Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The Ideal Cycling Camera (August 2010)

I'm a Canon G refugee, having owned--and toured--with both the G9 and the G10 over the past few years. As most cycling photographers know, each iteration of the G series has been hailed as the current "photographer's camera." Canon G's return control to the photographer, allowing for easy manipulations of aperture, speed and ISO, often with dedicated dials--just like film cameras. Yes, you can do most of this stuff on brand X cameras via menus, but let's be perfectly honest: when was the last time you dove into a menu to compensate for a backlit cloud bank?

The G's also enjoy the best of Canon's almost supernatural color profiling, producing satisfying results in almost any situation and on almost any day of the year.

Copyright Gordon Inkeles 2010--All Rights Reserved

Indeed, it's hard to take a bad photo with a Canon G9, 10 or 11.

But all that power added weight to a camera. Not only would the G10 fail to fit comfortably in my pocket, but at around a pound when loaded with a battery and strap, it felt like a bit of a brick in my hand. Sure, it was worth it to carry one on a ride, but we say that about so many cool tools don't we? And at some point, weight does start to matter.

So with some regret I retired my Canon G10 after last summer's English tour and waited for the next great camera.

That turned out to be the Canon S90, which incorporates virtually all of the important G11 features--including its oversize (for a compact) sensor--into a body that's half the size and weight of a G11. Furthermore, the S90 adds two essential features that the G11 lacks: a faster lens which makes evening photos without flash a reality and a clicking lens ring that can be assigned to a range of vital functions, from ISO to F stops. That kind of control permits this tiny camera to emulate the revered manual focus Nikons and Leicas of the 1980's and earlier, when creative decisions were left to the photographer, not the cameras electronics.

Furthermore, during a bike ride the S90 will disappear into a rear jersey pocket——if you're brave enough to chance it. Just one problem: the S90 emerges from the box with a perfectly smooth body that has soft edges. It not only looks like a bar of soap, it feels like one. Generally, one trip to the asphalt is taps for a digital camera. The moment you pick up a new S90, you feel like you could drop it.

With all its bulk, the G11 is definitely easier to hold. I had started rationalizing yet another G series Canon when I discovered the Richard Franiec custom S90 grip, which instantly provided my wandering fingertips with a secure place to hold the camera. Here is the S90 as it comes out of the box.

Sixty seconds later, after a simple, tool-free installation, here it is with the Franiec grip:

Franiec has come up with a beautifully ergonomic solution for frustrated S90 owners: he's transformed an accident waiting to happen into an elegant, secure and supremely capable tool. He does include instructions for removing the grip without leaving a mark on the body, but I have trouble imagining any S90 owner taking him up on it. Indeed, you won't want to own an S90 without this grip.

Consider the first rule of ergonomics: the machine must adjust to you, never the other way around. It's not your responsibility to "adjust" to a shoe, car seat, couch, bed or camera. Somehow, the S90 team at Canon never figured this out, but happily, Richard Franiec did it for them. And thanks to him I'll be packing my S90 on bike rides this summer in California (below).

Copyright Gordon Inkeles 2010--All Rights Reserved

Addendum: I posted a link to this review on the dpreview.com and a long discussion and/or battle has ensued. I had no idea people could get so emotional about a camera which some stalwart defenders don't actually own.

Addendum: See my Canon S95 update to this review.


  1. I shouldn't have read this. It may have just cost me a few hundred bucks. Was very happy with my G11 until I saw this! Jerk! ;)

  2. Bryan,

    The G11 is the 11th G. Canon really has this camera down. It richly deserves its stellar reputation as a "photgrapher's camera" with controls exactly where we, who were raised with manual focus contax and nikons, expect them to be. It's far more ergonimic out of the box than the S90--even with the essential Franiec grip.

    The S90 is a first try at a promising new direction. It's a handy size but you have to pay attention to your finger positioning... lest the unthinkable happen.

    The camera world is changing at warp speed; Anything we love now will be a boat anchor in two years.


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