Image stabilization

The optical image stabilization system used on the Coolpix P5100 is based on the VR (Vibration Reduction) lens-shift technology first seen on Nikon's professional SLR lenses, and seen on previous models such as the P3 and P4. As with the P5000 there is only one mode, which automatically detects panning. Being a lens-based system the preview image is stabilized when the VR is turned on, which helps with framing; it also means you get the benefit of stabilization when shooting movies.

With short zooms like this (max focal length 123mm equiv.) image stabilization is considerably less essential than with a 10x or 12x 'super zoom'. At anything over about 1/125th sec you're not going to suffer from camera shake a great deal. At the short end of the zoom camera shake becomes a problem at around 1/15th sec (depending on how steady-handed you are). Speeds slower than this are difficult to stabilize reliably irrespective of the system you are using.

If you take a few 'safety' shots when pushing the system hard (1/8th at 123mm for example), you'll usually get at least one 'keeper'. This is where Nikon's excellent 'Best Shot Selector' (which takes a series of up to 10 shots and only saves the sharpest) proves its worth.

The example below shows how - with a bit of luck - you can get a sharp shot a good four stops slower than you would expect from a non-stabilized camera (It can't work miracles, though and pushed this hard is still showing up some shake even with VR, and continued to do so in around half the shots we took).

Real world example: 123mm (equiv), 1/8th Second, hand-held.
Stabilization off Stabilization on

The stabilization test

In this simplified version of our SLR IS test, four hand-held shots were taken of a static scene with the stabilization off and on. The shutter speed was decreased and repeated (from 1/250 sec to 1/8 sec). The zoom was set to its maximum position (123mm equiv.), the test target was 3.0m away from the camera. The test was repeated ten times and an average taken.

The resulting images were then inspected and given a blur score -

  • Sharp (no visible blurring at 100%)
  • Mild Blur (the kind of camera shake that is tolerable at normal 'postcard' print sizes)
  • Heavy Blur (blur visible even at small print sizes)
  • Very Heavy Blur (totally unusable due to camera shake - little if any detail visible).

As the charts below show the VR system offers around a 2 stop advantage, (though how much you get from it will depend on how steady your hand is in the first place). As mentioned above the reason it's no greater is simple; the zoom isn't long enough for most users to need VR at anything under 1/250 sec and we've yet to see a system that can consistently stabilize speeds of 1/8th sec or slower, so there's a fairly narrow band of shutter speeds for the VR to work on.

Hand-held, no stabilization (123mm equiv.)

We had no problem getting 100% sharp shots at the long end of the zoom at anything over 1/125 second. Once we dropped below 1/60 sec things got increasingly shaky.

Hand-held, stabilization on (123mm equiv.)

With stabilization on the improvement is obvious, and represents an advantage of around 2 stops. The key difference is that at 1/60 sec you're getting a 100% hit rate, and in the 1/8 to 1/60 sec region your chances of a usable shot are considerably higher - if you take a few safety shots (or make use of Nikon's 'Best Shot Selector' function) you can certainly expect to get something usable at anything at 1/15 sec or higher at the long end of the zoom. The VR considerably increases the likelihood of getting a sharp shot. However, its ability to stabilize at 1/15th and 1/8th sec are only really useful for stationary objects - anything else will move too much in that time.