Perhaps the biggest and longest running sore suffered by photography is image blur. Photography began with it. Daguerre's 1838 photo of a Paris street scene shows a static shoeshine boy alone with his client. Where are the possible strollers and moving traffic? If any, they were blurred out of existence during the then necessary 10 minute exposure.
Refusing to settle only for still lifes or frozen scenics, we've been trying to catch up with moving objects ever since. But I wonder who was the first photographer who compounded the problem by removing the camera from its tripod and producing the first blurred, hand held exposures. He or she (and later, you and I) discovered that short exposures produced less blur as did steadier camera hands.
Field and lab experiments have proved steadiness depends upon many varying factors including the photographers' mental, physical and psychological well being at the time pictures were to be taken, and whether the photographer remembered to hold his/her breath when releasing the shutter.
Modern electronic shutter releases help. They have very smooth actions unlike many mechanical releases which, often as not, have an added resistance at the point of actual release. This can cause photographers to bear down more smartly at that juncture, resulting in slight camera shake. One truism must be remembered: technically no hand-held picture can ever be as sharp as one shot on a truly solid tripod. Our pictures can approach such sharpness but not get there.
Want someone or something else to blame for blur? Try Kodachrome. Introduced in 1937, this first modern fine grain color slide film by 1938 was causing a sensation among amateurs and professionals. In about the same time period, photographers were expressing delight with the new faster black-and-white Kodak and Agfa films. Kodak Super-XX was 100. Wow! But horrors, glorious Kodachrome was only available at an equivalent film speed of ISO 10!
Even among confirmed black-and-white roll film users, the colorful attraction of Kodachrome was too strong to resist. The race to 35mm was on. The many photographers who couldn't afford 35mm cameras with fast lenses, such as the Leica, probably were responsible for the surge in sales and vast success of low cost cameras like the $12.50 Argus with f/4.5 lens. But the 3 f/stop loss in exposure, ISO 100 to 10, plus the very limited exposure possibilities of the cameras themselves, made these cheapies pretty shaky characters to handhold except on bright days. Tripods were welcome holiday gifts.
What a difference 70 years makes. Now we live in posh technical times. Quite good results can be expected from ISO 400 black and white and color film and even from higher film speed indexes with remarkably little loss in image quality. Those who can afford long tele and zoom lenses with large maximum apertures, and are strong enough to carry them, probably will achieve sharper images with less chance of camera shake than the rest of us.
You might think that in the past 70 years engineers would have invented a sensible way of limiting or removing camera shake completely. They did. Gyroscope stabilizers have been in use for over 50 years. They fit beneath still, video, and movie cameras as well as binoculars and provide a rock steady platform. Unfortunately they are relatively large, heavy and expensive, and require an external power source.
In 1995 Canon came to our rescue with a practical and affordable image stabilizer built into the 75-300mm f/4-5.6 Canon IS lens. We all knew that inevitably Nikon would do likewise. Likewise occurred six years later with Nikon's 80-400mm f/4.5-5.6 D VR (Vibration Reduction) lens. Both companies have been going at it ever since, adding IS and VR lenses. Canon leads in numbers with 16 IS lenses. Nikon has ten VR lenses.
Both manufacturers have an ample number of wide to moderate and mid-range tele zooms with image stabilization. Canon offers the most superlong, single length teles, while Nikon has some unique, attractive VR lenses such as a 105mm f/2.8 macro and a remarkably inexpensive 24-120mm f/3.5-5.6. One pro told me he used this lens most of the time with VR turned on and has so far worn out one and is on his second.
Apparently, neatly skirting Canon-Nikon stabilization patents, first Sigma and now Tamron have one lens each with image stabilization. Sigma's 80-400mm f/4-5.6 EX DG APO OS has an Optical Stabilizer (OS) and Tamron has just shown a 28-300mm f/3.5-6.3 AF XR Di VC LD AF Macro lens with Vibration Compensation (VC).
Both companies have the unenviable job of making sure their stabilization systems work on both Canon and Nikon mount cameras and deciding whether to produce the same lens without stabilization for Pentax, Sony, and Olympus DSLRs with no camera body stabilization.
No one was too surprised when Konica-Minolta entered the image stabilization fray by building "Anti-Shake" into the 2004 Maxxum 7D camera body so that it would operate on all Minolta mount camera bodies. (I wonder whether Canon gave a thought to this system before opting for in-lens stabilization.)
Sony inherited the feature when it took over Konica-Minolta DSLR know-how and put SuperSteadyShot in its Alpha A100. Pentax subsequently adopted a system similar to the Konica-Minolta -- called Shake Reduction -- and the latest Olympus E-510 also sports a camera body stabilization system.
The in-body stabilization system moves the camera sensor around to counteract the motion of the camera. While it works on all lenses of the same lens mount, its sharpening affects cannot be seen in the viewfinder.
In the lens stabilization solution, lens elements are moved in the lens's optical path to keep the image steady. Its effect can be seen in the viewfinder. The movement is both horizontal and vertical but the horizontal can be shut off in some manufacturer's systems to allow the lens to pan action, useful also in long teles and zooms to pan the tracking of flying birds.
All systems promise an increase in hand held camera steadiness up to three f/stops. Field tests indicate that this is so, with the exact number of stops depending on the original photographer's basic hand-holding ability and the focal length of the lens.
More and more non-DSLR point-and shoot and electronic viewfinder cameras are showing up with one or the other image stabilization systems too. However, image sharpening is getting a boost in the sharpening arm in another way. Great strides are being made to improve image sensors, particularly in DSLRs, so that there will be considerably less noise and artifacts when the equivalent of ISO speed is increased. By providing larger sensor areas and pixels better spaced on the DSLR sensors, the latest 10-megapixel sensors and even the 6MP are providing equivalent ISO speeds of 1600 or 3200 with virtually no loss in image quality. This translates into the ability to use smaller apertures and higher shutter speeds which would not only reduce hands-holding camera shake but moving image unsharpness as well.
As sensors improve further, there seems to be no limit in the increase of equivalent ISO speed that can be obtained. If this comes to pass, and higher ISO index equivalents are possible with good image quality, will image stabilization still be needed?
The best digital photo of a black cat in a coal mine, shot on a moonless night by existing light, may yet get a prize.