Should I Get a Camera Lens with Image Stabilisation?

You may have noticed that a lot of camera lenses out there come in two versions: with and without image stabilisation (IS). You may have also noticed that lenses with IS tend to cost a little more.

But if you’re just starting out and asking yourself whether you should buy a camera lens with image stabilisation, then look no further as we’re about to break it all down to make the decision much easier for you. Firstly, let’s explain exactly what it is.

What is image stabilisation?

Image stabilisation, or IS for short, is also known as vibration reduction. It’s a feature in many modern cameras and lenses which uses nifty technology to cancel out the effect of subtle camera shaking in the hand. Even if you try to hold your camera perfectly still, there will always be very subtle movements, and as we’ll see later on in this article, this can cause some problems depending on the type of photograph you’re trying to take.

How does image stabilisation work?

In the case of lens-based IS, there is a “floating” optical lens within the frame often controlled by electromagnets. With movement sensors and software algorithms, the lens detects even the smallest movements and then adjusts the lens in real-time to compensate.

Clever stuff, isn’t it?

What are the pros of image stabilisation lenses?

There are 3 main ways in which IS becomes very useful indeed.

Use #1 – Low-light conditions

The main way to capture brighter photographs in low-light conditions is by slowing down the shutter speed. This keeps the source of light open to the sensor for longer, thereby allowing in more light for a brighter image.

This can make a huge difference. For example, if you take a photograph of a clear night sky with a fast shutter speed, it’s likely to just appear black with the moon in view. However, if you slow down the shutter speed sufficiently, you will be able to capture the moon and even the faintest stars.

This all sounds great, but it comes with a problem. If the shutter speed is low and the shutter is left open for longer, the camera will capture any subtle movements whilst the shutter is open. This causes the dreaded blur effect.

A good way to solve this is to use a tripod which is left perfectly still whilst the photo is being taken. However, this isn’t always feasible, especially if you’re out on the move.

That’s where image stabilisation comes in. It can allow you to slow down the shutter speed to capture brighter photographs in low-light conditions whilst negating any camera shake and keeping the photo razor sharp.

With many lenses, you may notice a “stop” number. For example, the Canon EF-S 55-250 mm f/4-5.6 IS STM has “3.5 stop image stabilisation”. This means that you can set the shutter speed up to 3.5 “stops” slower to capture more light, and the IS functionality will compensate for any subtle shakes or vibrations down to that slower shutter speed.

Use #2 – When zooming

Take any telescopic equipment, such as a lens or even binoculars, and you will notice that during a lengthy zoom, any movement in the hand is amplified when viewing.

Unless you use a tripod, it simply becomes a lot more difficult to take a steady shot, no matter how still you try to hold the camera. It makes view-finding more difficult, and also runs the risk of blurring your photograph.

With image stabilisation, your lens or camera compensates for this, so even when you’re zoomed right in to a subject in the distance, you will find a sharp photograph is easier to take.

Use #3 – overall versatility

Image stabilisation in a lens isn’t just useful in low-light environments or when zooming. By compensating for vibrations and shakes, it means that you can be more liberal when it comes to other factors which have an impact on the sharpness of a shot.

For example, it’s possible to sharpen up a photograph and reduce blur by increasing shutter speed, increasing ISO and shooting at a wider aperture, but there are pros and cons of all of these. With IS, you can solve the problem of blurry photographs in a different way and allow yourself to be more flexible with the other settings available.

What IS doesn’t do:

It’s a common misconception that IS allows sharp photographs of moving subjects to be taken. Image stabilisation will not help with this. It only assists with capturing sharper photographs of still subjects, and will not help to “freeze” a moving subject such as a runner or a bird in flight. This is much more to do with shutter speed than anything else.

Of course, IS will still mitigate any camera vibrations or shakes in these circumstances as it’s intended to do, but if your settings are wrong and a moving object comes out blurry, this will still happen whether you have image stabilisation turned on or not.

To find out more about this, check out our guide on how to photograph moving objects.

Should I ever turn it off?

There are a few scenarios where you may achieve better results by turning image stabilisation off. For example, if you’re using a tripod to keep your camera perfectly still during shots, then IS simply isn’t needed.

At first, it may seem as though it’s best to include both, so you have IS on when using a tripod. However, this can cause something known as an image stabilisation feedback loop. This is where the camera or lens actually detects the vibrations caused by image stabilisation itself (the movements of the sensor or optics), and tries to compensate for the movements it is creating.

This is why, when you have a perfectly still tripod and ideally a wire-fed or remote control trigger, it’s best to turn it off.

Another important point to consider is that image stabilisation will use some of your battery power. In some cases, it can use up quite a lot and cause your battery to deplete faster, so if you simply don’t feel it’s needed (for example, if you’re shooting still objects with lots of daylight and a faster shutter speed) then it may be best to turn it off in those circumstances as well.

Should I get a camera lens with image stabilisation? The conclusion:

If you use telephoto zoom lenses, or you think you’ll be taking photographs in low-light conditions, then a lens with image stabilisation is a worthy investment if you won’t always have a tripod available.

If your budget doesn’t allow it, then don’t worry, as many types of razor-sharp photographs can still be captured without any IS at all. However, if you’re investing in a good quality lens for lots of long-term use, the ability to turn on image stabilisation when needed can come in useful.

Also don’t forget that if your camera body has built-in IS via the sensor, then you do not need a lens with image stabilisation. The feature included in the camera itself will give you image stabilisation with all non-IS lenses.