April 14, 2010

Pentax shake reduction revisited

Update (April 18, 2010) Breaking News

The entire blog article may only apply to Pentax K-7 with firmware up to 1.00.02.xx with yet to be determined xx. Rüdiger from a German forum has done more measurements with 1.03 which seem to indicate this. I'll keep you updated.

End of Update.

This is a first for me. Because I am going to write about results obtained by others.

Nevertheless, I hope to be able to shed some new light onto an old question: How well does the Pentax shake reduction system work? The result may be surprising which is why I post this article.

1. Information sources

1.1 First and foremost, the admirable work by P. Smith for the Pentax K-7:
- Study of the Effectiveness of Shake Reduction in the Pentax K7
- Discussion of the above original work

1.2 Article by German magazines:
- ColorFoto 7/2008 "8 Bildstabilisatoren von 8 Herstellern"
- Pentax measurement chart contained therein
- ColorFoto 1/2010 "14 Bildstabilisatoren" (only available as print, pp.26-32).

1.3 Own work:
- Quick tests with my K-7
- Re-evaluation of data originally published by P.Smith
- Proposed mathematical model

Let me add that all data I am using (except my own quick tests) are based on a careful examination of edge blur widths (and their variation). Note that edge blur widths can be computed with high subpixel accuracy using the slanted edge method as all sources above do. They compare the shake (motion blur) with static blur caused by the sensor and lens too. Comparisons based on "percentage of useful shots" are not meaningful enough and therefore, haven't been used.

The work of P. Smith uses the Smith shake device aka as his body. The work of ColorFoto uses Steve aka Stabilization Evaluation Equipment which is an apparatus build exclusively for ColorFoto magazine. It was set to a mean shake frequency of 4 Hz and 0.2° amplitude. AFAIK, the shake isn't harmonic which is good.

2. Scope of the work

Aquiring a better understanding of the Pentax SR system. I am not in the boat to examine the 1/100s "SR bug" some report for the K-x and others deny. However, my article may help decide what is a bug and what isn't. My article will also help understand the performance differences of a sensor based system vs. an optical system.

3. A little background

Pentax uses sensor shift-based image stabilization (SR aka shake reduction). It is based on two (or three) angular velocity (gyro) sensors. More about the sensors:
- maRata Gyrostar ENC-03R

The measured angular velocities means that the body knows how the lens pointing direction is shaking and can shift the sensor to compensate. Unlike in-lens systems, it can even compensate for rotations around the axis which are not to be neglected. P. Smith has compiled a number of documents from the Pentax patent application:
- Pentax patents collected by P. Smith

Vendors with sensor-shift based image stabilization include Olympus, Pentax and Sony. Vendors with lens-tilt based image stabilization include Nikon, Canon and Sigma. A few lenses with lens-based stabilization for Pentax exist from Sigma. All systems are actively powered.

It is commonly accepted that neither system is superior to the other. I'll spend a few words on this later. No existing system works in the macro range. Canon has filed a patent requiring additional sensors to address this.

4. A fresh look at existing data

© 2010: measurement data: P. Smith; chart: F. Lumo.

This plot shows the blur width (in pixels) due to shake induced motion blur as a function of exposure time (in milli seconds; e.g., 1/125s = 8ms). The data is taken from the work by P. Smith as cited above. The red curve above is without shake reduction, the green curve is with shake reduction enabled. The thin lines denote upper and lower error margins (based on standard deviation and N=10 sample size). The dashed lines denote a fitted linear line thru the origin.

The camera used (Pentax K-7) has 5 µm pixels and the lens (Sigma 50/2.8 Macro) has 50 mm focal length.

This plot is the same as above with both axes in logarithmic scale. The green dashed line shows a linear line thru zero blur at 44 ms.

