Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Ideal Cycling Camera (November 2010)

Back in August I recommended the Canon S90 with the Richard Franiec grip as an ideal cycling camera. Without the grip the camera handled like a wet bar of soap. And the rear dial spun like a top at the slightest touch.

Apparently, a lot of people agreed that the S90 needed work because when Canon released the S95 a few weeks ago they heralded it as "the upgrade you've been waiting for."

The Canon S95 incorporates an improved rear dial, HD video, a handful of photo processing features and substitutes a finely pebbled plastic body for the shiny plastic body. Yes, the new body does make the camera easier to hold, about 1% easier. It's the difference between a wet bar of soap and a damp bar. Happily, Richard Franiec has come to the rescue again with an updated grip for the S95.

I'm not a fan of planned obsolescence but that rear wheel on the S90 was slowly driving me mad. I bought a third party shield for the wheel, which turned it from loose to hopelessly sticky. So when the S95 appeared I upgraded and added the new--and still essential--Richard Franiec grip (below) on day 1. Later I added a Lensmate polarizer and wrote about it here.

One caveat:

This is still not a camera to hand to a well-meaning stranger who offers to photograph a group. Yes, the new rear selection wheel is improved but don't push your luck. Last Sunday I set up a wide angle shot of about a dozen cyclists, handed the S95 to a kindly woman, and joined the group. The moment she took the photo the group sped off. Alas, my volunteer photographer had managed to jog the ISO dial and what was supposed to be an ISO 80 shot turned out to be an ISO 3200 shot. My group looked like it was standing on the surface of the sun.

We are still a long way from an ergonomic camera that would operate like a fine hand tool—with say, a rubberized body and color coded, tactile controls. We could, of course, have such a camera tomorrow, if we simply demanded it. Meanwhile, when it comes to cycling cameras, the Canon S95 is competing in a field of one. Everything else out there is either too big, too heavy or offers much lower photo quality. And nothing in the S95's class can touch the gorgeous color saturation you get right out of the camera.


  1. Canon should be ashamed of the ergonomics on the s90/s95. It's very fine image quality wise, but what good is it if the rear dial moves when you least expect it.

    Congratulations on a fine review.

  2. Gail,

    Camera ergonomics have a long way to go, don't they. I'd like to see rubberized bodies with large, color coded and tactile controls. Why continue to embrace the old 35 mm rectangular box model? Now that we are free of film, cameras can become ergonomic hand tools.

    I peeked at your site and immediately bookmarked it. Nice work!

  3. For the record, the rear dial is much improved on the S95. I'd say it's gone from catastrophic to mildly tentative. However, its still not foolproof, as demonstrated by my well-meaning volunteer photographer.

  4. The grip provides only a little more confidence -- 35 bucks worth, I'm not sure. The problem with the S95 is that it is too thin, and still slick-surfaced, and plastic, not metal. It the guts were in the far better SD870 body we'd be home free, no grip needed, and with no touchy rear dial. PLUS, we'd have a flat END to stand the camera on for a timer shot on a flat surface. The S95 has rounded ends -- it woun't stand up. This was really a bad design choice.

  5. Interesting comment. I hadn't thought of the end shape, but of course you are right: the S95 offers no support there for timed verticals.

    Small camera ergonomics need a lot of work, but if we don't ask for changes, they won't happen.

    A few years ago I wrote a book on home and office ergonomics (linked below). Nothing on camera ergonomics there but I'm always thinking about the subject, not just for cameras, but for all tools, esp. bikes, where recumbents are far more ergonomic than most uprights.

  6. "The problem with the S95 is that it is too thin, and still slick-surfaced, and plastic, not metal."

    I am confused by this comment, surely the body is metal and it's definitely not slick-surfaced but has matte grippy finish.

  7. Well, part of the body is metal but the top and bottom plates are plastic. Calling the matte body "grippy" is a stretch. Yes, it has a finely pebbled surface, as opposed to the perfectly smooth surface of the S90. I see the S95 "matte" body as a 1% improvement over the S90 body. You will want the Richard Franiec grip if you buy this camera.

  8. What top and bottom panels material has to do with grip strength and how Richard Franiec grip overcomes that, sorry I fail to see any relation?
    And the surface texture is not slick by any means, used S95 extensively on my recent vacation to Mexico, often around the pool area with my hands wet, it never felt slippery. What S95 lacks though is a good wrist strap. This one is ideal, same color theme and adjustable, you can tighten it around wrist and never worry about camera slipping off.

  9. My comment on top and bottom material composition was in response to an earlier comment above.

    The Franiec grip has nothing to do with the top and bottom material on the S95. It makes the camera much easier to hold in your hand.

    Have you tried one?

  10. "And nothing in the S95's class can touch the gorgeous color saturation you get right out of the camera." I'm sorry, but your pics are not showing especially good color (nor sharpness). My little Samsung SL420 could do better. I'd advise posting better pics if you want folks to believe your statement.

  11. Stay tuned, Chris. When the Pacific storms give us a break up here I'll be out on the bike again. Meanwhile, see the sunset photo above. Unprocessed.

  12. Great review! I have been trying to decide between a G12 and a S95 as an alternative to my Nikon DSLR for "on the bike" use. The lack of a grip on the S95 has been a major concern, but the Richard Franiec grip may just be enough to tip me in that direction.

  13. Thanks James. I'm sure you know the advantages of the G12, which certainly is a fine camera. Here are a few downsides for cyclists: The G12 weighs as much as two S95s. It's not going to disappear into a pocket like the S95 (again, I wouldn't recommend a bike jersey pocket for either camera, at least not while I'm on the bike). Only the S95 offers that wonderful function ring around the lens. Finally, the lens is a full stop faster in the 28mm position, making it possible to add low light photography to your rides.

  14. Thanks Gordon. I played around with both cameras yesterday, and I really do like the way that front function ring works on the S95. My concern with the smaller camera was that manual functions would be difficult to access through layers of menus, but the ring and wheel combination really is pretty intuitive.

    I would rather stow the camera in a very small top tube bag than a handle bar bag, so the S95 is probably the way to go for me. My only concern is durability when compared to the G12, which certainly feels much more substantial and durable (coming from using mostly DSLRs). Just comparing image quality though, the S95 really is an amazing little camera.

  15. I don't think you'll find that the S95 is less durable than the G12. It's controls are a bit harder to operate than those on the larger camera. But the lens ring clinched it for me. That and the F2 lens.

    Here's an example of what you can do with a handheld S90/5:

  16. Typo above: I meant to add:

    See the LAST photo in the linked series.


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