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Lenses: image stabilisation

Camera shake is the thief of sharpness. If you are hand-holding a camera and lens, they will move as you press the shutter release. Movement during exposure blurs the image.

Much of the time, you will not notice the effects of camera shake. If you are shooting with a fast shutter speed or a wide-angle lens, the blurring may not be significant− but it will still be there, and might appear if you have a big enlargement made from the image.

The only way to overcome camera shake is to eliminate the movement of the camera and lens during the exposure. The obvious way to do this is by taking the camera out of your hands and fixing it to something that will not move, such as a photographic tripod. However a tripod is only effective if it is sturdy, which usually means heavy.

Fortunately, Canon offers another method of reducing, if not eliminating, the effects of camera shake. Image stabilised lenses, first seen in 1995, approach the problem laterally. Rather than trying to stop the movement of a hand-held camera, they seek to introduce an opposing movement within the lens. The aim is to keep the image static on the sensor or film, despite the movement of the camera.

The EF400mm f/2.8L IS USM − one of a range of Canon lenses that incorporate Image Stabilizer technology.

How image stabilisation works

Image stabilisation was available for camcorders long before it was introduced in EF lenses. Both electronic and optical systems were available, but size or weight constraints meant that neither was suitable for EOS cameras. So Canon went back to the drawing board and took a fresh look at the problem.

Its solution is a group of elements inside the lens that moves perpendicular to the lens axis. The movement of this special lens group is controlled by an on-board microcomputer and counteracts the shaking of the camera.

The following sequence of events takes place when the camera shutter release button is partially depressed:

  • The special stabilisation lens group, which is locked in a central position when not active, is released.
  • Two gyro sensors start up and detect the speed and angle of any camera movement.
  • The sensor data is passed to a microcomputer in the lens that analyses it and prepares an instruction for the special stabilisation lens group.
  • This instruction is transmitted to the stabilisation lens group that moves at a speed and direction to counteract the camera movement.
  • This complete sequence is repeated continuously so that there is an instant reaction to any change in the amount or direction of the camera shake.

When the first EF lens with IS was introduced, it was the first time that a high speed 16-bit microcomputer had been incorporated in a lens. The computer simultaneously controls the Image Stabilizer, Ultrasonic Motor (for focusing the lens) and the electromagnetic diaphragm (for setting the lens aperture).

This is the IS unit that moves the floating lens element inside an image stabilised lens to keep the image steady on the surface of the sensor or film.

Image stabilisation is effective with movement from 0.5Hz to 20Hz (1Hz is one movement cycle per second). This will cope not only with situations from simple camera shake (0.5Hz to 3Hz), but also the engine vibrations encountered when shooting from a moving vehicle or helicopter (10Hz to 20Hz).

There is no reduction in the optical performance of the lens.

Power for image stabilisation lenses comes from the camera battery, so there will be fewer exposures per battery charge when an image stabilisation lens is attached to the camera and switched on.

Camera shake is detected by two gyro sensors in the lens; one for yaw and one for pitch. The sensors detect both the angle and speed of the movement.

When the camera is static, the rays of light pass through the lens and form an image on the film or digital sensor.

When the camera moves, the rays of light from the subject are bent relative to the optical axis and the image shifts slightly on the film or digital sensor. You can see this effect in the camera viewfinder if you gently shake the camera while viewing a subject.

With an IS lens, the gyro sensors detect the camera movement and pass the data to a microcomputer in the lens. This instructs a special group of lens elements to move at right angles to the lens axis. The amount and direction of this movement is just enough to counteract the amount and direction of the camera shake. The result is that the paths of rays of light passing through the lens are adjusted so that the image remains stationary, relative to the film or digital sensor.

An enlarged section of the main image shows significant blurring from camera shake when image stabilisation is not used. The image taken with the Image Stabilizer switched on is much sharper.

Image Stabilizer modes

One problem with the first two EF lenses with IS produced is that the system regards panning as camera shake, and tries to overcome it. This causes the viewfinder image to jump about, making it difficult to see and frame the subject accurately.

On the later lenses, you have the option of two IS modes. Mode 1 is the same as before and is used when you are shooting static subjects.

Mode 2 can be set when following a moving subject with the camera (panning). The lens detects the sweeping movement and switches off the IS correction in that direction (horizontal or vertical). IS correction in the direction perpendicular to the panning movement continues as normal to help give a sharper image.

