Help a DSLR Noob
August 21, 2009 8:36 AM   Subscribe

[DSLR Noob Filter] Do I need to invest in a VR (vibration reduction) lens?

Hi, I'm buying an entry-level DSLR (Nikon D60) and have the choice of buying a Nikkor VR 18-55mm lens or a non-VR 18-55 lens. The non-VR option costs about £60 less.

I don't really want to throw pots of money at this camera, but I don't want to skimp unnecessarily either, as I'm very keen to improve.

Do the photographers among you find the vibration reduction feature useful? Thanks for your help! :)
posted by Ziggy500 to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (28 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I've found IS (the Canon name for the same basic tech) incredibly useful on my 24-105 lens - on the other hand, I do a lot of very low-light hand-held shooting, so I love the fact that I can regularly get shots that I know would be a blurry mess without it. If you expect to have a tripod, or have good lighting, or shoot people (VR won't freeze motion, it'll just compensate for hand-shaking), it becomes much less useful.

The short answer is that I'd suggest it; certainly I'd rather spend $100 magically transforming one of my existing lenses into an IS (VR) version of the same lens, than on most other photo-related things I could get for that money.
posted by Tomorrowful at 8:43 AM on August 21, 2009

Well, it's certainly not necessary, as we managed without it for decades.

However, it can provide some very nice flexibility in lower light situations.

Dpreview actually does a great job of summing up the advantage in the conclusion of their review:
posted by selfnoise at 8:46 AM on August 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

I also new to DSLR use, and I have both an IS and a non-IS lens to play with. The answer to your question, to my mind, is another question: What do you plan to shoot?
posted by WinnipegDragon at 8:49 AM on August 21, 2009

VR makes a big difference on the 55-200. For most purposes on the 18-55 it isn't necessary. Depends also on how good you are at holding the camera.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 8:52 AM on August 21, 2009

18-55 is a wide angle zoom lens, so you do not need VR. Hand shake is amplified with longer lenses and, with decent light, should not be much of an issue on the 18-55.

Aside, the Nikkor 18-200 VR is an excellent all-purpose lens and may be worth looking into.
posted by nineRED at 8:53 AM on August 21, 2009

VR is very useful. It allows me to get hand-held shots that would otherwise have required a tripod. Which means the diferrence between getting the shot, and not getting the shot if I don't have a tripod with me.

Either way, learn good hand holding technique, as the link in weapons-grade pandemonium comment shows.
posted by The Deej at 9:08 AM on August 21, 2009

I would disagree with the naysayers, and say that yes, it is definitely worth it. It will make a bigger difference at longer lens lengths, but the difference at shorter lengths is noticable. Also, I believe the optics are higher quality with the image stabilised kit zoom, but that may only be with the Canon version.

Basically, because of the relatively narrow aperture, you have to hold the shutter open for longer to get a good amount of light in. In bright sunlight you're fine, but indoors, anything below 1/(the lens length *1.5) will be susceptible to image-ruining camera shake. Say you're taking a shot at the long end of your lens. 55*1.5 is 82.5. So you'll have to shoot at 1/82.5th of a second, minimum, to be likely to avoid camera shake. In a dark environment, at f/5.6 and 400 ISO, that's not a great deal of light. You can bump it up to 800, but anything beyond that is noise city on a D60. Vibration reduction apparently gives you three stops, which means you can hand-hold it at approximately 1/25th of a second. That's around 1 and half times as much light entering the lens, which translates to significantly brighter pictures.

So yes, I think it's worth it, especially if you're going to be sticking with one general purpose lens. :) An alternative, which means spending a bit more, is to forgo the kit lens entirely and get the Tamron 17-50 f/2.8.

