Optical Image Stabilization (OIS) is a feature that you find on the cameras of many high-end smartphones, but what exactly is it? And how does it work? Let’s find out.

Thinking in terms of a traditional camera, the process of taking a photo is like this: you set up your shot, you adjust the focus, aperture, and shutter speed and then you click the button to open the shutter and allow the light in so it can be captured on film or an image sensor. But here is the thing, if you move the camera, even a little, during the moment when you open the shutter and let the light in then the resulting picture will be blurred. In most cases, a blurred picture is a bad picture. As Canon puts it, “Camera shake is the thief of sharpness.” So, OIS is a technology  that reduces the blurring caused by the motion of a camera during exposure.

“Camera shake is the thief of sharpness.”

Obviously if the shutter speed is high, meaning it opens and closes very quickly, then the amount of time when the camera needs to be steady is reduced. However if the shutter speed is low, for example in poor lighting conditions, then the amount of time the shutter stays open is longer and the amount of blurring due to movement/shake increases.

What OIS does is compensate for small movements of the camera during exposure. In general terms this is achieved by the use of a floating lens, gyroscopes and small motors. The elements are controlled by a microcontroller which moves the lens very slightly to counteract the shaking of the camera or phone, i.e. if the phones of is being moved to the right, then the lens is moved left. All very clever stuff, however, it is important to note that image stabilization does not prevent motion blur caused by a moving subject (e.g. a car, child, animal etc). Image stabilization is only able to reduce blur due to the small shaking of a lens when held in the hand. Cameras or phones placed in a tripod don’t need to use OIS.

It is important to note that image stabilization does not prevent motion blur caused a moving subject.

Your basic OIS system uses two gyros in the lens (one for yaw and one for pitch) that detect both the angle and speed of the movement. This data is fed, in real-time, to the microcontroller which then moves things around inside the lens to compensate for the movement. Interestingly, the majority of smartphones use SoCs (System-on-a-Chip) based on the the ARM architecture and often use CPU cores and GPU designs made by ARM. Likewise the design for the microcontrollers for OIS often come from ARM, this time not the Cortex-A range of CPUs, but the Cortex-M range of microcontrollers.

Besides Optical Image Stabilization there are other Image Stabilization (IS) techniques which aren’t optical. For example during MWC 2016 OPPO announced that it has moved image stabilization out of the lens and into the image sensor. Oppo’s solution, known as SmartSensor, monitors the vibrations on the pitch axis, yaw axis and roll axis, and then compensates for them using a voltage-driven MEMS (microelectromechanical system).

Another type of IS is Digital Image Stabilization, where the image is shifted digitally in the from frame to frame, enough to counteract the motion. This technique is used mainly while recording video and is performed in software and does not rely on any mechanical components. Some smartphones have both OIS and DIS (sometimes called Video DIS) systems, the first for video and the second for recording video.

Note 5 vs Nexus 6P

To show you OIS in action I have put two smartphone cameras to the test. The first is the Samsung Galaxy Note 5, which has OIS, and the second is the Nexus 6P, which doesn’t have OIS. Trying to find a method which produced consistent (and reliable) results is quite hard. I tried several different ways of taking photos, while shaking the camera, however I couldn’t find any consistency until I tried jumping! So to test these two cameras what I did was jump in the air and then take a photo while I was in the air, but still moving. I did this several times to make sure I was doing it right!

So here are two galleries of pictures taken with the Nexus 6P and the Note 5. Before you take a looking let me point out that a) I took the pictures indoors intentionally so that there is less light available thus forcing a longer exposure time, b) there will be other factors that alter the resulting images including the overall speed of the image sensor etc.

So first the Nexus 6P:

And now for the Note 5:

Take a look at the two galleries and form an overall impression of the results. What do you think? For me I see that both phones took blurred pictures and both phones took clearer pictures. So obviously things like the sensor speed and my erratic jumping play a part. However I also see that the Note 5, with its OIS system, took less pictures that were blurred when compared to the Nexus 6P.

