Image Stabilization In Body or In lens? Seems like a straight win for Olympus, unless......

I've worked with an Olympus EM-5 and I've played with an EM-1 and I've got to tell you that if the number one thing on your decision list for buying a camera is the effectiveness of its image stabilization then Olympus has you locked in. For a little bit of perspective it's not like Olympus is operating in a vacuum, as far back as my time with a Nikon D300 and the first 18-200mm VR zoom lens camera makers have been offering some pretty awesome stabilization. That 18-200mm with its in lens vibration reduction was nothing short of miraculous in its day. But where Olympus has the in lens people roundly beaten is in the use of lenses that are too old to have had image stabilization or with lenses whose designs made I.S. impossible or too costly to engineer in.

Put a 1965 era Nikon 50mm f1.4 on the front of one of the new Olympus cameras and it's almost like you are shooting that nice, old piece of glass locked down on a tripod, even when you are handholding after your third espresso. So why in the world doesn't everyone rush to license this miracle of I.S. that is the Olympus IBIS?

This question comes up over and over again when people ask me why I chose to buy a Panasonic GH4 rather than an EM-1. And for a while I was at a loss for something to say other than, "I really love the video quality of the GH4 and when we shoot video we're generally working on a tripod or with some sort of stabilizing accessory..."  It sounded kind of lame as a rebuttal to my friends who gleefully regaled me with image after image, supposedly shot from the back of a racing dump truck with no shock absorbers, rattling down a rocky mountain road, littered with potholes, and shot by a hungover photographer with muscle tremors. And every one of the images was so sharp you could count the eyelashes on a mosquito buzzing around the subject's face.

Yes! Why can't we all have that same miraculous I.S.? Imagine how happy it would make my collection of old, Olympus Pen lenses.

However, there is a little fly in the ointment. While the Olympus I.S., which works by "floating" the image sensor from the infrastructure of the camera and applying motion correction in five axis, is wonderful it is very much a technology that works best for still images and is compromised by video.

Here's a condensed version of what I learned directly from Panasonic:

The single biggest obstacle to generating clean video images is noise. All other things being equal the biggest generator of image noise in imaging sensors is heat. Making an in-body, five axis, image stabilization system requires a very low mass sensor construction to enable the acceleration and deceleration required in moving an Olympus sensor in five axis, some concurrently and always accurately. Increases in the mass of the sensor and it's mooring constructions would require stronger motors and would compromise the integrity of the final image due to progressively uncontrollable inertial forces.

In order to make a very low mass, movable sensor construction Olympus is required to "de-couple" the image sensor from nearly all forms of mechanical heat sinking. A heat sink is a heat conductor (usually a low density, highly conductive metal) which draws heat away from an object and uses a larger radiator surface area to dissipate heat energy. In audio equipment, electronic power supplies, cameras (especially digital motion picture cameras) and computers one of the biggest design obstacles is the need to keep micro-processors within a narrowly proscribed temperature range. 

A rule of thumb from my long ago days studying electrical engineering was that every 10 degree (C) rise in operating temperature reduced the working life of an electronic component by half. Good designs are optimized mechanically or with forced, active cooling to keep silicon machines within a tight range of compliance. 

If you look at high-end video cameras, with no internal imaging stabilization whatsoever, like the Arriflex Alexa, the Sony F55 CineAlta and the Red Dragon and other Red cameras you'll find that all of them incorporate not only passive (and substantial) heat sinks but also cooling fans. Electrically powered cooling fans. To some extent this is what gives those cameras the stability to hold color non-linearities and especially electronic  noise to optimum levels during long takes. 

Olympus cameras as well as Nikons and many other consumer brands are crippled with crappy video codecs that don't require the camera to do heavy lifting in image processing. They also have very limited run times in video before noise begins to climb up and become overwhelming (or at least objectionable..).

What Panasonic have done is to forego the in-camera image stabilization in a compromise that gives the market a camera with incredibly good video performance, a tremendous ability to process high quality, high density video material, in camera, and the ability to run for as long as the memory card has available space, without a ramp up in noise generated by heat. In a fit of good design the entire alloy infrastructure of the camera is one giant heat sink working to the benefit of the imaging sensor. But this requires the sensor to be physically tightly coupled to the heat sinking.

A cool video camera is a less noisy video camera and a happier camera. Being from Texas I'll take one more seemingly logical step and conjecture that the heat-sinking happiness also carries over to noise performance in both long time exposures (which are historic heat and noise situations) and when shooting in situations that exceed the 103 degree (f) limits for high temperature listed in most consumer camera owner's manuals.

When a camera maker puts a temperature range in the manual they are pretty much saying, "Hey, we can't be responsible for crappy files when you are shooting in a heat wave." Does this make a difference? Absolutely. The fine sensor in my older Kodak DCS760 camera was noise free at ISO 80 but when I would use the camera at swim meets in the Texas Summer afternoons the on deck temperatures would routinely hit 105(f) and inside the black body of the camera I am certain it would have been 20 degrees higher. The result was obvious. At the beginning of a swim meet the camera would generate flawless files but by the end of the meet many of the files would be streaked with huge amounts of random noise. Big, splotchy, in your face noise. Let the camera cool down indoors and the good noise performance would return.

