It used to be in the old days, you needed a shutter speed roughly the same as the focal length of your lens. So if you were shooting with a 200mm lens, you need to use about 1/250 to have a chance at a reasonable sharp lens. And telephones were the worst since their length amplifies the wiggles of unsteady hands, age, too much caffine and so on. If you were active, it was worse. You learned to pan very carefully, you learned to cradle the camera right up against your body like a gun. And you still ended up with fuzzy images.
Move up 20 years and now we have IS (Image Stabilization), VR (Vibration reduction) and other names for the same thing. Some work in the lens and some work in the body of the camera. It has become cheap enough that most new point and shoots have a form of it available. I can hand hold the lens at 1/80 and get a sharp image at a wedding without a tripod or monopod. In other words, I can get difficult shots much easier.
VR will not save the world in spite of the marketing propaganda. Sure, you can shoot at 1/10 F5.6 and get a sharp picture but whats the point if the subject is moving? Like kids at a party? So you get a sharp wall and a blur that was the kid running past.
But what does it DO? In simple terms, with the Nikon, there is a package of electronics that move the front element of the lens set actively to get the sharpest image when the shutter is triggered. On many Nikon DLSRs, you can hear a “clunk” as the system engages. I know alot of professional photographers who sneer at VR (I shoot Nikon, so I know this system) as a crutch and that “real” photographers do not use VR. To be honest, I did too for a while and then I thought VR would save the world but finally I understand that VR is just another tool that an help or hinder depending on how I use it.
For example, I spent quite a bit of money on a 70-200mm F.8 lens that is also VR. Why VR on a “fast” piece of glass you ask? Well, the lens can take amazinly sharp images but with the VR engaged, I expand my working range of settings. Instead of having to be still at 1/250 shutter, I can be in a car at 80 MPH and shooting 1/360 at F8 with the lens racked out at 200 mm and still get sharp images inspite of the car and the camera bouncing around on the roadway.
Lets take a look at VR (IS) and see when it’s useful. A typical arrangement for Nikon shooters is to use something like a D80/D90 with a 18-200mm F4.5 VR zoom. So the typical shooting would be something like ISO 1000 to 1600 to keep the noise manageable. So shooting at F4 which is wide open for this lens means in a semi-dark event, that you are shooting something like 1/20 of second shutter. It will be bad enough that the subjects will be moving but at 1/10-1/20 hand holding a zoom lens at something like 100mm on average means alot of blurry pictures. On the other hand, VR will at least give a clear image of what is not moving while you shoot. VR normally is like 3 stops.. so the 1/20 is really shooting at about 1/60 to 1/100 “apparent” shutter speed. It wont stop the action but the background, tables etc will be sharp. Where VR really shines is shooting something like a stage show with enough light that you will be shooting about 1/60 ish and you are shooting long like 100 to 200mm. The shutter is just fast enough to catch people standing still and the VR will give a good focus even at 200mm since the “apparent” shutter is around 1/200.
Here is a family shot taken at 200mm with a 18-200mm zoom shooting wide open at F5.6 and 1/100 shutter. Normally, this would have blurred unless taken with a tripod or supported some how. In this case the camera was held by hand and resting on my forearm. The VR gave a clear image with the low shutter speed relative to the smallish aperture.
VR is not a cure all and it does cost you some in clairity at least in the cheaper lenses like the NIkon 18-55mm VR and 18-200 VR. I always seem to see a bit of softness instead of a really sharp focus with these lenses. This even holds true for the expensive F2.8 VR but on that lens it is very dependent on how bright the image is. Shooting VR in good conditions gives a razor sharp image that you can count nose hairs with. In low light, it’s a bit fuzzy on the edges. But I got the image and it’s usable unlike shooting with it and not getting a usable image. I find that a high pass sharpening works wonders at cleaning up the edges.
Here is another shot where VR really makes a difference. I shot several pictures together by hand at night with the F4 aperture and about 1/30 shutter. Then I stitched them all together. With the VR, all of the images were sharp in spite of hand holding and the low shutter speed.
VR works in the daytime also. One of my favorite lenses to shoot with for daily stuff is a Nikon lens that costs about 150 USD and looks like it might blow away in a stiff breeze. It’s scary light when you pick it up but it can really take some nice pictures when given a chance.
These images were taken with the 18-55mm VR and both images have sold. It is not always about the equipment.
This image of the Disney California Adventure Zephyr was taken by hand with a shutter of 1/2 second
This image was taken using a shutter of 1/40 and panning with the zoom at 18mm. Look how sharp the people and rocket is. Hard to believe it was a 150 dollar lens huh?
So the bottom line is that stabilization is your friend and even in a cheap lens, it can really make a world of difference. You just need to know the limits of VR (IS) and remember that some basic rules apply even with VR. Shutter speed is shutter speed, a slow shutter will give blurred motion to moving objects without or with VR enabled. Stationary objects work best with VR. VR is not perfect but it will certainly help.