When is the right time to use VR (Vibration Reduction)?

Vibration Reduction (VR) or Image Stabilisation (IS) has become a standard feature on modern zoom and telephoto lenses.

They are lauded by many for allowing photographers to keep shooting in poorer light conditions by using technology to reduce the image blur caused by camera shake.

If used correctly this feature can undoubtedly be a great help, but used incorrectly it can actually make your photographs worse.

When is the correct time to use VR?

On my latest safari I took along my AF-S Nikkon 70-300mm lens instead of my usual Sigma 120-400mm.

It was just a question of weight; I would be doing a lot of carrying and I wanted to keep my gear as light as possible. It still tipped the scales at 11kg!

I almost never use the VR on the Sigma lens (Sigma call it Optical Stabilisation) as I found it to be a a bit slow and jerky. Even without it I have been very happy with the sharpness of my results.

With the Nikon lens the VR is much quicker and smoother and colleagues suggested that I should use it. So I did.

The Nikon lens is much lighter than the Sigma and therefore much easier to hold steady anyway so I was hoping that I would see some really crisp results.

It pains me to say that I was very disappointed when I saw some of the photos I came back with. At first glance they looked OK, but when it came to final output there was a definite softness to the image.

I spent ages wondering why a lens that had performed perfectly well in the past should fail me now.

I asked colleagues and it was suggested that I might need to fine tune the auto-focus.

I thought about and decided that that was unlikely to be the problem. When I check the ‘focus point’ on my photos it is exactly where I meant it to be.

I thought about it some more and came to the conclusion that the only thing that was different this time was that I had the VR switched on. So I tried to find out a bit more about exactly how Nikon’s VR system works.

It was very enlightening and so I’ve decided to share what I found with you.

Use VR

  • When the light is failing and the shutter speed falls below what you feel you can reliably hand hold and still get sharp images.
  • When you are not steady yourself. For example when in a vehicle where the movement of others can cause camera shake.

Do not use VR

  • When you are using a tripod or other support. Even something as simple as a beanbag.
  • When you are able to use a fast enough shutter speed to hand hold steadily anyay.

To summarise: don’t use VR in situations where you never needed to use it before. Use it if you think that it might help you get a sharp shot in situations where you would not otherwise be able to.

Of course this is something of an over-simplification, but the articles below explain in detail much better than I can.

I learned a hard lesson. Photographs that could have been fantastic were just about OK. I would have been better off ignoring the VR as I had always done in the past.

I know many photographers who swear by the efficacy of VR and use it regularly. But, like me (now) I am sure that it took them a little while to work out when to switch it on and when to leave it switched off.

More detailed explanation

This article by Thom Hogan ‘Nikon VR system explained’ was the most useful I found and debunked a lot of myths.

This article from the Nikon Europe website explains the difference between ‘Normal’ and ‘Active’ VR modes 

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