Image stabilisation is all the rage, and hardly a new lens from Nikon or Canon is missing this "crucial" feature. To me this seems to be the new megapixel race (like when the manufacturers tried to overdo each other with higher resolution, they now try to do this with more (useless) features).

Especially for wide angle lenses like the new Nikon 16-35 I can't really understand what the fuss with VR is about. As a rule of thumb you should use 1/mm as shutter-speed not to shake pictures, for 16-35 shutter times of 1/16s to 1/35s should be manageable without problems.

At shutter speeds like 1/16s your subjects will blurred due be moving. Even more so if you really take advantage of the "4 more stops of light" VR might bring you. People will be blurred, because they are moving, talking. Leaves in a tree will be blurred because wind is moving them. Water will be blurred because of motion.

For almost anything below 200mm the only situation where IS/VR would be useful is some kind of still-life photography, like architecture. But this kind is better shot using a tripod anyway for maximum image quality and to help create a deliberate composition.

Of course IS/VR can (and probably should) be switched off when you don't need it, but why pay a premium for a stabilised lens when you can only use the advantage in very few situations? Why lug around the extra size and weight of an IS lens? Why tolerate the extra battery drain of the VR-system?

The same applies for IS-systems which are integrated into the DSLR body. I owned and used the Pentax IS system for a few years, and found it pretty useless in almost any situation I encountered since something in the picture always was moving and therefore being subject to motion blur.

Is there any real-world usage for IS below 200mm? Or is this mainly a marketing hype everybody is keen to attend?

Of course you can (and will) create some exotic settings where the extra stop of light is helpful, but do these rare settings justify the downsides?

  • 6
    Honestly, if you read your own question, you can figure out the answer by simply checking your assumptions. It sounds like you dislike paying for stabilization when YOU do not need it but those lenses are not just made for you... There are subjects that don't move and every stop of stabilization helps you get away without a tripod for that much longer. I mean, if you don't believe on using slow shutter speeds, I guess you don't have much use for tripods either.
    – Itai
    Dec 29, 2010 at 16:07

9 Answers 9


As you say, the old adage, that you'd use the reciprocal of the focal length to avoid shaking (at full frame) still holds without VR: means 100mm = at maximum 1/100s ... or a tripod. Or 1/16 to 1/65 for your example.

I can't say 4 stops, but my experience with my Nikkor 16-85 (APS-C) says two stops. That makes at least 1/4 to 1/20 out of these numbers ...

  • ... and sometimes, blurred movement is part of the idea (I carry a ND8).
  • ... and sometimes cranking up the ISO is not possible any more. If you want a deeper DOF and/or take photos at low light-conditions (night, an indoors party): unbearable without IS/tripod.
  • ... and often people do not move that fast, 1/30 would suffice and comply with your ISO, but the 100mm focal lengths do dictate 1/100 for the nice portrait at the wedding-ceremony. (I do have a 17-50 2,8 for parties, but that makes another lens. Additionally: wedding-ceremonys of non-famous-people are better without a lot of flashes.)
    • (did you seriously put up the measure to 200mm and thus way beyond the portrait-focal-lengths?)
  • ... and very, very often tripods/monopods can't be used where you would like to. Be it due to local customs, the lost moment, local security, your own baggage-limits or that you simply do not want to lug around another kilo of a decent tripod everywhere. (My wife often bears the burden :) )
  • ... and sometimes you travel too and IS will certainly reduce this additional shake. See trains and ships and apply above ideas.
  • I definitely agree on the travel issue. Not only are tripods weight but they're awkward. Dec 29, 2010 at 18:49

I conducted a large number of accurate measurements on a 50 mm lens on a Pentax K7.
The bottom line, Shake reduction/VR/IS (call it what you will) is very beneficial.
A link to the full study is on www.scribd.com (pdf)
The graph below shows the main results.
Motion blur, in pixels, was used as a measure of image stabilisation. The tests show that motion blur was kept below 0.5 pixel down to a shutter speed of 1/8 sec, whereas without image stabilisation the motion blur was 5.9 pixel at 1/8 sec.
See the full study for test details (pdf). alt text

  • 1
    Love the chart. :)
    – jrista
    Dec 29, 2010 at 19:08
  • Wow! I'd love to see one of those for in-lens-IS, which is said to be quite different from in-body-IS.
    – Sam
    Dec 30, 2010 at 7:33
  • 1
    sorry to be picky, but the lines on your graph should probably be an exponential/logarithmic function rather than polynomial splines fit through every point (; Dec 31, 2010 at 7:39
  • @drfrogsplat: yes, agreed that would make more sense
    – labnut
    Dec 31, 2010 at 11:12
  • I was also wondering about the spline. The old adage mentioned certainly implies a 1/x functionality. I'm no statistician, but I would assume that if only integer values are possible for the motion blur, 10 measurements per data point would probably give something on the order 0.1 pixels of error. In any case, the graph certainly confirms the old adage for the 50 mm case. I'd be interested to see graphs for other focal lengths.
    – Stainsor
    Oct 19, 2011 at 3:12

Though there's no doubt that virtually anything can be a bullet point in the useless features race, I don't think IS/VR qualifies. While you're right that at wide angles you're not likely to need such a slow shutter speed that you can't handhold, there's a lot of room between 35mm and 200mm, and at many of those focal lengths you may have subjects that move sufficiently slowly that, say, a 1/60s shutter speed will pose no problems with motion blur, but if you're shooting at a 120 mm, without IS/VR you may get some shake.