While I think the image quality of the EM-1 and the GH4 are roughly comparable as still cameras I am quick to admit that the image stabilization of the Olympus is a high water mark for the industry and a big selling point for their two top cameras. At the same time I think the GH4 stomps all over the EM-1 in terms of video quality, and overall design and usefulness as a video camera. A powerful and very professional video camera.

Both companies have made choices. The great thing for working photographers is that both companies' cameras can use either companies'  lines of lenses and many accessories, interchangeably. A pragmatic photographer, hellbent on using m4:3 for his working tools, could very well select one of each and use them for their unique, best features, as needed. The EM-1 when hand held still images are the goal and the GH-4 when video production is called for.

Much as I like the idea of the "ultimate" in image stabilization being available to me the GH4 speaks clearly to the engineer part of my brain and it's telling me that under adverse conditions (high ambient heat) with stills, or any use of video, the Panasonic choice buys me stable and long term reliable performance.

As my long time readers know I use tripods for nearly everything. I have more tripods in the studio, currently, than I do camera bodies. I think I'll stick with the Panasonic engineering decisions for now. And, in fact, their image stabilization in the 12-35mm lens and the 35-100mm lens are only about a stop behind the performance of the Olympus lenses. I can live (well) with that.

Last thought: If there is anything from the EM-1 that I would wish for on the GH4 the IBIS would be a distant third wish. My first choice would be to have the EVF of the EM-1. It's gorgeous! Second choice? That's for a future blog.


Anonymous said...

Count me in as someone who likes engineering for longevity. I know which one I'd pick.

Timothy Gray said...

Pentax in-body stabilization, called Shake Reduction (SR), works this way, too. Any lens get the SR treatment.

Anonymous said...

No parfocal lenses, for video, from either Olympus or Panasonic is a deal killer for me. YMMV.

BTW do the Panasonic Pro Zooms breath when you rack focus?


Cpt Kent said...

"Both companies have made choices. The great thing for working photographers is that both companies' cameras can use either companies' lines of lenses and many accessories, interchangeably. A pragmatic photographer, hellbent on using m4:3 for his working tools, could very well select one of each and use them for their unique, best features, as needed. The EM-1 when hand held still images are the goal and the GH-4 when video production is called for. "

Which is what I did. GM1 for video (the 1080p is fantastic) and the EM-1 for stills. Living happily together in the one bag. +1 for M43.

John M Flores said...

Yup. My ancient relic also known as the GH2 have been known to record 90+ minutes without ever getting hot under the lens mount.

Frank Grygier said...

I have both EM1 & GH4. When using the Panasonic OIS lenses on the Panny or the Oly I can't tell the difference. This all makes perfect sense now. I'll just have get a grippy,floaty,gyro, mount for the GH4.

Wally Brooks said...

The only thing I would add is theat mirrorless cameras used with long focal length lenses in action/sports/wildlife situations still lag in auto focus with the higher end APSC cameras achieve. No other than grand kids I don't shoot that kind of situation. Mirrorless is catching up.

Brad Calkins said...

Interesting that the GX7 has In body IS. I'd wager that the video quality is still better than Olympus, IBIS or not (as someone who currently owns a EM1, and previously owned a GH2). Panasonic simply has the lead in video. For me it is not a big deal, I use the video for family type stuff, favoring short clips. In body IS is much more useful to me than video quality when it comes to my hand held video clip :)

Anonymous said...

The IBIS inside the GX7 is for stills only, it doesn't work in video mode. The reason being the same quoted in the blog post.

If it's any consolation, in video shooting the electronic IBIS systems in some other cameras are mostly crap, too, anyway. Sometimes they may kinda work, but they crop the image, and after a certain point you'll notice that the jitter isn't really all gone. It has just moved, and you'll find yourself doing the wibbly-wobbly walk in the jello-land without any analogue intoxicants. Or the footage is soft and/or has other digital artefacts.

In practical terms, they are all more or less irrelevant in video shooting. For now. There are all sorts of tripods, monopods, gimballs, shoulder rigs, gliders and other stabilisation rigs out there for a reason.

Anonymous said...

If we squint our eyes, we might almost see faint writing in between the lines here, saying "Hey guys, I changed my mind. There'll be another camera of another brand in the VSL HQ again soon, after all. This time the EM-1. But since it uses the same lens mount, it kinda is the same as the GH4, anyway, so hold your snarkasm, smartypants." ;-)

Well, that's not such a bad idea, so why not. After all, you can use the EM-1 for short video clips, too, (at least in the US, as the only frame rate is 30fps), and as such, the footage is not terrible. Apparently, according to some sample clips. In other words, it could work as an aid for the GH4 for shooting short b-roll clips once in a while, as well as take care of the stills. So go ahead. ;-)

Personally I have already given up with the idea of having both an ideal video camera and a stills camera in the same package. It's always a compromise for either one, or both. Even without counting in IS. Having one camera dedicated for each task seem to be a better solution, at least for me.
Obviously it wouldn't hurt if the stills camera could do at least short tolerable video clips, too, but that's not a deal breaker.