It turns out that all data by P. Smith are (within margins of statistical and systematic errors) compatible with the following formula (dotted lines in the above log-log plot):

b = a f |t - t0|

where b be the blur width (e.g., in µm),
a and t0 are constants,
and f be the focal length (e.g., in mm)
and t be the exposure time (e.g., in ms).

and where values are as follows:

t0 = 0
a = 1 / (280 s)
(of course, a as above is a measurement of P. Smith's body tremor ;) )

t0 = 44 ms
a = 1 / (1200 s)

and b_SRON actually is the minimum of the above formula and b_SROFF. The crossover where b_SRON actually becomes b_SROFF is at t=8ms or 1/125s. For faster shutter speeds, the SR system has no effect (at 50mm focal speed).

The standard deviation of blur width is about the same size as the blur width itself, for both SR on and off.

This corresponds to an advantage of 2.1 stops within a nice range and actually better (~4 stops) around 1/20s - 1/25s. Persons with stronger tremor may see a better reduction.

The nice things about this formula is that we can compute the range of permissable shutter speeds, given a blur width and focal length.

5. Claim

The Pentax formula above holds true for all focal lengths.

6. Backing it up

Wait a second! If true, this claim means that the Pentax SR mechanism isn't able to help aquiring tac-sharp images with long focal lengths! Because below 1/125s, SR basically won't help anymore. It does help aquiring accepable images at maybe 1/50s and 200mm. But not tac-sharp at maybe 1/150s and 200mm. This may then require 1/400s actually, where SR on or off wouldn't matter anyway.

Because this claim is not to be made light-heartedly, I will use more sources to confirm it.

First, my own informal tests involving a visual inspection of images taken with a 300mm lens, at 1/320s, 1/160s, 1/100s, 1/25s, SR ON and OFF: the blur doesn't seem to depend on SR on or off with 1/320s, 1/160s, 1/100s. Blur was less at 1/25s with SR on but still a little bit more than at 1/160s with SR on or off.

Because this quick test isn't academic enough, I consult two additional sources: The ColorFoto tests from 2008 (K20D) and 2010 (K-7). The former measurement chart is online and I try to embedd it here (if it doesn't display, follow the link in the sources section):

© 2008 ColorFoto

We need to look at the second chart here, taken at 130mm and 1/125s. The red bar is with SR off and the dark blue bar to the right is with SR on. As you can see, both bars are roughly of same height, i.e., ColorFoto found SR ineffective at 130mm and 1/125s with the K20D. They actually found blur to be less at 1/15s than at 1/125s...

Now in 2010, I have the paper source for the same test with the K-7 and DA60-250 at 130mm at my disposition. Result: SR on (compared to SR off) has a positive effect of only 10% at 1/200s and maybe 20% at 1/100s. In a range of 1/200s to 1/13s, it remains at about 1 to 1.5 pixels as opposed to 0.5 pixels with tripod. Which is excellent at 1/13s but not so good at 1/200s. Their same curve at 23mm focal length reveals contant, tripod-like blur between 1/30s and 1/8s and even at 1s, only 2px blur. Their result is a little bit less irritating than the earlier K20D result in so far as shorter exposure times didn't lead to more blur.

These are two independent measurements basically coming to the same result: The Pentax SR is designed "to kick in" at exposures longer than about 1/50s.

This leads me to make my claim above.

7. Compared to the competition

In their 2010 study, ColorFoto compared the following SR systems, both at 35mm equivalent and 200mm equivalent focal lengths (FT and APS-C sensors).

35mm: (improvement in stops vs. 1/30s):
Nikon 18-200 VR II: 5
Olympus E3: 5
Panasonic GH1: 3
Sigma 18-50: 3
Pentax K-7: 3 (*)
Canon 18-135: 1
Sony A380: 1
Tamron 17-50: 0

Olympus E3: 3
Panasonic GH1: 2
Canon 18-135: 1
Nikon 18-200 VR II: 1
Tamron 18-270: 1
Sony 70-300: 1
Canon 100: 0
Nikon 70-200 VR: 0
Sigma 70-300: 0
Pentax K-7: 0 (*)

(*) I define the number of stops improvement by the time where blur becomes more than 120% compared to a tripod shot, using the 1/focal-s rule to define the 0 stop point. The K-7 had more published shake without SR than the others which can only mean that the higher resolution wasn't corrected for. So, it was ok to add 1 stop to Pentax results (and avoid a -1 stop improvement listing ;) ).

