APS Sensor Compact Digital Camera Shoot-Out

Which Posh Big-Sensor Pocket Camera is Best?

What do the Ricoh GR, Nikon Coolpix A, and Sigma DP-1 Merrill have in common? Pocket-sized, 28mm (equivalent) lens, and an APS sensor. Which is best...or is it a three-way tie? Let's find out!

Recently my Adorama Learning Center associates Mason Resnick and Diane Wallace reviewed the Ricoh GR and Nikon Coolpix A. I also had a chance to spend a fair amount of time with each camera—as well as the Sigma DP-1 Merrill, which is in the same class. All three have a 28mm (equivalent) prime lens, and a big APS sensor, yet they are compact cameras. Which one's best—or is there a "best" in this small but growing and exciting category?

While all three cameras have strengths and weaknesses, and in my personal opinion are all quite good cameras, there will always be those who want an answer to that question. While I will not entertain the delusional version of the question ("Which of these cameras will do everything for me?") that I've seen on various Internet fora, I share my thoughts on each model's strengths and weaknesses. You will need to make the final choice yourself.

Each system shares the following feature set:

  • All have a 28mm Field of View
  • Each has an outstanding f/2.8 prime lens
  • All three are roughly the same resolution (what is a megapixel or less between friends)
  • All three have video as an afterthought All three lack an anti-alias filter
  • All three lack a viewfinder and lack a proviso to use an EVF


With so much in common, what are the real differences? Let's start with the senior system of this group....

 

The Sigma DP1 Merril
Adorama price: $799

As I wrote in my original review of this camera (which holds true still): At base ISO nothing the Ricoh or Nikon can do will match the IQ of the Foveon based Sigma. NOTHING. The Sigma's image quality rivals that of a medium format camera. However, the camera is unforgiving of poor technique and is basically a RAW only camera. In good light it does well with its AF and is quite the capable street camera when taking advantage of hyperfocal distance.

 

Sunset with The Sigma DP1 Merril.


The Sigma DP1 Merril's Autofocus is just a tad slower than the Nikon Coolpix A, so for street shooting the hyperfocal style of shooting is pretty much a must. Also, once the light begins to die down, the IQ begins to suffer as insufficient light reaches the lower levels of the Foveon's tri-layer sensor. While I enjoyed the Sigma, it is definitely an expert's tool designed for those who value IQ above all else. The Merril requires patience and discipline of it's owners. But if you are willing to take your time, the Merril will reward you in spades. If you need speed and high ISO performance, this is not the camera for you.

 

 

The Nikon Coolpix A
Adorama price: $1,096.95

Announced shortly before the Ricoh GR, the Nikon Coolpix A is Nikon's entry into the APS sensor compact market. Like its direct competitors, it boasts an excellent prime lens and an APS-C sensor that's built in the same Japanese factory as the Nikon D800. The autofocus is modest but consistent. Remarkably, AF is fast in all type of lighting situations, including low light. The Coolpix A's control layout is a near replica of one of Nikon's DSLRs. Solid build and manual exposure in video, as well as sharing and actual focus ring round out the features of the A.

From my experience the IQ was quite good, on par with APS DSLRs and virtually identical to the Ricoh GR. Like the GR the high ISO performance matches that of any APC DSLR currently on the market. My only complaints are a lack of DOF scale when in manual focus, the fact the rear screen cannot be turned off (which makes using an optical finder like the Voigtlander 28mm Finder a bit annoying for me), and the fact that when in manual focus the camera resets to infinity when the camera goes to sleep or shuts off, unlike the Ricoh GR or the Sigma DP-1 Merril, which remember the previous setting.

 

Lollipop vendors on 14th Street; photographed with The Nikon Coolpix A

Of the three, the Nikon Coolpix A is perhaps the easiest to just pick up and shoot. The familiar UI and for most part intuitive controls make the camera quite straightforward in execution. Just point and shoot.

 

The Daily News man sells The New York Post – Nikon Coolpix A.

 

 

The Ricoh GR
Adorama price: $796.95

Announced shortly after the Nikon Coolpix A, the Ricoh GR is the latest version of a line that stretches back to the Ricoh GR1 35mm film camera introduced in 1996. They have all shared the same basic design philosophy: Give the people a moderate wide angle lens and excellent controls. The new GR, which is the smallest and lightest of the trio and is the only one that truly fits in a shirt pocket, follows that tradition and because of it, it is the most feature-packed and mature of the three.

The GR is much like the Sigma DP1 Merril, a camera designed for advanced users. Unlike the Sigma, however, the Ricoh GR's control set is highly intuitive and the camera itself is designed for extensive configuration allowing the camera to be setup for whatever the user feels most comfortable. Speaking of comfort, the GR's generously-sized grip is the most comfortable of the batch. Add to that the ability to embed copyright, and realtime Kelvin WB along with faster AF in good light and the fantastic Snap Focus feature, the GR is a versatile and very responsive camera for street photography.

