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Image stabilisation buttons: not waving, shaking

One of the best things about my job as camera guy is having a different camera for every social event. Last week it was Samsung's twisty-turny i7; this week it was the Olympus mju 780

Last week we bade goodbye to a member of the CNET editorial team in time-honoured style: with a leaving 'do'. It's all a bit hazy, but I know I was there because I've seen the photos on Facebook. Everybody looks happy anyway, so that's good.

One of the best things about my job is having a different camera for every social event; last week the Samsung twisty-turny i7 had my friends looking with their fingers (not their eyes) and making Christmas-morning noises. This week it was the Olympus mju 780, a slender, silver compact with pimped-out styling and just one glaring problem: the image stabilisation button sneaking about on top of the camera, rubbing its shaky hands together at the prospect of ruining your pictures.

I'm a fan of mechanical image stabilisation, whether it involves moving the lens (also known as optical image stabilisation) or the sensor. Just the other week I looked at the Nikon Coolpix S500, a classy, slimline compact that moves the sensor to compensate for the infinitesimal vibrations of my shaky hands. Fitting mechanical IS into compacts as small as the S500 or the mju 780 earns Nikon and Olympus top marks.

What I don't understand is why these companies blot their copybooks by sticking a button on top of each camera with the shaky hand symbol. Seductive as that button is, winking at you slyly from right next to the shutter, you push it at your peril. It activates digital image stabilisation, which turns the ISO up and in low light (for example, the pub) is a recipe for disaster. Few compacts can deal with high ISOs without pebbledashing your pictures with gritty noise.

Possible alternatives include flashes that adjust themselves to the light level of the location, so you can keep that warm, cosy semi-dark look instead of bleaching your subjects into startled sheet-white spectres. Improving the way sensors deal with low light would also help. My appeal to manufacturers is to keep putting mechanical image stabilisation in pocketable compacts, lay off the misleading ISO-altering settings, and wave goodbye to those darn buttons.

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