What do you think?

How important is OIS to you? Are  features like 4 axis OIS, that was announced for the Xiaomi Mi 5, important to you? When you buy a phone do you see OIS as a must have feature? Please let me know in the comments below.

Gary Sims
Gary has been a tech writer for over a decade and specializes in open source systems. He has a Bachelor's degree in Business Information Systems. He has many years of experience in system design and development as well as system administration, system security and networking protocols. He also knows several programming languages, as he was previously a software engineer for 10 years.
  • Syukri Lajin

    OIS is a must, especially for a phone that cost more than $500. Is there any technical reason why manufacturers cannot include OIS inside their phones?

  • Thitigorn Jiruttigorn

    OIS really helps taking photo in low light, not just for reduce shakiness but also able to use lower ISO. Most of the phone’s cameras like S7 advertise for better low light photographing are really benefit from OIS not the sensors. I still think 6P has better high ISO picture quality than most of other sensors.
    Some manufacturers try to look for other solution like Sony which gives you ability to step up ISO up to 12800. But I would say it does not work well since Sony’s JPEG processing is not great especially in low light situation.

    When it comes to video recording DIS is still important because OIS alone can create Jello effect which is unpleasant. Sony, again, use EIS which combines with Gyro to compensate the shakiness and the result is top notch. But the downside is it will crop the FoV to be narrower.

    If 6P did have OIS it would be my choice. Maybe this year Nexus device will.

    • saksham

      do u work for a camera company ?

      • Thitigorn Jiruttigorn

        I’m not. If I said something sounds supercilious I apologize for that. Just want to start the discussion.

  • Shantanu Chauhan

    OIS is very important for me as my hands are little shaky and OIS in s6 helps me a lot to click perfect picture. But i dont know how to deal with motion blur :( . is there any way to avoid motion blur ( M using galaxy s6 )

    • Thitigorn Jiruttigorn

      Use faster shutter speed (In pro mode.) But remember, it will use higher ISO which maybe result in worse image quality.

      • saksham

        there is no option of faster shutter speed in my s6 edge ?

        • Thitigorn Jiruttigorn

          Oops, sorry. I confused with S6 edge+
          Shutter speed option will come with MM update. I’m sure you’ll get it soon, they’ve been rolling it out for sometimes.

          • saksham

            i wonder how the shutter speed can be faster . it just slouches a little when i take multiple pictures

          • Thitigorn Jiruttigorn

            Shutter speed and shutter lag time is a different thing. You can search Youtube for ‘Slow mo guys – shutter speed’ they explain it very clear.

      • Shantanu Chauhan

        thanks friend :)

  • Atul Kumar

    which is more important, faster shutter speed or OIS.

  • JJ

    OIS is only good for adjust very small shaky movements
    if you want really good stabilization
    you have to use full on 3-axis gimbal

  • Malik Sohail

    hi, please let me know that how can I implement this OIS in android application development!
    will be thankful to you

  • ocping

    I only buy phones with OIS. I have a Nexus 6 (with OIS) and will never buy a 6P. Wake up Google.

  • YuuriAyano

    Does OIS work in other apps other than camera? e.g. Skype, Snapchat ??

  • Harshal Gad

    Does OIS mean it has 4 axis camera ?

  • Oº°‘¨Chisa¨‘°ºO pic

    OIS is important to me, I want to replace a Canon small cam with a cam phone and noticed that, without flash, images would be shaky so an upgrade would be nice. Nothing too fancy. So I was looking at Samsung Galaxy A5 for all its nice specs, including waterproof, until I found out about OIS and that some phones have it and it was removed from Samsung Galaxy A5 2017 version. So now I’m considering Asus Zenfone 3 Zoom over Samsung – which should I choose? OIS or waterproof? I think the best cam would win but I won’t know it until I have one, so any suggestions are welcome (o;