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How effective is Image Stabilisation?

Many modern lenses have a feature called image stabilisation (IS) that is often touted to give the photographer the ability to take sharp images at slow shutter speeds that on any ordinary lens, would cause a blurry result.  It sounds great but how effective is this technology? How does it work? What are its limitations and how can we get the best out this technology?
Today’s blog entry on Image Matters explores the wobbly world of camera shake.

The basic blur problem

Blur is caused by the image moving across the sensor during the exposure. This is usually a combination of the subject movement and the camera movement. Provided your exposure time is short enough, the blur can be kept to less than a pixel and so the resulting image will appear sharp (assuming it’s in focus).  Very short exposure times need plenty of light for good exposure and so lenses that allow you to use fast shutter speeds need to be able to admit a generous amount of light – which equates to lots of expensive glass and a wide maximum aperture of f/2.8 or wider. In a situation where there isn’t plenty of light or you just can’t open the lens wide enough for whatever reason, a longer exposure is the only answer (unless you’re happy to keep cranking up your ISO and don’t mind the associated increase in image noise). Even if your subject is perfectly stationary, hand holding the camera on a long exposure is almost certain to produce some blur due to your inability to hold the camera perfectly still.

Shake rattle and roll

We all shake to some extent all the time. The neuromuscular tremor of a healthy person is a low level, roughly sinusoidal vibration at a frequency of around 10Hz. Most of the time, we don’t notice it unless we’re suffering from stress, fever or trying to carry out a particularly delicate operation. As photographers, we notice it most when trying to hold the camera steady whilst holding a heavy lens with a narrow field of view. There are three main ways we can inadvertently wave the camera around –  pitch, yaw and roll.


The 1/f rule

Until the digital era, the only solution to camera shake when not using a tripod was to ensure a sufficiently short exposure but just how fast does it need to be?. A general rule-of-thumb that’s well known to many photographers is the ‘1 over f rule’. This says the slowest shutter speed you should use is about one over the focal length of the lens. For example, using a 50mm lens hand-held at anything faster than 1/50th second should be fine but this would be too slow for a 200mm lens where a minimum shutter speed of 1/200 second would be indicated. The problem is that sometimes we might, for example, be using our ‘nifty fifty’ lens at full aperture and the camera’s metering system says we need to be shooting at say 1/8th second which is far too long for hand holding. What can be done if we don’t want to up the ISO any further?

Dynamic compensation

Given a situation where the image is wobbling around on the sensor during the exposure as a result of the photographer being unable to hold the camera still enough, it turns out that there is something that can be done to calm things down. That something is what engineers call an open-loop control system. The idea is simple enough in concept but as it turns out, is somewhat limited in its ability to avoid every blurry image. A sensor in the camera detects the amount and direction of movement and attempts to compensate by an equal and opposite amount to cancel out the effects of the movement – rather like noise cancelling headphones generate sound intended to cancel out the unwanted sound from outside world. This compensating signal can be made to either move the sensor itself or the image falling on it. Nudging the sensor seems like a good idea but of course there’s a limit to how far you can move it. One advantage of this system is that since the mechanism is part of the camera, it works with any lens so long as the camera knows the focal length.

Moving the image itself and keeping the sensor where it is provides a greater range of correction but the mechanism for moving the image has to reside in the lens and this is the method that is used in Canon lenses. A sensor in the lens detects the camera movement and a computer (also in the lens) uses this information in conjunction with the focal length, to calculate how that movement would have affected the image on the sensor (it can’t actually read the sensor as it’s hidden behind the mirror – making it an open loop rather than a close-loop control system). It then adjusts some compensation optics that shift the image by that amount in the opposite direction. The net effect (in theory) is that the image doesn’t move as the camera shakes. This is no mean feat and it requires quite a lot of electromechanical gubbins to be crammed into the lens body as shown below. This extra complexity of course adds to the weight, size and cost of the lens.