I don't know how much you're paying for the camera, but I'd also investigate the new D3000. It's released soon (on the 28th according to Amazon) and prices should drop quite a lot when that happens. I expect it to have significantly better low-light capability and feature set than the D60, though the D60 is still a great little camera.
posted by Magnakai at 9:13 AM on August 21, 2009

You don't *need* VR, but it is useful. The advantage is that when you have to shoot at a lower shutter speed because of low light, it gives you a better chance of capturing a steady shot, particularly in the range of 1/8 to about 1/15 of a second.

It is a fair point that this is more useful on longer lenses, but it is still a useful thing to have on any lesn, as you can always turn it off. For $60, I would go for it.

(shameless self publicity: the performance of VR lenses is one of the things we test at my day job. You can see the results of one of our tests of VR on and off for a Nikon here).
posted by baggers at 9:15 AM on August 21, 2009

Just because a lens is a "wide angle zoom lens" has nothing to do with whether or not you need VR.

The 18-55 range you specify is a moderate wide angle to moderate telephoto design (roughly corresponding to a 27-82mm lens on a 35mm camera.

Nobody needs a VR lens, but having that capability can, for example, mean the difference between being able to shoot low light shots hand held with sharp results, instead of having to resort to a tripod or bracing the camera otherwise.

Remember that even if you can hand hold a camera with a VR lens at, say, 1/8 of a second and get a sharp image, a moving person within that picture will likely be blurred. VR is of no help with subject movement; only camera movement.

I own a couple of VR lenses and on occasion I'm very glad to have that functionality.
posted by imjustsaying at 9:15 AM on August 21, 2009

I've got one lens with VR (70-200 2.8) and seldom use the feature. Good technique and a little planning compensates for the need. If I think I'm going to be out when the extra stops will be helpful, I'll bring along and use the monopod first. I just don't often find myself suddenly needing the feature for a candid or tack sharp shot very often that I haven't already prepped for at some level.

I think I'd recommend passing on the VR version and focus on technique. The 18-55 is good, but it isn't a "classic" piece of glass. No need to spend more than needed. Instead start a kiddy for a 24-70.
posted by michswiss at 9:19 AM on August 21, 2009

I have a lot of glass (that's what the cool kids call lenses, fwiw) and I would always buy a VR/IS lens over a non-VR/IS lens. Currently, the nicest lens in my kit is the Canon 70-200 2.8 IS, which is great (but soon: 85 1.2, yum). I also have IS is a 100-400 zoom and in the 24-105 zoom. These are all high(er)-end lenses; VR/IS is not just some gimmick, like in-camera face recognition.

However, a faster lens is ALWAYS better than a slower lens with VR/IS, for the reason imjustsaying mentioned. Yes, you may get two stops' exposure from the VR/IS, but movement may be blurred. The dampening feature just avoids having to use a tripod, etc. However, if you actually buy a lens that has a two-stop greater maximum aperture, you can use a faster shutter speed, allowing you to freeze time.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 9:26 AM on August 21, 2009

you can also get the Olympus Evolt E520 or e520 or any other model that has an in body image stabilization. that way you buy regular lenses but have stabilization anyway. Plus it have live image preview =c)

nikons and canons are the more popular ones, but i prefer Olympus personally. YMMV.
posted by pyro979 at 9:27 AM on August 21, 2009

I've got one lens with VR (70-200 2.8) and seldom use the feature. Good technique and a little planning compensates for the need. If I think I'm going to be out when the extra stops will be helpful, I'll bring along and use the monopod first. I just don't often find myself suddenly needing the feature for a candid or tack sharp shot very often that I haven't already prepped for at some level

I'm amazed at this! I own the Canon version of this lens and VR has been incredibly useful countless times. I've done plenty of shoots where I'm shooting inside dark auditoriums where I haven't got the space (or frankly, the inclination) to carry a monopod around. I have to be on 1/30th of a second to get anything approaching a visible picture, and I end up with really, really sharp results. 1/30th of a second at 200mm should look like the middle of a bombing raid, but these pictures look razor sharp. That's amazing, if you ask me.

