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Camera Review: Ricoh GR Digital
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Camera Review: Ricoh GR Digital

Claimed to be fast-handling and low-light-friendly, does this classy compact have street smarts?

Someone once described the original Ricoh GR-1—a posh 35mm compact camera—as "created by somebody who enjoys taking pictures." After several weeks of playing with the Digital GR, I can say that the statement still applies. But how successful was Ricoh in transitioning this compact into the digital world? Let's find out.


Ricoh GR Digital At A Glance

 



Key features:

    * 28mm f/2.4 lens (f/11 minimum aperture)
    * Easy manual controls
    * 8 megapixel CCD sensor
    * 35mm aspect ratio option
    * ISO 64-1600
    * Shutter speeds 180-1/2000 sec
    * Custom settings
    * Hot shoe

System options:

    * 21/28mm optical finder
    * 21mm auxiliary lens

Best suited for:

    * Street photography
    * Action photography (at close distances)
    * Low-light candids
    * Photojournalism
    * Large group photos indoors
    * Landscapes
    * Close-up photography (non-portrait)

Not recommended for:

    * Far-away subjects
    * Portraits
    * Studio photography
    * General snapshooting

 

POSITIVES

    * Wide shutter speed range
    * Fast 28mm lens
    * Super small
    * 8MP sensor
    * Fast handling & shooting
    * Optical finder option
    * Very close focus
    * Stealth operation with sound- and monitor-off

NEGATIVES

    * Lots of grain above ISO 200
    * No zoom lens
    * Weak flash
    * Slow RAW processing

   

Before we start, in the interest of full disclosure, there are two things you should know about me:

1. I work for Adorama. And Adorama is, as of this writing, the exclusive distributor of the Ricoh Digital GR--although they have no idea what I'm going to say about the camera and have not given me any "guidance" other than to give my honest impressions of this camera.

2. I am a street photographer with over 25 years of clandestine sidewalk shooting under my belt. I have used most every Leica M camera at one time or another, as well as the Olympus Stylus and Konica Hexar, and know their respective strengths and weaknesses. I've also used the capable but flawed Epson RD-1. So, could the Ricoh GR Digital be the ideal digital street shooter camera I've been waiting for?

On one hand, revelation number one might lead you to think I'd be biased and motivated to write a favorable review of the Digital GR. On the other, revelation number two indicates that I know enough about what a great street camera should be--and therefore have such high standards that I'll be an overly tough critic. Perhaps the two will cancel each other out. In any event, I will do my best to accurately describe my experience using this camera and the image quality, and let you decide.

   

Simple control layout clusters all major controls within easy reach of thumb or forefinger. Thumb dial at bottom controls shutter speeds; press it to access frequently-used modes instantly and bypass menu structure. Front forefinger dial controls aperture.
   


The GR Digital falls under the "posh compact" category--it costs a lot but is designed to do a handful of things very, very well. That's a stark contrast to most digital compacts, which fall under the "jack of all trades, master of none" category. The GR Digital's simple design is a study in minimal elegance and functionality. And yet, it's also a system. The 28mm f/2.4 lens can be augmented by an auxiliary optic that turns it into 21mm. And while there's no built-in optical finder, for $199 you can get an optional optical finder that slips into the flash shoe and has border indicator lines to show both 28mm and 21mm views.

GR Digital is a stealth camera. With its 28mm lens's 2.4 maximum aperture and ISO sensitivity up to 1600 possible, the camera is built to handle low light without flash. You can silence the shutter and turn off the LCD screen while you're shooting when you don't want to be noticed. (This is when that optical finder comes in handy.)

Out of the box

The first impression one gets of this camera is that it is solid. It's heavier than most cameras its size. The raised letters and numbers in front of the lens look classy, and the overall finish is clean; the rubberized grip is easy to grasp.

The control layout is simple and logical. The top of the camera has the on-off button, shutter release, and mode dial--which is locked into position. To move it, you must press a button next to the dial, a slight inconvenience. Right in front of the shutter release is one of two control dials, positioned for quick finger access. A pop-up flash is on the left side of the camera's top plate, which a flash hot shoe is slightly off center. The auxiliary optical finder goes in the hot shoe.

