5 Reasons Why You Need Image Stabilization

Oh dear, so much for a fresh start of a New Year, I have not been updating this blog as frequently as I initially have planned. I did however get plenty of chance to shoot, so I do have fresh images to share, and plenty of ideas to talk about here. Nonetheless, lately there are many things I do need to take care of in real life which negated much of my free time to just sit down and compose a proper blog entry. Even now, a Sunday (at the time of writing), I am currently at a cafe an hour earlier, hoping to squeeze in some time to write before a local favourite band performance starts here.

Right, lets get into the topic, image stabilization.

When it comes to purchasing a new camera, some of the prioritized considerations include the image sensor performance, image quality output (resolution, high ISO, dynamic range, etc), autofocus performance, but not many people will tell you to take a good look at the image stabilization. Some photographers would boldly claim that image stabilization is not a crucial necessity, and for serious photography that requires absolutely steady camera setup, tripods are used instead. However, it has been a long while since image stablization was introduced to consumer photography market, and Olympus has come a long way since the introduction of 5-Axis Image Stabilization in the OM-D E-M5 in 2012. Much improvements have been made, some photographers who have experienced what the image stabibilization offers, never looked back.

Therefore, in this particular blog entry, I want to explore the necessity of a powerful image stabilization system, how relevant is it for non-professional, casual photographers (because, well, I am not a pro photographer myself, just a hobbyst like 95% of other photographers out there) and what you can do maximizing the potential of the image stabilization.

All images were taken with Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II with M.Zuiko 12-100mm F4 IS PRO lens. All images were taken hand-held. 

This image was taken hand-held, at 1.3 seconds to achieve the smooth water effect. 

If you are a landscape photographer that uses an ND1000 filter to shoot a 60 seconds exposure of the sky, or a studio photographer that mounts the camera on the tripod at all times regardless of shooting situation, or a night sky chaser, shooting star trails or the milky way, then the tripod is your best friend, and image stabilization is almost useless for you. If you need a tripod to get your shots, then it is important to note that image stabilization is NOT a substitute for tripods and should not be seen as such. 

Heck, even if you do not shoot landscape or studio most of eh time, it is still prudent to have a solid tripod around, you will never know when it will come in handy. 

However, if you are like me, and many other photographers on the go, always moving and using the camera hand-held, then you will find that the image stabilization will make a world of difference for you. There are many ways that the image stabilization can improve your photography, and it is quite a versatile solution in some difficult shooting situations. The best thing about having a reliable image stabilization is the extra boost of confidence that you will nail the shot when you are using your camera. 

DISCLAIMER: Also, since we are at the topic of me being a non-professional photographer, I would like to remind every one that my blog is written for mostly new comers to photography! If you are a pro photographer, I do not think I can add anything valuable to your knowledge. 

1) You Can Use Lower ISO Settings

This is only true if your subject does not move, and or can stay very still. When there is subject movement, even just the slightest bit, you do need to make sure you have sufficiently fast shutter speed to freeze the movement, unless you want to capture the motion blur, which we shall be exploring later in this post. 

Typical rule of thumb when it comes to determining the minimum shutter speed required for hand-held photography is 1 / focal length in 35mm format equivalent. Meaning, if I am using an Olympus 25mm F1.8 lens, which is 50mm in 35mm format, I need to have at least 1/50 second shutter speed to effectively mitigate blur due to camera shake. This is entirely subjective of course, some people may have steadier hands, others, like me, who are gravely addicted to coffee, may need faster shutter speed. 

This is where image stabbilization comes in. Instead of using 1/50sec, you can slow down the shutter speed, and still get away with sharp, shake-free image. Depending on how effective the image stabilization is, you will get varying results. For example, Olympus claims 6 stops advantage, meaning, instead of having to use 1/50sec, you can get away with 2 seconds.  (simple calculation 1/50 --> 1/25 --> 1/12 sec --> 1/5 --> 1/2 --> 1 --> 2)

While shooting at two seconds shutter speed hand-held sounds ridiculous and not very practical in many real life shooting conditions, it is not impossible to achieve, especially with the new Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark II. When it comes to practicality, surely it will be foolish to do casual shooting with 2 seconds shutter speed. That is not the point entirely. 

What you can benefit from this, instead of using 1/50 second shutter speed, say in an extremely dark lighting environment that with your widest aperture you still need ISO6400 or beyond (which will result in not so nice, noisy looking images) you can get away with maybe 1/10 second at ISO1000, which will in turn give you a much cleaner result. 

