LENS IS or IBIS - which is better? Video and stills stabilisation on the Sony A7r II

Using Canon IS lenses and cameras with IBIS, such as a Panasonic GX8 and my newly acquired Sony A7r II has merely confirmed what I have believed for years. That lens IS is better than in-camera IBIS systems for me. The reason is simple. Lens IS is tuned for the specific lens, IBIS isn't. 

Take an example. Let's say I use a 35mm lens on the A7r II. I can 'tell' the camera IBIS to adjust and compensate for a 35mm focal length. But that 35mm could be the Sony / Zeiss 35mm f/2.8, or a Sigma Art 35mm f/1.4 plus an adapter. I could also be using the 35mm focal length from a zoom and this could be a Sony zoom, or a Canon or Nikon zoom etc. Now all of these lenses vary significantly in terms of shape, size and weight and if I'm hand holding one of them they will react differently, I will hold them in a different way and their 'instability' will therefore be different.

So the IBIS system is then supposed to compensate for this. Or does it? Do the sensors in the camera react to the movements of the lens and the camera and adjust? Well yes they may do to some extent, but if IBIS is so good, why do cameras with it require the focal length of the lens being entered? If IBIS was that comprehensive, surely the system wouldn't need to do that. And to get the best stabilisation possible shouldn't we all just set the focal length to the longest possible, because they are the lenses that give the shakiest result? So you get the most stabilisation? Of course it doesn't work that way. When using 'native' lenses there is obviously some communication going on between lens and body. Manufacturers would be crazy not to do that. But what about third party lenses? Old legacy lenses? The cameras IBIS system has no idea what kind of lens is attached, hence the requirement to 'know' what focal length is being used, though inevitably that must be a compromise.

But there are other issues. The varying efficiency of various systems and us, the photographers. We all 'destabilise' our camera / lens combinations in different ways, the weather conditions are different, we may have consumed too much caffeine or too much alcohol. We may have just walked up a steep hill, we may be standing uncomfortably in a strong wind (welcome to my world!) or lying flat out on a sandy beach on a still day. And for me, Canon lens IS works better than Nikon lens IS. I'm not saying it's better, just that I get more stable results with the Canon system. Others may find the reverse. 

Then there is a third option for video, software stabilisation. With this a certain amount of the frame is 'thrown away' to allow a smooth look. And in many cases the more stabilisation is needed, the more cropping takes place. Some Panasonic, Olympus and Leica cameras have this software stabilisation in camera and for post processing some apps. have it, most notably Apples iMovie. And I should take some time here to mention iMovie, because for me, it's my (not so) 'secret weapon' that makes all the difference, because it's latest 'stabilise shaky video' option is very good indeed. In my discussions about the A7r II I've written that the results I'm getting indicate that the IS on my Canon lenses works better than the cameras IBIS. And for me that is true, with all the provisos mentioned above. But when I run clips shot with both through iMovie, the end result is pretty much the same. The IBIS files take longer to process yes, indicating that the software is working harder to correct the instability, but the finished products both look very smooth. In terms of the very best I can achieve, my Canon IS lenses on my Canon 5Ds body produce files that iMovie 'corrects' so well that they look like they were shot on a very solid tripod.

I will mention tripods here, because yes, under the right circumstances, they do a good job. But in certain weather conditions, i.e. the wind that we in the UK encounter on a daily basis, unless they are massive and VERY heavy they won't actually work. Some of the footage I've been posting recently has been shot in very strong winds and on a couple of occasions in a gale. I've actually got stable hand held footage from those shooting conditions, because with the on camera and on lens aids AND iMovie, it's actually easier for me to get non shaky footage hand held than using any tripod I could carry without ending up in traction.

Over the years I've learnt to compensate for the wind. I can hear gusts coming so I've worked out a way of 'leaning' into the wind. I've also come up with a system of breathing to keep my body movements to a minimum. Plus the fact that I don't drink alcohol or anything with caffeine in it helps as well. Because in terms of how I can shoot my video, one thing has to be borne in mind. Not only would it be a pain for me to carry a heavy duty video tripod about, in many of the places I visit, I wouldn't be allowed to. If I'm visiting somewhere like a stately home, I'm actually not in a public place anymore and if the owners of that place don't allow tripods, which most don't, then I have no choice. If I want to shoot video I HAVE to do it hand held. Fortunately for me, over the years since interchangeable lens cameras starting offering video, all forms of stabilisation have improved. And it's by using a combination of these that achieves the best results. 

For a collection of my latest videos, shot in windy and cold conditions and hand held, check out my YouTube channel. 


The focus above has been on video stabilisation. And for me this is where I use it most. Stills, well occasionally. Because in the UK with it's windy climate the benefits of shooting outdoors with a slow shutter speed are few and far between. There is not much of a market for pictures with blurred leaves, grass, crops and of course people. However, here is a sample of the difference. And no, I didn't fake it to make my point. This is what I get time after time. 

The top image is shot with my Canon EF IS 24mm f/2.8 lens fitted to my Sony A7r II with Lens IS - ON and Camera IBIS - OFF. The bottom images is the same combination with Lens IS - OFF and Camera IBIS - ON and set to 24mm focal length.

In my experience and therefore opinion, Canon lens IS is the best out there, at least for me when I'm handholding camera and lens combinations. Would it be different if someone else was using the camera? Would it be different if I used a 'native' Sony FE lens? Well maybe, I cannot say for sure. Like anyone else who attempts a stabilisation test like this, it is probably an individual response. 

However, I still stand by my initial assertion that by it's very nature lens IS is more specific, better targeted and more effective because it's designed for one lens and one lens only. Plus of course you see the advantage here. With my Metabones 'smart' adapter, I'm able to use a Canon lens on my Sony camera with IS implementation as well as autofocus. Thus the lens is a lot more versatile, particularly since I can use it with my Panasonic GX8's as well, with the same benefits. 

Now this is a contentious issue I admit and there are elements of Rangers v Celtic with this. In fact I've probably got into more internet arguments over this than anything else. And ultimately the best solution is probably a combination of IS 'helpers'. I think we need to see more cameras with IBIS AND software stabilisation and more lenses with IS as well. And these should all work in combination with each other. Panasonic have already started doing this with many of their lenses and it should be perfectly possible for this to become commonplace. Because, let's face it, tripods are a pain. I still remember carting one about with my medium-format film cameras and it was never an enjoyable experience. Most of us I suspect want to shoot hand held anyway, it's easier and leads to much more creative picture making and in many cases there is no other alternative.

So stabilisation systems will continue to be of benefit and they will improve even more over time. And for video using steadicam and gimbal systems may be fine for the very highly paid and highly skilled Hollywood cameramen, but for the rest of us it's impracticable and expensive, as well as requiring a pretty steep learning curve. We all want sharp pictures and non-shaky video and there are many ways to get something close to that. Is it too much to ask that we could get closer still?