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Product Review: Ricoh GR Digital III
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Product Review: Ricoh GR Digital III

Is it still outstanding in an increasingly crowded field?

The original Ricoh GR Digital was small, nimble and a joy to use. The third generation represents a refinement with a few nice touches thrown in. With more small, “serious” cameras on the market, though, is that enough?


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Key features

  • 28mm f/1.9 lens (35mm equivalent)
  • Manual controls
  • 10 megapixel CCD sensor
  • ISO 64-1600
  • Shutter Speeds 2 Hours-1/2000 sec
  • 3-inch LCD monitor
  • Easy-access custom settings
  • Hot shoe


System options


Best suited for

  • Candid photography
  • Photojournalism
  • Low-light photography
  • Lanscapes


Not recommended for

  • Sports
  • Portraits
  • Studio photography
  • General snapshooting


Price: $699

More than three years ago, Ricoh returned to the U.S. photo market in a limited way after a lengthy absence with the GR Digital, something that was a unique item at the time—a posh, well-designed compact camera that was clearly made with serious photographers in mind. I marveled back then at its solid construction, no-nonsense control layout, and quick, unobtrusive handling, but I also pointed out its 8MP sensor's less than stellar image quality above ISO 200.

Now we skip a generation and go directly to the recently-announced GR Digital III. What's changed? What's been improved? What has stayed the same?

Before we start, in the interest of full disclosure, you should know that I work for Adorama. And Adorama is, as of this writing, the exclusive distributor of the Ricoh Digital GR--although nobody at Adorama has any idea what I'm going to say about the camera and have not given me any "guidance"  as to how I should write this review. All I've been asked to do is to give my honest impressions of this camera based on my years of camera evaluation experience.

A new world

A lot has happened in the world of compact digital cameras since the original GR was introduced. Micro Four Thirds introduced a new category of palm-sized cameras with interchangeable lenses and DSLR-sized sensors, while Sigma's DP-1 and DP-2 took a similar idea to the Ricoh—a posh camera with a non-zooming lens, and added an APS sensor and boast outstanding image quality if sluggish performance. Canon continues to perfect its G series, with the G11 showing near-DSLR quality and even usable higher-ISO images, despite its smaller sensor. Panasonic, Leica, Nikon and Canon have all come out with small cameras capable of high-end performance and quality.

In other words, the Ricoh GR, which had the field almost all to itself when it was introduced, now has plenty of company—and competition.

It also has competition from within Ricoh. I am also writing this report with the imminent arrival of the revolutionary GXR very much on my mind. Built around a base very similar to the GR, the GXR lets you swap out the lens and sensor for unprecedented flexibility and, theoretically, at least, a whole new level of image quality.

With all that said, let's look at the camera.

 

In the hands


Physically, the GRIII is almost exactly the same as previous GR cameras. It is small, but surprisingly substantial and solidly built, with its all-metal chassis and black flecked surface. The LCD finder is somewhat larger, and three custom menu options have been added to the exposure mode dial atop the camera. Video, which appeared in low-res on earlier versions, is still available but hidden in the “scene” settings.

The 28mm (35mm equivalent) lens has been totally redesigned and is more low-light friendly now, with a maximum aperture of f/1.9, as opposed to f/2.4 in the original model, a good half-stop faster.

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 unlock it, you must press a button next to the dial. 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.

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.

And it's when you turn on the Menu OK button that you will see a lot of changes.


Menus

With 21 items in the Shooting menu, the range of features lurking under the hood has increased. While of course you can control typical features such as picture quality, metering pattern, drive modes, auto bracketing, flash exposure compensation and the like, there are several unusual options worth mentioning. Focus allows you to choose multi-AF (basically a wide AF target), spot AF, manual focus (controlled by turning the dial in front of the camera; feedback is on-screen), and Snap mode.

Snap is essentially zone focusing: Determine a fixed distance (1, 2.5, 5 meters or infinity) and shoot away. With the lens prefocused, shutter lag is greatly reduced since much shutter lag occurs while the camera is waiting for the lens to lock on focus. It's handy for street shooters; use a small aperture for maximum depth and shoot away.

Now for the way-cool part: There's an on-screen depth-of-field indicator (left)! When in Snap mode, as you change the aperture, the focus indicator (in the lower left corner of the screen) has a green bar that increases in length above and below the focal point. If your subject is within the green, it's in focus. So, at f/8, you can easily see that anything from around 1 meter to infinity will be in focus. Easy!

There are several noise reduction levels, and you can control the lowest ISO where noise reduction is automatically applied. An intervalometer sets the camera to shoot at up to one-hour intervals.

