How anti-shake can sharpen your shots

Take advantage of this amazing technology and you'll be going steady in no time

Don't get me wrong: Anti-shake technology, either built into a lens or a camera body's image sensor, is amazing. It has become invaluable in low-light situations when it is not possible or practical to set up a tripod or use a flash. But it can't un-shake everything.

For those of you who haven't used this technology yet, anti-shake (Canon and others call it Image Stabilization--IS--and Nikon calls it VR--Vibration Reduction) lets you use a much slower shutter speed while hand-holding the camera than you usually could to get an acceptably sharp image at a given focal length. Without anti-shake, the rule of thumb is, the focal length reciprocal and faster will yield an acceptably sharp image. So, you usually can make a sharp image with a 50mm lens at any shutter speed from 1/50 second on up. With a 200mm lens, it's 1/200 second or higher, and so on.

Anti-shake technology changes the rules: it is possible to make acceptably sharp images up to two full stops under the focal length reciprocal. You may get acceptably sharp photographs of a still subject, such as landscape or architecture, at about 1/60 second with a 200mm lens. For low-light and twilight landscapes, this opens up a whole new world of creativity in places where it would be tough to set up a tripod.

Un-unshakable exceptions

There are some things image stabilization can't unshake: a body in motion, whether it be a human in sports, a bird in flight, or a dog in pursuit of a flying disk, will be blurred at such slow shutter speeds. You will not freeze Johnny's arm in mid-pitch at 1/60 second. A bird's wings will be ghost-edged, if not outright blurs. The airborne dog? Well, you get the idea.


Anti-shake can't fix everything: Even with anti-shake turned on, the 1/30 sec shutter speed is too slow to freeze both background and Bailey, my fast-moving dog. Result? A blurry mess!

Panning with anti-shake on: Bailey's head is acceptably sharp for a panned shot, as she trots past, and there's a good sense of motion in the foreground and background. Exposure, 1/50 sec at f/6.3; ISO 200 at 135mm.


Action items


To freeze fast action with an image-stabilized lens, follow the standard procedure and shoot wide open to get the highest possible shutter speed for your exposure. But if you want to pan with a moving subject, image stabilization has additional benefits. Panning involves using a slow shutter speed and moving your camera to follow a moving subject. Stop down your aperture to give you a small f-stop and slow shutter speed. You don't have to worry about background separation, since the background will be a blur of motion, creating an apparently shallow depth of field, despite the small aperture. It is easiest to get good results with a subject that is moving in parallel to the film/sensor plane.

Focus on the subject and keep the subject centered in the viewfinder and press the shutter button while continuing to track the subject until after the exposure is made. I've panned with and without IS/VR activated, and I've had success both ways. IS is activated in the photo of Bailey here. Panning takes some practice. You may have a lot of misses along the way, but every now and again you'll make a photo that has a great combination of action, blur, sharp detail in the subject and a great sense of kinetic energy.


Sit. Stay. Good dog! Anti-shake is great for making sharp images of still subjects when it is necessary to use a slow shutter speed. I wanted to make some portraits of my dog, Bailey, showing her along one of her favorite hiking trails, with the trail in relatively sharp focus to the vanishing point. Because shutter speed must slow as you increase your depth of field at a given ISO, I knew I needed a slow shutter speed, one that was slower than the reciprocal of the focal distance. But I didn't have a tripod. IS to the rescue! Exposure: 1/25 sec at f/14, ISO 100; lens set at 60mm. Canon 550EX flash gives Bailey some "pop".

Beware the Java Jumpin' Jive!

Did you know that the amount of coffee you drink has a direct effect on your ability to hold a camera steady? According to published reports, depending on the individual and the amount of coffee consumed, stimulation from caffeine can cause a loss of around one stop's worth of steadiness. Our advice? Before a shoot, forget about Starbucks, Red Bull, or Coke--and drink some nice, soothing Chamomile tea.


--Mason Resnick


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