~Since 2004~
A site about memories, thoughts, photos, and unrepentant opinions about motorcycles and motorcycling after four decades of twisting the throttle.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Motorcycle Camera Fever

2001.  Morro Bay, CA.  Camera: Nikon CoolPix 990.
Click for larger, better looking image
I haven't owned as many cameras as I have motorcycles but that isn't for lack of wanting.  Actually, when I was still working, my employer typically provided me with better equipment, upgraded more often, than I could afford.  Besides, I spent all my extra money on motorcycles.   Since 2008 I've been shooting the Nikon D90 , bought and paid for with my own money as a retirement gift to myself.  I really love the camera and the images it produces are as good as you can get without spending considerably more money.

Camera space, the final frontier. The
D90 camera case hogs the saddlebag.
The only real fault with the Nikon, in terms of using it for motorcycle stuff, is it's size.  It's not as big as some DSLR cameras but it's pretty good sized and takes up a lot of space in the saddlebag or tank bag.  I've tried riding with it slung around my neck and besides being uncomfortable, it seems to invite disaster of one sort or another.

I've gotten a lot fussier about my pictures since I began shooting the D90, my eyes have been opened, as it were. I'll spare you the discussion of dynamic range, pixel density, blah, blah blah.    Few people other than my wife ever see my photos full size on my nice, color corrected monitor, but I see them, and mushy pixels jump out at me like a bug splat right at eye level on the bike's windscreen.  I can't not see them.  I'm willing to always learn and improve my photography but there are times when the camera could try harder too.  Pocket cameras, or "point 'n shoots" are getting very nice but generally lack in image quality if you're the persnickety sort when it comes to photos or like to do a lot of cropping and editing.  

The D90's size is a problem, not only for the aforementioned storage reasons, but I've found in many situations taking up and pointing a large black camera at someone has the effect of freezing them like a deer caught in the headlights.  Any naturalness evaporates instantly.  Worse, some folks mistake me for a professional photographer of some sort (ha!) and get wary of why I'm taking pictures and what I might do with the images.  Frankly, these days I'm not sure I can blame them.  No one wants to wind up as a joke picture on Facebook or YouTube.  I love to take candid pictures of people but from person-to-person perspective, the big cameras make it much more difficult.

So I've been pondering a smaller camera to carry on the bike but not one so small that the image quality is unacceptable.  I also need a camera that my artist wife can use, her little point n shoot is showing it's age and her eye, as an artist, is good enough that she deserves to get the most she can from her pictures without the compromises the 4 year old Olympus has when shooting in low light, something she seems to often do.

So I offer up the current candidates for your perusal and consideration should you be thinking of a new camera for yourself and your motorcycle exploits.  They make a good starting point if you're ready to move up from the basic cameras to a mid-range item:

Sony Alpha NEX-3

The new Sony has lots of new features and goodies and a really nice image sensor.  One feature that appeals is a built in panorama mode.  You'll have to visit a store and try it out for yourself to see how cool it works.  The articulated rear view screen is huge and swings into a position that allows shooting from near waist level, a nice point for getting more interesting shots of bikes and riders. The camera size is moderate compared to the D90 but not compact and yet offers interchangeable lenses like DSLR cameras do.  The price is the highest of the bunch but it offers more features and potentially better image quality than anything but a big camera.  It also has the largest physical size image sensor of the lot and that's an important thing. More info on it here.

Olympus E-PL1

The Olympus is part of a new generation of cameras with a new type of sensor, larger than a point n shoot, smaller than your typical DSLR sensor, and all crammed into a mid-size camera and again with interchangeable lenses.  Like the Sony, the size of the Oly is moderate, could fit into a jacket pocket if you have big pockets. It has a very traditional look to it, which I like; no one ever accused me of being a style maven.  In handling the camera I liked the size and balance but the lack of an articulated view screen like the Sony has is a negative point and the menu system is a bit obtuse.  More info here.