The back of the camera is dominated by a 2.5-inch LCD finder. The right side has an "adj" dial/button which can be pressed for quick access to frequently-used controls, or dialed to adjust settings.

A "Menu OK" button accesses all of the camera's control and setup modes, and is surrounded by buttons which navigate preview images and modes, and set flash and macro settings. Image preview, self-timer/trash, and monitor mode buttons are also within reach, as is a rocker switch that zooms into or out of preview images.

To get to the battery or memory card slot, turn the camera upside down and open the compartment right next to the metal tripod socket.

Features


You won't find a gazillion features here; in fact, you won't even find a zoom lens. But the 28mm f/2.4 lens takes in a lot, and in low light to boot. Focus is close--to less than an inch from the front of the lens in Macro and manual focus modes. Shutter speeds range from 180 (!) to 1/2000 second.

There are only five shooting mode options--Movie, Program, Aperture-Priority, Manual, and Scene.

Using the menu button, you can adjust picture quality and size, including RAW modes (both standard and 3:2 ratio), Fine and Normal JPG images in 8MP, 5MP, 1MP and VGA quality. Focus lets you select Multi AF based on a wide area, as well as Spot AF, Manual Focus (controlled via the rocker switch), infinity, and a "Snap" mode that seems designed for street shooters. Focus is fixed at approx. 9 feet distance, which should provide sharp results for most street shooting. It eliminated any lag time!

Macro mode: The GR Digital focuses to less than an inch from the front of its lens; this shot is shown life-sized.

   

 

 

Photometry, a non-standard term (meter pattern would be more standard) lets users select spot, multi (average) or center-weighted metering. Burst rate is controlled via "Cont. Mode" (four options).

Buried a couple of levels down is "Img Set", which lets users select the color palate: normal, soft, b&W, and two custom settings. Select either of these settings and you can control three sliders that let you add or subtract contrast, sharpness, and color depth, with five possible steps for each slider.

There are two bracketing modes--regular and white balance bracketing, which records three different versions of a scene with slight color cast variations. Borrow through the menus and you will find White Balance and ISO settings, but there's an easier way to get to these, which we'll talk about later.

Camera setup settings include things like color space (sRGB or AdobeRGB), camera warning volume (including off), power off timing, and the usual date settings and so forth. It will also let you adjust the LCD screen's brightness, which could come in handy on sunny days.

Some of the camera's simple details are well thought out. The wrist strap can be attached in three different corners, so you can strap the camera to your left hand if you prefer.

Let's go shooting

Press the power button and the camera jumps to life quickly--it's ready to shoot in about a second--as the lens extends to its shooting length. The monitor offers several viewing options--and if you press the monitor mode button for a few seconds you can control its brightness level, a handy feature if you do a lot of bright-daylight shooting. The default mode provides good basic exposure info and posts current settings. A second mode adds a live histogram. A third viewing mode removes all information and superimposes a grid that divides the screen into nine sections--a rule of thirds mode that could aid composition. Then there's a plain mode with no markings (except battery status).

Finally, there's the stealth monitor-off setting; this turns the monitor off completely. This saves battery power, and, when used with the shutter release silenced, it makes it less obvious that you're actively shooting, but you'll need an optical viewfinder to make up for it. (At $250 for the optical finder, this isn't a trivial decision.) An image briefly appears when you shoot, then goes away, leaving you again with a blank screen. I found the monitor-off setting great for street shooting, but since I also shoot in manual exposure mode, I was frustrated that I couldn't see my current settings in fast-changing light. The camera doesn't users the ability to see settings when in Manual and the LCD's off. Memo to Ricoh: consider placing an LED on the top plate to show aperture and shutter speed in a future version. Street shooters would love it.

   

Best street shooter mode: I don't like to be noticed when I'm doing street photography--it can ruin a shot. While shooting with the GR Digital in New York City (in black-and-white mode!), I turned off the shutter speed sound and LCD monitor, and set the focus to "snap" mode to eliminate lag time. At f/8, the fixed focus at around 9 feet gave me sufficient depth for most shots.
   

