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Compact Camera with Film-Era Roots Is A Game-Changer
Can this quick little pocket camera rival DSLR image quality and performance? It is the world's smallest APS sensor camera; that changes everything.
Until now, the Ricoh GR series was the VW Beetle of the photo industry, with incremental under-the-hood changes over many years. But something big has transformed it into a Maserati, without a Maserati-like price tag: The newest model (called, simply, the Ricoh GR, available now at Adorama for $796.95) is, as of this writing, the world's smallest camera with an APS-C sensor. The first shipment of Ricoh GRs just arrived at Adorama!
That's right: Instead of the tiny point-and-shoot-sized sensor found in its predecessors, this new model incorporates a big 16MP APS sensor with an ISO range of 100-25,600. Another big surprise? The price: at the Adorama price of $800, it gives a lot of bang for the buck. Want to get similar quality, speed and features in a DSLR? It'll cost you at least $200-400 more for an APS sensor DSLR with a 28mm equivalent lens, and it will be bigger and heavier.
Related reading at the Adorama Learning Center: Ricoh GR First Look.
AdoramaTV Product Overview: Watch as AdoramaTV's Diane Wallace gives a quick tour of the Ricoh GR, then keep reading below for more details and image quality test results.
The Ricoh GR In Depth Report
The Ricoh GR's no-nonsenese, logical, classic camera-inspired design and features haven't changed much over the years and four generations, but there have been many changes under the hood, mostly via firmware updates. The basic design is virtually untouched. In fact, the camera's roots start back in the film era, with the original, which was also simply called the Ricoh GR. Even the GR series signature focus feature, Snap Focus, started in the film version.
Side by side: Ricoh GR IV, left, had small point-and-shoot-sized sensor. New GR, right, is the same size but has an APS-C sensor. The biggest difference seems to be the larger lens base.
The main complaint for previous models was that, although the GR series was fast and its design appealed to traditionalists, and was one of the fastest cameras on the block when it came to shutter lag time and focus speed, image quality consistently suffered due to its small point-and-shoot-sized sensor, making it difficult to consider this camera for more serious work such as photojournalism or street photography.
Does the APS sensor really change everything?
Keep reading for an in-depth review of this camera's handling, responsiveness, and image quality.
In The Hands
The first thing that will surprise long-time GR fans is that when you pick up this larger-sensor camera, there are no surprises. The Ricoh GR easily fits in a shirt pocket when the lens is retracted. It is pretty much exactly the same size and weight as its smaller-sensor predecessors. The lens barrell is notably larger, but the lens itself is remarkably small.
The sturdy magnesium alloy body has a solid feel, and while a few controls have been shifted around, almost everything is within easy grasp. The grip is generously sized for easy handholding, while the controls in back are arrayed so that there's room for the thumb to rest. One-handed operation is very doable.
The LCD monitor is bright and resolution at 1.23 million dots is very, very good. Previews were easy on the eye as the images scrolled right or left, and you could quickly check details by magnifying images up to 16x. Want to view things at eye level? You will need to pony up extra bucks for an optical eye-level viewfinder; more about that later.
The Ricoh GR's 9-blade aperture produces creamy, natural-looking Bokeh.
One of the Ricoh GR's most impressive features (as well as that of its predecessors) is its very logical control layout, which has extensive customization options. For example, the FN and Effect buttons' functions can be changed to operate a menu of more than 25 other functions, such as JPEG + RAW, Aspect Raio, Auto Bracket, Dynamic Range, AF/MF, etc. Likewise, press the thumb-controlled adjust dial and you can toggle 5 modes, which you can select from a menu of 15 choices. There's an option that lets you customize the information that appears on the monitor. In fact, all of the camera's dials and buttons can be programmed to do something other than their default—including the shutter release!
There is, of course, a main control knob that lets you choose from six different exposure modes (Scene, "Green mode", P, S, A, M, and TAv mode, a feature borrowed from Pentax DSLRs), as well as 3 "MY" custom settings. You can, for instance, set MY1 to shoot black and white images with high contrast and MY2 for saturated color with expanded dynamic range and manual focus, etc.
You also can do basic RAW image processing in camera, saving you time once you've downloaded images onto your PC. Finally, you have three "MY" settings, which are sets of user-selected functions
In the Street
The early production model Ricoh GR I got to use was modified by my colleague, Sandy Ramirez, who added a classic 28mm Voigtlander viewfinder that he borrowed from one of his film cameras. (A modern version is available at Adorama). It perfectly matched the lens's angle of coverage. In fact, for street photography, I can't imagine using this camera without an optical viewfinder (The Ricoh GV-2 is designed to match the lens's angle of view). I recommend setting the LCD to only display exposure and menu information but to disable live view, and use the optical finder for framing the image. This will extend battery life and allow you to shoot "old-school."
