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Photographers are always looking for ways to ensure sharp photos, but there is a little confusion around what Vibration Reduction (VR) or Image Stabilization (IS) is and how to use it. These are both camera manufacturer names for optical stabilisation. The big question though is, does it really help to get a sharp photo and if so why, how and when?

Yes, but not if you’re not using it correctly. We’ll get into the how and when in a moment.

The names manufacturers give to optical stabilization

Before we get into what it is and isn’t, it helps to know what it is called, because each manufacturer seems to have their own terminology for optical stabilization, for example:

  • Vibration Reduction (Nikon)
  • Image Stabilization (Canon)
  • Optical Stabilizer (Sigma) 
  • Vibration Compensation (Tamron)
  • Optical SteadyShot (Sony)
  • Shake Reduction (Pentax)

They all do the same thing. As I shoot Nikon, I refer to optical stabilization as Vibration Reduction (VR), but also sometimes say Image Stabilization.

What is optical stabilization for?

Optical stabilization helps you to take a sharp image, hand held, of a still subject at slower shutter speeds by reducing the impact of camera shake. Optical stabilization is for still subjects only. Not moving subjects.

Mistake No. 1: Leaving Vibration Reduction on when photographing moving subjects. VR is for still subjects only.

This is not a high tech post

I won’t get into the details of the tech involved with Vibration Reduction, but will say that some manufacturers have lens based optical stabilization (such as Nikon, Canon and Sony). You can see it at work when you look through the viewfinder. Have a look – it is subtle, but when it is switched on you definitely see less wobble.

Other camera manufacturers have opted for optical stabilization at the sensor level. In other words, the stabilization is in camera, such as Olympus, Panasonic, and Pentax. 

And just to mix it up a bit, some of them have both lens based and camera based optical stabilization.

If you’re interested in a more technical explanation, I recommend this article by Techradar and this one by B&H.

Why use Vibration Reduction?

There are two types of movement blur in photographs – when the subject moves or when the camera moves. Vibration Reduction helps cut out blur caused by the photographer’s almost imperceptible movements, called camera shake.

Movement of the camera is inevitable, because, apart from anything else, we have a heartbeat. So we are not 100% stable. At faster shutter speeds camera shake is not evident, because the shutter opens and closes so quickly. However, camera shake becomes more of an issue the longer the shutter stays open.

How Vibration Reduction (or Image Stabilization) works

The rule of thumb for achieving sharp images is that you should shoot at a shutter speed that is equivalent to or higher than the lens focal length that you’re using. So, if you’re photographing at 200mm, your shutter speed should be at least 1/200.

Some people can hand hold a camera and achieve sharp images at lower shutter speeds than others. I’m not one of them. I actually always shoot at at least 1.5 times the focal length, because I have an unsteady hand, so need a faster shutter speed to eliminate camera shake. Also, I find my D810 with a 70 – 200mm lens a bit heavy.

VR lenses are heavier than lenses without any vibration reduction technology, because of the added mechanics that go into the lens. So, the irony is that it is just as well they’re equipped with VR!

However, with a VR lens you can achieve sharp images at shutter speeds from 2.5 to 4.5 stops slower than without. When shooting in low light this is really handy, because it means that you don’t have to bump up your ISO quite so high. Or, if it is already quite high, instead of upping it further you’ve got some more wiggle room to shoot at a slow shutter speed without evidence of camera shake. It’s a win win – less noise from a high ISO and less chance of camera shake.

For example, have a look at these two images photographed at 200mm. The first was photographed with Vibration Reduction turned off and for the second image I turned it on.

Model airplane showing camera shake when photographed Camera settings for both images: shutter speed - 1/25, aperture f5, ISO 100

Model airplane photographed using vibration reduction on

A common misunderstanding

It seems a lot of people get confused by the purpose of Vibration Reduction and think it helps to freeze fast moving subjects photographed at slower shutter speeds. This is absolutely not what it does. (The only ways to freeze moving subjects is with high shutter speeds or with flash.)

As mentioned earlier, Vibration Reduction is not effective on moving subjects. It is for still subjects.

The only link Vibration Reduction has to shutter speed is that, because it cuts down on the effects of camera shake, you can shoot sharp photos at slower shutter speeds with Vibration Reduction than you can without.

Using a tripod with VR

Sometimes using a tripod with your optical stabilisation switched on can in fact make the image less sharp. This is because, in trying to correct for camera shake, the Vibration Reduction can cause it.

That said, many lenses can detect when a tripod is in use and so deactivate. Some lenses give you options, such as with my 70 – 200 f2.8 I can switch to normal or active Vibration Reduction. The active VR is for when photographing a moving object from a moving platform, such as photographing from a car window. Some Canon lenses also have different Image Stabilization modes that can be selected for these purposes.

Mistake No. 2: Leaving Vibration Reduction on when using a tripod. Sometimes this can cause camera shake.

Does VR affect battery life?

When you use Vibration Reduction you will use up more battery power. Not that it is a big deal, just something to be aware of.

So, if you’re using a tripod, and the wind is not howling, or big heavy trucks aren’t rolling by and shaking the ground slightly, switch your Vibration Reduction off and shoot sharp for longer.

Vibration Reduction is not for moving subjects, and shouldn't normally be used with a tripod.Click To Tweet

If you have any questions about Vibration Reduction, let us know in the comments.

Also, we love good news, so if our optical stabilization tips have helped you to understand how to avoid camera shake, share that too.

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