Now, wait a minute, you say. Here I am, looking around your site for camera ideas, and you're showing me a lens?
That's right, and as zoom lenses for SLR cameras go, a 70-300mm is pretty standard. We're showing it to you for another reason — the technology inside of it, which may mean the end of the shaky picture.
The full name of this particular lens is AF-S VR Zoom-Nikkor 70-300mm f/4.5-5.6G IF-ED, a mouthful for sure, but for the moment the part that matters is VR, which stands for vibration reduction. Canon and Olympus call it IS, as in image stabilization. Sony calls it Super SteadyShot, and, well, you get the idea.
Manufacturers have built systems into their cameras or lenses to counteract the inevitable little movements your hands make, the ones that ruin pictures when you're shooting in low light, or hand-held shots with a telephoto lens.
Different companies have taken different approaches on this issue, but in the case of this Nikon lens, some of the internal optics slide slightly to the left if your hands slip to the right, up if you move it down, and so forth. When you put this lens on a camera and turn the VR switch to "on" on the left side of the barrel, you'll hear a soft whirring sound as you aim the camera — it's the innards of the lens compensating for your shaky hands.
What difference does image stabilization make? You'd be pleasantly surprised. Many photographers say they can shoot hand-held when the light is a fraction as bright as before. A picture that was iffy when your exposure was one-sixtieth of a second is now rock steady at one-eighth of a second.
You'll find image stabilization in a growing number of point-and-shoot cameras, as well as in the larger SLRs aimed at enthusiasts or professionals. If someone you know loves photography and already owns a good camera, a lens could make a thoughtful gift.
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Sony and Olympus build image stabilization into the bodies of some of their SLRs, which, they say, saves you money. Canon and Nikon put the image-stabilizing equipment in individual lenses, which costs more but, they argue, works better.
Lenses can be pricey. This one costs about $500, and prices for professional lenses can go well into four digits. Nikon also sells a 55-200mm VR zoom for a street price of about $225 — a good lens for portraits, wildlife and amateur sports.
Of course, technology can't solve everything. You may wind up with a lot of nice pictures in the evening of your half-lit living room, crystal-clear except for a blur in the foreground. That would be your restless toddler, with whom no technology can possibly keep up.