Six New Digicams With Image Stabilizer; How Effective Are The Latest Camera-Shake Compensating Systems?

Digital cameras with built-in shake compensating devices have been available for at least three years, but this feature is definitely increasing in popularity. At one time, an Image Stabilizer was considered to be necessary only with long telephoto lenses, but it's quickly making its way down the ranks. Today, you can find cameras with short 3x optical zooms that are equipped with an Anti-Shake device. Panasonic should get the credit for this trend. By 2005, all of their new Lumix cameras included the MEGA Optical Image Stabilizer. Other manufacturers began to follow suit, adding their own Image Stabilizers to smaller cameras.

We decided to check out the effectiveness of each company's latest Image Stabilizer technology by testing the most recent digicams with this amenity. That included both compact cameras and the "super zoom" models with 10x or longer optical zooms. You can find many other Image Stabilized cameras in any well stocked store, but the six I tested won't be obsolete by the time you read this.

Even in the small reproductions here, the difference in sharpness should be noticeable in these photos made with and without a camera's Image Stabilizer at a 1/6 sec shutter speed. The difference is not always as significant, however. Often, images that are slightly blurred by camera shake may look fine in a 4x6" print or in a small JPEG on a family web page. But the value of an Image Stabilizer device usually becomes obvious in 8x10" or larger prints. (Pentax's Optio A10 at a 38mm equivalent focal length.)
All Photos © 2006, Peter K. Burian, All Rights Reserved

Who Needs An Image Stabilizer?
Before getting into specifics, it's worth appreciating the value of any camera-shake compensating system. Whenever we take a photo while hand holding a camera, our natural body tremors produce some shake. That's not a problem when using fast shutter speeds such as 1/1000 sec. Even if you shoot while horseback riding, the extremely short exposure time should produce a sharp photo.

Of course, camera shake will degrade image sharpness at longer shutter speeds. Very few people in the world can hold a camera perfectly still for very long. And if the camera is not perfectly still, the image projected to the sensor will be moving during the exposure; that will produce a blurry photo. The longer the focal length of the lens, the more obvious the blurring will be. That's because a telephoto lens amplifies the effect of camera shake in addition to magnifying the subject.

A sturdy tripod is the best solution in low light but you won't always be carrying this accessory. As well, a tripod is prohibited or impractical in many shooting situations: on a busy city street, in a theater, sports stadium, concert hall, or museum, for example. (Also, a tripod is useless when shooting from an unstable platform such as a boat.) Granted, electronic flash can help to "freeze" a subject in low-light photography but flash is sometimes prohibited and it's impractical for distant subjects.

To be sure of making sharp images when hand holding a non-stabilized camera remember this rule of thumb. Use at least a 1/30 sec shutter speed at a 1x zoom setting, at least 1/125 sec at a 3x zoom setting, at least 1/250 sec at a 5x zoom setting, and at least 1/500 sec at a 10x or 12x zoom setting. That won't be a problem in many outdoor situations, but in low light, you'll need to set a high ISO level to get such fast shutter speeds. Consequently, your photos will exhibit more prominent digital noise: colored specks resembling coarse film grain. And even when using ISO 800 (the highest typical level in digicams) you may find that shutter speeds will be very long in most night photography.

How It Works
That's exactly why an increasing number of cameras incorporate an Image Stabilizer mechanism. While every company uses its own proprietary technology, these all work in a similar manner. Gyro sensors detect the extent and direction of camera shake and send the data to a CPU in the lens. This microcomputer shifts a group of lens elements--or an internal mechanism in the Pentax Optio A10--in the appropriate direction to counteract the effect. The incoming light rays are refracted (bent) and the projected image is returned to the center of the frame for a sharper picture.

How We Tested
In an ideal world, we would have hired a team of testers in various age groups and steadiness categories. They would have produced hundreds of photos, using every focal length with each camera's zoom lens, in various types of lighting conditions, in close and distant focusing, and so on. Since that was not practical, I became the only official tester. Naturally, I used each of the cameras on many occasions, at various times of day, during a two-week period.

Some of my colleagues can hand hold a non-stabilized camera at exceptionally long shutter speeds. By comparison, I'm merely average as confirmed during previous tests of cameras and lenses. My results were usually right on. They matched the manufacturers' estimates as to the shutter speeds that would provide sharp photos in handheld shooting with and without the Image Stabilizer.

