A look inside the much-overlooked smartphone spec that can make the difference between cracking camera shots and blurry mistakes…

Not every smartphone camera is created equal. In fact, there’s a clear divide based on which devices offer some form of image stabilisation, and which don’t – and it makes a huge difference to the quality of your photos and videos.

Here’s what it does, the science behind it, and how evolutions in 2019’s smartphones will transform your photography game…

Three things you need to know about image stabilisation

1. Not every phone has it
Image stabilisation technology doesn’t grace every camera out there. While most flagship phones will boast either EIS or OIS (more on those in a minute), mid-range and budget smartphones often forego this feature to save on costs. It’s probably not something you consider when picking up a new phone, but if you’re a keen photographer it’s always worth scoping out the camera’s specs – stabilisation is a game-changer.

2. You’ll need it more with night shots
When you’re taking snaps in low light conditions, any phone worth its chops will automatically tweak its shutter speed to stay open a little longer. This helps the camera’s sensor soak up more of the available light, but it can also have the adverse effect of adding blur, since the camera has a slightly longer period of time to feel the brunt of your natural hand shake.

3. It works for both still images and videos
A stabilised still photo will always best a non-stabilised one, but you’ll really notice the difference in video, where the wobbles caused by your hands, your breathing and your movement all combine to try and ruin your footage. Properly stabilised smartphone videos? They’re buttery smooth, even when you’re walking.

How smartphone image stabilisation works

There are really two approaches to ironing out your footage and photos on smartphones; optical image stabilisation (OIS), and digital – or electronic – image stabilisation (EIS).

On phones with optical image stabilisation (OIS), like the Google Pixel 3, the lens inside the camera module physically moves around to counteract any of your movement. This is generally considered the best way to do it, and as such you’ll find OIS in a bunch of today’s best flagship phones, like the iPhone XS, Samsung Galaxy Note9, and Huawei Mate 20 Pro – all available from Vodafone UK.

For phones with electronic image stabilisation (EIS), like the older iPhone 6S, image stabilisation is not created by a movable lens. Instead, smart algorithms work hard to balance out any vibrations or movements to make sure your photos and videos are as free from any motion blur as possible. This approach has its limits, but minor movements can often be cancelled out.

How Google is pushing the envelope
Since the Google Pixel 2 range – and with the new Pixel 3 and 3 XL – Google’s been employing some ground-breaking tech in the field, resulting in the some of the best image and video smoothing we’ve seen in a smartphone.

Google calls its tech ‘Fused Video Stabilization’, which basically ‘fuses’ the two approaches – optical and electronic – as well as applying a layer of AI-based machine learning. There’s lots going on in Google’s system, including an ability for the Pixel 3 to be able to look at past frames and predict what the next frame could (and should) look like, as well as use the natural shake of your hand to understand what the scene should look like, by piecing together all the resulting frames.

Effectively, all this tech quashes four unwanted effects: motion blur, camera shake, and rolling shutter distortion. That last one, by the way, is the effect caused by the fact that digital cameras tend to take shots from the top down; the tiny lag in doing that can cause fast-moving video to warp and stretch. Check it out here:

But you don’t need to own a Pixel 3 to get in on some of Google’s stabilisation smarts. If you’ve got an Android phone with Google Photos installed, you can head into the editing options and hit ‘stabilise’ – the app will use EIS algorithms to do what it can with your existing videos. Smart!

Two top accessories that take OIS to the next level

Of course, if you really want your images and videos to look as professional as possible, you’ll want to complement your phone’s inbuilt capabilities with some pro-grade peripherals:

Gimbal | DJI Osmo Mobile 2

A gimbal, otherwise known as a steadycam, is what Hollywood uses to capture seamless handheld tracking shots – a camera housing that uses gyroscopes and a host of sensors to move the camera around, counteracting the operator’s movements. There are tonnes of great gimbals available specifically for smartphones now, too, with the DJI Osmo Mobile 2 ranking among the best.

Tripod | Joby GorillaPod

If you’re not on the move, a mobile tripod will help you get perfectly framed pics and video without the camera shake. For mobile, it’s best to be as portable as possible, which is why we recommend the Joby GorillaPod range – a series of pocketable tripods that are as flexible as you are, and able to grip around just about anything:

Want to see 2019’s weirdest inventions? Take a look at our favourite products from CES 2019.