And £60 won't get you very far along the road to a 24-70, which would be too long and too heavy on the small, light D60 anyway.
posted by Magnakai at 9:29 AM on August 21, 2009

Magnakai, I'm with you--I keep IS activated on all of my lenses all the time. It is incredibly useful whether you are trying to eke out a slightly slower shutter speed or shoot long (really two ways of looking at the same problem, but still...). Saying that you can avoid using it with planning and technique is like saying you can avoid shifting into second gear while driving. Not sure I agree with the premise or see what the benefit would be.

All the same, Michswiss--love your photos, so you're doing something right.

OP, as I always do in these threads, I'd also mention that 1) buying lenses new is nice, but often needlessly expensive 2) Craigslist is a great place to pick up used lenses; 3) my go-to lens for the first few years when I was picking up cameras again was a so-called "nifty fifty"--a 50mm 1.4 prime I picked up on CL for maybe $250, and I learned more from that one lens (and got more great photos from it), than all of my other lenses combined. If you have aspirations to really develop (geddit?) your photography, I highly encourage you to look at an equivalent Nikon lens.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 9:59 AM on August 21, 2009

Odds are you will have the lens a lot longer than you have the camera body. Buy decent glass if you can afford it.
posted by caution live frogs at 11:25 AM on August 21, 2009

The VR lenses are typically going to be slower (f/3.5-5.6 or so) and the VR will stabilize the stationary items in the shot, but can't keep the subject from moving, talking, shaking their head, etc. These things will still be blurry because of the slower shutter speed. If you're planning to shoot a subject who will be moving in low light, a VR lens is not going to give you sharp shots.

If you're getting your first SLR lens, make it a 50mm f/1.8. This lens will let you take really impressive portraits, without the need to use flash, and will be as sharp as a VR lens (if not sharper, because it can give you faster shutter speeds) in low light. It's also much more affordable than the VR lens would be.
posted by mullingitover at 11:51 AM on August 21, 2009

If you ever expect to be shooting hand-held then yes, spring for the VR lens.
posted by chairface at 11:54 AM on August 21, 2009

Thanks so much for all the feedback!

For those who suggested it: I am actually also buying the 50mm f/1.8 - but I didn't mention it in the OP.
posted by Ziggy500 at 1:18 PM on August 21, 2009

I am actually also buying the 50mm f/1.8


you know that lens won't autofocus on a d60, right?

the D60 doesn't have an internal autofocus motor, so only lenses with integrated motors (in nikon marketing speak, "AF-S" lenses) will autofocus on that camera. so know that you'll be forced to manually focus, on a lens whose wide aperture gives a very very shallow depth of field, and it's very difficult to get it right.

(as a d40 owner with that lens and a "fuck it, i'll MF" attitude, i can tell you it's a lot harder than it sounds, and i end up almost never using that lens for anything that isn't completely stationary, which sucks because it's a really great lens. planning on upgrading my camera body soon for this and other reasons, but be aware that the d60 will limit your options).
posted by sergeant sandwich at 6:19 PM on August 21, 2009

Since you haven't yet bought the camera, I would suggest that you buy instead a Sony with anti-shake in the body. That means that not only will your basic kit lens be stabilised, but so will the fast primes you buy, including stuff like a 50/1.8. You can shoot at crazy-low levels of light with f/2 and stabilisation, I highly recommend it for candids at parties and the like. Having stabilisation on EVERY lens you buy, including old ones with massive apertures, is a huge benefit you will appreciate once you have it.

Those saying "you don't need it on wide lenses" clearly haven't had the joy of taking a sharp one second handheld exposure with an ultrawide lens. Oh yeah, and you won't find a stabilised 10-20mm lens unless you go for in-body stabilisation either.

