DIY: How to add image stabilization to your camera for under $20

Whether you shoot digital or film, an image is made by light passing though a lens and onto something which will preserve the image. There are three factors which go into the creation of the image: shutter speed and ISO are part of the camera. The third factor, the aperture, is a function of the lens. These factors give the photographer quite a lot of control over aspects of the image which will be recorded, and when there’s lots of light there’s no problem. The problems start when the lights get low.

In low light, the ISO goes up and the shutter speeds slow down, and both have immediate consequences on your images. Using a higher ISO means more noise in the image. Slower shutter speeds mean the possibility of a blurred image. Thus, a lot of the low-light heavy lifting falls on the shoulders of the lens. Using a wide aperture has implications for what will be in focus in the image—wider apertures create a shallow depth of field. But generally, a shallow depth of field is preferable to motion blur and ISO noise.

A wide aperture means a lot more glass in the lens, as well as more delicate parts to make the aperture work. There are amazingly wide lenses out there, but lens makers discovered that it’s cheaper to install image stabilization hardware and software into a lens than to make faster lenses. New lenses from the major brands feature optical image stabilizers which do a great job of reducing the shake from hand-holding at low shutter speeds. What we need is to also stabilize the camera.

There are lots of ways to stabilize a camera with your hands, all of which help reduce camera shake. Pentax suggested these in its Asahi S1a manual

The beehive is optional, and will not necessarily reduce camera shake, but in the quest for sharp images I won't fault you for trying.

As it turns out, though, it’s your finger, and not your hands, causing all that shake: tripping the shutter is the single biggest contributor to camera shake. No matter how tight you hold the camera, your finger mashing down the shutter button is going to cause some wiggle. This is especially true on cameras like the Fuji X series, where the shutter button is contained inside the on/off switch.  I have to get the tip of my finger down inside it to trip the shutter. That causes some appreciable movement, no matter how tightly I hold the camera.

Luckily there is a great solution: the soft release. A soft release is simply a button which screws into the shutter release’s threads, giving you a nice, wide platform over which you can curl your finger. In fact, you can even flatten your shutter finger out and use the second joint. It’s not the magic of a gyroscope, but it’s damned close. The gentle pressure of a squeeze is at least a full stop of shutter speed stability over the usual way of jabbing the shutter with the finger tip.

Better still, this amazing technological upgrade can be had for a Jackson. Although there are some cheap plastic ones available from overseas, I opted for <>Tim Issac’s version. Tim has a variety of options (say “Beep, Boop, Bip, Bop, Bug, Dragons, Operas and Fish” ten times fast), but they’re all expertly machined from metal. I opted for silver for the X100s and black for the XE-1, because I like my cameras to be as invisible as possible. I added a touch (just a touch!) of clear nail polish to a bit of the threads before screwing the releases on to help prevent them from working their way out.

The release adds a lot of height. Where before the shutter button was all but recessed, it’s now towering above the exposure compensation dial. Until I got used to its position, I was tripping off many an unintended picture of my shoes. After that short adjustment period, though, it’s been an excellent upgrade. The shutter is now an easy press, timing is improved, and camera shake remarkably reduced. It is indeed image stabilization technology for the camera body.

The only issue I’ve had so far is inadvertent power consumption. On the Fuji bodies, the shutter button rotates with the on/off switch. That means that any rotation of the soft release button also rotates the on/off switch. This isn’t an issue in picture-taking use, but it certainly comes up putting the camera in the bag. My solution has been to protect the release with my hand when I’m putting it in the bag, and being more vigilant about checking that the camera stays off when put away. Not a big deal, but forewarned is forearmed.