Because three of the six cameras do not include any type of viewfinder, most of the comparison tests were conducted using the LCD monitor for framing the images. That's also the shooting style used by nearly every digicam owner, even with cameras that include an optical or electronic viewfinder. However, it's not the best method, especially when using a very long zoom lens setting. As mentioned in our chart, I was able to get sharp photos at longer shutter speeds by using the viewfinder. That's because it allows for a more stable holding technique, with the camera pressed against the face and elbows tucked into the body.

Note: The six cameras were not all available at the same time so full side-by-side testing was not possible. The Canon PowerShot SD700 arrived long after I had completed primary testing during a trip to New York City. And the Kodak EasyShare Z612 was not available until even later. Even so, I gave the two latecomers a good workout, too, in similar lighting conditions, using similar focal lengths and shutter speeds as in earlier tests. As well, I was able to shoot a couple of the same subjects with all of the cameras since they were in or near my home.

"Short-Range" Zoom Cameras Nikon's Coolpix P3
Quite thick by today's standards, this 8-megapixel camera is not particularly heavy in spite of its aluminum exterior panels. Nikon's (optical) Vibration Reduction (VR) system provides a choice of two modes. Normal stabilizes camera shake in all directions. Active stabilizes only up/down shake; it's intended for use from a moving vehicle or when panning with a moving subject.

The Nikon Vibration Reduction (VR) system proved to be remarkably effective and also highly consistent in most situations. Even at shutter speeds longer than those recommended in the chart, the Coolpix P3 produced a high percentage of images without blurring from camera shake. (Normal VR mode; ISO 100; 36mm equivalent focal length; 1/6 sec shutter speed.)

This Coolpix camera has a 36-126mm equivalent f/2.7-5.3 zoom with wide apertures at short zoom settings for faster shutter speeds. Surprisingly, the highest ISO level is only 400. Hence, this would not be the best choice for someone who wants to shoot night scenes without a tripod. In dark conditions, the 2.5" LCD screen was fairly bright and autofocus was reliable, especially at shorter focal lengths. (Like all six of the digicams tested, this one employs a near-infrared focus assist beam in low light; that feature is effective only with nearby subjects, up to about 10 ft from the camera.)

The Coolpix P3 measures 3.6x2.4x1.2" and weighs 5.6 oz; $379, street price. A second (similarly priced) model, the P4 is nearly identical but does not include the P3's Wi-Fi feature.

Stabilizer Evaluation: In my field tests, this Nikon camera's Image Stabilizer was the most effective in all circumstances, thus merited the highest rating among the three compact cameras. It was a strong contender against the super zoom cameras as well at focal lengths up to the 126mm equivalent. For optimal results, it's important to select the Normal VR mode with most types of subjects.

Canon's PowerShot SD700 IS
Canon has many years of expertise with Optical Image Stabilizers and it's great to finally find this technology in a shirt pocket-size PowerShot camera. The SD700 IS is not quite as small and slim as the Pentax Optio A10 but it has a longer 35-140mm equivalent f/2.8-5.5 aspherical zoom lens. The maximum aperture is wide only at the shortest focal lengths, but an ISO 800 level is available for faster shutter speeds in low light. In dark conditions, the LCD monitor is acceptably bright, particularly when shooting at shorter focal lengths; autofocus remains reliable at all zoom settings.

The Nikon Vibration Reduction (VR) system proved to be remarkably effective and also highly consistent in most situations. Even at shutter speeds longer than those recommended in the chart, the Coolpix P3 produced a high percentage of images without blurring from camera shake. (Normal VR mode; ISO 100; 36mm equivalent focal length; 1/6 sec shutter speed.)

This take-anywhere camera was primarily designed for ease of use but it's not strictly for snap shooters. It's equipped with a 2.5" LCD monitor, nine-point autofocus system, a Widescreen (16:9) shooting mode, a "Manual" (Semiautomatic) mode as well as 14 Programs, three metering patterns, and many overrides. Rare in today's compact digicams, the PowerShot SD700 has a zooming optical viewfinder. However, it's tiny, not very clear, and provides only 92 percent scene coverage. It measures 3.56x2.22x1.04" and weighs 5.9 oz; $479, street price.

Stabilizer Evaluation: The Canon Image Stabilizer system is certainly quite effective as noted in our chart. It's also full-featured, with three modes: Continuous (great for stabilizing the LCD screen image), Shoot Only (activated just before a photo is taken), and Panning (for use when moving the camera to follow subject motion at a long shutter speed). In the ratings, it edged out the Pentax Shake Reduction device for second place primarily because of greater versatility and consistency.