The IS system of a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens

The IS system of a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens

The Canon IS system attempts to correct for both vertical and horizontal shake but cannot correct for rotational movement. This is not really a problem in practice since most movement is vertical (pitch). The main limitation is connected with what’s called the frequency response of the system. In other words, it doesn’t work equally well at all vibration frequencies. Remember that the camera has to be able to detect a movement, work out what correction is needed and then control some actuators that move the compensation optics. This can’t be done instantaneously so the timing itself is critical. If the system reacts too fast, the optics will jitter and could even become unstable. Too slow, and the image will begin to move across the sensor before the IS system can detect and correct it. Some of Canon’s newer lenses are capable of quite impressive performance when it comes to IS but you need to be aware of their limitations. Typically, the IS efficacy is stated in f-stops. For example, without IS switched on, you might be able to get a sharp image hand held at 1/250 sec but no slower. The same lens with IS switched on and having a range of 3 stops would enable you to get a similarly sharp image at a shutter speed corresponding to 3 stops less or 1/30 sec. Some lenses even claim 4 stops of IS but beware – such impressive performance is generally only found at a vibration frequency range of up to 10 cycles per second (Hz). At higher frequencies, the  effectiveness of the IS begins to drop until a point is reached where it’s not really doing anything but consuming power.

A quick and dirty test

vibrationjigTo test this, on a typical lens, I set up a rather makeshift vibration rig cobbled together from a guitar amplifier and a mobile phone running a signal generator app. The camera was suspended by the strap to allow it to pitch in response to sinusoidal vibrations from the amplifier’s dismembered speaker transmitted to the front of the lens via a plastic tube. Since the amplifier wasn’t DC coupled, the lowest frequency I could use was 20Hz. This is faster than your hand is likely to vibrate but slower than the vibration you might get, for example, from a car engine. The camera was focused on a test target and remotely triggered at different shutter speeds with the IS switched on and off.  The amplitude was adjusted to generate the same amount of blur one might expect by hand holding. The focal length in this instance was 200mm and a shutter speed of 1/200 sec gave sharp results as expected using the 1/f rule with or without IS switched on. One stop slower at 1/100 sec showed camera shake blur without IS but sharp results with IS but at two stops (1/50 sec), the image was equally blurred with and without IS. At lower frequencies, we might have had a sharp image down to 1/25 sec (as this lens claims three stops of IS) but at 20Hz, it could only manage one stop. Although these tests were not by any means exhaustive, they did demonstrate that the effectiveness of image stabilisation decreases as the frequency increases. This is never mentioned in the advertising material but it’s exactly what you’d expect. As the frequency increases, there comes a point where there simply isn’t enough time for the compensation system to react.


Getting the best results from IS

If you set the IS switch on the lens to ‘on’ it doesn’t immediately activate the IS system. If it did, it would be continually draining extra power from your battery. Instead, the IS system is activated only when you half press the shutter release button and it stays working until you take the photograph. As we’ve noted, the IS system has a finite reaction time and limited useful bandwidth but it also has a startup delay. If you look through the viewfinder when hand holding a long focal length lens for example, you’ll see how shaky your hand really is. Then, if you gently press the shutter release half way, you will see there is a noticeable delay before the image settles down and the shake is reduced.

The upshot of this delay is that quickly stabbing the shutter release, as some photographers are prone to do, not only causes extra camera shake but doesn’t actually give the IS system time to stabilise the image before the shutter is released. If you want to get the sharpest images possible, gently activate the shutter release button half way and then take the shot. If you are taking a rapid burst of shots, the IS system will still need time to activate for the first exposure but once the sequence begins, it will remain active for the other shots in the sequence. This is why the first shot of a burst is sometimes not as sharp as the following exposures (another factor is how the auto focus system is set up but that’s another article).


Some lenses just have a simple IS on/off switch but others have an IS mode switch. The reason for this is that by default, the Canon IS system helps to reduce the effects of both pitch and yaw but there are times when this can be more of a hinderance than a help. A notable example is when following the motion of an subject by panning the camera. This can be a tricky skill to master but it can be made all the more difficult if your IS system is trying to work against you to minimise the effects of your deliberate horizontal camera movement. In a situation such as this, it’s useful to allow the camera to compensate for the effects of vertical camera shake but not horizontal shake. This is what MODE 2 is for. If you want IS in both horizontal and vertical, select MODE 1.

Myths about IS

IS will help to make all your images sharper.
No – it won’t make any difference to images where the subject is moving too fast or the focus is not correct. Nor will it make any difference if your camera is on a tripod. It’s only a benefit when hand holding the camera in conditions that demand a slower shutter speed than the 1/f rule would recommend.

