While I am currently working on a couple of Sony camera and lens reviews, I decided to write a quick article on the differences between in-camera and lens stabilization. As you may already know, Nikon and Canon are both big on lens stabilization, while other camera manufacturers like Sony and Pentax have been pushing for in-camera stabilization technology (also known as body stabilization). I have had a few people ask about differences between the two and I thought that a quick article explaining the pros and cons of each stabilization technology would be beneficial for our readers.
As the number of innovative products with electronic viewfinder technology from Sony and other manufacturers is growing, the question of lens stabilization vs sensor stabilization is coming back again. Historically, one of the biggest disadvantages of in-camera sensor stabilization was the fact that one could not see stabilization changes in a traditional DSLR camera with an optical viewfinder. Since most current mirrorless cameras and some SLR-like cameras offer electronic viewfinders (EVF), the old argument no longer applies, because stabilization effects are visible on both the camera LCD and inside the EVF. Does lens stabilization still offer advantages over sensor stabilization, or is it time for Nikon and Canon to introduce in-camera sensor stabilization on their upcoming cameras? Let’s look into this topic in more detail.
Table of Contents
1) The History of Lens and Sensor Stabilization
The biggest reason why both Nikon and Canon use lens stabilization today has to do with the fact that in-camera stabilization was very costly to incorporate into film cameras in the past. It is one thing to move a sensor inside the camera body, and another to try to move a 35mm film roll. When Canon and Nikon started offering image stabilization (Canon released its first IS lens in 1995, while Nikon’s first VR lens came out in 2000), the number of photographers using digital cameras was too small – the majority were on film. This primarily had to do with cost, because the first digital cameras were priced as high as $30K. Plus, most photographers were very hesitant of switching to a digital camera after many years of shooting film. Hence, while it was obvious that image stabilization was desperately needed, especially for wildlife and sports photographers, the only proper way without adding a huge cost overhead was to incorporate it into lenses rather than camera bodies. As digital cameras became much more functional and affordable, photographers started transitioning to digital. Konica Minolta (which was later acquired by Sony) was the first to offer sensor stabilization in its Minolta DiMAGE A1 camera and it was a matter of time until other companies started adopting sensor-based image stabilization. In-camera image stabilization offered one big advantage over the traditional lens-stabilization technology – image stabilization worked with any lens, even with old film lenses. Nikon and Canon clearly had a lead in image stabilization at the time, so it would have cost a lot of money for other manufacturers to update their old lenses and catch up with Nikon/Canon offerings. By incorporating image stabilization into the camera body, manufacturers like Konica Minolta could at least compete with the Canon/Nikon giants that dominated both film and digital camera/lens markets. While in-camera image stabilization made a lot of sense, it also had its major pitfalls. Because of the way a traditional DSLR camera works, the effect of sensor stabilization was not visible through the viewfinder (due to the mirror blocking the sensor). In addition, in-camera image stabilization did not seem to work so well with long telephoto lenses, due to the amount of sensor movement that was needed to compensate for the large shifts at long focal lengths. Meanwhile, both Nikon and Canon continued updating their lenses with image stabilization, making more money with refreshed lenses.
2) Image Stabilization vs Vibration Reduction vs Optical Stabilization
You might have heard of all of these terms before and wondered if there is a difference between them. While the naming convention is different, they all mean the same thing. Canon uses the term “Image Stabilization” (IS) for their lenses, Nikon uses the term “Vibration Reduction” (VR) for their lenses and other companies like Sigma use the term “Optical Stabilization” (OS). Why could not they all call it the same way? It is primarily done for branding/marketing reasons, to differentiate themselves from the competition.
3) Advantages and Disadvantages of Lens Stabilization
Now that you know the history of lens stabilization, let’s explore its advantages and disadvantages compared to in-camera stabilization today.
Advantages of Lens Stabilization:
- Optically-stabilized lenses are more effective – while there is no science with clear examples behind this statement (at least that I know of), both Canon and Nikon argue that image stabilization can be fine-tuned and tweaked on individual lenses, which would make image stabilization more effective when compared to generic in-camera stabilization. Tuning image stabilization based on lens features such as size, weight and focal length can provide the benefit of enabling different options for image stabilization. For example, some IS systems feature an “Active” mode for situations where the photographer shoots from a moving car or a boat. Some newer image stabilization implementations are smart enough to detect the type of movement and can automatically enable or disable image stabilization when the lens is mounted on a tripod. Such specific customization is not possible with in-camera stabilization, unless each lens is programmed into camera’s firmware.
