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Ricoh GR camera review

Background and biases

Although as of September 2013 I continue to use medium format film for all serious photographic undertakings, a supplementary digital camera plays an important role in my work. The size of my supplementary digital cameras has been shrinking over the years—from the Nikon D70s to the Panasonic LX2 to the Canon S95; image quality has been improving exponentially, too. During the past year my main compact digital camera has been the Sony RX100, which was an innovative breakthrough when first introduced. With its large 1" sensor, compelling set of features and truly compact form factor, it for the most part trampled everything that came before it in this class of cameras.

Since then, however, a new breed of compact cameras has emerged: they boast even larger sensors (APS–C or Full Frame), high quality fixed–focal–length lenses, and even more photography–enthusiast–oriented sets of features—all in nearly equally compact form factor. Being one such camera, Ricoh GR is arguably one of the most compelling choices in this class at the moment. Have we come to a point where traditional compact cameras with smaller sensors are no longer attractive and have lost their raison d'être, or do they still offer unique capabilities that warrant their survival as a class?

In this review of the Ricoh GR I will be evaluating overall performance of the camera in light of my extensive experience with the Sony RX100. While I realise that putting the GR and the RX100 side by side may be worse than comparing apples and oranges, to me it is a valid reference in assessing the possibility of the Ricoh GR becoming my main compact digital camera; it also offers a suitable perspective to ponder the question in the paragraph above.

  Ricoh GR camera  

Ricoh GR camera (image courtesy Ricoh)


Ergonomics and usability

In my view, image quality of modern digital cameras has improved to the point whereby ergonomics and usability have become equally important differentiating factors. Apart from combining decent image quality with adequate usability, compact cameras also have to remain, well, compact. Achieving a balance between usability and compactness, however, is not an easy task as they tend to be mutually exclusive: good ergonomics usually require sufficient space for a proper camera grip and large buttons, which unavoidably impedes pocketability, and vice versa. Quite impressively, designers of the Ricoh GR have achieved an unusually good equilibrium between these factors.

In the class of cameras the GR belongs to compactness can roughly be equated to pocketability: if a camera can be unobtrusively carried in one's pocket, it is compact. After carrying my Sony RX100 and the Ricoh GR side by side for a while, I have come to the conclusion that the main factor defining a camera's pocketability is its overall depth.

 
Sony RX100 vs. Ricoh GR
 

Ricoh GR (left) vs. Sony RX100 (right): length and thickness

At first look the Ricoh GR appears notably larger than the Sony RX100. A close examination reveals, however, that the Sony is thicker back–to–front*, while the Ricoh is considerably wider—the camera body is extended on the right–hand side in relation to the centre of the lens. As counterintuitive as this may sound, the Ricoh is actually more pocket–friendly than the Sony: it is thinner and thus less noticeable in your pocket. Think of it as carrying an egg (the RX100) vs. a bar of chocolate of roughly the same weight (the GR) in your pocket.

*With the addition of a tilting LCD screen, the depth of the Sony RX100 Mark II has been further increased by 2mm.

 
Sony RX100 vs. Ricoh GR
 

Buttons: Ricoh GR (left) vs. Sony RX100 (right)

I reckon it is the consideration of this notion that allowed Ricoh engineers to combine good ergonomics with compactness. On the one hand, the extension of the GR's camera body does not add to perception of extra volume in your pocket (camera depth does that); on the other hand, it allows for a proper rubberised grip at the front and sufficient space to place buttons at the back of the camera. As a result, Ricoh GR is as pocketable as any other compact camera, feels very secure in your hand, and has large, well–spaced buttons with very good tactile feedback. Bravo, Ricoh**.

**Ricoh actually found this successful formula quite some time ago: the 2013 Ricoh GR has nine predecessors, five analog (GR1, GR10, GR1s, GR1v and GR21) and four digital (GR Digital, GR Digital II, GR Digital III and GR Digital IV). The original film camera, Ricoh GR1, was introduced in 1996.