So, all vendors have a common problem already at 100mm (FT) and 130mm (APS-C) focal lengths. At the long end, the best and the worst result are from sensor-shift based systems. At the wide end, they are mixed as well. So, differences are always due to the particular implementation details and not the principle as such.

Looking at results in more detail, I can see the "kick in effect" for the following systems: Tamron 18-270, Nikon 70-200 VR, Canon 100, Sigma 70-300 and Pentax K-7. So, it isn't a system-immanent effect.

8. Pentax SR usage guide

One can compile a usage guide of good exposure times based on the formula given above. This is possible because we can now assume that it holds true for all focal lengths.

The above is a 2D plot of ranges of good combinations of exposure time and focal length. The bright green (tack-sharp) represents 1 µm extra blur due to shake or better (0.2 pixels), the red (blurry) represents 20 µm blur or worse (4 pixels). The two darker shades of green (sharp and soft) represent degrees of blur, which are bearly or clearly noticeable at the 100% crop level.

The border between the two darker green regions represents the standard 135-format 1/f rule (1/(1.5*f) in APS-C land).

The blue or lilac region (blurred) represents a region where blur is obvious but not ruining the shot when looked at from the normal viewing distance: 20µm or 0.02mm is the traditional circle of confusion diameter for depth of field calculations.

One may think that the level of DoF-kind of sharpness be good enough. It depends on the subject. Because a crop from a shorter focal length would have done as well then. Sometimes, the longer focal length would still be the better choice because it collects more light (less noise than the crop) and allows for better focussing.

(Note: the chart and chart description was updated 2010, April 16.)

As can be seen, for focal lengths larger than 100mm, it is getting increasingly difficult or impossible to obtain the required sharpness from the SR mechanism and one has to use the good old rule of thumb. Nevertheless, if one shoots at 200mm and is accepting 1 pixel motion blur, then the avaible range is extended down from about 1/150s to 1/25s or 1/15s even, with the region around 1/100s to be avoided!

One may think that adding a tele lens from Sigma with lens-based stabilization could deliver more headroom for long range tele photo shots. In theory, this may be true. But it remains to be seen if the image stabilization mechanism made by Sigma can deliver for longer focal lengths. It may well be limited to the wide end as well. Additional tests would be required to answer this question.

9. Conclusion

Pentax delivers a capable shake reduction system able to provide up to 4 stops stabilization. However, it is designed to work best at exposure time around 1/20s and therefore, is most useful for normal and wide angle lenses used at low light or in video. Starting at around 100mm focal length, it is increasingly unlikely to see a positive effect from the SR system and beyond 200mm, the SR system cannot be used anymore to produce tac-shap images at lower than usual exposure times.

Olympus shows that this isn't a principle limitation of sensor-shift by delivering best stabilization for longer focal lengths (as far as I am aware of tests). So, there is hope that a future installment of the Pentax SR system is more useful for long focal lengths.

I call it "Tele-SR" and say to Pentax: I want it and I want it now :)

Thanks for stopping by.


  1. I have K20D. I used to have Canon 350D and Sigma 70-200 EX (no OS).

    With the Canon I had to use shutter spees of 1/500 or so and still there were some images with shake.

    With the Pentax and a 200mm m42 prime the camera likes to default to 1/90 - I shoot over 90% of my images at that. There is never any camera shake. Never. I also do shoot with 300/4 prime - 1/90 and never camera shake. 500/8 mirror - 1/90 and never camera shake (though the lens is not tak-sharp as 200&300 are, so...).