- Lens stabilization is more effective on long telephoto/super telephoto lenses – the main argument is that long lenses require much bigger sensor movements, which cannot be accommodated with in-camera stabilization. With Sony’s recent 500mm f/4 lens announcement, we will have to see how it will fare against a 500mm Nikon/Canon lens with slow shutter speeds.
- Lens stabilization is more effective in low light conditions – because the image already comes stabilized from the lens, the camera metering/AF sensors can provide more accurate results in low light situations.
There are other advantages not included in the above list that I specifically removed, because they are no longer true/applicable:
- Image stabilization is visible in the viewfinder – this is an advantage only when comparing DSLRs. Image stabilization is also visible on cameras with electronic viewfinders such as mirrorless cameras and Sony SLT (single-lens translucent) cameras. Here is an illustration from Nikon that shows IS differences affecting the viewfinder:
- Smaller and cheaper camera body – this one is no longer an advantage, because the cost of incorporating IS into the camera body is pretty small. In fact, most cameras with IS from other manufacturers today are cheaper compared to Nikon/Canon.
- Works with film cameras – most digital photographers will probably say “who cares” on this one. Nikon has been eliminating the aperture ring on most new lenses anyway, further limiting the number of film cameras that could be used with newer VR lenses.
Let’s now talk about the disadvantages of optical stabilization.
Disadvantages of Lens Stabilization:
- Availability – while Canon and Nikon have been updating older lenses and releasing new lenses with image stabilization, many lenses (such as prime and wide-angle lenses) are still not image-stabilized. I have touched on this issue many times before, specifically in my Nikon 16-35mm VR Review. It is certainly beneficial to have Image stabilization on all lenses, including super wide-angle lenses.
- Higher Cost – newer lenses with IS are costlier than their non-IS counterparts. Nikon and Canon definitely charge a premium for image-stabilized lenses.
- Image Stabilization can degrade bokeh – this one might be a surprise for you, but it is true. Because the light that passes through the lens is shifted from its optical path when image stabilization is engaged, it can negatively affect lens bokeh.
- New advancements require updating lenses – we have seen this with Nikon VR and VR II. When Nikon improved its VR technology, it started to update its lenses with the latest version of VR II. Some lenses like Nikon 200-400mm f/4 were optically identical when compared to the older version, with the only difference being VR II vs VR.
- Annoying / loud sound when IS is engaged – I am sure you have noticed that some image stabilized lenses produce an annoying high-pitch sound when IS is engaged. This is especially bad for shooting videos, where IS noise is recorded by the camera.
4) Advantages and Disadvantages of Sensor Stabilization
Let’s move on to in-camera sensor stabilization advantages and disadvantages compared to lens stabilization.
Advantages of Sensor Stabilization:
- Works with all lenses – this is by far the biggest advantage of in-camera sensor stabilization. You can use any lens (as long as it is capable of sending the focal length of the lens + focal distance to the camera), including older / third party lenses and image stabilization will still work.
- One time cost – you buy one camera with built-in image stabilization and all lenses will automatically get the benefit of image stabilization.
- Camera upgrade vs lens upgrade – if a newer, more efficient way of image stabilization is invented, you only need to upgrade the camera, rather than updating all of your lenses.
- Smaller, lighter and cheaper lenses – because there is no image stabilization mechanism inside lenses, they are generally smaller, lighter and cheaper to produce.
- Less fragile lenses – again, due to lack of image stabilization, there is one less component that could possibly fail.
- No negative effect on bokeh – the light travels through its optical path without any shifting, so lens bokeh is not affected.
- No annoying loud lens sounds – some optically-stabilized lenses produce high-pitch sound that can be annoying. Lack of IS means that the only sound you will hear from the lens is its autofocus motor. This is an advantage for recording videos without an external microphone.
