Vibration Reduction

The greatest photographic invention since digital imaging.

The current B&H paper catalog contains no fewer than ten pages listing some 132 digital cameras, from inexpensive point-and-shoots to full frame Canon DSLRs. So there’s no shortage of choice at any price point. What is intriguing is that some 25% of these now include words like “Image Stabilizer” or “Vibration Reduction” in their specification. Go back a couple of years and the only place you could find these technologies was in a select few exotic lenses for their DSLRs from Canon and Nikon. True, some makers cheat by simply upping the ISO where slow shutter speeds would otherwise be required, but you can see the general technological direction nonetheless.

My guess is that, a couple of years hence, every digital camera save the very cheapest will have this technology built-in. Makers have come to realize that it offers a competitive advantage and, until proper optical viewfinders make a comeback, holding a camera at arm’s length to squint at the little LCD screen on the back while composing the picture denies everything we were taught as children about holding a camera steady.

And steady means sharp.

The stabilizer switch on the superb Canon 24-105mm L lens

I have become so attuned to the grain-free sensor in the Canon 5D that an 18″ x 24″ print is, if not something that is made with impunity, at least pretty commonplace, and the definition in the details is nothing short of startling. There is simply no way that I would be turning out so many large, sharp prints, with 35mm film technology. The enlargement ratio would be the same, true, but the vibration reduction in that splendid 24-105mm Canon lens would be noticeable by its absence. So while Leica can justifiably lay claim to making the best 35mm interchangeable lenses on the planet, not a one of them boasts vibration reduction. Bottom line? The less refined Canon optic with VR beats the superb Leica one unless a very sturdy tripod is used.

And it’s not just at the slower speeds that this is noticeable. Like most photographers, the majority of my pictures is taken using shutter speeds in the 1/60th – 1/500th range. Now the old rule used to be that you had to use a shutter speed no longer than the reciprocal of the focal length for a sharp picture. So, 1/50th for a 50mm, 1/100th for a 100mm and so on. This rule, of course, is so much rot. Go to any photo show and viewers will not step back twice as far to view an 18″ x 24″ print as they would for an 8″ x 10″ one. So the effects of camera shake in big prints are effectively magnified from the viewer’s perspective. So that 1/50th at 8″ x 10″ suddenly becomes 1/100th at 18″ x 24″ for the same perceived absence of camera shake. Offset this with the three shutter speeds of added sharpness gained from VR and you can see why most of my 5D originals easily scale to 18″ x 24″ prints. I am, in effect, using far faster shutter speeds than ever before, thanks to VR. Take away the detail-robbing effects of film grain, courtesy of the 5D’s noiseless sensor, and you have another quantum leap in definition.

So VR will become as commonplace in digital cameras as anti-lock brakes have in cars.

No way I need VR in my Canon fisheye, which has an effective focal length of 12mm after applying ‘defishing’ software, but I would kill for it in the 200mm f/2.8 where it is sorely missed. So until Canon does that, I continue to drag my monopod around with me when using this otherwise excellent optic.