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Modular, small, an APS sensor...and street-savvy?
At under $1,000, does the Ricoh GXR with the 28mm lens/APS sensor module offer the balance of image quality, performance, and price that street photographers have been waiting for?
All street photos below by Mason Resnick
Flashback to early June: I was at the Adorama Street Fair and saw someone walk by with one of those new retro-designed compact cameras that looks like it aspires to be a Leica. We struck up a conversation and I asked if I could take a few shots with it. I was interested in its focus ability and reaction time since this was such an in-demand camera. I was not impressed. Autofocus was slow and manual focus was finicky. The shutter release was a split-second less than instantaneous.
The owner of the camera agreed, and then shared the following observation: “I've been using the Ricoh GXR with the 28mm lens module (available at Adorama) and I've gotta tell ya, that thing is super fast! You should check it out.” I kept that nugget in mind and when I was given an opportunity to field-test the recently-expanded GXR system I decided to run a street photo stress test. Could the GXR, when outfitted with the 28mm/APS sensor module, be a killer street camera? I took it for a street photo stress test in New York's Times Square on a Wednesday morning to find out.
Can it focus fast enough?
Autofocus was generally fast and decisive, and lag time was minimal when the camera was set to autoexposure. However, since I like to shoot in manual for both focus and exposure, the acid test is how easily I can control these settings. I've written about the GXR's ease-of-use when shooting in manual exposure mode before: It's fairly intuitive. Turn the front dial to adjust aperture, the back thumb dial to control shutter speed. You do need to go into menus to change ISO but hopefully that's something you won't need to do often.
Focusing, while not as totally intuitive as with the Olympus 12mm f/2 (which excelled as a street lens), came pretty close. Simply turn the focus ring and confirm focus on screen via a focus indicator chart which, helpfully, shows the current hyperfocal range, dynamically changing it as you change focus and aperture settings. For street shooters who may wish to zone focus (prefocus so a range of subject distances will be in focus) this is essential.
Most cameras in this class have a focus mangifying tool so you can roughly confirm focus accuracy on screen by viewing an enlarged center of the image, and the GXR is no exception. However, accessing this feature is a finicky process.
Lag time? Nope!
Now we get to the acid test. To capture the decisive moment, a shutter release must trigger the moment you press it. The good news is that when the GXR is set to manual focus and exposure, I found there to be no discernable lag time. That automatically boosts this camera/sensor/lens combo to the upper echelons of street photography-friendly digital cameras.
Oh, and one other thing for stealthy street shooters: The shutter release is very quiet and unobtrusive, another bonus.
When shooting on the street, I like to shoot at ISO 800 in order to capture fast-changing action with minimal or no blur. Thanks to its APS sensor, image quality is very good at ISO 800 (excellent at ISO 400 and lower). I was able to easily get high-quality 11x14-inch prints with low to moderate noise.
How does it compare?
Compared to a typical APS DSLR, without any DxOMark test results to go by, my estimation is that the GXR/28mm APS sensor module's image quality is average. The quality is not as good as the Fujifilm X100, which at ISO 800 produced virtually grainless images, and not quite as high-quality as the Leica X1, but both of these cameras suffer from just enough lag time to frustrate a street shooter. (UPDATE: The X100 with the latest firmware and the new Leica X2 have shown great improvements in lag time—click on the links to see the SP Strees Test results—but the GXR/28 combo still beats them on price.)
The GXR/28mm lens APS sensor module's super-responsive performance puts it in a dead heat with the Olympus E-P3 while the Ricoh beats the Olympus on image quality, although not by as much as I expected given the difference in sensor sizes. RAW images show a clearer distinction with noise reduction off: The GXR is a clear winner when shooting RAW. I felt the image quality was more than enough for making 11x14-inch color and 16x20-inch black-and-white prints at ISO 800. Both cameras score high on ease of use for experienced shooters who prefer manual control, with the Olympus coming out slightly ahead thanks to the design of the 12mm lens.
Both the Olympus and Ricoh offer EVF finders. While the EVF finders offer excellent resolution, I recommend finding an optical finder such as the Panasonic DMW-VF1 (a little less expensive) or Ricoh GV-2 Mini External Viewfinder (more money, but more precise framing) since these won't black out during the moment of exposure (the EVFs do). You can use the LCD to check your settings.
Conclusion and recommendation
I very quickly got used to shooting with the GXR, and of all the GXR lens/sensor modules, the 28mm/APS module is my favorite. It was an intuitive, fast little camera, and the technology didn't slow me down or otherwise get in the way of my getting the shot. Image quality is very good and if you're balancing performance speed with image quality, keep this factor in mind as well: For less than $920 (plus optical viewfinder), this may be the lowest-cost street camera system currently available.
Bottom line: For street photography, documentary work and unobtrusive photojournalism, I'd give the Ricoh GXR an A-. Highly recommended.