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Meet Modular Photography 1.0
Instead of interchangeable lenses, the tiny Ricoh GXR has interchangeable lens/sensor modules. Is this the first shot in the next revolution in digital camera design?
- Revolutionary interchangeable modular lens/sensor system
- 33mm macro lens and APS sensor module
- Shutter speeds 2 hours-1/2000 sec
- 3-inch LCD Monitor
- Easy-access custom settings
- Hot shoe
- VF-2 External Viewfinder for eye-level viewing (additional)
- Manual focus and exposure easy to access
- Small, compact, light
- Full APS sensor
- Cutting-edge engineering
- Slow autofocus
Author's note: I am paid to write these reviews by Adorama, which also happens to be the exclusive U.S. distributor of Ricoh digital cameras. That said, I want you to make your purchasing decisions based on unbiased information and so does Adorama management. In the interest of full disclosure, I wanted you to know this before reading this product review.
Over the past 60 or so years, the basic design of the most popular camera for “serious” photography—the SLR—has remained essentially unchanged. Yes, digital has replaced the film chamber with a digital sensor, but other than that, the reflex-mirror or prism design that was developed more than half a century ago continues. Recently, however, new challengers have appeared. Electronic Viewfinder – Interchangeable Lens cameras, with the unfortunate acronym EVIL, are giving SLRs (at least, the low-end kind) a run for their money.
And now, there's the Ricoh GXR, which debuts an entirely different, but equally compact and revolutionary, approach to camera design. Instead of interchangeable lenses, the GXR's system is based on self-contained lens/sensor modules that attach onto a basic digital camera shell. This allows the camera maker to use any combination of sensor and lens. The possibilities are intriguing.
At its introduction, the GXR has two lens/sensor modules available, with more promised for the future. One, the S10 24-72mm f/2.5-4.4 ($437), turns the camera into a standard, albeit expensive, zoom-lens compact camera, with a 1/1.7-inch sensor. The S12 modlule, however, is much more interesting for its potential for high-quality, serious photography. It's a 33mm f/2.5 macro lens paired with an APS sensor—the kind you'd find on a typical DSLR!
The potential of the macro lens, which would be the equivalent of a 50mm on a 35mm camera, and the larger APS sensor, is the delivery of fine overall image quality in an almost-pocketable camera—the holy grail of photography these days. I got a hold of a GXR and the 33mm Macro/APS sensor module, and put it through its paces. Does it deliver the kind of image quality and low-light performance we'd expect from a DSLR? Does it represent a challenge to EVIL cameras as well as DSLRs? Let's find out.
The GXR consists of two pieces: the camera module (above) and the lens/sensor module. The camera module holds the grip, pop-up flash, hot shoe (which also accommodates the Electronic Viewfinder attachment, which is sold separately), the monitor and back-of-camera controls. The lens module (below)consists of the lens and a sensor to which it is perfectly matched.
If you're used to attaching bayonet mount lenses to SLRs, prepare yourself for a completely different experience. To make this camera whole, slide the lens/sensor module into the space provided by the body. A track guides it in and it attaches with a reassuring snap (see photo, below). The battery is housed in the body and powers the focusing motor.
To remove the lens/sensor module, slide the switch in the front of the camera, located just below the shutter release, while simultaneously pulling out the lens/sensor module. Now you can swap modules. Is that different enough for ya?
In the hands
If you've ever used a Ricoh GR or GX-series compact camera, the control layout and menu structure should be instantly familiar. The GXR is somewhat bigger than the GR or GX cameras, but the build quality is just as solid, with the camera's all-metal chassis built to take a beating.
Control knobs had a familiar feel. The master control knob atop the camera has slightly raised lettering and a lock so you can't accidentally change the chosen exposure mode. In general, controls are logically laid out and easy to access.
One of the strengths of the GXR, as with previous caRicoh high-end compacts is that it is customizable. There are three custom modes that you access via the control dial next to the shutter release, labeled MY1, MY2, and MY3. To set them go through the various camera menu options, choose the combination of settings you plan to work with often, then burrow into the setup menu until you see "Reg. My settings" and follow the prompts to assign your settings to one of the two custom options.
So, if your favorite combination of settings is, say, Black and White in 3:2 aspect ratio with flash off and only at ISO 80 using manual focus, assign that to MY1. If your second favorite combination is Action mode with vivid color at ISO 400, you can assign it to MY2. Then just move the dial to either setting to get there fast.
Of course, the GX100 has all the standard P, A, M, Auto, and movie modes, as well as some interesting "scene modes." To get there, turn the dial to Scene and press the Mode button (the top button in the circular array of buttons on the back of the camera). My favorite is the SKEW COR MODE (translation: skew correction mode), which automatically fixes oblique images of shots of printed materials with words. It works!
Using the thumb-operated adjust knob and forefinger controls is incredibly easy. Press the ajdust knob to access EV compensation or white balance settings, ISO, and AF/MF options, then use the forefinger wheel to make the respective adjustments. Those are the defaults, but if you burrow into the Setup menu you can change which camera features you want to control. In manual exposure mode, adjust the shutter speed via the adjust knob and the aperture via the forefinger wheel. You can check your setting status in either the EVF finder or LCD screen.