    My record so far is 9 stops of stabilization :)

  2. Anonymous - your information do not match the findings in this test. Neither do it match the claims by Pentax. Please - let me be sceptical :)

  3. Some have trouble believing my results. I do actually belong into this group :)

    Therefore, I've two comments to make:

    1. the SmugMug lightboard which you can access by clicking onto any of the images contains now contains a scan of ColorFoto's 2010 results at 130mm and 1/200s, 1/100s, 1/50s etc. as well. Have a look if you're sceptical.

    2. I am keen to receive any serious test data which show a significant SR effect at 1/180s or faster.

  4. Explain me, please, my problem - I have K200D and have a lot of blurred photos with SR OFF at "border" shutter speed - for example, it's 1/60 for FA43 or 1/200 for FA135. With SR ON - the situation is better. But my old *ist DS with worse mirror slap and lags of shutter was better. I had no any problems to shoot with FA43 at 1/60 and even at 1/50 without any SR. FA135 was better at 1/200 than now.

    I think that it's a problem of SR technology.

  5. Well, I can only speak of my own results - as the system works really well for me, I have no motivation to do proper scientific study. I shoot only with m42-lenses, mostly in the 135-300mm neighbourhood. I only use very sharp prime-lenses, and regardless of the shutter speed (which is usually 1/90 unless I need up it to stop motion of the subject) there is _never_ observable camera shake in the images! Measuring it with high enough sub-pixel accuracy might reveal a little bit of blur, but not enough for it to have any significance even in the largest of prints.

  6. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  7. General comment:

    If everybody comments as Anonymous, not giving some name or avatar, I'll be going to disable the anonymous comment option.

    IMHO, doing anonymous comments is a lack of civilized behaviour.

    @Anonymous #1:

    First, you're 'ogl' and I already replied to your question in the forum you asked the same question. Second, I am almost sure you compare pixels on a 6MP camera with pixels on a 10MP camera. Which entirely explains your observation which BTW isn't SR-related.

    @Anonymous #2:

    135-300mm at 1/90s can look relatively sharp, e.g. looking at my chart, you can expect additional blur due to shake motion of about 1px which I called "soft". You won't really notice it except at the 100% crop level. Also, YMMV.

    Again, pls read the article. I dodn't say SR won't work at long focal lengths. I said it won't work at fast shutter speeds to help make your tele shots tack-sharp.

  8. Excellent article! I commend your hardwork in creating such detailed stats! :D


  9. Hi Falk
    As an engineer I appreciate your and labnuts work. Very good.

    I am not quesitoning the test results but I am questioning the conclusions that SR is not useful for lenses above 100mm or so. Both your tests, Psmiths and the ones at Colorfoto show that the effetiveness at long FL increases as you increase the exposure time below 10ms (1/100). THe desired result is to reduce blur with Long FL lenses as you increase FL. Thus if I had a 200mm lens and the benefits of SR kick in longer thab 10ms, then I am achieving my objective since this is precisely the zone (>10ms) I want SR. It may not matter much if it is less effective in 1/100 (10ms) or 1/200 (5ms) because I want it to be most effective at the longer focal lengths. I do care about how effective it is with longer lenses in the desired range (= 1/100 to 1/25 for a lens of this FL=200mm). At faster shutter speeds it is not as much use. Is this not the results shown by Colorfoto and is this not a good design objecive.

    Anecodtal evidence is provided by those who have shot at 500mm with good results at 1/50 or even as low as 1/15. Rupert of the DPReview fame is one person.

  10. @Nick,

    I agree with all of your statements and my SR guide isn't opposing this point of view -- just go for the darker shades of green ;)

    However, the following is too important a consideration to be dismissed and therefore, to be taken into account in my conclusion: If I shoot at, e.g., 250mm rather than 125mm, then I cannot normally tolerate total blur to exceed 1.5 px. Because otherwise, I could have shooted at 125mm in the first place. This is something many people forget to consider. E.g., in a discussion about tele converters .., or as in this case, SR efficiency.

