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Superzoom camera group: Image stabilization

With their 10x or greater optical zoom lenses, these camera offer excellent versatility, but with this impressive reach comes a potential drawback - shaking the camera by a very small amount can result in a large movement relative to the kind of distant subject that a long lens encourages you to shoot.

The traditional 'reciprocal rule' suggests that you should aim to use a shutter speed equal to the reciprocal of the focal length to ensure sharp shooting - so a 400mm lens should really be used with shutter speeds faster than 1/400th of a second. The reciprocal rule is only a guide, of course, and one that becomes increasingly inaccurate with small-sensor cameras but the fact remains that without image stabilization it's not advisable to shoot with a 300mm + (equivalent) lens in anything but the best light.

Thankfully all of the cameras here have either lens or sensor-shift image stabilization. These stabilization systems are designed to help you to continue to get steady shots even towards the long end of the zooms, in less than ideal light.

One of the most common misconceptions about image stabilisation is that it corrects for subject movement as well as camerashake - it doesn't. If you're taking a photo of a moving subject, no amount of image stabilization will stop that subject from moving during long, slow exposures but the lens and sensor-shift systems are at least good enough to allow you to get stable shots of static subjects, despite the slow lenses.

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

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. Because not all the cameras have the ability to manually set the shutter speed, we adjusted the settings until we were able to get all the cameras to consistently shoot at 1/30th of a second. This was the point at which the majority of the cameras showed evidence of shake when IS was off and some sharp images when it was switched on (at the long end of the zooms).

Our test isn't intended to be a comprehensive performance break-down of each camera's IS system at all focal lengths and with a range of different subjects (if we did that you'd be reading this in 2011...) but by shooting in a controlled environment it gives a good idea of how these cameras' stabilization systems compare against one another. The shooting parameters are as follows:

  • Light levels equivalent to standard interior lighting (EV8.5)
  • Cameras hand-held, at their longest telephoto setting, 10 feet away from test target.
  • Cameras set to Program mode, at their base ISO
  • Assuming a base ISO is ISO 100, this should give a shutter speed of roughly 1/30sec but exposure compensation is used if it doesn't.
  • Ten shots taken with IS on (ten per IS mode if applicable) and ten with IS turned off (where possible).

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

Test results (click to enlarge)

Canon SX210 IS
Optical Stabilization
Casio Exilim EX-FH100
Sensor-based stabilization
Fujifilm FinePix F80EXR
Sensor-based stabilization
Fujifilm FinePix JZ500
Sensor-based stabilization
Kodak EasyShare Z950
Optical Stabilization
Nikon Coolpix S8000
Optical Stabilization
Olympus Stylus Mju 9010
Optical Stabilization
Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS5/7
Optical Stabilization
Ricoh CX3
Sensor-based stabilization
Samsung HZ35W
Optical Stabilization
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H55
Optical Stabilization
Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX5
Optical Stabilization

The best-performing IS systems in this group belong to the two Panasonics and the Nikon S8000, all of which deliver a 100% success rate in our tests. The Fuji JZ560 and Canon SX210IS also give excellent performance. The least reliable IS systems belong to the Casio FH-100, whose sensor-based stabilzation is clearly less effective than those in the Fuji pair and the Ricoh CX3, and the Sony DSC-H55, which gives a disappointing result. Both Sony cameras offer an optical image stabilisation system (as opposed to their DSLR counterparts which move the sensor) which cannot be turned off.

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