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New lens/sensor units mean new possibilities
The revolutionary Ricoh GXR points to a new way to swap out lenses and sensors without dust or fuss. Now, new units expand its usefulness to a wider range of photography enthusiasts and professionals.
Photos by Mason Resnick for the Adorama Learning Center
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 sensors have replaced the film chamber, 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 such as the Sony NEX series, Panasonic G's and Olympus Digital Pen cameras are giving SLRs (at least, the low-end kind) a run for their money. So have fixed-mirror cameras such as the Sony A55 (actually, the just-announced A77 may give high-end DSLRs meaningful competition).
Then there's the Ricoh GXR, the first and only of an entirely different, but equally compact and revolutionary, approach to camera design. Instead of interchangeable lenses, the GXR's system is based on interchangealbe self-contained lens/sensor/processor modules that slide into a basic digital camera shell, the GXR. This design allows the camera maker to create any combination of sensor and lens. For you and me, it means the sensor is completely protected from dust, a problem that plagues all other interchangeable lens digital cameras. The possibilities are intriguing.
The heart of the GXR is the aforementioned shell, the Interchangeable Unit Body, which has the shutter release, hot shoe, and various control dials and buttons, laid out in a logical fashion like a typical, well-designed camera complete with a high-resolution (920k pixel) 3-inch LCD monitor and a hot shoe that can accommodate either an external flash or VF-2 920k pixel resolution external viewfinder ($219).
Although I reviewed the GXR last year (you can read that review here), the system is worth revisiting because it has expanded. At first, there were only two choices but that has doubled, with more goodies on the way. The lens/sensor module system has grown in surprising ways and what seemed like an expensive toy is now getting more serious consideration. Besides focal range and sensor size, each unit has its own image processing engine that delivers unique features and capabilities. While many features are the same no matter which unit is in use, some are different, giving each sensor a personality all its own.
The Ricoh GXR system now consists of:
- The A12 50mm (35mm equivalent) f/2.5 macro lens coupled with a 12MP CMOS APS sensor
- The P10 28-300mm (35mm equivalent) f/3.5-5.6 VC lens coupled with a 10MP ½.3 CMOS sensor
- The S10 24-72mm (35mm equivalent) f/2.5-4.4 VC lens coupled with a 10MP 1/1.7 inch CCD sensor
- The A12 28mm (35mm equivalent) f/2.5 lens coupled with a 12MP CMOS sensor
- The A12 Leica M IRCLM interchangeable lens mount coupled with a 12MP CMOS sensor (not yet on the market)
- In addition, the Ricoh VF-2 external viewfinder slides into the hot shoe and works with all of the camera/sensor modules.
I had the opportunity to field-test all of the currently available modules (and eagerly await the Leica M module). Let's take a closer look at each module, along with sample shots:
The S10 24-72mm (35mm equivalent) f/2.5-4.4 VC lens coupled with a 10MP, 1/1.7-inch CCD sensor
A good general all-around lens, it is coupled with a larger-than-average (for a compact camera) sensor, resulting in a modest improvement in image quality. Don't be put off by its modest 3x optical zoom range: At 24mm this lens can capture sweeping landscape vistas, and indoors it can include large groups of people when shooting in cramped quarters. At a maximum aperture of f/2.5, this lens is appropriate for low-light photography without flash; the slightly larger sensor works with built-in noise reduction for high-quality prints, even when shooting at moderately high ISOs like 400. (Yes the specs say 3200 is the highest ISO, but only use that speed if you have no other choice.) At 72mm, the lens delivers sharp edge-to-edge results. A bonus: This lens focuses down to within an inch of the lens surface in wide-angle mode, and provides macro magnification when zoomed in.
Shot with 24-70mm unit and the EVF at its 90 degree setting. The GXR's digital leveling tool helped me get the horizong straight.
I like this lens unit because it strikes a good balance between focal range, versatility, and image quality. The 1/1.7 inch sensor is just the right size to keep the lens weight and dimensions low while delivering image quality which should please the vast majority of quality-conscious point-and-shooters...and even for enthusiasts.
Wide ranger: The 28-300mm's range gives you plenty of versatility.
The P10 28-300mm (35mm equivalent) f/3.5-5.6 VC lens coupled with a 10MP, 1/2.3-inch CMOS sensor
By reducing sensor size, Ricoh was able to produce an optical marvel—a versatile, superb-quality 10x superzoom lens built into a compact camera. Because it is coupled with a smaller sensor that is typical of compact cameras, Ricoh could increase the focal range without making the lens unwieldy. The processing engine is fast—capable of shooting up to 5 frames per second in RAW mode and up to 120 fps at VGA quality in the “Hi” settings—while the back side illuminated CMOS sensor lets you capture better quality images in lower light. The amount of noise reduction can be varied, so you can choose between smoothing out the noise or showing all the detail, including whatever noise. Ricoh has developed its own Vibration Correction system, which I found worked well. Another useful feature is built-in, adjustable dynamic range, which reveals better shadow details and more information in the highlights, a useful feature when shooting contrasty subjects.
Bonus: The 28-300mm has a very capable and sharp macro option, delivering 1:2 magnification. I shot this at the closest focus distance while zoomed to 300mm.