When testing each of the six cameras, I always shot a burst of several photos at the same shutter speed. Typically, some of the images were sharp while others were blurred by camera shake as illustrated by these examples made with the PowerShot SD700. However, overall, this Canon camera proved to be better than average in terms of consistency. (At 140mm equivalent focal length; ISO 400; 1/25 sec shutter speed; Image Stabilizer On; LCD monitor used for framing.)

Pentax's Optio A10
Unlike the other five contenders, this camera shifts the CCD sensor module to compensate for movement detected by its two internal gyro sensors. (The module is on a moveable platform that allows for shifting the CCD in any direction.) This approach appears to be identical to the one that was used by the late lamented Konica Minolta in the Anti-Shake device used in some DiMAGE cameras. However, a Pentax rep insisted that their Shake Reduction system is "different" in an unspecified manner.

This slim camera with an aluminum casing features a 37.5-112.5mm equivalent f/2.8-5.4 zoom with three aspherical elements. The maximum aperture is wide only at short focal lengths, for faster shutter speeds in low-light wide angle photos. The highest selectable ISO is only 400, but the camera can set ISO 800 in Candle Light Scene mode for faster shutter speeds.

There's no optical viewfinder, but the 2.5" LCD monitor is acceptably bright in very dark conditions at short focal lengths; autofocus is also most reliable at wide angle zoom settings. It measures 3.5x2.1x0.9" and weighs 4.4 oz; $349, street price.

The Pentax Shake Reduction system sometimes provided razor-sharp images at surprisingly long shutter speeds such as the 1/5 sec used for this telephoto image. However, if you buy this camera, use the higher shutter speeds recommended in the chart to get a higher percentage of images without blur from camera shake. (Pentax's Optio A10 at 100mm equivalent; ISO 400.)

Stabilizer Evaluation: Considering the very slim, compact body, it's difficult to understand how Pentax crammed a CCD-shift Stabilizer into this camera. While the system sometimes provided sharp images during remarkably long exposures, it was not always consistent at more typical shutter speeds. Especially in close focus photography, it's worth shooting several frames of any really low-light scene when using the Optio A10. That should provide at least one photo that will be sharp and sometimes, all of the pictures will be technically excellent.

"Super Zoom" Models Panasonic's Lumix DMC-TZ1

For a super zoom camera with a metal body, this one is remarkably small/lightweight. That's because Panasonic uses "folded optics" technology employing a prism to reflect light to the LCD monitor. Hence, the aspherical Leica DC VARIO-ELMARIT 35-350mm equivalent lens barely protrudes from the body. The f/2.8-4.2 maximum apertures are quite wide, great for faster shutter speeds. This is the first Lumix super zoom camera without a viewfinder, eliminated for size reduction. The 2.5" LCD is acceptably bright in very dark locations; autofocus is reliable then as well, but only in the 1-4x zoom range. Note that ISO levels to 800 are selectable; ISO 1600 is available, too, in a special High ISO Program mode. Panasonic's MEGA Optical Image Stabilizer offers two distinct modes: #1 for continuous camera-shake compensation (for a sharp LCD image) and #2 for a higher stabilization level. The latter is activated a split second before the camera takes a photo. The camera measures 4.41x2.29x1.58" and weighs 7.3 oz; $350, street price.

An Image Stabilizer can be valuable when shooting from an unstable platform such as a boat, or in this case, a tram moving along a rough road. Although I was forced to hold the camera with one hand--to shoot over the heads of other passengers--the Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ1 generated some surprisingly sharp telephoto images at a 1/200 sec shutter speed. (At 229mm focal length equivalent; ISO 100; Image Stabilizer mode #2; image cropped by 30 percent to eliminate distracting areas.)

Stabilizer Evaluation: No other company makes as many cameras with built-in Image Stabilizer and Panasonic employs very effective technology. Particularly in mode #2, the DMC-TZ1 allowed me to make sharp images in low light at fairly long shutter speeds. The only drawback is the lack of a viewfinder. Using the LCD monitor while framing photos does not allow for the extra stability possible with the viewfinder-equipped cameras. Even so, this Lumix model came in first overall in the super zoom category. Although not obvious in the comparison chart, this camera's Image Stabilizer was the most reliable of the three super zoom models. In other words, it produced the highest percentage of sharp photos at long shutter speeds.