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Underwater camera group: Image stabilization

With all but one of these cameras only extending to about 100 mm at the telephoto end (and the W60 only extending to 140mm) the need for image stabilization to keep the image sharp (and reduce camera shake) is not as great as in superzoom cameras, even given the relatively slow lenses on all the cameras in this group. Take them underwater though, and you quickly realize why IS might be important. In many situations, going just one meter under the surface of the water will result in a large reduction in available light, and while there is the possibility of flash, it is not always preferable to use it, and the poor high ISO performance of small sensors means that to get sharp detailed images you might need to keep ISO settings low and use slower shutter speeds - at which point you need image stabilization.

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 100mm lens should really be used with shutter speeds faster than 1/100th of a second. The reciprocal rule is only a guide, of course, and one that becomes increasingly inaccurate with small-sensor cameras, but it should still be apparent that without image stabilization it'd be difficult to use a 100mm equivalent lens in light that would require 1/100 shutter speed.

In this group of cameras four of the cameras feature image stabilization (the Canon D10, Panasonic TS1 and the Olympus models) while the other three (W60, W80 and Z33) use high ISO settings via scene modes to keep images sharp as light levels fall. Image stabilization is not a magic bullet that will make images sharp at all light levels at base ISO, as there are limits to how slow a shutter speed it can cope with; and as shutter speeds get low, subjects that move will be recorded as a blur anyway.

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 Powershot D10 Lens
105mm
1/3200
F4.9
FujiFilm Z33 WP None
105mm
1/2000
F5.9
Olympus Tough 6000 Dual
102mm
1/2000
F4.9
Olympus Tough 8000 Dual
102mm
1/2000
F4.9
Pentax Optio W60 None
140mm
1/1500
F5.5
Pentax Optio W80 None
140mm
1/1500
F5.5
Panasonic TS1 Lens
128mm
1/3200
F5.9

Image Stabilization test

To get an idea of the effectiveness of each camera's stabilization system we used a simplified version of our standard test. We shot all cameras at a shutter speed of 1/15 sec, adjusting light levels as necessary to compensate for the different apertures. We took 10 shots each with IS on and off, to see the difference in sharpness of images captured.

For the cameras without mechanical IS (Z33, W60 and W80), we shot them first in Manual or Program mode at base ISO, and then switched them into their respective scene mode (Anti-Blur for Z33 and Digital SR for W60) to see what ISO setting the camera selected, and if it improved the number of sharp images captured. Many of these appeared to be little more than modes that push the sensitivity setting up in order to use faster shutter speeds to decrease the likelihood of shake during shooting. The results are grouped and displayed in two graphs below.

Canon Powershot D10, Olympus Tough 6000, Olympus Tough 8000, and Panasonic FT1

The D10 has two modes of IS ('continuous' and 'shoot only'). In testing we found that both gave the same result, and so we have graphed the 'shoot only' result.

All of these cameras except the TS1 have very similar maximum telephoto settings of about 100mm (with the TS1 reaching 128mm). Holding the cameras with both hands, the two Olympus cameras were easier to hold still and produced many more sharp shots than the D10 with the IS turned off, with the TS1 performing between the Olympus cameras and the D10 despite being at a slightly longer focal length. With IS turned on the Canon and Panasonic both performed very well, with all of the shots captured being sharp. However, the performance of the Olympuses didn't improve by nearly such a large margin, suggesting this IS system is much less effective.

FujiFilm Z33 WP, Pentax Optio W60, Pentax Optio W80

In this test the Z33 and the W80 selected ISO 1600 (its top ISO setting) and the W60 selected ISO 1000.

The W60 and W80 were a little more difficult to hold steady than the Z33, which only is to be expected due to the maximum telephoto reach of 140mm (Z33 only gets to 105mm). With their respective anti-blur modes selected all three cameras managed to keep all the images sharp, which on the surface is quite impressive, but then you have to remember that the image quality at these high ISO settings is pretty dire, and in auto mode you need to rely on the camera to select the anti-blur mode (which is not always guaranteed).

Because these modes are essentially just increasing the ISO, your images will have increased noise. It would also be possible to achieve similar results with the camera that have mechanical IS modes and, of course, in those instances, you also get the benefit of the mechanical system, above and beyond what the higher ISO setting would achieve.

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