If you’ve ever used a lens with Image Stabilization (or Optical Stabilization, or Vibration Reduction, etc…), you’re probably well aware of the magical ability to hand hold your camera and achieve a clear shot at what seems like an unbelievable shutter speed. The first time I nailed a photo with crystal clear sharpness at 1/2 of a second, I could barely believe it! Usually a tripod was needed for any shutter speed under the ” 1/focal length” recommendation, right?
Well, I wanted to test exactly what the difference was between relying on IS vs. a tripod for capturing a sharp image. Was the IS really a miraculous technology that made a tripod unnecessary? I was watching the sunrise from a distance and decided to test this with one of the sharpest lenses I own, the Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II. The stabilization is exceptional, and I’ve managed to capture images at 300 – 400mm with shutter speeds as low as 1/30s.
So – the test. I really liked the sunlight white birch trees reflecting in the lake across from our deck, and I wanted to capture the morning scene. At first I used the 100-400 at 350mm with IS. The light was good, and I really liked how great the photo turned out at 1/200s. But, I wanted to try out the tripod, so I ran to the other room, turned off the IS, mounted the huge lens, and reframed the scene.
Below is a comparison of the sharpness from the IS handheld image compared side by side with the tripod version (w/ 2 second delay to eliminate any residual shake) zoomed all the way in to a 200% view:
You may be thinking, well that left hand image is sharp enough, and it certainly is workably clear given the full zoom. But just look at that clarity on the tripod version! The lens sharpness really shines, and the right hand image would no doubt make a better print.
One thing that gives a massive point in favor of IS: the time to set up. When light is changing quickly, as it was on this morning, setup time to shot is critical. The reason I decided to take this image was the golden morning light, yet by the time I set up the tripod and fired off the comparison image, clouds had moved in leaving nothing but a flat scene.
So in this case, the better light wins. Luckily, I wake up to this scene fairly often and can simply retake a tripod image when it gets good light again. But if I ever find myself somewhere like the Grand Canyon, or White Sands, or Patagonia…. the IS version is more than acceptable for me!
Which do you rely on more to get a great image: image stabilization, fast shutter speeds, or a tripod? Let me know in the comments below!