If you do any amount of people photography, you should also budget for a decent (about 50m GN) external flash with wireless TTL that can be bounced off white ceilings/walls for natural looking lighting when required. Having such a flash will make a bigger difference to your people shots than pretty much any other piece of kit you can buy including fancier bodies, faster lenses, etc, etc. It's all in the light.
posted by polyglot at 6:33 PM on August 21, 2009

Oh yeah, and you don't get BS like "that lens won't autofocus on that body" with Sony or Canon.
posted by polyglot at 6:34 PM on August 21, 2009

(Canon instead has BS like "that lens won't work on that body, period", and Sony has BS like "that flash won't work on this body unless it's a Sony flash". Nikon's compatibility weirdness is because Nikon has gone to pains to keep their lens system backwards-compatible, although it's kind of lame that they've been removing the AF motor from their most recent low-end bodies. My D50 has the motor, and I'm glad it does, but all the models since have been missing it.)

The IS won't help you for moving subjects, but it will add the equivalent of a stop or so for handholding. It's a shame the 50mm won't work on the D60, since it really is an excellent lens for the price. Nikon's 50mm f/1.4 has AF-S (that is, the motor is in the lens) but it's rather spendy.
posted by neckro23 at 2:05 AM on August 22, 2009

If you plan to shoot a lot in low-light, it's certainly worth looking into. I'm not sure it's really worth spending extra on what is still a starter lens, though. Don't make a huge investment in this right at the start unless you're sure you really like doing it. It's not like having a lens without VR is going to make all your pictures terrible. I have a D80 with an 18-135mm lens, no VR. It takes fine pictures in all types of light.

Don't buy a Sony. You'll be locking yourself into a second-rate camera with a mediocre selection of lenses. You're buying a D60 now, but if you get into it, buying a better Nikon body isn't that expensive, and the lenses you already have, or any lenses you want to get later, will still work. Also, what's pushing you toward the D60? It's a fine camera, but it might be worth hunting around for a D80 (or even a D70 - it's a little older, but it has the autofocus motor and is still a fine camera, especially if you're just starting out).
posted by sinfony at 10:34 AM on August 22, 2009

Thanks sargeant sandwich, I do know about the autofocus issue with that lens, but I share your "fuck it I'll MF" attitude. You've given me some food for thought though, so thank you.
posted by Ziggy500 at 11:11 AM on August 22, 2009

sinfony: respectfully, bullshit.
posted by polyglot at 8:40 PM on August 22, 2009

How so? Unless Sony has drastically improved their product line since last I looked extensively at the different brands (~six months ago, I believe), their cameras aren't up to the level of Canon or Nikon, and neither are their lenses, either in terms of selection or quality. Unlike those two companies, they're a relative newcomer in the camera space, which means there isn't an enormous quantity of good lenses already out there that work with their cameras, as I know is the case with Nikon.

With regard to anti-shake specifically, I don't think it's a technology that's that important in a DSLR, at least to an entry-level user. On a point-and-shoot, which you're more likely to use in low-light and which is going to have terrible low-light performance even at fairly low ISO, it's a great feature. On a DSLR, where you're going to be able to get usable shots even above ISO 800, the need for anti-shake is drastically reduced.

I don't have any horses in this race, I'm simply providing advice based on what I know. I feel strongly that when starting out, it's best not to overspend (because you might find that you don't like it) and it's best to try to keep the most options open going forward (which, in this case, means going with the top camera makers with the best selection of lenses). In my personal experience, VR is not a killer feature for a reasonably fast kit lens.
posted by sinfony at 9:58 PM on August 22, 2009

Exactly, how so ("second rate camera and mediocre selection of lenses")? My guess is that you're a Nikon user as that's what you recommend (don't get me wrong, I'm not beating on Nikon) and that you're assuming everything else is out there is crap without trying it, because that opinion is what you'll find on forums like dpreview. Be very aware that people will justify what they have as being "the best", merely because they bought it. I'm as guilty of this as much as anyone... but I've also used all three DSLR systems professionally, as well as medium format. And yes, I use Sony stuff for my personal photography.

