When NOT to Use Lens Stabilization

lens stabilizationMany camera lenses come with some kind of lens stabilization technology. It’s usually called something different by every camera manufacturer (e.g. Nikon calls it “vibration reduction” and Canon calls it “image stabilization”), but they all have the same goal: helping to stabilize your lens.

It works great for those times when you’re forced to hand-hold your camera, but you should always make sure to turn it off when your camera is on a tripod.

The stabilization technology works by unlocking part of your lens, which allows the lens to “correct” movements. But, when your camera is sitting still on a tripod, the stabilizer will often look for movement that isn’t there, resulting in a blurry photo.

To illustrate this, take a look at the two photos I shot below. For both shots, my camera was locked onto a stable tripod. In the image on the left, I had the lens stabilization turned OFF. And, then I simply turned it ON for the image on the right.

lens stabilization [example]

Both photos above were taken with the same camera, lens, and tripod. The camera’s position did not move between the shots, and the aperture/shutter speed/ISO also stayed the same. The only difference between the two photos is that lens stabilization was turned ON in the photo on the right.

Interestingly, as I shot more photos with the lens stabilization turned ON (and the camera still in the same position locked on a tripod), the images got sharper with each shot. So, it seems like this particular lens was able to “learn” that the camera was on a tripod. But, every lens works differently, so it’s not safe to assume ALL lens stabilization works like this.

Some lenses claim to have the ability to always detect when your camera is on a tripod (and it’ll turn off the stabilization automatically), but I wouldn’t recommend relying on that feature. I’m sure that detection isn’t always 100% accurate (just like your autofocus isn’t always 100% accurate).

Plus, image stabilization uses up your battery. So, keeping it turned off will let you take more photos or shoot more video on one charge.

Btw, the text in the photos above is from the side of one of my favorite photography books: Ansel Adams In The National Parks.

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steveb2About the Author: Steve Berardi is a naturalist, photographer, computer scientist, and founder of PhotoNaturalist. You can usually find him hiking in the beautiful mountains and deserts of Southern California.

Comments

  1. I think it’s good to illustrate the actual effect of IS or VR on a tripod. I have made that mistake. I have a sticker on the mounting plate of my ball head that just says “VR” to remind me to check that it’s off when I mount the camera.

    I would be interested to know your thoughts on whether stabilization is effective at faster shutter speeds, say 1/500th or faster.

  2. Pete Belardino says:

    Hmmm…..that could be a reason why some of my images aren’t as sharp as I’d like them (I won’t comment on my kit lenses) ! I like John’s idea of a sticker as a reminder also !

  3. Steve,
    My best read Tip.
    Recently I read an article on VR (http://imaging.nikon.com/lineup/lens/concept/vr/)

    But this theory did not struck then.

    Thanks a lot Steve…..
    Thanks John king for the Sticker tip.

  4. This was an interesting read, a friend of mine actually recommended to me to do this the other day.

    What if you are shooting sports with a monopod? Do you still recommend turning off the IS on your lens?

  5. I believe the Canon 70-200 L Series (pictured above?) automatically senses when it is on a tripod and adjusts the IS accordingly. Can anyone verify this?

  6. @John – Great idea with the sticker reminder! I think the effectiveness of IS really depends on each individual photographer: we all have different abilities to hand-hold a lens and keep it steady. Personally, I know I can’t get an adequately sharp photo hand-held (with IS) at anything slower than 1/800 sec. I’ve got pretty shaky hands.

    @Simon – That’s a tough call. I haven’t used a monopod, but I do sometimes put my camera on a tripod and keep the ballhead loose (so I can quickly point it in a new direction when photographing hummingbirds or stuff that moves fast). And, in those situations I do keep IS on, but I think I have shakier hands than most people. I think for monopods, it’s best to just experiment yourself and see if IS helps you or not (some people are much better at holding a camera still than others).

    @Brian – Nice job on ID’ing that lens ;) I’ve heard that this lens can detect if it’s on a tripod, but I think it’s risky to always rely on this feature. It’s a nice thing to have as a backup, but as a software developer, I don’t trust software to always make the right decision ;) btw, the lens I used for the test images was Canon’s 300mm f/4L IS (which does NOT claim to detect if the lens is on a tripod)

  7. I just went back to read something in the article and noticed that my question regarding the camera sensing the tripod had already been answered. Did I miss this the first time through?

