightforward. There’s generally just an on/off switch. If you shoot with Nikon lenses, you’ll find that many of them have an "active" mode as well as VR. This is for shooting from a moving vehicle and corrects for larger shakes than its standard VR mode. Still, you’ll want to turn it off for normal shooting, as it’ll negatively affect the quality otherwise. 

While OIS works great for times when you’re not using a tripod, it’s not so great when using one. Since OIS is specifically designed for times when camera shake is present, leaving the OIS on when the camera is stable can decrease the quality of your shots. Also, OIS can’t compensate for image blur caused by the subject moving. It will only respond to motion in the camera/lens itself. It also won’t help much if the camera is being bumped around or violently shaken. 

Still, if you have the money and often find yourself shooting “freehand,” you can’t really go wrong with OIS. At the very least, get it for your longer lenses, where it’s supremely difficult to get a good handheld shot without it.

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