Canon S95

Last and not least, is the new Canon S95.  It's a full on compact camera, a point n shoot, but Canon has gone all out to get the image quality to a level that probably surpasses most other point n shoot cameras that don't cost a freakin' fortune.  It has some enviable low light capabilities, which is appealing, and it is indeed small enough to fit into a shirt or jacket pocket, no need to give up valuable saddlebag or tank bag space.  More info here.

Nikon Coolpix P7000

Form follows function or sometimes
there's just no budget for styling.
A late entry that's popped up since I started working on this entry is the new Nikon CoolPix P7000.  It's much smaller than it looks in the picture and in addition to the usual full auto mode has those wonderful manual controls that camera geeks love.

Sadly, the Nikon does win the award for being butt ugly but as with the BMW GS, sometimes function has to win out over form.

It's also priced between the Canon and the Olympus and appears to offer a lot of bang for the buck including being the only camera in the bunch with a viewfinder in addition to the rear LCD view screen.

I admit to an affinity for Nikons and the CoolPix series, I've shot literally tens of thousands of photos with them including the ones at the top and bottom of this post.  More info here on the brand new, as yet not-in-the-stores Nikon.  Some great photos, too.

None of these cameras are cheap in terms of what the average person might be willing to pay for a camera.  The simple fact is that there is always a trade off between price and image quality.  In general, spend more, get more.  If your pictures are important to you spending more is a reasonable thing to do.  I think each one of them is worth their street price of $399 - $549.  I can pretty much guarantee you that if you buy a good camera, learn to use it properly, that you'll be so pleased with the photos that you'll wonder why you didn't upgrade sooner.  Sort of like going from the 250cc bike to full size road bike.

So I'm pondering these cameras, working up my courage to make a decision, wondering what I have in the garage that I can sell on eBay to raise some money (old tools, 35mm film camera equipment, family heirlooms).   Funny but I'm more likely to buy a motorcycle on impulse than a camera.  I can't claim to understand that beyond the fact that motorcycle fever is a more powerful disease than camera fever.

And one more picture from my 2001 California coast trip on my 2001 Kawasaki Concours, here along Highway 1.

Nikon 990 and 3.34 MP did a pretty nice job with some 2010 tweaking with Nikon image editing software.  If it wasn't for the lack of modern features like image stabilization a used 990 would still make a fine motorcycle camera.

*Camera images are copyright their respective companies.


D. Brent Miller said...

Doug, I've gone through this same motorcycle travel camera dilemma as you are now. Professionally, I shoot with a Canon 1D which is a big camera with big lenses. The bag takes up a whole pannier on the motorcycle. Even though the images are very good (only as good as the photographer's eye) it's just too darned bulky to carry all over the country.

What I settled on was a Canon G-10, which has now been replaced by the G-11. It's about the same size as the Nikon Coolpix 7000 you show above. It's small enough to carry in a jacket pocket, although I did buy a pouch to carry on my belt. It is too big to carry in a shirt pocket. The G-10 has full manual control with a wide ISO range, and a decent wide-to-zoom lens. Images are very good. It has become my motorcycle travel camera of choice. I carry it in my tank bag in an end pocket facing me. I can whip that out with one hand, turn it on and shoot.

The only problem I have found, (with all point and shoots) is the shutter lag. None of them are any good for action photography. By the time the shutter has fired, the action has moved on. That's why I have the 1D DSLR. --Brent

D. Brent Miller said...

One other thing, which I am sure you will appreciate. When I bought and started using my Canon G-10, it reminded me of a Leica M6, which I have always lusted after! --Brent

FLHX_Dave said...

Hmmm...I'm freaked out. B.B. and I just broke both of our cameras. Your timing is impeccable as usual. Thanks for the useful information. I kinda like that butt ugly Nikon.

But then again the Sony Alpha look pretty good. I need to see the size on it. I need something that takes great pictures but small enough that I can whip it out at a moments notice and snap away.

Thanks again Doug

Drifter said...

Wow Doug! I am about to get a new camera which ofcourse will be used mostly during bike rides. Perfect article for me at this time :).

I was using a Kodak Z12 till now which I recently gave to my sister who had her camera stolen.