Looks like the bigger bummer now is the fact that even good cameras tend to 'age' very quickly these days, at long as video is concerned. The stills side doesn't seem to be ageing at the same pace any longer. Probably because the consumer level digital video has been either crappy or nonexistent to begin with, so far, and the stills side has a long lead.

Anonymous said...

I owned a Konica Minolta 7D some years back. After a lot of continuous shooting in low light (stills; it didn't do video) I would see increased noise, particularly color noise, particularly on the two sides of the frame, and primarily on one side. As much as IBIS has its advantages, it always bothered me a little that the sensor in my camera was moving, and not "bolted down solid". Anyway, I'd always had this vague notion that IBIS was not optimal for video, but never knew why, so thanks for this enlightening post !

Ken said...

Maybe eliminate the italics once the Panasonic quote has ended? Otherwise, interesting and informative. Video isn't as important to me as it is to you. I purchased the GX-7's to get two axis stabilization in body for use with non-stabilized lenses. However, it still doesn't work in video mode. But the stabilization built into the 12-35 and 35-100 lenses is impressive. I was also told that because of the way the sensor in the Olympus isn't anchored, the body needs to be sent out to be cleaned beyond what the internal "shake at startup" cleaning can handle else risk damaging the stabilizer.

Kirk Tuck said...

Naw! I' m perfectly happy with the GH4 and don't have the brain bandwidth to dive back into those Olympus menus again...

Kirk Tuck said...

To the reader who negates Panasonic as a choice for video because Panasonic doesn't offer par focal lenses for their m4:3 cameras I can only reply with a chuckle and ask him (or her) which lenses from Canon, Nikon, Pentax, Olympus, Sony or Samsung are par focal? Like, um, none.

But the magic of the shallow lens to sensor distance on the m4:3 cameras means you could use PL mount lenses which opens up a universe of supremely well corrected, par focal, non-breathing zoom lenses. Why look!!! I can even use an old 12-120mm Angenieux.

theaterculture said...

Given that the 5-axis stabilization would so clearly be a killer ap in handheld video cameras, I had always sorta suspected there must be a good reason why it wasn't licensed by every video camera maker. Thank you for going to the source to actually find out why!

I suspect you're spot on that the GH4 is the best "all-rounder" in the m4/3 world (and, indeed, as good as or better than anything in the whole current crop-sensor market for an awful lot of practical uses); though as a guy who often shoots theatrical stuff where a tripod just isn't practical (a lot of what I do involves documenting early rehearsals, which are often in awful fluorescent lighting and where part of the mandate is to not get in the way of the director and actors while still getting images that feel "involved") I can definitely see the utility of the 5-axis internal steadicam...

Kirk Tuck said...

Hi Theaterculture, I'm right there with you. If I had no interest in video I'd probably have the magic credit card fairy wave the wand and turn my GH cameras right into OMD EM-1's immediately.

On the other hand I will say that I recently shot the play, Vanya, and the IS in the Panasonic 35-100mm is pretty darn good. Not that I needed it much for that play; the lighting was bright enough to handhold at 1/250th.

Mike Mundy said...

I have an EM-1, and I'm wondering what happens to the IBIS system in the event of the camera being dropped. Does the sturdiness of the external body really help to protect the internal workings? And, if the IBIS became damaged how long would it take for you to realize it?

Anonymous said...

Mr Kirk, not all of us shoot video with Hybrid Cameras. You even used a Sony EX3 for your Zack Theater Tommy shoot.

The main reason I've not jumped on the VDSLR Band Wagon is the lack of Cine Quality lenses. How can you bury a zoom in a dolly or crane move without a par focal lenses?

Angenieux, Cooke, Fuginon, Kinoptic, Schneider and Zeiss all make fine lenses that I've used over the years.


Kirk Tuck said...

Chuck, I'll shoot with the best camera for the job. Sometimes it's a bigger camera but most of the time it's the GH4. I don't get what the deal is. Any of the lenses you mentioned, if they cover movie film 35mm can be easily and inexpensively adapted to the GH4. You wanna use Zeiss Cinema Zooms or Cooke zooms? You just have to use an adapter. The same way you'd use them on various Cine cameras. The GH4 with the YAXX rig even has rod interfaces for follow focus gear. You CAN use the same lenses on the GH4 that you can use on a Black Magic or, with an adapter, on a Cine Alta or C500.

Anonymous said...

I am quite the opposite of the folks commenting here; I don't hand hold my camera (can't, hand tremors), and I don't do video. What the EM5-5 offered was a study body for landscape work, a great sensor, and the ability to delay the second shutter curtain movement.

My tests show that for the work I do, "shutter shake" was robbing me of noticeable image quality, even using a top of the line tripod and head rated for many more times the weight I was using. Panasonic offers the "electronic shutter" which works rather nicely, but can not shoot slower than a second. And that is very common in the deep shadows of an Oregon woods. Now if I could get the menu interface and fully articulating LCD of my G5 on an EM5 or EM1, I would be very happy.