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Superzoom camera group: Image stabilization

With this latest generation of superzooms we've again seen another increase in maximum focal length and with zoom lenses as long as 560mm (equivalent) optical image stabilization has become an even more important feature than it already was. It is essential at the longer zoom settings to avoid camera shake and blur ruining every shot, especially when shooting in anything other than bright sunlight. All nine cameras here offer either lens or sensor shift image stabilization to counter the effects of camera movement. Of course camera shake is only half the problem; blurring caused by subject movement can only be avoided by the use of a higher shutter speed, which in all but the brightest conditions will involve increasing the ISO setting.

All cameras apart from Kodak additionally offer some kind of digital image stabilization which simply increases the sensor sensitivity when required, and thereby increasing the shutter speed which the camera is able to use to get a correct exposure. Shooting at higher shutter speeds minimizes the risk of camera shake and/or subject movement but the higher ISO settings that are required to do so inevitably involve a degradation of image quality. Some models (Canon, Fujifilm, Panasonic) offer more than one stabilization option, usually 'continuous' and 'shoot only'. The former has the advantage of stabilizing the live preview (which makes framing a lot easier) but the latter is, theoretically, better (though in our experience the difference is minimal). Both sensor and lens shift systems stabilize the live preview when the shutter is half-pressed and the focus locked, though in our tests the two lens IS cameras here (the Canon and Panasonic) produced a far more stable preview image at the long end of the zoom than any of the sensor shift cameras.

The amount of (unwanted) blur you'll see in your shots is affected by several factors:

  • How still you can hold the camera (your own stability and the camera's design)
  • How effective the camera's stabilization system is
  • The focal length
  • The shutter speed, which is influenced by:
    - ISO setting
    - Maximum Aperture
    - Scene brightness

In the table below you can see how the various cameras in this group compare:

 
IS type
Max Focal Length
Max Shutter Speed
Max Aperture at full tele
Canon SX 20 IS Lens
560mm
1/3200
F5.7
Casio EX-H25 Sensor
520mm
1/2000
F4.5
Fujifilm HS10 Sensor
720mm
1/4000
F5.6
Fujifilm S2500HD Sensor

504mm

1/2000
F5.6
Kodak Z981 Sensor
676mm
1/2000
F5.0
Nikon P100 Sensor
678mm
1/2000 *
F5.0
Panasonic FZ35 Lens
486mm
1/2000
F4.4
Pentax X90 Sensor
676mm
1/4000
F5.0
Samsung HZ25W Sensor
624mm
1/2000
F5.0

* 1/8000 in sport continuous mode

None of the systems we tested can do miracles but some perform better than others. Having said that the differences are fairly small with the best systems giving you an advantage of just over two stops and the worst of approximately one stop. So, no matter what cameras you are shooting with, it's always worth switching the IS on. In terms of results the cameras in this group test can roughly be divided into two groups. The better half includes the Panasonic, Canon, Fujifilm HS10, Nikon and Pentax which all deliver around two stops of advantage over unstabilized shooting.

The second group is formed by the Samsung, Casio and Fujifilm S2500HD which all give an improvement of around one stop. Within these two groups the differences are marginal. Since on the Kodak Z981 the image stabilization cannot be deactivated we could not measure the difference the system makes but looking at the camera's results it's probably fair to say the Kodak IS is less efficient than most rivals in this test. Ours isn't necessarily the most scientific test in the world, but it should give you an idea of how much you can expect from an IS system in what we consider 'normal' usage conditions.

Image Stabilization test

To get an idea of the effectiveness of each camera's stabilization system we performed a slightly modified version of the test we use in our SLR reviews.

At a range of shutter speeds (from 1/1000 to 1/15 sec) we take a total of twenty hand-held shots were taken of a static scene, ten without stabilization, ten with IS turned on. For these tests we used each camera's longest focal length setting and the test chart was approximately 7.0m away from the camera. The camera was held with two hands, just as you would normally take your pictures with cameras of this type, and we're looking for how much improvement the IS modes offer, not an absolute measurement of 'how low you can go' with the shutter speeds. Every effort was made to hold the camera still in all cases.

The resulting images were then inspected at a pixel level on-screen and given a blur score from zero to three where zero represented a very blurred image and three a sharp image with no noticeable blur (see crop examples below). Obviously the amount of blur which is acceptable will depend on your personal taste and the final image size (for instance a '2: Soft' will still look fine as a 4x6 print or in a web gallery).

0: Very blurred 1: Blurred
2: Soft 3: Sharp

Canon SX20 IS

The SX20 IS uses lens shift image stabilization that offers three modes (continuous, shoot only and panning). In our tests Canon's IS system proved its worth, giving an advantage of around 2.0 stops and allowing us to capture sharp or only slightly blurred shots at shutter speeds down to 1/15 sec.

Canon SX20 IS @ 560mm, IS OFF results Canon SX20 IS @ 560mm, IS ON results

Casio EX-H25

The Casio EX-H25's sensor-shift stabilization can be combined with digital IS but here we've tested the abilities of the optical system. The Casio IS makes a difference but it's as big as we've seen on some other cameras, giving an advantage of only about one stop. On the plus side even at shutter speeds as slow as 1/15th you still get a fairly large proportion of at least usable shots.

Casio EX-H25 @ 520mm, IS OFF results Casio EX-H25 @ 520mm, IS ON results

Fujifilm HS10

The Fujifilm HS10 has the longest zoom lens in this group test and therefore relies more than any other camera in this test on an efficient IS system. The Fujifilm's two modes (continuous and shooting only) deliver almost identically decent results. The system gives you an advantage of approximately two stops and even at shutter speeds as slow as 1/15th sec we got an impressive 90% of usable results with the HS10.

Fujifilm HS10 @ 720mm, IS OFF results Fujifilm HS10 @ 720mm, IS ON results

Fujifilm S2500HD

Like on its bigger stable mate HS10 the S2500HD's two modes are very similar but the end results is, despite of the considerably shorter focal length, not quite as good with the Fujifilm's system giving you an advantage of approximately one stop. Nevertheless even at very slow shutter speeds you've still got some chance of getting a usable image if you take a few 'safety shots'.

Fuji S2500HD @ 504mm, IS OFF results Fuji S2500HD @ 504mm, IS ON results

Kodak Z981

The Kodak Z981 is the only camera in this test that does not allow you to disable its IS system. Therefore we could only collect data for the active system which is doing a very decent job, giving you a 100% usable shots at 1/30 sec. However, at shutter speeds even slower than that the success rate drops steeply and quickly.

Kodak Z981 @ 676mm, IS ON results
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