At 100mm full zoom (12-100mm F4 PRO IS lens), the equivalent focal length is 200mm. I shot this at 1/10 second, hand-held. Which means, approximately more than 4 stops advantage  (200 --> 100 --> 50 --> 25 --> 12). 

Crop from previous image. 

Taken at 1/2 second hand-held, at 100mm full zoom. 

2) Confidence In Nailing Your Shot

When I am shooting, there are two biggest technical concerns which are largely dependent on camera capabilities: the autofocus and prevention of camera shake. It would be a great deal of grief when coming home after a long day of shoot, going through the images and finding the critical shots being not 100% sharp, due to camera shake. I can gladly declare that I have not had this issue since the use of OM-D E-M5, and newer released camera since then just got better and better in terms of image stabilization. That extra insurance, when shooting at dangerously slow shutter speed and you know you can still power through without worrying too much, is almost godsent. You have no idea how many situations when I thought to myself, what if I just stretched the shutter speed that bit longer.... and it worked! 

Having one less thing to worry about is a huge burden off the shoulder. That means I can just take care of my autodocus, which was not a big problem since ALL modern cameras these days do have extremely high hit rate, and superbly fast focusing speed. Then I can fully focus my energy into getting the shot, improving maybe on lighting or composition if needed. 

3) Image Stabilization Greatly Helps Telephoto and Macro Shooting

Camera shake is amplified further when longer focal length is being used. The longer the focal length the greater the shake will be. 

Imagine, if you are using a 200mm lens, you will need at least 1/200 sec shutter speed (without image stabilization's help) to get rid of camera shake. If you are shooting a bird under a heady shade (giant tree), sometimes in order to get fast enough shutter speed, you need to bump up the ISO. This is the one of two reasons why bird photographers use those huge and heavy tripods, first and foremost to steady their shots and of course, those 600mm gigantic lenses are just too heavy to hand-hold comfortably. 

Besides general telephoto shooting, macro photography is also an area that image stabilization helps significantly. When shooting so close to the subject, even a tiny movement is like shifting the entire frame around, and the closer you get in macro shooting the more sensitive the movement is. Imaging viewing the LCD screen, or shooting through the viewfinder with super shaky image all the time, while trying very hard to manual focus to achieve critical sharpness. The experience with shaky view can be quite annoying!

I have taken a short, straight to the point video to show the composition of using telephoto 100mm and also a close up macro shot, with and without image stabilization, and you can see the huge difference the image stabilization makes. 


4) Slow Shutter Speed Opens Up Whole New World Of Creative Possibilities

One of the sure and effective ways to accomplish interesting shots, is to use slow shutter speed. And having the confidence of using slower than usual shutter speed without worry, why not take the camera and really push it to see how far we can stretch the slow shutter speed possibilities? That was exactly what I did!

Think of all the cool things that can be done with super slow shutter speed. Light trail photography, capturing the motion of the smoke, or even create smooth flowing waterfall. Using slow shutter speed works so much better for these examples. 

Typically all these shots require use of a tripod, since the slow shutter speed would be at the range of half a second to five seconds. Being able to just hand-hold these shots without a tripod was helpful, as I do not have to carry the tripod with me everywhere. After all, in my everyday carry around bag, I already have too many things to carry with me: either a laptop or a tablet to work with, chargers, powerbanks, notebooks, and several other junks that normal people would carry with them. We all know that the best photography opportunity happens at the most unexpected times, and not having a tripod should not hold you back from getting that shot. 

Hand-held at 1/2 second, to capture the flowing water. 

This was about 50mm, with 1 second shutter speed. 

This was shot at 1/3 second, smoke is a lot more dramatic this way. Also, stopping down the aperture to F13 to have the startburst effect on the sun. 

Zoomed into the joss sticks, also at 1/3 second shutter speed. 

I wanted to do another night cityscape, buildings shot,as well as light trail overlooking the highway from a bridge. Unfortunately it rained cats and dogs in Kuala Lumpur recently, for the past few nights consecutively. 

I guess, I will have to make do with recycled images. 

Light Trail, at whooping 5 seconds shutter speed, hand-held.

Crop from previous shot

5 seconds hand-held. I had to sit down on the floor to get this. Image was first published in my E-M1 Mark II review. 

Crop of the previous image. Sharp. 

Another 5 seconds hand-held shot. 

Crop from previous shot 

5) True Freedom

Imagine, being able to do all the above shots, without tripod. Hey, actually there was no need for imagination, as these shots can be easily done by anyone now. 

Some people have tested their newly acquired E-M1 Mark II and can shoot at incredibly long shutter speed times, some even reaching 15 seconds, which is insane. Like I said, I do not have the steadiest hand to begin with. 

