What’s the difference between sensor and image stabilisation?

Question: I’m about to buy a new DSLR but I’m confused by the different image stabilisation systems. Could you advise which type is the best?

Answer: When shooting slower shutter speeds handheld, there’s always a risk of camera shake, where even a small amount of movement during the exposure can lead to a blurred image. But image stabilisation systems are designed to banish the blur.  

Sensor v lens
There are two main types of IS on the market – sensor shift and lens shift. Both systems are extremely effective, typically granting sharp handheld results when shooting 4 stops slower than usual. Some advanced systems even have different modes to eliminate movement from just one axis, for smoother panning. So what’s the difference between the two main stabilisation types? In-lens stabilisation, which is used by both Canon and Nikon, is where one or more lens elements are moved by tiny motors to compensate for the movement of the camera. This means that by the time the light reaches the sensor, the stabilisation correction has already been applied. Sensor shift stabilisation differs in that it moves the sensor itself, rather than using any mechanism in the lens. Both types of IS have distinct advantages and disadvantages, though to the average user both systems are more or less identical in terms of effectiveness. Let’s take a look at the key advantages of the two systems.

Sensor shift stabilisation

  • In-camera stabilisation means IS doesn’t have to be built into every lens, keeping lens cost, size and weight to a minimum.  
  • You can use in-body stabilisation on virtually any lens, including older or cheaper lenses that wouldn’t normally have IS built-in.
  • Sensor stabilisation is generally quieter than lens stabilisation, so is better suited to videography or shooting in noise-sensitive environments like weddings. 

Lens shift stabilisation

  • In-lens stabilisation is more effective for longer telephoto lenses, so is better suited to sports and wildlife shooting.
  • Lens shift stabilisation systems can be tailored perfectly to each individual lens,  so tend to be more effective.
  • On DSLRs you can see the stabilised image in real time through the viewfinder before you take the shot, unlike with in-camera IS.