Disadvantages of Sensor Stabilization:
- Less accurate metering and AF performance in low light situations – because the image coming out of the lens is not stabilized, the camera metering and AF sensors also receive a shaky image (in cameras with a phase-detection AF system). Hence, metering and AF performance can be negatively affected, specifically in low-light situations.
- Not very effective for long telephoto/super telephoto lenses – the longer the lens, the more the sensor has to move to compensate for the shake. Because the space for such sensor movements is limited, sensor-stabilized lenses are generally less effective than optically-stabilized lenses.
Similar to lens stabilization, I removed the below disadvantages, because they are either no longer applicable to modern cameras:
- Image stabilization is not visible in the viewfinder – this is a disadvantage only when comparing DSLRs. Image stabilization is visible on cameras with electronic viewfinders such as mirrorless cameras and Sony SLT (single-lens translucent) cameras.
- More expensive camera body – the cost of incorporating IS into the camera body is pretty small nowadays, so it is no longer a disadvantage. In fact, most cameras with IS from other manufacturers today are cheaper compared to Nikon/Canon.
- No IS options on film cameras – does not matter for most photographers today, because they shoot digital.
5) Lens Stabilization vs Sensor Stabilization Summary
After looking at all pros and cons of each image stabilization technology, it is clear that one cannot be completely replaced with another as of yet. While I personally favor in-camera stabilization because it works with all lenses (in addition to a number of other advantages), I cannot ignore its biggest disadvantage, which is its practical use on long telephoto/super telephoto lenses. Even if the difference is not that big, electronic viewfinders and Sony’s SLT cameras have not yet proven to be very effective for fast-action sports and wildlife photography (as I have stated in my Sony A77 Review). If camera manufacturers do not innovate and find a way to decrease this gap, Nikon/Canon will continue to enjoy their dominance in those photography markets.
It seems that the best approach would be to combine the two image stabilization technologies into one camera system. Stabilization should be incorporated into long focal length lenses for sports and wildlife photographers, while also being available in cameras for all other situations. Camera firmware could be programmed in such a way, that when the camera sees that a specific lens is attached, it could simply turn off in-camera IS, or provide the option to the end user to pick which IS method to use. You definitely would not want both IS systems to work at the same time, because they would screw things up, basically canceling each other out. Another challenge with integrating the two, would be to evaluate and see if the image circle from current lenses is big enough to support sensor stabilization (sensor stabilization needs bigger image circle from lenses). Neither Nikon nor Canon would be willing to do this if they have to update their existing lenses to support in-camera stabilization.
The bad news is that I do not see Canon or Nikon jumping on in-camera stabilization anytime soon, even with their mirrorless cameras like Nikon 1 V1. Why? Because they enjoy their profits every time a lens is updated. If they enable in-camera stabilization, interest in adding IS/VR to wide-angle and prime lenses would pretty much fade away, which is definitely not what they want. It is painful to see that some lenses that really need image stabilization are not getting them, simply because Canon/Nikon think that it is not needed, or they are planning to add it to a future version to make money. There are a number of great lenses from Nikon such as Nikon 300mm f/4 AF-S, Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8G, Nikon 50mm f/1.4G/f/1.8G, Nikon 85mm f/1.4G/f/1.8G that desperately need image stabilization. And yet Nikon is not planning to update those lenses with IS anytime soon. The same is true with Canon, which has recently updated its Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L II lens and still did not care to add image stabilization to it. They know that they can update these lenses with IS in the future and make even more money from them. As long as the competitor does not have a big lead, innovation will continue to halt.
Now when it comes to mirrorless cameras, in-camera IS is the best way to go in my opinion. This is where I believe Nikon made a mistake with their Nikon 1 line. When mirrorless electronic viewfinder technology is used, lens-based stabilization just does not make much sense anymore. Small compact lenses such as Nikon 1 10mm f/2.8 pancake will never feature image stabilization, so other cameras with in-camera IS have an advantage when using such lenses. In addition, mirrorless cameras are supposed to be compact and lightweight. Lens stabilization adds to size and weight of the lens, again, giving advantage to other mirrorless systems on the market.
What do you think about the future of image stabilization? Do you favor lens stabilization over sensor stabilization, or vice-versa?