The GR feels much lighter in person than product images may lead you to expect. Camera body is made of magnesium alloy and plastic; while it feels adequately sturdy, quality of the fit and finish is nothing to write home about. The back panel of my sample creaks slightly when pressed. The ring cap (an accessory that is put in place around lens barrel when conversion lens or lens hood is not used) feels cheap, wobbly and does not fit the lens barrel firmly***. Nonetheless, overall build quality of the GR gives a feeling of a solid, albeit somewhat utilitarian, consumer product.

***I eventually lost the ring as I continued taking the camera in and out of my jeans pocket. Beware!

Functionality of the buttons is very well thought out and the camera is sufficiently customizable. Apart from having direct access to Aperture, Shutter Speed, ISO, Exposure Compensation, AEL/AFL, C–AF and even DOF preview, a total of 26 functions can be assigned to each of the Fn1 and Fn2 button at the back and Effect button on the left–hand side of the camera. On top of that, pressing the ADJ. lever at the back of the camera brings up five user–selectable icons, each of which can be assigned various functions, too. Sadly, though, each of the items under the control of the ADJ. lever can only be assigned 13 functions, and some of the features I want to place here are not available (35mm crop or Self–Timer, for example).

Front element of the lens is fairly small and sufficiently recessed into the lens barrel, which serves to protect it from smudges or accidental scratching; in my book, it also makes the use of the accessory lens hood mostly unnecessary. When extended, the lens does not protrude too far from the body, so that the camera still exudes the feeling of compactness and secure handling when it is switched on.

Start–up and shut–down time is quite snappy for a camera of this type: it is not exactly instantaneous, but it is clearly and significantly faster than that of the Sony RX100. This fact alone makes the GR a much more usable camera—you naturally reach out for it simply because you know you can take a shot faster. Once switched on, operation of the camera is very brisk, too, and does not get in the way of photographing.

The LCD screen is of high resolution and strikes you as very bright, detailed and contrasty—indeed, it is perfectly usable in direct sunlight. The display, however, is made of plastic and scratches fairly easily. Also, it is a bit over–sharpened to my taste. And another weakness lies in the implementation of image magnification: according to the manual, "The maximum magnification of enlarged view differs depending on the size of the image." This means having high–ratio, quick magnification if you shoot in JPG format; when shooting RAW, however, the camera simply enlarges the unmagnified on–screen image producing a pixelated, coarse view of a part of it. One obvious workaround is to shoot in RAW+JPG, but it comes at the cost of wasting card space.

Manual focus implementation is somewhat unrefined: there is no usual focus peaking whereby areas in focus are marked in, say, red colour; furthermore, although there is image magnification via the Focus Assist function, it offers detailed enough magnified view only when magnification uses the entire screen (when only a region of the screen is used for magnification, the magnified view is too pixelated to be of use). Autofocus is reasonably snappy and very accurate in good ambient light, but focus acquisition can be rather unreliable with lots of hunting in less than ideal lighting conditions. One well thought out detail is that autofocus options include such useful features as fixing focus at infinity or to a preset distance ("Snap focus").

Menus are a bit of a mixed bag. On the up upside, they are fairly simple and straightforward without unnecessary clutter or features. The downside, however, is that naming and implementation of some items is such that you cannot figure out what or how they do without reading the camera manual (and even then you will have to do a bit of figuring out on your own). The camera did not pass my "use without camera manual" test, and I have downloaded the manual to my iPhone for future references. Nonetheless, the good news is that once you set up the camera how you intend to use it most of the time, there is mostly no necessity to dive into menus often.

In what seems to have become a habit among some camera manufacturers, Ricoh GR does not come with a dedicated battery charger—the battery can be charged in–camera only. Boo, Ricoh! As was the case with the Sony RX100, I bought an inexpensive Pisen charger that plugs directly into the socket and works like a charm.

Battery life is okay: having gone through several compact cameras, my impression has been that I can take roughly the same number of images with the GR that I would expect to take with the other compacts that I have used. Not bad, but it does mean that you need to buy extra batteries. Speaking of which, I tried looking for original Ricoh batteries but they seem scarcer than gold, so I ended up buying two extra batteries made by Pisen (at about USD8 each).