  11. A brilliant post. Pentax should hire you immediately as an independent consultant. I can only image what you would do with access to their confidential engineering data.

  12. Well I really did not believe your tests and results. However I just took about 100 pics using my DA55-300mm (nice wide range to play with) and in every case it was in agreement with your chart. BTW this is with my K20D. It seems to not work much at 300mm, 1/180 had the same results with or without SR on.:( hmmm I can only conclude that my thoughts of that big heavy platter moving at high speed and compensating is not possible. Most don't know when we wait for the shaky hand the sensor platter is just sitting there and there is no power going to the coils until you press the shutter button. Than it jumps up and into position. This is a much slower (logically) system compared on one on rails and able to move more freely with faster response due to it being small (the sensor platter) and directly connected to the actuators, there is no lag. However the system still jumps up and into place when someone shoots a K-7 at 1/8000 of a second, I guess there is no time to jump up into place and compensate once the shutter reaches a certain speed. Hope folks understand. Nothing is happening but the gyros gathering data when waiting for the hand, when you see the hand the SR computer has enough info on the shake, when you press the shutter button the platter jumps up and into a compensating position, the faster the shutter speed the less time it has to counter shake as the shutter is open. If SR is off all it has to do is pull the sensor plate into a square position and not move it to compensate for shake. I mean picture that... its amazing it works at all.

  13. @jamesm007, thanks for your comment.

    Note that I am in the middle of rewriting this blog article. A lot of it as it is now turned out to be false information. SR actually IS effective at 300mm (well, can be).

    Watch out for an update :)

  14. respone to your post

  15. I have just tested my K7 (firmware 1.03) with an FA 80-320 lens at 320mm. Using shutter speeds of 1/45 and 1/180 sec, I made 10 exposures of an auto license plate ~50m away with SR off, and then 10 with SR on, for 40 exposures total. The test was whether the license plate was legible or not.

    At 1/45, 2/10 exposures were legible without SR, and 9/10 legible with SR.

    At 1/180, 4/10 legible without SR and 9/10 legible with SR.

    I am satisfied that SR on my K7 works with focal lengths over 300 mm and shutter speeds shorter than 1/125 sec.


  16. @Rick,

    Thanks for sharing your results. I confirm your findings. An major update to my blog article is ready and awaiting feedback from Pentax. Stay tuned.

  17. Great in-depth research. I’m looking forward to your update. While I (still) have a K100d and these results might not apply to my camera, this is food for (critical) thought and inspiration to do my own investigations, albeit on a smaller scale.

  18. Falk, any news on the update? I'm trying to decide between using the SR with a Pentax 55-300mm or use the OS on a Sigma telephoto zoom.

  19. @Jeff,

    this article ("Pentax Shake Reduction revisited") led to an even more extensive work to understand the appearent inefficiency of SR around 1/100s. The work about shutter-induced blur.

    As it turned out, the SR actually works for all focal lengths and exposure times but cannot counteract the shutter-induced blur. So, SR is most effective for short focal length and exposure times slower than 1/60s, and very long focal lengths and exposure times faster than 1/200s. If effective, it wins about 2 stops on average.

    As soon as measurements for the K-5 are in, I will update this article (and chart) for the K-7 and K-5. The current chart is too pessimistic below 1/200s.

    Many stabilized lenses win about 2 stops as well (even if declared to win 4 stops) and therefore, will be about the same as the Pentax in-body SR. If you can find a quote that the OS on your Sigma tele lens gains more than 2 stops *on* *average* then you may start to see a benefit.

  20. Falk, thanks for the excellent response. I read through the rest of your articles and am quite impressed.

    I'm not too surprised to hear about shutter induced blur, as it makes since considering the forcefulness of the K-7 shutter. I am glad to hear however that the in-camera stabilization works for longer focal lengths. Do you suppose ColorFoto's results for 200mm were due to the shutter blur as well?

    Looking forward to future articles. :)


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