    Shooting at slow shutter speeds is definitely a skill that requires practice. I drink coffee all day and I’m still able to shoot at focal lengths of 200mm at less than 1/60 s. I know a lot of people say to relax when you release the shutter, but I do the opposite when my exposure calls for a handheld slow shutter. Tense your muscles, hold your breath, and hope for a clean shot.

    No tripod, monopod, or IS? Not the most elegant solution but you can always try this… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LLlJl7TbXTA

  8. “So, it seems like this particular lens was able to “learn” that the camera was on a tripod.”

    I’m no expert in this matter, but the common sense tells me that if the stabilization systems relies in some kind of “floating lens” mechanism, this learning you describe probably is the result of the floating lens slowly going to no movement due to inertia.

    When you deactivate the stabilization, it blocks the lens so it wouldn’t receive any vibrations when on a tripod from say, you pushing any camera button. I know this sounds counterintuitive since we’re teach that when you touch the camera on the tripod you’re transmitting vibrations to the device resulting in a blurry photo, but, what I mean is that if the vibration is really soft, on a stable tripod with a blocked lens would affect very little or nothing at all, while in a “floating lens” the slightest vibration would bounce the lens for a moment (unless you’re using a remote?).

    As I said, this is only a speculation and maybe nonsense =)

    Thanks for the article!

  9. Great article and illustration, I had same problem when doing low light/night photography. Took me ages to find out why I’d get bluring when doing long exposures on a tripod. Turning off stabilization fixed it.

  10. @Txau – I could definitely be wrong about the lens “learning” that the camera was on a tripod. But, I did pause between each shot to let the stabilization stop completely, and then take another photo. So, here’s what I did:

    1. Take a shot with IS OFF
    2. Turn IS ON
    3. Take another shot (this was the most blurry shot)
    4. Wait for IS to stop (I think it took a couple seconds for it to stop completely)
    5. Take another shot (with IS still on), and this shot was sharper than the last one
    6. Keep repeating 4 and 5 above (wait for IS to stop completely, then take another shot).. And doing this with the Canon 300mm f/4L lens made each shot sharper and sharper, until about the sixth shot where it was adequately sharp (still not as sharp as the IS-OFF shot though).

    Btw, I also used a wireless remote for all the shots to remove that variable of touching the camera and potentially causing a little camera shake from that. I also did this experiment a total of 3 times, to confirm the results were consistent.

    And again, I’d just like to reiterate that the examples in this post may not illustrate how ALL lenses behave in this situation. My main point is that all lenses behave a little differently, and keeping IS on when the camera is on a tripod could potentially cause some blur in your photos.

  11. I have to say that I didn’t know about that… that information helped me wery much… thank you.

  12. This is the most awesome tip I have read about a camera, the thought would have never of entered my mind. 90% of my photography is macro & always on a tripod & yes with the image stabilizer on, thinking it was giving me better focus on my images. It will now be turned off, can’t wait to see the difference.
    & you have the most awesome career ever.
    Thank you

  13. I tested Nikon D90 with 18-105mm, 70-300mm and 50mm lenses, using bracket and had problems too. The first picture has a offset, comparing the two others. I wrote the test and results here, but is in Portuguese:

    http://jgoffredo.blogspot.com/2011/08/bug-de-bracketing-da-nikon-d90.html

    To understand the pictures

    Desligado = Off
    Ligado = On

  14. On some lenses such as Nikon 400/2.8VR and 600/4VR there is a special VR mode for use on tripod only. Not an automated detection system as mentioned in the article but a VR mode specially adapted for tripod use with shutter speeds between 1/15 and 1 sec. It’s highly recommended to use this type of VR on a tripod.

  15. Good point–it’s very irritating when I realize I’ve forgotten to turn the IR off when I have my camera on a tripod. Now I check the setting every time I pull my camera out of my bag just to make sure I have it the way I want it.

  16. Does this apply to monopods also ?

  17. No. You must use Lens Stabilization. Nikon says you must use.

  18. thanks.

  19. I am considering taking a real crappy but also real light weight tripod on my bike trip. My D 300 + 18 – 200 will be way too heavy for this thing. But in that case, leaving the stabiliser on would be a good idea?!?

    I will use it for taking pictures of myself (I travel alone), using shutter speeds from let’s say 1/4 – 1/125 second.