With IS, you don’t need such a large maximum aperture
Having a small maximum aperture reduces the maximum amount of light your lens can admit to the sensor compared to a lens with a large maximum aperture. This in turn means that you are sometimes forced to use slower shutter speeds. If you’re also hand holding the camera, this is where IS can be a big help. However, IS doesn’t help with respect to subject movement and there are depth of field considerations too. It’s always good to have a wider maximum aperture at your disposal as this allows a faster shutter speed to reduce blur due to subject motion and also allows you to select a narrow depth of field. If you also have IS, then that’s ideal!

Switch IS off when not using it to save your battery
Don’t worry about switching IS off to save your battery. Firstly, IS is only activated when you half press the shutter button and secondly is only consumes about an extra 30mA of current which is minimal in comparison to the extra current taken, for example, when using Live View.

Using a slower burst rate will give sharper results
You may see some people suggesting that since the IS system takes time to kick-in, that you should not shoot at the fastest rate when using burst mode. The reasoning is that using a slower burst rate in continuous shooting mode gives the IS system time to stabilise the image between exposures. This is nonsense. The IS system has a small time lag between the shutter button being half pressed and being fully operational but once a burst is in progress, it remain active until the end of the sequence. There would be no point in switching it off between exposures in burst mode.

Using IS when the camera is on a tripod can damage your lens
If you activate IS when the camera is fixed on a tripod, it can introduce some unintentional hunting of the correction optics and actually create the effect of camera shake instead of correcting for it. For this reason, Canon advise that IS is turned off when using the camera on a tripod. However, there is no way that this effect can damage your lens or camera. Some of the more recent lenses can detect when the lens is absolutely stationary and automatically switch the IS system off.




Building a Canon EOS Camera

When I give a lecture on the functions of a camera for beginners, I tend to empty a box of bits from a dismantled Canon camera on the desk to let people see how it’s put together but I recently found a less messy way to do the same thing. Here’s a video of the assembly of a Canon 10D produced by some mechanical engineering students.

Thanks to all who attended

We had a great time yesterday digging into Lightroom and exploring little known aspects of this powerful software.

Here’s what one delegate said: “I found yesterday’s workshop extremely helpful. It answered all the queries I had about Lightroom and also introduced me to some aspects of the program that I was unaware of, which will be very useful in the future“.

If you’d like to attend one of our one-day workshops, just tell us what you’d like to learn, when you’re available and we’ll let you know when the next workshop is available for that subject.

Deeper into Lightroom


We are hoping to be able to run another Lightroom workshop on Wednesday 16th March. Currently, we have one booking but need at least four people to firm up. If you’ve been considering getting to grips with Lightroom, book today and join us as we explore this amazing software together. Our courses are run by Dave Baxter who is an Adobe Certified Expert in Lightroom, at the lovely Windmill Farm Conference Centre in Clanfield, Oxfordshire. At just £85 for a full day – including a hot lunch, it represents one of the best value workshops on offer.

Raw + JPEG in Lightroom

When people first begin to use Lightroom to organise and process their images, they’ve usually spent some time shooting JPEG images and may have many thousands of photos in this format to import. Often, a new Lightroom catalogue will only contain links to JPEG images and that’s fine since that’s often all there is at the time. However, it’s not normally long before people realise that shooting in raw preserves so much more information and makes editing in Lightroom considerably more flexible. At this stage, they often change the settings on their camera’s picture quality menu to save both raw and JPEG versions of each image.

At first sight, this seems like a good idea. You’ve saved all the data the sensor can capture in the raw file and you have a standard JPEG version to hand that you can quickly upload to social media or transfer to a tablet – but do you really need to store both? and if you do want to store both versions on your computer, how does Lightroom deal with them at import?

The preferred solution

My advice is simply to forget about shooting JPEG images altogether once you start using Lightroom. You can still ‘get it right in camera’ but shooting in raw gives you much more scope to fine tune your final image than any setting in your camera ever can. Furthermore, the capacity and write speed of the latest media cards together with camera buffer memory size makes issues about burst rate and the number of images per card far less an issue than they once were.