Nevertheless, image stabilization enables the camera to do so much more, inspires confidence when shooting. If you ask me, that is a freedom in photography that I have gained, and will never, ever give up. 

If you have been using camera systems with powerful image stabilization, I am sure you will never look back. 

2 seconds hand-held, in a tunnel, riding a train

So what are your thoughts about image stabilization? Do you think it is purely a gimmick, or have you encountered life saving situations that the image stabilization had performed miracles?

I want to hear your thoughts!

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  1. I currently have the OM-D EM10 which I would love to upgrade soon.I'm thinking of getting the Olympus OM-D EM-5 Mark II. I'm going to pop over to your review shortly and have a read. For me, the IS function has been the biggest selling point as I really hate carting around a tripod especially when I'm on the go. I got rid of all my Canon gear because I can no longer bear the weight of all the equipment and the IS lenses cost so much more.

    By the way, I've just left my first ever comment over on your Kuching post. I've been reading your blog for a while and never realized you're a fellow Kuchingnite!

    1. Hey there! Glad to know i have another Kuching blog reader. I think the E-M10 is a wonderful camera, I currently use the Mark II version which has the same DNA. It was a good decision to switch to Micro Four Thirds if you are always on the go and require something portable, easy to carry around.

    2. Hi Robin, I don't know many Kuchingnites in the blogosphere so it's always a pleasantly surprise to stumble upon one (and presumably Foochow?). My aunt used to teach at St Thomas.

      Is the E-M10 Mark II all that different from the E-M5 Mark II? I've got my eye on the latter. I've tried using my current E-M10 with Olympus 75mm 1.8 attached with C-AF and it was slow with focusing and frustrating at times. Maybe it's just me as I'm still coming to grips with my new 75mm lens.

    3. Yes I am foochow, but I can't speak foochow at all. Everyone speaks Hokkien in Kuching.
      I was a Thomian! When was your aunt teaching in St Thomas? What is her name?

    4. My Hokkien and Foochow are both so rusty. Gosh, I'll have to ask my aunt. I can't remember what she was teaching. It's terrible but I should really know her last name. Ann's her first name. I'm an ex St Teresian so I know next to no one from St Thomas or St Mary (wait, I do know a few from there).


    5. Hey Marlene,

      I don't think I have had a teacher by the name of Ann during my time. I was in the class of 2001 Form Five. But hey, my mum was a Teresian too, and I have known many friends from that awesome school!

    6. Gosh, I won't be surprised if we know the same people. You probably wouldn't know her then. We emigrated to NZ in the 90s and so did my aunt.

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  2. Wonderful summary, Robin. Now I need to try some of your ideas.

  3. Robin first let me say I love your site. I am a 71 year old guy confined to a wheelchair, with use of my right hand only. Image stabilization was one of the main reasons I chose my EM5 (EM1.2 on order). If this link works, it's to a fireworks shot I made at 3.2 sec. held in my right hand with elbow resting on wheelchair. Also had a keeper at 5 sec. https://scontent-ort2-1.xx.fbcdn.net/v/t31.0-8/14188406_10208599282993008_3941583640622068804_o.jpg?oh=510883d7efb6a0ed3bc15181619626c5&oe=58DCBCA0

    1. That's a really nice shot Barry, well done!

    2. Great shot Barry ! I really love it, especially with the physical constraints you mentioned. I just received my new em1.2 and I hope to make nice shots like yours! Best regards

    3. hello Barry,
      Thanks for sharing your story and indeed it is wonderful to know that the image stabilization has helped you so much in getting wonderful shots. that image of fireworks was just crazy awesome. I think you will absolutely love the E-M1 Mark II when it comes to you and do go out shoot more photos!

  4. Great read as usual Robin!
    To me, it hasn't so much being a pre-meditated use of the IBIS on my em5 mark II, but instead I just rapidly gained so much confidence that both my serious tripod and my gorillapod simply haven't been used in ages!
    I'll keep them there as they might come in handy one day, but I no longer feel I need to lug them around. The gorillapod in particular was a must for many shots with my Canon 60D. Now I take a small messenger bag with me, and often actually just the camera and 1 lens in my pocket (yes, it fits with either the 17mm F1.8 and depending on my shorts sometimes even the 12-40 Pro).

    Unlike you however I continue to have issues with focusing from time to time - especially in action shots with say the 40-150 Pro. I'll get there one day! :-)

    1. Hi Felipe,
      Glad to know that you have found the freedom to hand-hold the camera without additional support! Is it not a lot more convenient?
      Oh dear, I am not exactly a sports and action shooter, so I won't comment much about the 40-150mm F2.8 PRO lens. If you are talking about continuous AF then the E-M5 Mark II surely is not doing that well in that area.

