Optical image stabilization—also known as IS, OIS, or VR—is built into some lenses and cameras. It lets you take photos at slower shutter speeds than you ordinarily could. There are, however, some situations when you shouldn’t use it. Let’s dig in.

OIS works by having stabilized elements in either the lens or camera body that move to counteract small motions like the shake of your hands when you’re using a long lens. It’s rated in stops, so a 2-stop IS will let you use a shutter speed two stops slower than the reciprocal rule would suggest. For example, if you’re using a 200mm lens, the reciprocal rule says your minimum shutter speed should be at least 1/200th of a second; with 2-stop IS enabled you could use a shutter speed of 1/50th of a second. You can see that in the shot below. They were both shot at 1/40th of a second but IS was on for the photo on the right.

This is really the only situation where IS will materially improve your images. If your shutter speed is significantly faster than the reciprocal of the focal length, then it just won’t matter whether you use IS or not. The golden rule of IS, then, is to make sure it’s on when you’re using a long-ish lens in low light—or any lens in really low light. That’s when you absolutely should use it, and it will help. Outside of that, it either doesn’t help or, as we’ll look at, might make things worse. So, let’s look at when you shouldn’t use IS.

You’re Using a Tripod

When you’re using a tripod, your camera is locked down and stable already. IS only works when there is a movement to counteract. If there’s no movement, then the gyroscopes and other stabilizing elements can introduce a small amount and lead to less sharp shots.

RELATED: How to Select and Use a Tripod

Or at least, that’s the theory. It’s certainly true of older IS systems, but most newer (or high end) setups can detect when the camera is mounted on a tripod. The reality is, however, that IS will not help if you’re using a well-secured tripod, so it makes sense to turn it off even if you are using a camera or lens with an IS system that will detect the tripod.

You’re Panning

If you’re panning to track a moving subject—like in sports or wildlife photography—then you need to be careful about using IS. Lenses designed for these sort of subjects normally have a dedicated IS mode that turns off one axis of the IS so that it won’t interfere with your photos.

If you’ve got such a lens, make sure it’s in panning mode when you’re trying to track horizontally moving subjects. Otherwise, the IS will try and stabilize out your horizontal track and things can get a little weird. If your lens doesn’t have a dedicated panning IS mode, then you should turn it off and use a faster shutter speed.

You’re Concerned About Battery Life

Since IS is electrically controlled, it does use up battery life. It’s normally only activated when you half-press the shutter button so, in regular use, it shouldn’t burn through too much power. However, if you’re in Live View mode then it will be active all the time and, combined with the battery drain of Live View itself, you will see a drop in how long you can use your camera.

If you’ve got a long day—or a few weeks—of shooting ahead of you without access to fresh batteries or a way to charge your camera, then you should turn IS off. It might only get you an extra dozen or so photos, but they could be the ones that make the trip worth it.

You’re Shooting Video

When you’re shooting photos, you will see the effect of IS between shots, but you won’t notice it in individual shots. On the other hand, if you’re shooting video, you will see the IS working in real time. There’s a reason that video professionals use powerful stabilizing gimbals rather than IS for their work.

If you’re shooting video and don’t want to risk IS artifacts appearing then turn it off. You’ll normally get better results stabilizing in post-production—unless you’re using IS that’s designed especially for video, like in the latest GoPro models.

There are two schools of thought when it comes to IS: leave it on unless you don’t need it or leave it off until you do need it. Which one you should subscribe to depends on what kind of things you shoot. If you often use long lenses in low light, go with default on. If you shoot a lot of the situations above, then go with default off. I leave it off and turn it on when I need it. You just have to make sure you remember to turn it on when it’s time.

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Harry Guinness is a photography expert and writer with nearly a decade of experience. His work has been published in newspapers like The New York Times and on a variety of other websites, from Lifehacker to Popular Science and Medium's OneZero.
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