If someone asks you for directions to a certain place, they probably won’t expect you to quip “well I wouldn’t start from here” but that’s what I’d say about image editing using the JPEG format. Although just about any graphics device can understand a JPEG image and the information it contains is perfectly adequate to make high quality prints, the fact remains that JPEG is the end of the process – it’s not a good place to start from because so much information has already been thrown away to make it.

When you make the move to Lightroom, you only need to import raw images. This enables you to maintain the maximum quality possible during editing. If you produce a print using the print module or a photo book, Lightroom will make the necessary JPEG images then automatically. If you want to send a specific image to a friend, the export dialogue will give you the option to select the file format such as JPEG together with other options such as image size at that stage so there’s never really a need to store a separate JPEG version. If you want to do some arty stuff with your images using the powerful tools available in Photoshop or Affinity for example, you’d still steer well clear of JPEG.

But I absolutely must have both!

The JPEG image that Lightroom makes at the end of the workflow will invariably be far better than anything you camera throws together (regardless of the picture style settings or other JPEG related parameters you’ve set). However, some people may want the camera’s generated JPEG because either they want to pass on the image immediately and they don’t have access to a computer or maybe they just want to keep a copy of what the camera produced for reference purposes.

If you have a folder containing both raw and JPEG versions of images and you attempt to import that folder to Lightroom, the default behaviour will be to just import the raw files and leave the JPEG images where they were. If you then look at the imported images in the library module, they will be shown as being raw + JPEG even though the JPEG isn’t actually referenced by the catalogue. It’s a bit misleading and confusing but what Lightroom is telling you is that when you imported the images, JPEG versions of them were available but since raw was also available, only the raw images were imported. Normally, as explained above, this makes sense since you’re not needlessly cluttering up your drive with JPEG images that Lightroom can generated when needed. However, if you want Lightroom to treat the raw and JPEG images with equal dignity, you can force it to import both by visiting the preferences page.


This option is not ticked by default so Lightroom will ignore JPEG images if raw versions are available.

On a PC, click File > Preferences or on a Mac, click Lightroom > Preferences. Click the General tab. Now tick the box labelled “Treat JPEG files next to raw files as separate photos”. Now when you import a folder containing both types of images, they will all be added to the catalogue and you will have the option of editing either the JPEG or the raw version of the image.

To learn more, try one of our one-day Lightroom workshops.

Professional image editing for £30?

Is is really possible? There are plenty of cheap and even free image editing applications available but they tend to be rather limited in what they can do. At the other extreme, there are applications such as Photoshop that can do almost anything but which cost more than many photographers are willing to pay. The ideal solution would be some software that costs only a few tens (rather than hundreds) of pounds that has all the muscle of Adobe’s Photoshop. Well now there is.

It’s called Affinity Photo and it’s been written from the ground up to work on Mac computers (sorry PCs will have to sit this one out – good though they are). At around £30 you’d be daft not to try Affinity Photo but all that photo punch takes some getting used to -especially if you’ve not used Photoshop before.

To help you, we’ve added a new workshop to our expanding range of topics that will gently introduce you to the powerful features of this exciting new editor. Check out the details on our workshops page and register your interest so we can let you know times and dates for this new workshop as soon as we finalise them.

Product Photography for Folksy

We’re getting a steady stream of people who are interested in attending the product photography workshop we’re planning for January. Please fill in the contact form and let us know a little about you – what camera you use, what products you’d like to photograph, what problems you’ve experienced and any particular questions you have. We’d also appreciate it if you could email a couple of problem images to that way, we can (anonymously) use some real life images in the workshop to discuss common problems and how to fix them.
We look forward to hearing from you and wish you all a blessed Christmas.

Lake District Workshop

Fancy a few days in the Lakes this Spring on a photo workshop?

In order to make our workshops more accessible to those who live ‘up north’, we’re planning a two or three day break in the Lake District where we can combine some practical photography with learning some new skills at the computer. During the day, you can take advantage of the stunning views to try your hand at panoramas or try your hand at some other techniques – macro photography for example. In the evening, learn how to process your images to best effect on the computer using Lightroom.

This special event will be happening during the week in April. The exact content, cost and dates are being worked out now so if you’re interested and would like to suggest some specific topics to cover, please let us know your thoughts!