When panning the camera to follow a moving subject, use Mode 2, if available. This switches off the Image Stabilizer in the direction of camera movement to avoid confusing the image stabilisation system. Image stabilisation for movement at right angles to the direction of panning is not affected.

IS Mode 3

IS Mode 3 was announced with the EF300mm f/2.8L IS II USM and EF400mm f/2.8L IS II USM lenses, and is also in the EF400mm f/4 DO IS II USM, EF500mm f/4L IS II USM and EF600mm f/4L IS II USM telephoto lenses. The EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM and EF200-400mm f/4L IS USM EXTENDER 1.4x telephoto zoom lenses also feature Mode 3. IS Mode 3 takes the benefits of standard IS (effective for both horizontal and vertical camera motion) but, instead of it being active all the time, it only activates when you fully press the shutter button to take an image. It is especially useful for sports photography where you are likely to be moving between subjects quickly.

In IS Mode 1 this can create a bump or jump within the viewfinder as the IS motor races to keep up with extensive lens movements. Instead, by not activating until the shutter button is fully pressed it saves the system trying to compensate for random, rapid lens motion and only compensates at the point you are taking an image.

Hybrid IS

Introduced with the EF100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens, Hybrid IS takes the image stabilisation concept and applies to it to macro photography. When using longer lenses or for general purpose shooting, any camera shake appears to be rotational - i.e. an up and down or side-to-side movement around a point - that point being the camera. This is effectively corrected by the IS motors contained in the lenses. However, when you move in close for macro photography the camera shake motion appears to be less rotational and more shift based - as if the whole frame is shifting up and down or side-to-side parallel to the subject. This is what Shift IS, found in the Hybrid IS system of the EF100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM lens, aims to correct.

How effective is image stabilisation?

The earliest IS lenses give a gain of about two shutter speed steps. This means, for example, if you shoot with a shutter speed of 1/60th of a second with IS, it will be the equivalent of 1/250th of a second if you shoot without the Image Stabilizer switched on. Or if you can obtain a sharp image without image stabilisation at a shutter speed of 1/60th of a second, you will produce results of similar sharpness at 1/15th of a second with image stabilisation, other factors staying the same.

One of these factors is focal length. Increasing focal length not only magnifies the subject − it also magnifies the effects of camera shake. A useful guide is that you should use a shutter speed at least equal to the reciprocal of the focal length when holding the camera and lens by hand. So if the focal length of the lens is 200mm, the shutter speed should be at least 1/200th of a second.

More recent IS lenses have improved their effectiveness, giving a three-step, four-step or a five-step gain (a five-step gain is found in the EF200mm f/2L IS USM lens). A four-step gain means that shooting with a shutter speed of 1/15th of a second with image stabilisation gives the same image sharpness as shooting at 1/250th of a second without image stabilisation.

Recent lenses also have the IS system up and running within 0.5 second of partial pressure on the shutter button, rather than the 1 second delay with earlier lenses.

Keep in mind that image stabilisation only reduces the effect of camera shake − it has no effect on subject movement.

Camera compatibility

IS lenses work with all EOS cameras, regardless of when they were introduced. The IS system − gyros, microcomputer and special lens group − is part of the lens, not the camera. However, there is some communication with the camera and there are some operational differences between the EOS SLR models.

  • If you are using the EOS 10, 1000-series, 600, 620, 650 or RT, you will see the viewfinder image shake a little immediately after an exposure. This does not affect the sharpness of the exposed image.
  • If you are using the built-in flash of early EOS models (EOS 10, 100, 1000-series, 700, 750), you will see the viewfinder image shake while the flash is recycling. This will not affect the sharpness of an exposed image.
  • There is some shaking of the viewfinder image after exposures in the DEP mode with the EOS-1, 1N, 10, 100, 5, 600, 650 and RT. This does not affect the sharpness of the exposed image.
  • When an extender is attached to the lens, image stabilisation does not operate with the EOS 1, 10, 100, 1000-series, 5, 600, 620, 650, 700, 750, 850 and RT cameras.
  • During a bulb (B) exposure, image stabilisation does not operate with most EOS models. It continues with the EOS 1000-series, 5, 500 and 700. It stops immediately after the exposure starts with the EOS 1, 10, 100, 600, 620, 650 and RT. In all cases, image stabilisation is unlikely to be effective with long exposures. Canon recommends that the Image Stabilizer is switched off for bulb exposures.
  • With the EOS 3, 50, 50E, IX and IX7, image stabilisation does not work when the self-timer is used.
  • With the EOS 10, 5, 600 and RT set to AI Servo, and with the film advance mode set to continuous, autofocusing will not resume after the AF Stop button has been used until partial pressure is reapplied to the camera shutter button. This also applies to the EOS 5 and 10 set to Sports mode.

