Image Stabilization vs. Tripod Sharpness

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:

Left: handheld, Right: tripod

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!


Full images:

4 Comments on “Image Stabilization vs. Tripod Sharpness

  1. Nicely illustrated. I’ve always said that your tripod is your sharpest lens, but sometimes, it’s a pain. I just did a 1 week workshop photographing cypress trees down south and let me tell you – setting up a tripod in the water from a kayak is time consuming. I hardly used it and instead handheld pretty much everything. Could things have been sharper? Yes, but it was foggy so much of the time it doesn’t matter too much.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The tripod definitely helps get sharpness from 95% to 100%, but I agree there are times when it just isn’t an option. Sometimes I’ll just take a body and small lens on a long hike when weight is a concern. I can only imagine kayaking with one!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Beginning photographer here… like brand new… so I hear you saying IS will do the job on my vacations for now. I appreciate your site! Still trying to figure out the best camera for pictures and video … would prefer a single camera and trying to stay around $1000 (but can go higher if it would last for a few years.) Thanks for the post.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Image stabilization on the newer lenses is really amazing. It’ll work perfect for still subjects but if you’re looking to stop action (like sports, surfing, etc) than IS won’t help. You’ll need a bigger f/2.8 aperture and fast shutter for those.

      Liked by 1 person

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