When switching lenses, why not swap out the sensor as well? Ricoh’s unique GXR digital camera system, unveiled this morning, may change the rules of camera design. And that's good.
2009 has been a year of game-changing cameras. It started with Micro Four Thirds, compact, interchangeable-lens cameras built around the same Four Thirds sensors found in DSLRs—and the promise (not yet fulfilled) of similarly small cameras designed around APS sensors. Then came the Pentax K-7, the first camera with built-in high-dynamic range (HDR) capabilities. Leica introduced the worlds’s smallest full-frame 35mm sensor camera, the gadget-of-lust M9, and Canon and Nikon almost simultaneously introduced cameras capable of shooting in near total darkness.
And now, there’s the Ricoh GXR.
The GXR challenges the notion that a camera’s sensor is an Immovable Object by bundling each lens with its own sensor and image processor. Each lens-sensor-processor unit is interchangeable and can be slipped into a single camera body. All parts are industrial strength, and sealed so there’s no chance of dust accumulating on the sensor surface.
Although there are only two lens units available at introduction, they are a pretty good indication of what’s in store. The general-use lens is a 24-72mm f/2.5-4.4, which is coupled with a 10.4MP 1/1.7-inch CCD, which will produce average snapshot-camera overall image quality. The other, more specific use lens, is a 50mm f/2.5 macro, coupled with a 12.3MP, APS-sized CMOS sensor measuring 23.6x15.7mm, which should produce image quality comparable to that delivered by most APS-sensor-equipped DSLRs. (The focal lengths here are 35mm equivalents.)
Whoa—the sensors are different sizes and the resolutions are different? Yup, that’s a game changer, too.
Not only that, but all exposure control is unique to the specific lens. So, the 24-72mm lens’s shutter speed range is 180-1/2000 second while the 50mm unit’s range is 180-1/3200 second. Exposure compensation, metering modes, white balance ISO range, RAW capture are all variable, depending on which lens-sensor unit is being used. The specs of each unit are completely integrated with the lens being used.
Wide angle and tele converters are available for the zoom lens unit.
What’s left for the basic camera to do? Plenty. It has a built-in pop-up flash, a hot shoe that accommodates either an external flash such as the Ricoh GF-1, or an external electronic 920,000-dot VF2 viewfinder, and a 920,000 pixel LCD finder. The camera unit is the playback and display control center, and communicates integrally with each lens unit. The menu options change depending on which lens is attached.
The brilliant thing about all of this is that the camera will be in the same size class as the Olympus E-P2 and Panasonic GF-1.
But wait—there’s more. Ricoh may, in the future, choose to add a slide-in projector unit that would let you display your images right from the camera without removing the memory card and putting it in a card reader or other playback unit. And while there are only two lens-sensor units currently available for the GXR, you can be sure that more are in the works. I certainly hope Ricoh will build most of ‘em around larger sensors than smaller ones.
So, once again, we have another game changer…and there are still 6 weeks left to 2009. Who’s next?