In a fast, wide-angle lens I don't think you're going to get any real benefit from IS/VR, but step up to middle focal lengths, especially with narrower apertures, and I think it often has value. Unless you always carry a tripod, I suppose -- and always have time to set it up.

To me the bottom line is that it reduces the number of shots I miss, and the number that I have to accept a little less sharpness or a little narrower DOF than I really want.


Tripods are not always a practical accessory to bring, especially when travelling light. Moreover many places forbid them and forbid flashes as well. IS is the obvious solution in these cases.

Spices in the Istanbul bazaar or Michelangelo Pieta in San Pietro Basilica don't move that much.


The benefit for wide lenses comes from shooting relatively still targets, things like landscapes. I always use the image stabilization when hiking, and it's helped to save many an image. It just depends on what kind of subjects you photograph. But I think you make an excellent point for people who shoot animals, people, etc.


In my opinion IS is most useful in the range of about 50mm and above for two reasons, firstly there is the subject motion problem, which the questioner addresses.

Secondly I can't see IS being as effective with wide focal lengths as the corrective movements must be smaller and take place over a much longer period of time. Take a "two stop" IS system on a 200mm lens. Going by the 1/f rule, you ought to be able to handhold 1/50s exposures with IS on. The frequency of human camera shake will be much less than 50Hz so the IS system has to make a single movement to counteract the camera shake during the exposure, which will be approximately linear. Now take an 17mm lens with the same two stop IS system, you ought to be able to handhold a 0.24s exposure, almost a quarter of a second. During that time the IS correction group will probably have to oscillate back and forth to match the camera motion, instead of make one linear move as before.

As I posted in a previous question on the subject, it's always a mix of genuine advantage and a bit of marketing hype to sell new lenses.

I'd like someone with an 18mm zoom with IS post some example pictures. I have no doubt that there are some advantages to IS in wide lenses but the question is does it work as well as advertised and is it worth the cost?

  • I got a tolerable picture (the objective was to show the situation, not win awards) at 28mm effective, 4s exposure, braced but no tripod. It's not perfect but there's a lot more depth of field issues than blur issues. Dec 29, 2010 at 18:53

Re: Matt's request for examples.

Exposure time: .4 second. (I believe I have previously posted this saying 1/2 second--this time I looked at the EXIF data of the original image to get the focal length, apparently I was wrong.) D80 & 18-200mm VRII lens. 27mm effective.

I still don't know how they cooked this fish.

alt text

  • 1
    Looks tempura fried. MMMM!
    – jrista
    Dec 29, 2010 at 19:10
  • thanks for doing that, but could you post equivalent shots with and without IS turned on?
    – Matt Grum
    Dec 31, 2010 at 9:08
  • @Matt: I always have IS on. This shot was actually an accident--I didn't realize just how bad the light was (With my glasses the info through the viewfinder is out of frame and without them I can't read it anyway.) When I heard how slow the shutter was I figured it was lost and retook the picture with flash. Later I found the non-flash shots (3-shot bracketing) were fine. Do you really think I could have gotten a decent .4sec handheld shot without IS?? The slowest I've ever gone without IS was 1/8th sec, braced, and most of them were bad. Dec 31, 2010 at 18:01

For sports or high action photography, not very useful... but there's a lot of photography styles that don't have fast moving subjects. You could equally ask how useful a tripod is...

Shooting a wedding ceremony, inside, with a Canon 24-105 f/4L IS USM would let you shoot at 1/30 at any focal length (even on a crop sensor), which is often fine given people don't really move quickly at such events.

If you've got a crop body and a Canon 17-55 f/2.8 IS USM then you could perhaps go as low as 1/4 a second at 17mm for indoor architectural photos (and maybe to get some nice water blur on an outdoor landscape, though I guess you'd be more likely to have the tripod there). It might be the difference between carrying a tripod everywhere and not needing one at all.


The one-over-focal-length rule of thumb is just that — a rough guideline. With smaller sensors and higher resolution, it's somewhat dated, and it's quite reasonable to want to update that by a stop or two faster. Having image stabilization at the "normal" focal lengths (or even at moderate wide angles) effectively means that we can keep using the same old rule to higher standards.

Is it absolutely necessary? No, of course not. Is it nice to have? For some shooting styles, absolutely. For others, it's perfectly reasonable to not really care.

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