    2. I too have an em5ii and have trouble with auto focus using the 75-100 lens. 95% are blurry. I have turn IS off as recommended too, but that really hasnt helped.

  5. first thing first: I like how you mention that your info is for novices and professionals have little to gain here :-) I see what you are doing...

    I am (was) a professional with a college degree in photography so I guess that does classify me as (ex) pro?
    I can think of so many application where IBIS is really handy if not essential if ones wants to produce "outside the box" images. NOT all professional photography is based on static images, especially on-location fashion!
    There are several points you mention above that can easily apply to professional photography, creative wedding images comes to mind.
    Maybe architectural and product photography won't greatly benefit from IBIS but many other forms do.
    I have never taken more interesting images since I started using Olympus 5-Axis (E-P5 and E-M1) where not only native lenses are stabilized but any manual lenses (vintage) are so much more useful and versatile.

    1. You are right, gnarlydog, that the IS does benefit everyone, especially when it comes to hand-held photography. I just have to be extra cautious, because I myself am not a pro, and I should not act like I can speak for them. I must respect that the tripod is still necessary in some professional photography work and truly nothing replaces a sturdy, solid tripod in these circumstances.

  6. Great handheld shots. I agree that focus and hand shake are my two main concerns that can eliminate an image regardless of the remaining quality of content. And since it is technically avoidable, also the most frustrating. The quality of the 5-axis in body system distinguishes Olympus from the pack in this regard. That, plus the greatly improved focusing ability of the new EM1 MKii make for another quantum jump for me in significantly reducing "missed shots" due to these factors. I feel that the IBIS as implemented by Olympus is far more significant for my style of shooting (nature, portrait, and event coverage) than any of the advantages of full frame.

    1. Thanks Rich for sharing your thoughts. Sadly, to be able to implement such capable image stabilization system, the camera has to be kept small (smaller image sensor, allows for more room to move when stabilization in action). Having similar capability in larger full frame camera means you need to make the camera lot bigger.

  7. Thank you and Happy New Year, Robin! IBIS is indeed what allows MFT cameras to mostly match larger sensor rivals and Olympus has done an outstanding job, especially with the latest EM1 II. It's really the one single feature I would miss if ever going back to standard DSLR models. Therefore we can't wait for this latest technology to trickle down the Olympus product line!

    1. Happy New Year Vincent!
      Thanks for commenting and who knows how much more the IS can improve in the future. I think the Image Stabilization in E-M1 Mark II may trickle down to E-M5 Mark II's successor, but not other camera models. Just a speculation.

  8. Having a good image stabiliser like in the Olympus m43 cameras makes it easier to shoot handheld with a pinhole lens or a Hoya R72 infrared filter for IR photo. Live Bulb and Live Time functions ar also very nice..!

    1. Oh my goodness, you did live bulb and live time hand-held?

  9. Robin,

    Could you comment on what mode of IBIS you use and when you would use one over the other? Also, if you've ever tried the EM 1 Mark II with the Oly 100-400, do you use the lens IS or the camera's? Thanks.

    1. I think you are referring to a Panasonic 100-400mm lens. You need to choose either the lens or body IS. I have not tried that panasonic lens so I cannot give any useful comment.

  10. Hi Robin, thank you for this very interesting read and the impressive pictures. Can you please share some more details about the parameters of the shots (i.e. aperture and ISO), especially of the night shots with the light trails? Thanks.

    1. The light trail was F11, 5 seconds shutter speed and ISO200. The KLCC twin towers shot was F9, ISO Low, 5 seconds shutter speed. All hand-held of course. both at widest 12mm of 12-100mm F4 PRO lens.

    2. Thanks, Robin, for the details.
      I had a chance to test the IBIS (M1 Mk2 together with the 12-100) at a local dealer - and was rather disappointed. I didn't even get close to your five seconds. I couldn't even hand hold 1/10 or one second. All images were not sharp. I must have a very nervous finger or shaky hand that Olympus' technology cannot control... :-(


  11. Hi Robin, as always, most impressive. As I wrote earlier, the Oly IBIS system completely blew me away - 5 seconds hand-held, and tack-sharp images. Absolutely incredible and a mere 10 years ago anyone would have laughed at it, it would have been considered completely impossible. Oly is on a roll, quite the innovator. Very, very impressive.

    Keep up the good work! Always a pleasure to see your excellent and inspiring work.

    1. hi Andre!
      it is always a pleasure hearing from you. Thanks for the kind words always, and I just cannot wait to see what else Olympus has in their arsenal.