One of the joys of using the GR has been its Snap focus feature. When activated, the camera is set by default to 2 meters (approximately 6.5 feet), which is a great focus distance for most street photos. When shooting at, say, f/8, this gives you a hyperfocal distance that ranges from around 3 feet to almost infinity—plenty for detailed street photos. Choose Snap Focus mode and when you're ready to shoot, press the shutter all the way down. If you press the shutter button halfway down it activates autofocus, overriding snap focus. Focus is set manually by using the toggle switch on the back of the camera. While not as intuitive as having a traditional focusing ring around the lens barrel, with a little practice this focus technique is easily mastered.
You could of course choose manual focus and exposure (that's how I roll) and use the thumb and forefinger dials to quickly change these exposure settings, and the "up-down" rocker switch to adjust focus. However, I found that snap focus was amazingly fast and sharp, and autofocus acquisition was very fast. So, I did all my street photography in Snap mode and overrode it when needed.
But the Ricoh GR's focus and exposure options don't stop there: There's an AF/Auto ERxposure lock just below the thumb wheel that lets you be very precise with focus, as well as continuous focus. For more deliberate focusing options there's an FA/move target option that lets you define AF and/or AE points within a picture. A magnified live view option lets you fine-focus and is easily accessed via the Fn2 or + or - buttons. You can, indeed, focus with precision with this camera when you need to.
Another important feature is the camera's silent mode. You can set the camera's alert signals and shutter release sounds to three volume levels, as well as volume off. At its lowest volume level, if you're shooting on the street with all of the typical ambient noise, you as the photographer will barely hear the "click". If you're shooting in a quiet environment turn volume off and nobody will hear the camera as you're shooting. This is a key point if you do a lot of candid shooting.
Overall, I found the Ricoh GR to offer very fast access to deep level functions. It is extremely flexible, letting users choose a wide-array of customization options beforehand so you can work quickly in the field.
Ricoh GR: Street Photo Stress Test
What better way to test a camera's reaction time and image quality than to do street photography? That's what I did on a sunny spring day in New York and at a street fair in a town in New Jersey on a dark, rainy Sunday. Here are some of the images I got.
Is it fast? You bet! Autofocus acquisition is nearly instant, and when shooting in Snap Focus mode, I found no lag time, and was able to catch split-second nuanced moments that its competitors may have missed. This kind of performance is what I've come to expect from a Ricoh GR, but until now, I've been disappointed by its predecessors' smaller sensor image quality. Does the APS sensor in this model change the game? Let's see!
Image Quality tests
As of this writing, DxOMark has not yet published sensor test results. However, I conducted informal image quality tests and found the results rivaled the image quality I've gotten out of other APS-sensor compact cameras, and in fact rival those I've shot with some top APS DSLRs.
In my informal ISO test shots, there is no visibe noise apparent until ISO 1200, and it remains well controlled through ISO 3200. It doesn't really become obvious until ISO 6400, and even at that speed it's fine for smaller prints, black-and-white, and in general is acceptable for emregencies.
Image Quality Test Sample Images
ISO 400, 100% detail: No noise.
ISO 1600, 100% detail: Just a little noise, barely visible; very usable image.
ISO 3200, 100% detail: Noise is more apparent but overall, it's still pretty good.
ISO 6400, 100% detail: Noise is more obvious, but images are still usable in smaller prints, online, or in an emergency.
Lens flare is well controlled, and there is evidence of very slight chromatic aberration towards the corner of the image but again, unless you're doing some serious pixel peeping, you probably won't be bothered by it. There is slight pillow distortion that is better than average for a 28mm (equivalent) lens.
There is a moire pattern when shooting small letters or fabric designs, caused by the fact that there is no low-pass filter. This may affect fashion photography but didn't seem to adversely affect my street photos' image quality.
Conclusion and Recommendation
The Ricoh GR, like its three predecessors, was clearly designed by camera makers who are themselves photographers. Its control layout and flexible customization features are among the best in the industry. Lag time is virtually non-existant in manual-everything mode and when using AF focus aquisition time is one of the fastset I've seen. All of these traits are refinements of those we've seen on previous GR's.
But the big news here is the APS sensor, which delivers image quality that rivals today's best DSLR sensors. This is the first Ricoh GR with an APS sensor—its predecessors had small point-and-shoot sized sensors that delivered point-and-shoot quality. While Ricoh, which owns Pentax, says the sensor is not the same highly-rated Sony sensor that is in the Pentax KII DSLR and several other cameras, my informal image quality tests show it is in the same league.
That said, the Ricoh GR isn't for general use, and most likely won't be appreciated by snapshooters. Its outstanding 28mm f/2.8 lens doesn't zoom, and there's no eye-level electronic viewfinder. But if you add a 28mm optical viewfinder for framing purposes, the Ricoh GR is a pocket-sized powerhouse of a camera that will deliver pro—yes, pro—quality images and performance for photojournalists, street shooters, documentary photographers, and anyone who wants to shoot unotbtrusively. If you appreciate these attributes in a camera, the Ricoh GR is an outstanding choice, and as the first major product to be produced in the aftermath of the merger of Pentax and Ricoh, is a triumphant tour de force balance of art and engineering. It is available now from Adorama for $796.95.