  20. Erik, Nikon says “Don’t use stabilizer on tripod”. You can use the delay. You press the shutter release and the camera takes the picture 2 seconds later. And can use a mirror delay. The mirror goes up 1 second before the picture.

  21. My “something new learned today”… and SUCH a great one… I’ve shared it all over the place!
    It never would have occurred to me that turning it OFF when on a tripod, would sharpen the results to this extent! I just figured that keeping it ON, in tandem with a tripod, would just be extra measure of “steadiness” lol

    I always enjoy your tutorials and general posts, Steve. Thanks so much :)

    T~

  22. Great article Steve. I have a Pentax k7 at the moment and the stabilisation is built into the camera body. When I use a tripod it automatically turns the stabilisation off.

  23. Theresa – I’m glad you enjoyed the post! And, thanks so much for sharing it :)

    Alan – Thanks! Ya, some cameras and lenses have that tripod detection feature, which is really nice. I wish my 300mm had it, cause I’m always forgetting to turn it off when I put it on a tripod.

  24. Interesting article, I have also heard when the lense isn’t being used and transported by car etc to turn the I.S. off on Canon lense, True or false? It was originally on a photographing website that now is defunct. They claimed like in your article that it unlocks part of the lense and by switching the I.S. off when the camera is off prevents the lense and the actual I.S. system from getting damaged. What do you think , any truth in it?

  25. Douglas – As far as I know, the lens is only “unlocked” when Image Stabilization is active, so if your camera is completely off, then the IS is inactive and therefore it shouldn’t be risky to move it around (like in a car).

  26. I have a question that i have had for some time and cannot find any reference to it online at all. I use the 100-400 IS L often these days in San Francisco due to the great urban wildlife and the upcoming America’s Cup races. I keep the lens in mode 1 qand rarely switch it to mode 2 BUT – drum roll – rarely use the IS. That said, I have felt the lens “vibrate” as if IS were turned on. Has anyone else encountered this and in asking this: Might there be any degradation to image quality shooitng in this described situation? Thanks for such an informative discussion on mode 1/2 use on L-series lenses!

  27. Geoff Scales says:

    fototaker in SF. I am experiencing the same issue. Even when the IS is turned off I am definitely getting vibrations from the IS system. It is clearly visibly through the view finder. In fact I even turned all functions to manual to eliminate any auto activity. Manual focus and manual settings on my Canon 1D. Geoff

  28. Geoff Scales says:

    fototaker in SF. Following up. I was shooting on a tripod.

  29. i’ll be returning to the states shortly (am now in SW Spain) and my 100-400 IS L lens and 7D has been in the shop. i’ll run a test as i always do upon getting new equipment or after a repair to see IF it is better in sharpness. i have had the worst problem ever in sharpness with my canon lenses, and even my tamron 28-300 lens is (MUCH) sharper. for many months i was thinking of giving up on canon (at one point 2 years ago i had my backup 40D and 5 lenses in the shop to be “fixed” (same crap different year – always same problem and cabnon gets my money for same problem last time but this time) and switching completely to the mirrorless camera(s). in my film days i had 7 separate camera bodies of Olympus, minolta, nikon and now canon and not one was returned, repaired or needed anythang! within my first 4 years of digital, i had already gone through 4 canon camera bodies, all for the same problem (sent in and problem popped up again – lousy service and thus was NOT repaired). my 7D was picked up in sept of 2009 and it’s been in the shop now 4 times. it will never go to a shop again because i have now spent more money on it to be “fixed” for the same problems each time. if canon cannot make a decent camera, then dont make or sell them. i did NOT have these or any problems with film cameras. but canon doesn’t listen or care. they have a lot of clients, and who cares about one guy with a broken camera complaining of lousy cameras, unsharp pixs, and lousy lenses and ALL needing repair every 2-3 years? they dont care and their lousy service and repairs proves this. i still love the canon body of my 7D but i am NOT happy with canon. photography is my money-maker. i cant sell poor out-of-focus images. wake up canon. i’m jumping ship soon. you wont even notice or care

Trackbacks

  1. [...] with all sorts of settings designed to help your pictures come out better. Sometimes it’s knowing when to turn them off that’s more important than turning them [...]

  2. [...] turn off the stabilizer on my lens. Most of articles I’ve read in the internet (for example this article from Photo Naturalist) suggested t turn of the stabilizer when using the [...]

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