 

34th Street and 7th Avenue, New York City - Ricoh GR

Much like the Sigma, the Ricoh GR's level of customization could make the camera a bit more daunting to use without a cursory look through the manual to fully understand what each option does. That said, once configured to your heart's desire the Ricoh GR is a beast. With the fastest AF in most situations, and wonderful Snap Focus feature the Ricoh GR is as close to bulletproof as one will get in this class of camera.

Manual focus requires using rocking a toggle switch on the back of the camera, not very intuitive. On the other hand, the LCD monitor has an accurate depth of field preview on display, which is a plus. The Nikon and Sigma both have focusing via focus rings on the lenses, a more user-friendly approach to focus.

Balancing Act, shot with the Ricoh GR and lit using the new Flashpoint 180 Portable Monolight. Under testing with a Pocket Wizard you can achieve a sync speed of 1/800th of a second.

Another plus for the Ricoh GR is that it uses the DNG format for its RAW files. This allows the use of a wide variety of RAW converters straight out of the box without having to update your software. The extensive JPG controls allow a high level of customization for those who do shoot JPG primarily. This is especially usueful when using the camera to shoot black and white straight out of camera. The Ricoh's in-camera black-and-white engine is outstanding, creating a look similar Ilford HP5+ or Delta 100.

The Ilford Delta 100 Look from the Ricoh GR

Problems? Just a few. The manual focus system is not intuitive. The classic rolling DOF of the GXR-M Mount's focus peaking is there to help, but a focus ring around the lens barrell, which its competitors have, would be better. Another issue for me is the fact that the GR does not come with a battery charger, and instead requires charging in the camera via the USB port. A separate charger is available at an extra cost; it should be included.

Devil In The Details

Snapping Fast with the Nikon Coolpix A

How does it work with each system? Well the
Sigma DP1 Merril is discussed extensively in my previous review. My conclusions there still are valid. A wonderful camera from ISO 400 and below with IQ that is unbeatable and with some work not a bad street camera (Hyperfocal shooting). The Nikon Coolpix A and the Ricoh GR will never beat the Sigma DP1 Merril's Foveon sensor at lower ISO for IQ, but as far as general photography use, they're are a lot more versatile.

Out of the box the Nikon captures better JPEG images, but with adjustments to the JPEG engine,  the Ricoh GR matches it. RAW image quality is a draw—a fact that's confirmed by DxOMark's lab tests. There is no real image quality difference between these two cameras. The Ricoh GR's lens is a bit sharper wide open, but after f/4 you will be hard pressed to see any difference. In good to middle light, however I found the Ricoh GR a bit faster than the Nikon Coolpix A. Actually it was much more responsive in street shooting over the Nikon. Once I had shifted to hyperfocal shooting the Nikon kept up, but throw in the Snap Focus feature on the Ricoh, it becomes a monstrously fast and responsive documentary camera. It is the DMD (Decisive Moment Digital) that many have waited for. Once the light starts dropping the Nikon catches up.

 

Bright lights in low light with the Ricoh GR

And the Winner is...

As far as general use and documentary, both are far better than the Sigma DP1 Merril in this regard. Between the Nikon Coolpix A and Ricoh GR, it is harder to define one or the other as the clear “winner”. Both have pros and cons that balance the other out. I'm calling it a tie.

Both cameras are outstanding, and depending on how you like to shoot, and what you are familiar with, neither is a bad choice. The only major difference between the two is price, as the Nikon is made in the same factory in Japan it's cost is higher than the Made in China Ricoh. Both are physically solid machines, with the edge slightly going to the Ricoh due to it's magnesium alloy body, though the greater amount of metal on the Nikon's aluminum body gives a better tactile feel.

 

Early Morning waiting for a train with the Nikon Coolpix A


In RAW the Nikon's 16-bit files give a slight edge in latitude over the 14-bit Ricoh's, but in real world practice the difference is negligible. As far as JPEGs are concerned, straight out of the box the Nikon has punchier images with greater contrast, while the Ricoh's are a bit flatter, showing more detail in the shadow regions. The ability to highly customize the JPG engine on the Ricoh however can easily make it match the Nikon. The native monochrome mode on the Ricoh is a bit richer, giving a very film like experience.

 


Late evening at Penn Station with the Ricoh GR

So there you have it. In the end if IQ is the final choice here and if you are willing to work within its limitations the Sigma DP1 Merril is the winner. However if you are looking for a more versatile general use camera you can't really go wrong with either the GR or the Nikon Coolpix A. Both are outstanding cameras.

The Smart Phone Effect

One final question that I am sure is to come up is why 28mm? With the amazing popularity of the Apple iPhone, 28mm has become the de facto standard of modern snapshot photography. Those upgrading from the iPhone will be right at home with the 28mm FOV these three cameras provide, and is a smart decision by all three makers. Personally I prefer 21mm as my wide and the Ricoh GR does have a wonderful adapter, that while adding bulk does give me the FOV of my old GR21 film camera.

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