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Street Photo Stress Test
Ricoh's unique camera/sensor/interchangeable-lens mount combo takes Leica rangefinder-mount lenses. We took it to the streets of New York to see if it could handle the most challenging form of photography. Is this the holy grail of budget-minded street shooters?
In August of last year, Ricoh announced a most intriguing new module for its revolutionary camera system, the GXR: The A12 M-mount module, a 12MP APS sensor module with an M-mount, available at Adorama, that can accept just about any Leica rangefinder-camera lens or any third-party M-mount lens. Now, I've written extensively about the Ricoh GXR system and its growing selection of modules (including a of the 28mm (equivalent)/APS sensor module), but this one really got my attention.
The Ricoh's M-mount is a simple affar—none of the electronic contacts found on recent M cameras—and the shutter is a vertical-travelling leaf shutter. Metering is simple TTL.
Many people—including film Leica M owners—would love to own a Leica M but simply can't afford its $7,000 price tag (or even the Leica M-E's $5,450 Adorama price). If you don't already own a Leica and some lenses, the lenses alone can get very expensive and you can easily end up paying around $10,000 to get started with a digital M system, even if you buy Leica's least expensive lenses. The holy grail of digital photography for many a photojournalist, documentary photographer or street shooter is an affordable digital camera that takes Leica lenses. Could the GXR with the M-mount module be the one?
“Affordable” is a relative term (especially when talking about Leica products) but check this out: A GXR body costs $349. The Ricoh A12 M-Mount adapter costs $649. Throw in an eye-level viewfinder such as the Leica 36mm finder (designed for the X1) for use with a 28mm lens, for instance, for $289. Total cost? $1,287! Not bad, compared to $7,000 (or $8,000 for for the latest version of the M9).
I took the Ricoh GXR and M-Mount module setup into New York's Times Square on one of the busiest days of the year, the Wednesday before New Year's eve, and photographed tourists. For a lens, I used a third-party lens which, alas, is no longer being made, the Kobalux 28mm f/3.5, which I bought from Adorama in 2001. As with most Leica M-mount lenses, the Kobalux has a focusing tab, which I rely on for accurate focus.
With years of experience my fingers know what position the tab must be in for focus to be at 3.5, 5, 7, or 10 feet, and by the time I bring the camera up to my eye to snap the picture, I've already set focus. I could easily change apertures using the aperture ring, while I can check hyperfocal distance with the lens's handy-dandy engraved depth-of-field chart. The advantages of working with a Leica lens (or a well-designed knock-off) are clear and legendary, which is why the M-mount module is so intriguing.
How did this combination work on the street? Let's find out.
Taking It To The Streets
While the GXR shooting experience is different from using a Leica M, the GXR is just as responsive, with virtually no lag time. I was able to shoot several images in rapid sequence. Only a couple of times did the buffer choke and I had to wait a second or two for it to clear in order to keep shooting. I give the camera's performance an A.
There is no dedicated shutter speed dial. I shot exclusively in manual mode, and used the rear thumb dial to change the shutter speed, and needed to confirm shutter speeds on screen, while I was able to use the lens's aperture dial to quickly change aperture. A minor inconvenience.
The shutter is a vertical-travelling shutter that makes a bit more noise than what a Leica user may be used to, but it's not that far off.
Focusing was more of a challenge. I used the tab focus method described above and was pretty accurate. However, if you want to fine-tune focus, you have a bit more of a challenge. Yes, you can set the camera to enlarge the center of the image for better focusing, but then a substantial part of the image is obscured until you turn that feature off. This won't work on the street. The matched Ricoh VF-2 finder is great for composition and checking the edges of the image, but despite its 920k dot resolution it wasn't enough to tell if an image was in focus or not with the enlarged center feature turned off. Focusing the GXR manually is kludgy compared to Leica's elegant bright screen rangefinder system.
I preferred using a 35mm optical viewfinder so I wouldn't get the momentary blindness that happens with the electronic finder, which blacks out at the moment of exposure. Fortunately there are a variety of viewfinders available, for between $150 and $800. Shop around.
While DxOMark has not yet tested RAW image quality for any GXR module, my informal examination of RAW image files at 100% enlargement showed no visible noise at ISO 200-400, and very little at ISO 800. Only at ISO 1600 does it become apparent and seems unacceptable by ISO 3200. As a street photographer, I find myself shooting at ISO 800-1000, and feel comfortable that the image quality produced by this setup will produce high-quality results that will give the Leicas a run for their money.
What do you give up by saving approximately $5 grand?
The big issue with the GXR/M-mount module is focusing. If you are a veteran street shooter who can rely on your zone-focusing skills (or you can teach yourself to zone-focus and rely on knowing how the position of the focus tab relates to the actual focus), it's not such a big issue. But if you rely on visual aids to help you know if your image is in focus, you may run into an occasional problem. You also lose a physical shutter speed dial, and have to rely on the monitor display.
And of course, there's sensor size: It's APS, rather than full frame. Want a 28mm lens? You'll have to buy a 21mm, because your 28mm lens is effectively a 35mm. That's a not-insignificant additional expense, although there are some good M-mount choices for cheepskates.
One downside—which also plagued the Leica M9—was short battery life. I shot around 280 photos before the battery crapped out (and well before I was ready to call it a day). If you take a lot of pictures, you'll want to invest in a couple of extra batteries so you can keep shooting with minimal interruption.
Let's look at a bunch of street shots taken at ISO 800 in New York on December 28. Scroll to the end for my conclusion and recommendation.
Conclusion and Recommendation
As a street photographer, I found the GXR and M-mount module to be fast and responsive. It's super-fast shutter release let me catch moments and nuances that were gone in a split second, a trait I value. I also valued the ability borrow the lens from my Leica M3—a lens I've become very familiar and comfortable with—and use it without a hitch on the Leica. The image quality was more than adequate, although if you're a pixel peeper for whom the best possible image quality is the most important thing, you might want to consider the Fujifilm X100 (fixed lens) or Sony NEX-7 (interchangeable lenses), both of which have higher-quality APS sensors and are in the same approximate price range.
It would be a stretch to expect a camera that's the functional equivalent to a Leica M9 for $5,700 less, but if you're can't afford the M9, and either already have a Leica lens or two or plan to buy one, and you're willing to give up a couple of Leica-specific conveniences, the Ricoh GXR with the M-mount module is worth very serious consideration.
Overall Stress Test Grade: A-