The 28-300mm unit is well-suited for general photography, and is especially useful for travelers who are tight on carrying space. Its long range takes in both close-up and distant photos, while the matched sensor delivers excellent performance.
The A12 50mm (35mm equivalent) f/2.5 macro lens coupled with a 12MP CMOS APS sensor
While both the 28-300mm and 24-72mm units offer near-lifesize magnification, the 50mm unit is matched with the largest sensor Ricoh has to offer—an APS-sized sensor, which is the same size found in most consumer-level DSLRs—and the promise of the best image quality. Indeed, 100% enlargements reveal stunning sharpness, making this the lens you want to get if you wish to make big prints. While you can shoot up to ISO 3200, I recommend using the lowest ISO you can get away with. Be sure to use a tripod for maximum sharpness. In addition to stunning stills, the 50mm module can capture 720p videos at 24 fps. Imagine that—1:2 macro videos!
Since this is a prime lens, Ricoh worked overtime to optimize its optical performance. As a result, edge-to-edge sharpness when photographing flat subjects is outstanding at all apertures, and the quality of the out-of-focus areas of the image (“Bokeh”)—a highly-desired quality for discerning shooters— is very smooth and pleasing. In addition to its obvious use as a macro lens, this module's big f/2.5 aperture makes it well-suited for portrait photography as well.
Another benefit of it being a prime lens is that you can easily focus this lens manually using a manual focus ring, giving you finer control over image sharpness. This is good, since the lens's autofocus tends to be on the slow side, especially when photographing low-contrast subjects.
The A12 28mm (35mm equivalent) f/2.5 lens coupled with a 12MP CMOS sensor
The second module to include an APS-sized sensor, the 28mm f/2.8 unit uses the same 12MP sensor as the macro unit. Photojournalists and street shooters rejoice: Unlike the macro, this lens focuses faster, with very short shutter lag. Like the macro, it has a manual focus ring so you can fine-tune focusing. To make things go even faster, turn off autofocus and focus manually. A readout in the LCD (or EVF if you are using that) displays the focus distance, as well as the hyperfocal distance at the aperture currently in use—very helpful.
As with the Macro unit, the 28mm unit offers 720p HD video capture at 24fps, continuous shooting capabilities (up to 30 images at 24 fps) and noise reduction. The AE/AF target mode lets you shift exposure and focus targets either in tandem or independently of each other to get the ideal focus and exposure.
During a recent field test on the streets of Manhattan, with focus and exposure set manually, I found virtually no shutter lag, making this camera a good choice if your goal is to catch the action. Even better: at around $920, the camera/lens combination costs considerably less than similarly-equipped compact “street” cameras, such as the Olympus E-P3 with the 12mm prime, the Leica X1 or Fujifilm X100 while delivering comparable (or better) performance and competitive image quality. For street photographers, this may be the best low-cost digital alternative to the Leica M9.
The A12 Leica M IRCLM interchangeable lens mount coupled with a 12MP CMOS sensor (not yet on the market)
As a Leica shooter with a couple of M-Mount lenses, I can't wait to get my hands on this module, which promises the same APS sensor as in the 28mm and 50mm Macro modules. With the smaller APS sensor, a 28mm lens would cover the equivalent angle of view of a 35mm lens, and a 35mm lens would cover approximately 50mm, etc. If, like me, you're a Leica fan looking for more affordable digital alternative to the M9 or M8, this might be what we're looking for. As soon as I can get my hands on a unit, I'll field-test it and post results!
I highly recommend spending an additional $240 on the viewfinder. At 920k pixel resolution it is among the best for image quality that I've seen. You can angle the view up to 90 degrees so you can shoot looking down for low-angle shots, a nice convenience. The information shown in the viewfinder is the same that's displayed on the LCD monitor, but in bright sunlight will be much clearer in the finder. The downside? The image momentarily blacks out at the moment the shutter is released.
Ricoh GXR: Conclusion and Recommendations
The control layout is intuitive, with easy-to-reach controls for aperture and shutter speed adjustments, and the camera is comfortable to hold and operate. My main complaint is with the focus, which can be sluggish and sometimes searchy in low light or when aiming at low-contrast subjects. However, there are work-arounds. Snap focus, for example, lets you pre-set a focus point. When in Snap focus mode, the lens is pre-focused, greatly reducing lag time. When using the 28mm lens, manual focus is a breeze. However, it would be even breezier and perhaps a tad more precise if there was a focus-confirm audio or visual cue (this should be a must-have in the M-mount unit). Manual focus is somewhat more challenging with the zoom lenses but still can be done. I'd like to see Ricoh focus on improving focus speed in firmware updates.
Despite its focus, the GXR is a superbly engineered camera designed by people who understand the needs of photographers. Thoughtful details—such as a control dial lock to prevent accidentally changing from Shutter priority to Manual mode, for instance—are appreciated. The forefinger and thumb-controlled dials smoothly operate manual functions; technology doesn't interfere when you want to take the camera off auto.
The best thing about the GXR? It is so small! I carried the GXR and all of the lens modules with me for a couple of days and despite the fact that I used a small camera bag, I had plenty of room. Yes, it'll cost ya. But the Ricoh GXR is the basis for a system that is sure to continue to grow in new and exciting new directions for photography and beyond.