Regardless of the camera gear you own it likely has some kind of image stabilization (IS) or vibration reduction (VR) feature. Sometimes this is built into the camera body, or can be built into a specific lens.
NOTE: Click on photos to enlarge
It can sometimes be confusing for folks to determine when to use this type of feature, especially when there may be additional settings such as ‘normal’ or ‘active’.
Generally speaking IS or VR is used to help reduce the effects of camera shake and thus obtain sharp images when shooting hand-held at slower shutter speeds. The ‘normal’ setting with VR is used for most typical slow shutter speed shooting, while the ‘active’ setting is often recommended when shooting from a moving vehicle or some other unstable physical position. I’ve only ever used the ‘normal’ VR setting for my Nikon 1 gear and have never had the need to use the ‘active’ mode.
The relative effectiveness of the IS or VR feature will vary by camera body or lens, and will also be impacted by an individual photographer’s ability to hold their gear steady when shooting at slower shutter speeds. Various manufacturers will claim an increase in ‘the number of stops’ that can be achieved when using IS or VR with their equipment. This refers to the specific settings used to achieve a proper exposure. For example, being able to shoot at 1/30 of a second compared to 1/120 of a second represents 2 stops.
It is important to remember that IS or VR does not help reduce blurring when trying to capture a crisp image of a moving subject using a slower shutter speed…you’ll get blur!
Obviously taking photographs of static objects using a slower shutter speed will generate higher success rates. When trying to photograph birds and other animals timing your shots with the distinct pauses in the movement of the animal is required to avoid image blur at slower shutter speeds.
The best way to determine your personal ‘slow shutter speed limit’ is to simply practice shooting with your gear at increasingly slow shutter speeds to learn where your break-point is, i.e. when your percentage of keepers begins to drop off dramatically due to image blur. Some folks shoot with both IS or VR turned on, then off, to establish the number of stops improvement that a particular lens or camera body can achieve when IS or VR is used.
By practicing on an ongoing basis most people can improve their slow shutter speed performance. It is important to remember that the longer the focal length of your lens, the harder it will be to get sharp images at slow shutter speeds. So, I recommend practicing with a range of lens and learning where your break-point is with each of them.
It is generally accepted by most folks that when using a tripod that IS or VR should be turned off since it is not needed as the tripod is providing the ‘solid base’ needed to obtain a sharp image at a slow shutter speed. I’ve forgotten to turn the VR off on my cameras when using a tripod from time to time and the resulting images were still acceptable. That may be due to the fact that I’m not a pixel peeper and I may not have noticed the slight blurring that IS or VR may cause when used in a tripod scenario.
There is quite a bit of debate about the use of IS or VR when photographing moving subjects such as birds-in-flight. Depending on the shutter speed used – for example 1/1250 – some photographers recommend turning IS or VR off to help ensure good framing of the subject. Other folks still like to use IS or VR when photographing these types of subjects, even when using faster shutter speeds. From a practical perspective there is no reason to have to use IS or VR when shooting at faster shutter speeds like 1/1250, but some folks like to do this nonetheless.
At the end of the day I think it really comes down to results. If a photographer uses IS or VR for birds-in-flight when shooting at faster shutter speeds and is happy with their results there is no reason to change. If, on the other hand, they are finding that their shots are not framed quite as well as they anticipated they would be, then some experimentation shooting without IS or VR may be in order.
I’ve photographed birds-in-flight with VR on and with it off and have gotten acceptable results both ways. I quite often turn VR off with my Nikon 1 V2s when shooting birds-in-flight at faster shutter speeds, especially when shooting at 15-fps AF-C bursts as I find I get better results. When taking individual frames of larger birds approaching from a distance I will often leave VR turned on.
Other photographers may have a different experience. As I mentioned earlier it ultimately comes down to getting the results one wants.
Being able to use your camera gear at slower shutter speeds can extend its shooting range quite a bit and it is certainly worth the effort to continually practice this skill.
If you are in doubt about the IS or VR settings on your camera body or lens the best thing is to read the manual so you can more fully understand the manufacturer’s recommended IS or VR settings and when to use them.
Technical Note: All of the images in this article were captured hand-held in available light.
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