  12. I have loved my IBIS on my E-m1. However, there is a subject on which it does not help is when you photograph people. 95% of my photos are of people, especially of my two young girls and if I want to have non blurred images, I need to raise the speed, no way around it. That's why I am really wondering now if I so desesperatly need the ibis...

    1. If that is the case then perhaps you can consider using bounced flash to aid in such difficult situations?

  13. That's a stunning shot (as usual). This IBIS is the most advanced yet. Did you all see the DXOMark results that were released today? 80! That's APSC territory. What Olympus have done here is incredible. I am so happy with my EM1 M2. It's 1 week old and I have yet to even scratch the surface. Cheers.

    1. Yeap, was not surprised at all, considering I myself noticed and have mentioned those improvements in my own review of the E-M1 Mark II. It just confirms that I was not dreaming!

  14. Hi Robin, it would be an interesting experiment if you could try to take a hand-held night sky shot with the Panaleica 12mm/1.4. It would be a true demonstration of the system's incredible capabilities.

    1. Depends on what you want to do with the night sky. If you want to shoot Milky Way, at F1.4, and ISO3200 you still need about 20-30 seconds exposure. I can only hand-hold about 5 seconds confidently.

  15. Hi Robin, having never owned the larger format cameras or big lenses ive not learned that you instinctively cannot hand hold at certain focal lengths. So for me 5 Axis IS has helped me bypass a complete era of issues.
    I often use the I.S. to great effect. E-M1 12-40, f22 0.3 second hand held. https://www.flickr.com/photos/36424058@N02/30423983991/in/dateposted-public/

    All the best

    1. Thanks for sharing your experience, MG, glad to know that the E-M1's image stabilization has helped boosted your shooting confidence!

  16. I would agree with nearly all your comments. However... Fuji has been moving forward with their X-series cameras, which have no built-in IS. (I shoot Fuji and Olympus.) If (and it is a big "if") you believe reports on the new 24MP sensor that Fuji has put in recent camera bodies, it seems to provide at least one, and maybe two stops of usable higher-ISO advantage over the latest 20MP Olympus sensor. I do limit my OM-D M5 (which I have loved since 2012) to ISO 1600. My Fuji X-T10, a bit newer but not the latest sensor, provides image quality equal to that of the Oly at ISO 3200. I gain back a stop over the excellent Oly IS. Using fast glass (such as with the Fuji 35mm f/1.4 lens) can add another stop or two, compared to my new Oly 30mm f/3.5 macro, which is also a viable "walk around" lens. The IS of the Olympus is whittled down further in this example. So...whereas my shaky hands have LOVED the 5-axis IS, the latest sensor on the Fuji's seems to perform adequately well at ISO 6400. With a fast lens, higher shutter speeds (a) help reduce camera shake AND (b) subject movement, too, something that IS cannot control. So while I would love to see the Fuji X cameras get in-body IS, it seems that they are making that feature a little less important. My Oly will continue to see active service, however, especially on the macro side of things. Oly simply has some lenses that Fuji is lacking. Luckily, both cameras fit in my camera bag!! Cheers...

  17. IBIS can be benefit for all. Think about what will be the result if you have same 5 axis IBIS on Fuji with that censor and fast primes. So yes we all need IBIS. m43 users are lucky that they have a company which invented and perfected this feature. As we all know Sony and Panasonic is following the suit. I am sure Fuji and other companies are also looking into this. So I need IBIS, you need IBIS and we all need IBIS.

  18. Also I think IBIS creates great possibilities for firework photography. without IBIS we need to find a location without knowing what is coming. and if you happened to choose a location which is not that great because of wind (smoke...) and or if it is too close, you need to move around with your tripod probably crowed areas. It is not easy. Also there are certain places you cannot take tripod at all for security reasons. So I say IBIS can bring new life if you have steady hands and if you can find a structure to lean on. I will try this with my new E-M1 mII as soon as possible.

  19. I'm seriously tempted to get the new 12-100. I purchased the E-M1 Mk2 for the focus speed and it delivers very well in my action sports. What surprised the heck out of me was how much different the pictures looks. Not only are they much cleaner at higher ISO - 1.5 stops at least - but the detail is much higher at the higher ISO's. Images just looks different compared to the Mk1 - which I find to be just fine. One thing I don't care for in the Mk2 is the white balance just is not as good as any Oly I've ever used. I can't nail good skin colors even with specific WB numbers like I always did in previous m43 cameras. I do think i will get the 12-100 soon for my studio.

  20. Hi Robin,

    Nice hand held shots! Curious to know if the OMD M10 Mk2 would be able to achieve similar results like the pictures you have posted above?

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