Speaking of street shooting, since street scenes coalesce and dissipate in a fraction of a second, street shooters demand the most responsive cameras possible. I'm happy to report that the GR Digital is fast--press the shutter, it shoots, especially when in the "snap" mode, which fixes focus at around 9 feet. Without the time needed to focus, there was no discernable shutter lag. And, when I'm shooting at f/8 or so, the fixed focus at 9 feet gives me enough depth to keep most street shooting situations in focus.

One of the nicest touches on this camera is the pair of dials in front of and right behind the shutter release. Press the back-of-camera "adj" dial and you get quick access to your most-used modes, such as ISO, EV compensation, and white balance. In Manual exposure, the front dial adjusts apertures, the back changes shutter speeds. These dials give the GR Digital a film-camera feel; it wasn't long before I was able to make quick exposure adjustments intuitively. As a result, I rarely used the camera's Program mode.

Let's say you want to change from Program to Manual mode. Twirl the mode dial atop the camera. But wait, you must press a little button next to the dial first, otherwise it's locked into position. This will certainly eliminate the chance of shooting in the wrong mode--but I think this is being a bit cautious; I don't remember the last time a mode dial accidentally shifted on me. It's a minor complaint.

The on-camera flash generated very little red-eye, but its throw is relatively week; if you're going to shoot indoor flash with this camera, use one of the recommended Sigma hot-shoe flashes to provide sufficient illumination.

Focus, when turned on, is mostly reliable, although low-contrast subjects spooked the sensor and on a rare occasion the focus would take a few moments to settle.

Image Quality

If you shoot at ISO 64 or 100, you should have no complaints about grain, and color and contrast seemed to be accurate throughout all ISO ratings. Images were sharp, although they tended to be softer in the macro mode. At ISO 200, grain starts to creep into images, and by ISO 400 it is pronounced. Grain at ISO 800 and1600 is unacceptable. It may be worthwhile to purchase grain-reducing software.

   

By dawn's early light: The 6:00 a.m. shot of the Orlando convention center, above, required an ISO 1600 setting as well as a long exposure. Detail shot (below) shows lots of digital noise (A.K.A. grain). Yes, I'm an early riser!

 

There was minor pillow distortion, and moderate flare when shooting into the sun. Color fringing was well controlled and exposure was generally right on target, although it backlit subjects were a bit dark. Flash coverage was adequate at 28mm; we did not have the opportunity to try it with a 21mm but based on the specs we expect coverage will fall just a bit short of edge-to-edge.

Part of a system


The GR Digital has two important optional extras-a 21mm lens attachment (which fits perfectly in a bayonet mount surrounding the standard lens via an adaptor) and a 21/28mm viewfinder, which slides into the hot shoe. The problem? They add considerably to the already pricey camera. The Ricoh GW-1 21mm Wide Conversion Lens costs $149, and the GH-1 hood that goes with it costs $49. The GV1 External Viewfinder is $199. Add to that the $750 cost of the GR Digital camera and the total cost can reach over $1,100. For some pros, however, this still a great deal, especially when compared with the cost of a new film Leica, for instance.

Bottom line? We like-a this Ricoh

So, to answer the question I posed earlier on, this camera might not be the digital Leica so many are waiting for, but it's probably closer in spirit (and definitely closer in price) to the Konica Hexar and closer in size to an Olympus Stylus. Both cameras were excellent 35mm "street" cameras. The GR Digital is a very specialized camera that does a few things very, very well.

But it's not for everyone. If you're a snapshooter and need a camera for some vacation and family holiday shots, you don't need this camera; in fact, you'd probably be disappointed by its lack of a zoom lens. But if your other camera is a Leica M-series rangefinder, (or you wish you had a Leica M) and you don't mind spending over a grand for the whole package--and doing a bit of post-production to mitigate the grain--the Ricoh GR Digital is worth your serious consideration.



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