We do not have full data for every IS lens/EOS camera combination. Before taking a picture, look through the viewfinder to check that the IS system is operating correctly (remember to allow up to 1 second for the system to start up after the shutter button is partially depressed). If there does not appear to be any increase in the steadiness of the image, or the image is jumping around in the viewfinder, there is probably an incompatibility. Movement of the image in the viewfinder immediately after an exposure is not usually a problem and will not affect the sharpness of the exposed image.

Accessories for IS lenses

IS lenses work well when used with accessories. Add an EF extender and you can increase the effective focal length of the lens by 1.4x or 2x. Increased focal length means that the effects of camera shake are also magnified, so the image stabilisation is very useful. EF extenders are compatible with L-series and DO lenses of focal length 135mm and greater, and a small number of wide-aperture telephoto zoom lenses.

Image stabilisation also remains effective when extension tubes or close-up lenses are used.

An extender can be used with many IS lenses. Image stabilisation remains effective with most recent EOS camera models.

Keep a tripod

Although an IS lens gives more opportunities for hand-held shots, there will still be times when the support of a tripod is needed − with exposure times of several seconds, for example, or when working with heavy EF500mm or EF600mm lenses.

With some of the earlier lenses, you need to switch the IS off when using a tripod. The lack of movement confuses the system and the image starts to jump around the viewfinder. However, using a tripod in high wind or with super telephoto lenses, often results in some camera movement, and the IS system can be invaluable. Later IS models are able to sense the use of a tripod and automatically disable the IS, if necessary.

You should also leave the Image Stabilizer on when using a monopod, as it is unlikely you will be able to keep this type of support perfectly still.

Canon IS lenses Gain Modes Tripod
EF16-35mm f/4L IS USM 4 1 No
EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM 3 2 Yes
EF28-135mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM 2 1 No
EF28-300mm f/3.5-5.6L IS USM 3 2 Yes
EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM 4 2 Yes
EF70-200mm f/4L IS USM 4 2 Yes
EF70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS USM 3 2 Yes
EF70-300mm f/4-5.6L IS USM 4 2 Yes
EF70-300mm f/4.5-5.6 DO IS USM 3 2 Yes
EF75-300mm f4-5.6 IS USM 2 1 No
EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS USM 2 2 No
EF100-400mm f/4-5-5.6L IS II USM 4 3 Yes
EF200-400mm f/4L IS USM EXTENDER 1.4x 4 3 Yes
EF24mm f/2.8 IS USM 4 1 No
EF28mm f/2.8 IS USM 4 1 No
EF35mm f/2 IS USM 4 1 Yes
EF100mm f/2.8L Macro IS USM            4 1 Yes
EF200mm f/2L IS USM 5 2 Yes
EF300mm f/2.8L IS II USM 4 3 Yes
EF300mm f/4L IS USM 2 2 No
EF400mm f/2.8L IS II USM 4 3 Yes
EF400mm f/4 DO IS USM 2 2 Yes
EF400mm f/4 DO IS II USM 4 3 Yes
EF500mm f/4L IS USM 2 2 Yes
EF500mm f/4L IS II USM 4 3 Yes
EF600mm f/4L IS USM 2 2 Yes
EF600mm f/4L IS II USM 4 3 Yes
EF-S15-85mm f/4-5.6 IS USM 3 1 Yes
EF-S17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM 3 1 Yes
EF-S17-85mm f/4-5.6 IS USM 3 1 Yes

Gain indicates the number of shutter speed steps you can expect to benefit from.
Modes indicates whether there is a single mode (not good for panning) or any additional modes.
Tripod tells you whether or not the lens can sense the use of a tripod.