PHOTOOG Photography writings by Olivier Giroux


In-lens stabilization vs in-body stabilization

Here is another long-winded argument amongst amateur photographers which I hope will soon disappear from our conversations. Something changed recently, and I’m going to point you to it, but it hasn’t yet permeated the ‘Net consciousness. Of course I’m making the assumption that if it did, it would settle it, which is wildly optimistic on my part. :^/

So far in the in-lens camp we had some marketing slogans touting stabilized viewfinders as a key feature, as well as an undocumented quality edge that we all assumed was there with the big brands. In the in-body camp we had cost and engineering arguments which seemed to make the most sense, being implemented quite effectively in many affordable packages. Add to this that the only players that chose in-lens stabilizations were those that stood to gain a lot from lens sales, and had the clout to pull it off... it seemed clear that Nikon and Canon gouged their customers on this point.

Maybe not. I used to be neutral to the debate, but I recently read a review of the Olympus E3 which included what may be the best argument against in-body stabilization made to this day. In-body stabilization works fine during exposure but there’s something more important than the viewfinder that it fails to stabilize prior. Consider what the auto-focus subsystem is seeing when you’re shooting a long lens without stabilization:

“In 'in lens' systems, the IS function is performed before the image is presented to the focusing system, providing a fairly stable point for the AF to lock onto, whereas in 'in body' systems the IS is performed in the optical path after the AF system, which I suspect has a much harder time trying to lock focus on something which is jiggling around quite a lot, due to the magnification factor inherent in long lenses.” – Mark Pinder, Luminous Landscape

In his review Mark describes a number of routine conditions in which the top-of-the-line Olympus E3 fell on its face. Mostly the E3 failed to live up to its claims of auto-focus excellence because its in-body stabilization degrades rapidly with long lenses.

This goes back to the beginnings of image stabilization. Stabilization was invented specifically to improve working conditions with long lenses. Yet one of the most popular implementations of the feature fails to meet its basic requirements. This settles the argument in my mind, at least until someone also stabilizes the auto-focus subsystem.

Or both should be offered: a hybrid system wouldn't cost much more. If a lens has stabilization then it should be used, otherwise the body's stabilization is used. The argument for in-lens stabilization weakens on short lenses, so in a hybrid system only long lenses need be stabilized.

Comments (4) Trackbacks (0)
  1. I have always preferred the ‘in lens’ design and the point you have made reinforces that. In addition, being able to see the effect of the stabilization while you are composing is great too. At 300mm, the shake can be nauseating.

    The argument I have always heard, which could just be marketing, is that each lenses stabilization is tweaked for it’s focal length. A 70-200mm lens will need a different stabilization then a 80-400mm or 200-400mm lens. That makes a good bit of sense to my mind as well.

    Keep the posts coming!


  2. I’ve heard the same too, but that really onle means the in-body stabilization needs to be parameterized on the focal length of the attached lens. Actually, it would be the magnification factor that’s the key variable, so a combination of focal length and focus distance.

    The greater the magnification factor, the greater the amplitude of motion an in-body stabilizer needs to cover.

    This means two things to me:

    First, greater amplitude of motion implies greater design/power cost and lower accuracy. So I would expect a low-cost in-body stabilizer to degrade with magnification factor rapidly.

    Secondly, or inversely, I’d expect an in-body stabilizer to be able to stabilize a wide-angle lens up to almost arbitrary speeds. Up to one second? Maybe.

  3. Bollocks! 35 million lenses out there suit camera body stabilization. This gives 35 million more options over Canon, Nikon. Professionals switch off stabilization and use a tripod. All pro schools emphasise this as do camera user manuals.

    • Steve, can you separate the engineering concerns and the marketing/convenience arguments?

      If one wanted to make the best camera+lens combination from scratch, the argument is that at least one important camera subsystem benefits from a lens stabilizer. Auto-focus systems are sensitive and inaccurate in general (by which I do NOT mean they are useless, merely that they are not up to the micro-meter tolerances of the other camera components). So auto-focus systems need all the help they can get. Conversely I am not aware of an engineering edge to the sensor stabilizer, they appear roughly equal in all other respects except this one.

      There is a strong marketing edge to sensor stabilizers however, as they are very desirable for the reason you mentioned. That’s great. Yet for all their market appeal they have not succeeded in ruining either Nikon or Canon, so that says the market doesn’t value this feature above other things they might offer.

      As for professionals always using tripods and turning off stabilization, that’s a narrow-minded thing to say. There is nothing that all professionals do. Online forums promote the most inane views of professional photography. Wedding photographers toting 70-200 lenses do not park them on tripods, for example, and they benefit greatly from stabilization.

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