Sony bought Minolta's camera division. They sell cameras that use the Minolta AF mount. That's not "newcomer", that mount has been around longer than EOS/EF and the Minolta AF back-catalogue (lenses, flashes, etc) is all compatible with the Sony DSLRs. Minolta was an innovative company that couldn't market its way out of a wet paper bag, which is a bit sad; happily Sony seems to be turning that around, to the point that they've taken away a very big chunk of Canon and Nikon's sales. They're #3 by a not-very-big margin at the moment and I expect them to be #2 (at the expense of Nikon) within 5 years.

Have you actually looked at or used an A700 or an A900? Note that the A700 has the same sensor as the D300, in a substantially equivalent body... except that it has anti-shake. The A900 is a D3x at about 1/3 of the price - basically[1] same sensor, larger viewfinder with more coverage... and anti-shake. So there are perfectly good upgrade paths on the body for a beginner to take when the time comes, it's not like they sell only base model stuff.

As for lenses, have you seen the quality of results from a Minolta 70-200/2.8 compared to the Nikon version (hint, the Minolta/Sony version is significantly sharper on full frame than Nikon's VR offering)? Have you seen the output from a Zeiss 85/1.4 (as good as or better than the equivalent Nikon... plus it's stabilised) or Zeiss 135/1.8 or 135/2.8 STF. Seriously, have a read about the STF - you will find no similar lens on any other system and no other lens has bokeh that can match it due to the apodisation filter. Blur disks are not disks, they're gaussian.

If you want pro lenses, there is a Zeiss 16-35/2.8 (as good as the Nikon 14-24/2.8), a Zeiss 24-70/2.8, a 70-200/2.8, 300/2.8, 35/1.4, 50/1.4, 85/1.4 and 135/1.8... all available new. 500/4 is expected out this month; 300/4, 400/4.5 and 600/4 are all available as Minolta-branded lenses. They're all as good as anything Nikon sells, in many cases better. There's a 100/2.8 macro that's as good as the Nikon. There's the STF and there's the only autofocus 500/8 catadioptric lens available. Check out the dyxum lens database for detailed specifications and user reviews on all the compatible lenses.

Each brand has its strengths and weaknesses and Sony is no different. Sony's AF performance isn't generally as good as either Nikon's or Canon's but it's close. Canon can't build a wideangle lens to save their lives, though they do have some fantastic long glass. If you were going to use your camera only for birding, choosing Sony would be pretty stupid but mainly for pricing reasons. If you intend to do a lot of second-hand lens shopping, you will find a wider range of things available for both Canon and Nikon than Sony, mainly because Minolta sold only a few million lenses and the new Sony users have gone and bought them all up.

As for anti-shake, it is HUGELY valuable on a DSLR. It opens up whole new kinds of photographs that you couldn't otherwise take. For example, I can (and do) take shots at ISO6400, f/1.4 and about 1/10s with my 85mm lens... which means I can get a decent photo of a person by the light of one or two candles. Without stabilisation, you'd need a tripod (no good for intimate candid photos) or ISO38400 (pretty noisy even if you have a D3) to get the same result. Or a flash, which *really* ruins the mood. Anti-shake is one of those things that looks like a gimmick until you use it and realise how much further out it pushes the envelope of what you can do with a camera. Once you've got it on all your lenses, you'll never go back[2]. Let's take it as read that sinfony doesn't think VR is useful and that I do think it's useful. Depending on how you use the camera and in what circumstances, both answers can be true.

Anyone buying into a DSLR system needs to research the strengths and weaknesses of each system, because it is the system that you're buying, not a specific body. Statements such as "brand X is substandard" are unhelpful unless you know what you're talking about and can give specific reasons why.