There are 16 adjustable custom settings, ranging from reassigning functions to different buttons to ISO, white balance and image quality settings. Once you have chosen a range of settings, assign them to one of the 3 “MY” custom settings on the control dial to lock them in. Then all you have to do is turn the dial to access that group of settings whenever you need.

 


Cutting edge: Sharp lens, good macro mode result in excellent close-ups when shooting at ISO 100.

 

Making a scene

As mentioned before, when you turn the mode dial to Scene you can access movie-shooting mode, which lets you shoot VGA-quality video at 30fps. But things get interesting with another scene mode, DR (Dynamic Range). The camera combines two photos to create a single image with an enhanced range of tones from light to dark. This should be done with the camera mounted on a tripod. Other scene modes include Skew Correct, which corrects perspective when shooting buildings, or documents from a slight angle, and Text mode, which lets you shoot black-on-white text on a sheet of paper or a white board.

On the screen


The LCD monitor provides you with a lot of information in a way that doesn't clutter up the view. A level indicator lets you know if your horizons are horizontal rather than diagonal, while a focus distance indicator comes up if the camera is not in an AF mode. The screen is moderately bright and suitable for most shooting situations but it is easily overwhelmed by bright sunlight.

The optical viewfinder
 
I prefer shooting while looking through an eye-level viewfinder—it's generally a good picture-taking practice as it helps to avoid shaky shots—and the optical GV-1 finder may be worth the extra $200 for this purpose. There are bright white border indicators that cover both 21 and 28mm viewing angles (there is a 21mm wide-angle auxiliary lens available for the camera), although for eyeglass wearers, only the 28mm framing is fully visible.  Used in conjunction with Snap mode, the optical viewfinder allowed me to quickly and unobtrusively compose and shoot.

Performance

I found the GRIII to be very responsive, with virtually no lag time when using manual focus and metering and/or snap focus mode. Once you get the hang of the metering controls, it's fairly easy to change settings. However, write times were sluggish, and occasionally I had to wait a precious moment as images were written to the card before the camera would allow me to take the next shot. Ricoh could benefit from increasing buffer capacity. But overall the shooting experience with the GRIII, as with the original model, is a very satisfying one.


Ready to pounce: This cat saw me and a split second after I shot this it ran away. Fast-reacting shutter let me grab the shot quickly.


Image quality

The f/1.9 lens delivers deliciously smooth transitions from in-focus to out of focus and very pleasing Bokeh (out of focus image quality). There is minor pincussion distortion and very minimal vignetting. Overall, optical performance is excellent. I was wowed by the GR III's ability to handle mixed light thanks to a unique multipattern white balance feature that segments a scene and handles the white balance in each area of the scene separately. It's a sophisticated system that actually works very well.
 

The GR Digital III excelled when faced with multiple light sources. Here, using multipattern Average White Balance, the incandescent-lit inside balanced well with the indirect daylight coming through the window.

Image quality at ISO 64 through 100 is excellent, and very good at ISO 200, although there is some visible noise in the shadow areas. Problems arise, however, above ISO 200, where grain becomes quite pronounced. If you demand a combination of high speed and compact camera, you may want to consider the Canon G9 or either the Olympus E-P2 or Panasonic GF-1 with pancake lenses. All of these models did better in the overall image quality department.


An eye to the future

Last month, Ricoh announced the GXR (left), the first camera with interchangeable lens-and-sensor modules. One of the initial two lens/sensor configurations is a macro lens matched with an APS sensor, and yet, the camera itself seems to be built from the same basic chassis as the GR III, so we know it'll be small. It's very possible that there will be a wide angle lens/camera combo based on a larger sensor, thereby solving the GR III's image noise at high ISO problem. While that's pure speculation, it would make sense to roll out something like that rather than a GR IV that's based on the current, smaller sensor.

Conclusion and recommendation

I found the GR Digital III to be a fast, responsive, fun little camera that I could use in situations where a big rig would make too much noise and draw attention to the photographer. As with its predecessor, this version was enjoyable to use.  I wouldn't bother buying this camera, however, unless I also got the optical viewfinder, as that allowed me to shoot less obtrusively. I also highly recommend spending some quality time with the manual and getting to know some of this camera's hidden talents, such as its three custom “My” modes, its built-in level and its multipattern white balance.

Despite its uninspired high-ISO image quality (the Canon G11 trumps it in that area), the GR III delivers outstanding quality at the lower ISOs while the lens is fast enough to give you an extra stop's worth of speed to compensate. It has one of the fastest-reacting shutter releases in its category. Even with more competition, the GR Digital III offers a unique shooting experience with a combination of super responsiveness and small size that will justify its eye-opening price tag as a compact creative tool for many serious photographers.

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