I want to do hand-held, natural-light photography in low-light situations, e.g. inside a room with a small window on a rainy day. No tripod, no flash.

Canon claims that their "Optical Image Stabilizer provides up to 4 shutter speed stops of correction". Disregarding all other lens quality factors (such as chromatic aberration), what serves best to neutralize an unsteady hand and camera shake -- a large aperture or image stabilization?

Sample configurations for comparison could be:

  • 24mm f/1.4 without image stabilization
  • 24mm f/2.8 with image stabilization

Note: I really and truly do not want additional light or alternatives to a tripod that I can place the camera on. I want to capture the natural light. That is the main objective of my photography. And I constantly move around quickly (because I photograph people in motion), so putting the camera in a stable position is not an option. In your answers, please reflect the limitations I set in my question. They are conscious and have a reason. Thank you.

  • 3
    The real answer for the situation you describe — indoors with very low natural light — is to rethink the no-flash decision. It's not like there's beautiful natural light to capture in this situation, so making your own can really improve the image. This will freeze motion and camera-shake blur (more effectively than either IS or a wide aperture), allow you to use an aperture that gets more in focus, allow you to use a lower less-noisy ISO, and let you shape the light to be attractive. Direct, on-camera flash is generally to be avoided, but don't be scared of diffuse, bounced flash.
    – mattdm
    Apr 9, 2013 at 12:02
  • But I want to capture the natural light. I have been using flash and other artificial lighting for a hundred years, and I hope you can accept that I want to get away from that. My question was not about how to illuminate a badly lit scene, but about how to photograph without a flash. Please allow me the artistic freedom to want exactly that.
    – user19253
    Apr 9, 2013 at 14:25
  • Of course; I'm just saying that the situation you describe doesn't necessarily lend itself to that. In any case all of that is a broader question (and perfectly interesting one!) than the simple one of IS vs. faster shutter due to wider aperture.
    – mattdm
    Apr 9, 2013 at 14:28
  • And I'm not trying to be difficult; the question is a straightforward duplicate of the earlier one linked, and I was just trying to be additionally helpful beyond that.
    – mattdm
    Apr 9, 2013 at 14:45
  • @what: In response to your request to delete this question. I think it should be made clear, mattdm was not trying to be difficult or rude. He was offering his honest opinion about capturing the kind of scene you described. To be frank, I completely agree with matt, when you have a dark room with a window, the dynamic range is going to be pushing the limits of your camera, if not well beyond it. Flash will help to normalize the difference, reducing the DR of the scene to something manageable. As for the rest, the linked duplicate should cover it.
    – jrista
    Apr 10, 2013 at 16:13

3 Answers 3


My main recommendation would be to try both. If motion isn't an issue in the scene, there are some very very effective mechanical image stabilization systems out there built in to lenses. On the other hand, there are also some bad ones. If motion is a problem, higher ISO or opening up the aperture is the only option, but be aware of the depth of field implication of changing aperture.

My personal experience with this is comparing the Canon 24-135 F/4L IS (image stabilized) to the 24-70 F/2.8L II (not image stabilized) and for hand held dark images, I was able to get equivalent shots if the scene was static. As soon as motion (of the subject) was introduced however, the f2.8 far outperformed.


what serves best to neutralize an unsteady hand and camera shake -- a large aperture or image stabilization?

It's not an either/or decision. Both will help, but you should consider other options too. Image stabilization helps you get away with a longer exposure than you otherwise could, but it's better to reduce camera movement with a shorter exposure than to try to compensate for it. Large aperture allows more light and helps reduce exposure time, but if you're always shooting at the maximum aperture (or close to it) you'll have less flexibility to create the image you want.

Other elements you should consider include:

  • Camera sensitivity. Newer DSLRs, especially full frame models, have incredible low light sensitivity. The Canon 5DmkIII and 6D perform well even at ISO 25600.

  • Add light. If you don't want to use flash, you can still add light to a scene by reflecting window light onto your subject, or even just turning on a room light.

  • Better camera stability. There are lots of ways to make the camera more steady even without a tripod. Place it on a stack of books, brace it against a doorway or desk, add mass with a homemade steady cam, etc.

  • Thank you for the hint about camera sensitivity. As for adding light or stabilizing the camera, see my comment to mattdm above: I do not want additional light, and I'm moving around quickly, so I work free-hand.
    – user19253
    Apr 9, 2013 at 14:29

Low-light photography is all about shutter-speed, ISO, and holding the camera very steady.

I am capable, on a good day, of getting hand-held shots at 24mm with shutter speeds as low as 1/17, but at 1/17 of a second the rain on the window would likely be blurred no matter what other settings were used on the camera.

To have a picture that is not blurred the shutter speed must be fast enough to freeze anything that is moving in the picture. Image stabilization helps greatly in settings where hand-held camera shake would cause blurry images at shutter speeds that would otherwise be able to produce a sharp image. Wide apertures allow more light into the camera which in turn allows for faster shutter speeds but also cause more of an image to be blurry due to a smaller depth of field.

In the situation you describe in your question, "inside a room with a small window on a rainy day", I would personally find something to place the camera on or use a tripod, set the camera to manual mode, and start at f/8 (a wide depth of field), ISO 200 (low noise), and use the shutter speed the exposes correctly for the window to be very bright but not blown out. It may take a handful of pictures to get it right. And I would also bracket some exposures so that I could make an HDR image.