If you buy Canon:
- lots of second-hand lenses available
- prices are good
- many "new" lenses are old designs with so-so performance
- telephotos are great and focus very quickly (this is their primary market)
- wideangle lenses are embarrassingly bad
- user interface sucks, but you can get used to it
- many manual lenses can be adapted to it due to the short registration distance
- the wireless flash system is a bit sad and requires an expensive addon to the camera or that you waste a top-of-the-line flash on the body as controller

If you buy Nikon:
- decent second-hand selection of lenses
- some great older lenses are sort-of compatible (depends on body: some won't AF, some won't meter)
- prices of new lenses are high
- wideangle lenses are great... if you have the cash
- telephotos are OK but the 70-200/2.8 VR is an embarrassment
- not compatible with older non-Nikon manual lenses due to long registration distance
- the wireless flash system ("CLS") is the best available now

If you buy Sony:
- stabilisation in the body
- pro-level glass prices are on a par with Nikon, higher than Canon
- lenses are mostly new designs, optically as good as or better than Nikon/Canon equivalents
- second hand lenses are not as common and cost more
- Minolta back-catalogue has good lenses but poor availability / high prices
- not a lot of mid-range lenses available (no f/2 prime series or f/4 zoom series available new)
- super-telephotos are OK but terribly overpriced
- flash mount is physically different[3]
- the wireless flash system is nearly as good as Nikon's but lacks some of its features like remote-manual and grouping
- you get the dyxum forum, which is awesome
- the high ISO performance isn't as bad as people make out on forums[4]

All three systems offer you entry-level, mid-range and pro-level bodies. Sony won't support you with instant-replacement etc in the field if you're operating professionally... but I'm guessing that that's not real relevant to anyone here.

So.. pick a system that suits you. You know what I picked, and it may well be that what's best for me is NOT what's best for you. But please pick something while being as informed as you possibly can.

[1] when I say basically, I mean that the light sensitive cells and electronic layout are the same - Nikon buys them from Sony. Sony uses a strong Bayer mask, i.e. deeper colour filters with a sharper cutoff, which results in better colour accuracy than Nikon gets with the tradeoff of slightly increased noise at high ISO. Horses for courses and all that - I'll take the increased max-quality any day because 95% of the time I shoot at base ISO; the tradeoff is just 1/2 stop more noise at ISO800+.

[2] assuming you're someone who shoots strictly in a studio or landscapes, in which case you're not pushing the camera hard at all.

[3] all three manufacturers use their own proprietary protocols for TTL flash metering that are not compatible with each other, but Canon and Nikon use physically similar flash shoes, which means you can share flashes around if you're happy with them being manual. To do that with Sony, you have to buy a $10 adapter.

[4] Sony's first DSLR, the A100, has abysmal high-ISO performance. I know, I had one. However, it's still the 10MP DSLR with the best sharpness and colour fidelity available at ISO100 because it has a strong Bayer filter, very weak antialiasing filter and CCD sensor. Sony's CMOS cameras have similar high-ISO performance to Canon and Nikon, usually trailing by about half a stop due to the strong Bayer filter.
posted by polyglot at 4:47 AM on August 23, 2009 [4 favorites]

[Waving white flag]

That's a lot of great info. Ultimately, you're absolutely right that different systems will suit different people. The trouble with starting out is that it's hard to figure out whether some of the strengths of particular systems are things that you'll care about. Some of the more practical concerns (i.e. availability of second-hand lenses) are clear-cut, but whether you prefer better color accuracy to better high-ISO noise performance or whether you're going to work more at wide-angle or telephoto are impossible to know.

The good thing is, given what you've explained here, one really can't go wrong with any of these systems. Since entry-level camera bodies aren't murderously expensive, and glass holds it value pretty well if taken care of, switching systems once you've got a better idea of what will suit you is feasible.

But I will stand by this: it's not worth £60 to get VR on the kit lens. The situations in which having VR on that lens is necessary are edge cases. You are not going to get £60 worth of better pictures from using the VR version. Put that money toward another lens, or a better body, or Lightroom/Aperture.
posted by sinfony at 11:26 AM on August 23, 2009

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