Canon Lens Stabilizer Mode Settings Explained

by Jan 4, 2024

Image stabilisation is an amazing asset in modern photography, but have you ever wondered what those stabilizer mode settings on your Canon lenses really mean?

Obviously, the stabilizer on/off switch is pretty straightforward, but what about the one underneath it? The one simply labelled stabilizer mode with a 1, 2 and 3 switch? Let me break them down for you.

Introduction To Canon Lens Stabilizer Modes

As a pioneer in image stabilisation technology, Canon has long been at the forefront of reducing the impact of camera shake on the quality of a photographer’s photos.

Since introducing lens-based optical stabilisation back in 1995 with the EF 75–300mm f/4–5.6 IS USM, most EF and now RF mount lenses have featured the technology. You can easily tell if a Canon lens features stabilisation by the IS designation in the name.

In the early days of lens-based stabilisation, there was just the simple option of turning the system on or off with a small switch on the barrel of the lens. However, as technology has continued to advance, more stabilizer mode options (the second switch) were added to Canon lenses to allow you to control how the system works and what impact it has on your photos.

How Does Canon Lens Stabilisation Work?

In very simple terms, Canon’s lens-based image stabilisation technology involves the use of gyroscopic sensors to detect camera movement. Based on these detections, a group of lens elements moves correspondingly to compensate for this movement.

Even though Canon has introduced its own version of in-body image stabilisation (IBIS) with the mirrorless EOS R series of cameras, the company still uses lens-based stabilisation in its RF mount lenses, with the two systems working together to provide even more stops of stabilisation.

What is a stop of stabilisation? In image stabilisation, each stop refers to how many times you can cut your shutter speed in half and continue to get sharp photos while photographing handheld. If your camera stabilisation system is rated to 5 stops, in theory, you can cut the shutter speed in half five times and still get a sharp photo without a tripod as compared to having the stabilisation system disabled.

For more details about Canon’s image stabilisation technology, check out this article.

Understanding Canon Lens Stabilizer Mode Settings

Standard Mode (Mode 1)

This is the default setting on Canon lenses for IS. Mode 1 compensates for camera and lens shake in all directions, making it ideal for most standard photography scenarios.

Panning Mode (Mode 2)

The name might have given it away, but Mode 2 is primarily for capturing subjects in motion as we do in motorsports photography. This stabilizer mode detects the direction of the pan, disabling that axis of stabilisation while continuing to mitigate any unwanted movement in other directions to help facilitate smooth panning shots. (For more information about panning, check out this post)

Dynamic Mode (Mode 3)

The most recent addition to the stabilizer mode settings (2010), Mode 3 only activates when the shutter button is fully pressed. What this means, is that instead of IS bouncing around while you move your camera, the system is effectively disabled while you line up your photo—only locking in when you go to take the photo. Mode 3 is specifically designed for unpredictable and rapid camera movements, which can be handy when photographing motorsports.

Selecting The Right Canon Lens Stabilizer Mode Settings For Motorsport Photography

Camera Lenses

Standard Mode (Mode 1)

For the vast majority of photographers in the vast majority of photography scenarios, even motorsport photographers, there is no significant reason to use anything but Mode 1.

Using your Canon lens in its standard stabilisation mode allows your camera to use all the tools at its disposal to ensure you capture crisp, sharp photos no matter what plays out in front of you.

If you are just starting out in motorsport photography, then I would really strongly recommend leaving your Canon lenses in Mode 1. This will give you one less thing to concern yourself with while taking photos trackside.

Panning Mode (Mode 2)

Obviously, as motorsport photographers taking panning photos, Mode 2 or Panning Mode makes a lot of sense to use in theory. That said, in practice, with a good smooth panning technique and a slow enough shutter speed, you really aren’t going to notice a significant difference when switching between Mode 1 and Mode 2 for panning photos. Although, the same thing could be said about turning off the stabilizer entirely, especially if you have a really smooth panning motion.

Mode 2 does make a subtle difference when capturing your panning photos. You don’t have the stabilisation system working against you in those initial fractions of a second lining up your panning shot. But at the end of the day, photo quality-wise, you aren’t going to notice a difference between photos captured in the two different modes.

Dynamic Mode (Mode 3)

In Canon’s DSLR range of cameras, Mode 3 effectively means that stabilisation is effectively disabled until you press the shutter button, then it works out what you are doing and compensates accordingly. So if your camera is relatively stable, it will work as if it is Mode 1, while if you are moving your camera, it will work as if you’ve selected Mode 2.

The theory is that you can move your camera around swiftly without fighting the stabilisation system to quickly line up your shot, and then it’ll only activate stabilisation when you really need it.

However, I have found that in the new R Series, mirrorless cameras in the internal IBIS system tends to take over, and your framing wobbles around within the EVF until it works out what I’m doing. It’s a very odd sensory experience and takes some getting used to, often giving the same sensation as sea sickness.

Pro Tip: While moving around trackside, those little switches on your camera lenses, both the stabilizer and autofocus settings and modes, can get easily bumped and changed. In fact, I often manage to turn my autofocus off when moving through crowds, making my way to my next shooting location. It might be a good idea to get into the habit of checking your lens switches just before lining up your first shot, just to avoid any unexpected results.

Don’t Have Stabilizer Mode Setting Switch On Your Canon Lens?

The first thing to check is to see if your lens includes image stabilisation. Some older and cheaper versions of lenses did not include this feature. You can tell if a lens is suppose to have stabilsation as the lens name will feature IS in its designation.

That said, if it is an older EF mount lens, then there is a possibility that you won’t have a stabilizer mode option on your lens. Or you might only have options for Mode 1 and Mode 2.

On the more recent RF mount lenses for the mirrorless camera models, there is a possibility that the lens has automatic panning detection built-in instead of a mode switch, especially for lenses designed to pair with the Canon EOS R10 and EOS R7, which have a panning mode activated in the camera body.

What Canon Lens Stabilizer Mode Settings Do I Use?

For the most part, I’ll just leave my Canon lenses in Mode 1. Even when panning, Mode 1 doesn’t cause enough resistance that it overly impacts my hit rate. It is also one less thing to think about when trying to get as much variety of shots as possible, especially during short track sessions.

If I do find that I am struggling with my panning photos, I will change to Mode 2 to see if that helps. But that doesn’t happen very often.

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Rhys Vandersyde

Rhys Vandersyde

I've been working as a motorsport photographer in Australia since 2012, building up my business InSyde Media. I am very fortunate that I have been able to work at all sorts of motorsport events including Supercars, F1 and WRC all over Australia and New Zealand. Also, check out my personal website where I document my travels and a few other things.

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