I will have to check out the availability of the models that you have mentioned in India though. I was doing my research and found the Panasonic TZ7 (ZS3 is US) was the one that was most suitable for me. I used to think zoom was the thing I needed and later realized I would love wide angle more than zoom. :) The TZ7 seems to give 25mm wide angle along with a decent zoom. Also I can carry this in my pocket when I ride which is one of the main considerations. Many of my friends here in India also recommended a Panasonic. Anyway I will have to check the models you mentioned.

Doug Klassen said...

Brent, The G-series Canon's enjoy a great reputation. I'm sort of torn now between getting a camera that is "Debbie friendly" and one that I like that maybe doesn't suit her so well. It may take two cameras to solve the problem.

Dave, Take a closer look at the Canon S90 or S95. It might actually be the perfect camera for motorcycle travels. I looked at some S95 images and video last night and was astonished at how sharp they were. The S90 has gotten a big price drop because the S95 has been released, making the S90 and even better value.

Drifter, Panasonic makes some fine cameras. The only issue I see with the TZ7 is something called "pixel density", which is somewhat high on the TZ7, and can have an effect on the sharpness of images. I wouldn't worry too much about zoom, it's rare that anyone needs to zoom in a lot and usually, because of the way most small camera work, image quality suffers a lot when zooming. A nice wide angle and moving in closer makes for more dramatic images and also better scenic shots. Glad to see you back, by the way, your blog had grown quiet for a while.


D. Brent Miller said...

Gee, Doug, I hate to throw this into the cognitive dissonance. Just announced: the new Canon G12, http://www.usa.canon.com/cusa/consumer/products/cameras/digital_cameras/powershot_g12, shipping in October.


Drifter said...

Hi Doug,

Yes my blog has been offline for sometime now. I had wanted to revamp it but due to various work and home related reasons I have not come about to do it.

But I was not gone anywhere, I am still a regular at your blog. :).

D. Brent Miller said...

One more thing about the G11/12: It has a flip out LCD panel that rotates 180 degrees. It allows you to face it forward for those "self portraits." My G10 does not have this feature, but my PowerShot Pro 1 has it and I use it all the time. It allows you to flip that out and shoot at very low angles without having to lay on the ground to see the panel or look through the viewfinder. You will be amazed at how often you use this feature. --Brent

Doug Klassen said...

Drifter, I'm glad you're still around and I hope you're getting out and riding even if you're not blogging.

Brent, the swing out screen is a great feature. Nikon has had it in various forms on certain models for some years now. I've found it the best way to get candid shots of friends and family because they relax and think I'm fiddling with the camera while I'm actually taking their picture. The G12 looks very nice, I'll be looking more closely at it.

Unknown said...


I am going the other way. I am a long time Nikon user from way back in the film days. then D70, D80 but like yourself, I wanted a small camera for bike use. I purchased a ZS3 Lumix and also have a G10 Canon but find the night capabilities lacking so I wanted a larger sensor camera for my trip next month. I checked into the NEX5, GF1, S95, G12, P700 and decided on a T2i for the APS-c sensor. I find that the plastic body is a plus for travelling. small and light weight.

If you can hang on a little longer there is talk of a Canon EIS (rumour right now), or the new GF2, or the NEX7 all on the horizon

Wet Coast Scootin

WooleyBugger said...

I need a camera all my own. Have not had one in sometime though I repeatedly drop hints all year long. When I did have my own it was a point and shoot because I could get it out quick and snap those real life un-posed candid shots. With practice I was able to get some good action shots with it by following the subject the whole time until snapping the shutter. You had to learn to aim it like a rifle - so to speak - on moving targets but it wasn't fast by any means so it made me pick shots carefully...but that was in days of actual film.

Doug Klassen said...


You'll find that the nice digitals like the ones I listed and others here have mentioned, make on the fly shooting way easier. Digital means up to 7 shots per second for some cameras so it's easier to catch the action and the film is way cheap.

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My Bikers World said...
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mq01 said...

oh no, debbie's scooter?! ;)

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