Thursday, June 27, 2013

Sports Photography 101 Part IV - Image Stabilization Feature On Lenses

Welcome to Part IV in this series of posts on sports photography. I'll start by reminding you yet again that what I say in these posts is strictly my opinion based on personal experience - what I do and how I do it works for me. There are many out there who do things differently and it works for them. Regardless of which way you elect to shoot, make sure you test out anyone's advice (including mine) for yourself before you give it a go on game day.

Today, we'll discuss something simple - the image stabilizing feature that comes with many newer lenses. Nikon calls it "VR" for "vibration reduction". If I'm not mistaken, Canon calls it "IS" or "image stabilization". TURN IT OFF. Not tomorrow or the day after, if your equipment is going to be used for sports photography, go to your camera bag right now and flip the switch(es) to OFF so you don't forget.

When I read advice blogs, posts or discussions on photography forums by well intentioned folks advocating the need to use VR when shooting sports I have to shake my head. I reiterate, I am the furthest thing from God's gift to sports photography but I try to develop a fairly good understanding of what my equipment does and doesn't do. I also make it a point to get some hands on, personal experience with the various features incorporated into my camera bodies and lenses rather than take the word of a part time Best Buy sales associate who thinks that a 16 MP point and shoot camera will take better quality photos than a 12 MP DSLR because it has more MP.

Don't misunderstand, in my view, VR is a wonderful advancement that has its moments, just like a lens that is capable of going to f22 and beyond has its moments. In either case, sports photography ain't one of those moments. The purpose of VR is to minimize the effects of camera shake in sloooooooowwwwwww shutter speed conditions. When using the shutter speeds necessary for freezing action (beginning at 1/500th second), VR will do absolutely nothing, unless e.g., you're shooting at a dead run or are being jostled about on a plane with turbulence.

Depending on how steady you can hold your camera will dictate when you should activate VR. I can comfortably hold a camera body with a short to medium zoom fairly steady down to a shutter speed of 1/30th of a second; I can sometimes push the envelope down to 1/20th second; and sometimes I can go a bit slower if I have something on/with which to brace myself or the camera. In sports photography, if you're shooting at anything less than 1/500th second, you're seriously running the risk of blurred or soft images. More often than not, you're shooting at a minimum of 1/1000th second. Under these conditions, there is absolutely no reason to have VR or IS switched on.

Many people confuse image stabilization with subject stabilization. They mistakenly believe that with VR switched on, it will somehow help them freeze a moving subject. It won't. VR does nothing to freeze a moving subject. There are only two things that will keep a moving subject sharp - a shutter speed that is faster than the subject's movement, or when the shutter speed isn't faster than the subject, panning with the subject. 

Since VR is a needless feature for sports, that's what makes a used Nikon 80-200mm f2.8 D ED AF-S my choice for the budget conscious sports photographer as a viable alternative for the newer 70-200mm f2.8 that comes equipped with VR. You don't need it, or at least not enough to where you should drop hundreds of dollars more on a lens that has it.

Not only do you not need VR, VR can actually impede your sports shooting. When you have VR switched on, you'll hear some  whirring noises and the image may move a bit in your viewfinder as the VR feature stabilizes the lens. Admittedly, at fast shutter speeds, image stabilization is minimal if not imperceptible, but during this process the shutter will not fire. When it finally decides to fire, the peak moment may pass you by. I may be old school, but I never want a camera to tell me when it's good and ready to fire even if the shutter delay is imperceptibly small. I want to be the Master of this domain and have it fire when I tell it to.

Reason #2 to shut off the VR feature - it chews up battery power. Before you fire a shot, battery power has been used to drive a motor that focuses the lens. If you're shooting with one of the auto-tracking focus modes (strongly suggested and a topic for another day), battery power is keeping your focus locked in. Last but not least, battery power causes the shutter to fire and then record the image on your card. If you're like me, when you have some down time, you're reviewing your images on the back of the camera to see if you got a shot or shots and deleting images that are useless. Battery drain. A lot of time I'll zoom in on an image to make sure it's sharp. More battery drain. On top of all that, why chew up battery power (and if you're auto tracking, VR is working the entire time you're tracking the subject) by engaging a feature that is superfluous and/or counterproductive?

Reason #3 to switch VR off is the strange artifacts you can get on your backgrounds when VR is engaged. One of the reasons sports photographers love f2.8 lenses is that they create a blurred, out of focus background setting for the tack sharp image of the subject. A blurred background not only makes the sharp subject stand out, it doesn't detract from the target of the image - the subject. When viewers look at a sports image, you want their gaze to immediately snap to the athlete in all his or her glory, not some fan in the stands or the official lurking in the background. VR can often times create some strange artifacts that can distract a viewer's attention as their mind attempts to interpret what that funny looking thing is in the background.

So there you have it. My take on the image stabilization feature on lenses in the world of sports photography. Look for Part V which will cover another topic.


Hank said...

Very Good information Mike. The way you've explained
the VR-IS function now makes perfect sense for Sports Action or fast moving subjects. Thank you.

Dennis said...

Hi Mike,

Loving the series so far. I'd like to suggest a future topic. What auto focus point(s) do you use? Does it change by sport?

photographers Seattle said...

Nice one! I like the outfit of the characters. Wish i could do the same thing too but im not that techie.i like the outfit of “from farmer to warden”.. really interesting

Anonymous said...

There is no absolute speed above which VR is no longer needed as it obviously depends on the focal length of the lens. 500th of a second freezes any movement for a medium tele but does do so for 600mm lens.
If stabilisation were not useful for sports I guess tripod would not be useful either. Yet many use them and I'm not sure it is for confort reasons only ?

Anonymous said...

thanks for sharing this detailed info saved a starting photographer lots and since I don't have to over spend might be able to get another lens... TY

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