When and When Not to Use OIS

I am reasonably certain we have all run into situations where we simply can not hold a camera steady enough to avoid smeared images due to camera movement… that's why tripods were invented, right? But over the years we've seen lenses and camera sensors that offer real help in this regard. Optical image stabilization ties a gyroscope to a lot of software that measures camera movement and applies signal to motors controlling elements in a lens (or the camera sensor itself) that shift the image in real time in an inverse manner to minimize the motion the camera sensor sees. Most cameras/lenses with this technology claim a 3 to 4 f-stop improvement. This means being able to use a 8x slower shutter speed and stil get a capture that is not blurred by camera movement. So what's not to love… turn it on and leave it on, right?

Nope… And Here's Why
The first thing to consider is that if your camera is already steady enough for a sharp photo at the desired shutter speed, how could this mechanism possibly help? It can't. It's not perfect, and is designed to reduce the effects of camera movement, not eliminate it entirely. You don't want this thing whirring about if you don't need it… so when don't you need it?

When Using a Tripod
If your camera is on a tripod, turn OIS off. Failing to do so will usually result in unwanted movement of the lens shift element/sensor that actually causes motion blur where there would be none without it. While some cameras/lenses have algorithms to sense when things are steady, and go into a "tripod mode" automatically, why count on that decision making process when you can easily flip a switch and be certain it is off?

Here are two 100% crops from two indentical photos shot with at 200mm-f/6.3-1/4 sec, one with VR off, and the other with it on. Notice the degradation of the latter in both sharpness and contrast.

Using Flash
If your predominate source of light is from a strobe, turn OIS off. The amount of time the light from a strobe is flashed on to your subject is a tiny fraction of a second that is simply not long enough for typical hand held camera movement to be a factor. Of course if you are exposing for the ambient light in your background and using flash to fill the foreground, you may want OIS on if your goal is to keep that background sharp, and a slower shutter speed is needed to accomplish that.

High Shutter Speeds
This is obviously a moving target depending on your focal length and how steady you can hold your camera and release the shutter, but if you're reasonably certain you will get good results without OIS then turn it off. For instance, if you are shooting at 40mm on a crop sensor, the reciprocal rule would indicate 1/60th of a second would give reasonable results without OIS. In this case, if you're shooting at 1/125th or higher, definitely turn it off. If you're a steady handed shooter you may want to turn it off even at 1/60th.

Longer focal lengths and higher shutter speeds can complicate things even further. If we're shooting with a 200mm lens, that ol' reciprocal rule for a crop sensor would dictate a shutter speed of 1/300th or higher. However, I would estimate the average photographer might not be able to hold the camera steady enough at 1/300th to get a tack sharp shot at 200mm, so OIS may still help here. I say 'may' as it might not. It simply depends on you and your gear. But to assume it can only help without actually testing it may give you results that are softer than your expectations.

Shooting Sports
When shooting sports (or any moving subject), high shutter speeds are required to 'freeze' that motion (OIS is only effective with camera movement and can't help with moving subjects). 1/500th, 1/1000th, and even higher can be commonplace. You may very well find that with all but the longest of lenses, these shutter speeds will give you better results with OIS turned off. In fact, with anything 1/500th or faster, I usually get better results without it.