A long time ago, someone asked for a hypothetical D200 wishlist feature, I asked for simply one: in-camera vibration reduction.
Whatever you call it, this one recent gift from the video world has revolutionized photography by reducing the need for monopods and tripods.
A recent article when Gary “saw the light” about image stabilization in consumer cameras made me think about my wish.
What is image stabilization?
The answer itself depends on the person and the company implementing the solution. So maybe we should define the solutions out there and the company’s approaches.
The oldest form of image stabilization is Canon which brought their technology from the video camera world and calls their system “Image Stabilizer” (IS). The approach is to have a group of optics that “float” in the lens in order to counteract the vibration occuring in the camera. Because of this, I’ll call this class of solutions “optical image stabilization.”
Ironically (or perhaps not), the inventors of optical image stabilization were the last to apply it to compact/subcompact cameras.
The major problem with this besides the technology being almost exclusive to #1 and #2 is that it requires sinking a lot of money in lenses. This isn’t a big deal for compact cameras, but it is if you are a Nikon freak like me… You can see why my “wish” was tongue-in-cheek: why would Nikon or Canon put any form of stabilization into the camera body when they already make so much money putting it in the lenses?
If the Lumix lens roadmap is to be believed, we can expect much of the same from Panasonic. (If the numbers seem a bit strange, remember since this is 4/3 system, you double to get the 35mm equivalents. This means that 14-150mm f/3.5-5.6 OIS due out in 2007 is their version of my 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6G VR Nikkor.)
Shake that body!
Well instead of putting a floating optical element to keep the image on the CCD stabile, why not shift the CCD itself to compensate? This was the solution created by Minolta and by extension Konica-Minolta and now Sony. They call it “Anti-Shake” (AS) and it’s been a distinguishing feature of the K-M line from their compact cameras to their digital SLRs (formerly K-M Dynax, Maxxum, or Alpha, now called Sony Alpha).
By the way, Sony isn’t the only one to do this. With the introduction of the Pentax K100D, Pentax brings “Shake Reduction” to their dSLR bodies. Not that this hasn’t appeared in their compact cameras first: a sliding lens system for compactness + CCD shifting in the body for vibration reduction.
While optical image stabilization vs. sensor shifting seems a wash for a pocket camera, this is important for dSLRs with removeable lenses. Why? Well if you put a $100 50mm(ish) Sony Alpha mount or Pentax K-mount lens on one of these anti-shake bodies, you have vibration reduction in a prime lens for free!
When I said, “I want VR in a Nikon” this is what I meant. So you’ll forgive me if sometimes I look enviously at my Konica-Minolta (Sony) and (soon) Pentax compatriots.
And two more solutions…
Casio’s system tries to solve the shake problem in the digital signal processor. This means that the CCD samples the image over time across different photosites in the sensor in order to do in-software what anti-shake does with physical movement.
I’m not a big fan of this approach. It is not very known, but Casio had this feature as far back as my Casio Exilim EX-Z750 in one of their “Best Shot” modes. The shutter lag caused by this mode was intolerable and the quality of the output was “teh suck.” Once bitten, twice shy.
But don’t discount this approach; according to the latest reviews, cameras such as the Casio EX-Z1000, have fixed the performance and quality issues. A side benefit? Anti-shake right in the video recording. Couple this with Casio’s legendarily “shooter friendly” operation and Pentax sliding lens optics and you have a great consumer camera in a compact body.
The final approach I am aware of isn’t really image stabilization at all. Fuji has a system called “Picture Stabilization” which is really like an auto-ISO feature in a good dSLR system. It automatically adjusts the ISO in order to keep the picture stable when handheld. How can they get away with this and not suck? Well a dirty little secret about Fuji is that they make their own CCDs that have a unique function: two sensors per photosite where the extra sensor is a different size (different size means that they’re sensitive to different amounts of light). This gives cameras such as the Fuji F30 the ability to go to ISO 3200. Pretty impressive for a compact.
Stating the obvious
Whenever there is a discussion about image stabilization it is important to remember that this is not a panacea. What it does is replace the inconvenience of a tripod or monopod. What it cannot do is freeze the subject you are photographing. This becomes a huge factor as you use image stabilization more, you might forget your shutter speed is too low to prevent the subject from being blurry—something that happens all the time in event photography. At that point you have to resort to more traditional solutions: higher ISO or a strobe.
Finally, I haven’t looked into things very closely but it looks like all image stabilization systems only work in two dimensions. The world we operate is three-dimensional. How is this a factor? Well if you are taking a macro shot without a tripod, then shake toward or away from the subject might not be stabilized! (I guess at this point it should be called “focus stabilization.”)
Theoretically, this can be solved with an optical image stabilization system (or an anti-shake system where you float, instead of slide, the sensor), but I don’t know if any system solves this or if anyone cares to solve it. If anyone knows the answer to this, please let me know.
A pet theory
One thing I’ve noticed about using optical image stabilization (a lot) is that it is very hit-or-miss. Sometimes the system kicks in, sometimes it thinks you’re panning and doesn’t, and sometimes it gets overly agressive about your shots. Sometimes you can get “2 stops more”; sometimes it’s 4-stops or none at all.
I have this pet theory that the popularity of image stabilization coincides with the popularity of digital photography in general. Why? Because the cost to develop a shot and throw out a bad shot is low, offsetting the natural hit-or-miss nature of VR.
Sony has a new CCD sensor that can take 60 full-resolution frames a second. So what? Who needs that? Isn’t that just video you ask? Well an interesting thing about lossy compression is the principle: sharper shots compress less. I imagine in the near future where you could take a dozen shots of the same scene with one shutter press and the review of “the keeper” could occur automatically in-camera. God knows I’m getting tired of organizing all my stacks in Aperture with the loupe tool on.
At that point, the cost to using image stabilization is zero.