The 3-inch LCD screen, at 920,000 dots per inch, is clear and easy to use (although, like most LCDs, not of much use in direct sunlight), and with image magnification up to 16x, you can really zoom in on fine details to confirm focus and/or digital grain.
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.
One big difference, when using the A12 Macro module, is that when in manual focus mode, you can use the focus ring. It takes a total of 3.5 full rotations of the focus ring to go from infinity to the closest distance of 7cm (approximately 3.5 inches). That's a lot of turning. However, as you'll soon see, you may want to keep this lens on manual focus most of the time. Which brings us to....
The camera turned on in about 1.5 seconds, which is comparable to a typical point-and-shooter, when the lens was fully extended into macro territory. However, when focused near infinity, that trimmed about half a second off the startup.
While my brief hands-on with the A10 zoom lens module showed reassuringly fast autofocus, the same cannot be said for the A12 Macro module. In autofocus mode the lens was noticeably searchy, even in good light and when focusing on high-contrast targets. In Multi AF mode, it could take more than five seconds for the lens to find focus, which is two to three times slower than my Canon 40D takes when focusing my 55mm macro lens. Focus is somewhat faster in Spot AF—focusing from infinity to close-up took about 3 seconds. (Once the camera finally decided on focus, it was tack sharp. More about that later.)
UPDATE: Good news! As I was preparing to post this article, Ricoh announced firmware update Version 1.07 to adress the sluggish AF issue. I downloaded the firmware and ran some new autofocus tests and indeed, in many cases autofocus speed improved with less searching. However, some situations still spooked the AF and it would still search for several seconds before eventually finding focus.
These delays disappear, however, when you switch to manual focus and I found myself using manual focus most of the time. Shutter lag is practically eliminated when shooting in manual focus mode. However, there is no on-screen magnification of the center of the monitor, which would really help aid focusing and take out the guesswork. If you aren't willing to spring for the $250 eye-level EVF (right), consider the Hoodman LCD Screen Loupe for $80 to help you check fine focus in the wonderfully high-definition LCD monitor. When shooting macro, you may find this to be indespensable.
The image quality produced by this camera is amazing given the size of the thing. Shooting RAW images at ISO 200 and 400, digital noise is minimal, but becomes more apparent by ISO 800 and obvious by ISO 1600. That's a pretty typical performance for a camera with an APS-sized sensor. In JPEG, noise reduction can be set to off, weak, or strong, and it did a good job of supressing noise by ISO 800.
One of the GXR's strengths is its 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. This sophisticated system, which first appeared last year in the GR-III, actually works very well in balancing mixed light and making it look more natural.
Holy Macro! At full 1/2x magnification, the 33mm f/2.8 lens delivers super-sharp mages, while the APS sensor gives noise-free results at the lower speeds. This one was shot handheld with a slight wind at ISO 200, and even with those two factors against it, the GXR produced sharp image quality. There is very slight red fringing, but comparable to a typical DSLR macro lens.
Ricoh's unique Multipattern White Balance caught this dawn scene outside my front window at 6:15 am after one of many storms to hit the Northeast this winter. Despite several different light sources, the camera nailed the color of each part of the frame.
With its tack-sharp focus, narrow depth at its widest aperture, and rounded aperture blades, the A12 module also serves as an outstanding portrait lens producing very pleasing, silky-smooth bokeh.
Can you use the A12 for general purpose photography? It's certainly sharp enough. But the slow focus may frustrate some users.
At this point, I have to mention price. It is high—but is it really that high? Let's run some numbers: The GXR main module, bundled with the A12 lens/sensor combination costs approximately $1,175. But let's say you want a similar setup with a Micro Four Thirds camera. The Panasonic GF-1 ($770) with an Olympus 50mm f/2 Four Thirds Macro lens ($500) and an adaptor ($170) will cost you $1,440 (with a smaller sensor!). A Canon Rebel XSi ($455) and , a small traditional DSLR, with a Canon 50mm f/2.5 Compact Macro lens ($265) is much less expensive at $720, but you lose the GXR's size advantage.
The other sticking point is the sluggish focus (which was improved by the firmware update announced on March 18) and slightly below average startup time. These two areas need to be addressed by Ricoh, perhaps in a future firmware update and/or a redesigned focus motor.
On the other hand, if what you are looking for is SLR quality in a compact camera, and don't want to be bothered with (or are too nervous about) cleaning your interchangeable-lens camera's sensor, the self-contained, modular design of the GXR completely eliminates the sensor dust and is a big point in this camera's favor.
And if your bottom line is picture quality, the images I produced with the GXR A12 module proved to me that this unique, compact, modular camera has an outstanding lens, a nice-big sensor that produces great pictures. In other words, despite some first-generation bugginess, it has big-camera chops and potentially, a big future.