Ricoh GR clearly is a camera designed for photography enthusiasts: it does not have a myriad of scene modes while boasting a number of truly useful photographic functions. I am particularly fond of the following (in no particular order):

  • Depth–of–field preview with a dedicated button just as on a DSLR.

  • Built–in Neutral Density (ND) filter—handy when you want to use wide apertures in bright ambient light. Implementation of this function, however, is rather confusing: in the Shooting Menu you can set the function to "On" to have it permanently switched on, and, otherwise, to "Off". Setting it to "Off", however, does not mean switching it off for good: in the Setup menu you further have two options: "Manual" if you want to turn it off permanently, and "Auto" if you want it to be switched on automatically when exposure is outside the linked range. Why not simply have three options in one place, "Always on", "Auto" and "Off"? Go figure.

  • TAv mode: you set the desired Shutter Speed and Aperture, and the camera adjusts ISO setting to achieve optimal exposure.

  • Bulb and Time options in Manual Mode for long exposures (up to 320 seconds at ISO settings of up to ISO3200).

  • Interval shooting.

  • Well–implemented 35mm crop and useful aspect ratios (2:3, 3:4 and 1:1). 35mm crop in combination with the 1:1 aspect ratio produces the same field of view as my Hasselblad 503CW with the 80mm lens (and no, it does not bother me that this leaves me with only 6MP).

All things considered, Ricoh GR offers superb ergonomics and very well thought out, photographer centred functionality in a pocketable form factor. There may be a few rough corners here and there, but they are far from dealbreakers. Once again, bravo, Ricoh!

The lens

The Ricoh GR features a 18.3mm (equivalent to 28mm in 35mm format), f/2.8 lens that has seven elements in five groups. It employes some serious voodoo in the shape of glass with high refractive index and low dispersion qualities, aspherical high–precision molded glass elements, multi–coating on all surfaces and a 9–bladed iris aperture. According to Ricoh, it is a newly developed design that achieves "best shooting performance in the world's smallest camera body". That is a very bold claim, but, having taken and closely looked at hundreds of images, my impression has been that this statement is not far from the truth. So let's look at particularities of the lens' performance.

Sharpness is simply exemplary. The centre of the frame is perfectly sharp starting right from f/2.8. The corners show a bit of softness wide open, but you would not find problems with it unless you are making comparisons with performance at an optimum aperture. Sharpness improves slightly at f/4 and peaks around f/5.6. Diffraction starts to take its tall at f/11, but this aperture is still perfectly usable if you need greater depth of field. At f/16 things get discernibly soft because of diffraction, and I would not use this aperture unless I really have to for the reasons of depth of field.

As can be seen below, vignetting is very mild (under one stop) and would not be noticeable in real–life images, even those including vast expanses of sky (note that the aberration is quite exaggerated when shown in test shots scaled down to such small size).


  Ricoh GR camera lens vignetting at f/2.8   Ricoh GR camera lens vignetting at f/4  
 

f/2.8

 

f/4

 
  Ricoh GR camera lens vignetting at f/5.6   Ricoh GR camera lens vignetting at f/8  
 

f/5.6

 

f/8

 

If you look very closely at 100% magnification, you may see some occasional hints of chromatic aberration. They are so negligible, however, that you really have to look for them; they would not impact quality of prints even if not removed in post processing, which is easy to do.

The lens produces distortion with a somewhat complex ("moustache") signature, but its degree is so insignificant that you really have to go out of your way to make it noticeable.

 
Ricoh GR camera lens distortion example
 

Ricoh GR camera: lens distortion (or near lack thereof)

Lens flare is very well controlled: while it is possible to induce some minor loss of contrast and occasional ghosting, shooting into bright sources of light is generally not problematic.

Bokeh is a very subjective performance criterion, but in my view it usually falls into one of the three categories: it can be undeniably beautiful, clearly ugly, or belong to the large grey area between the first two where things can be interpreted one way or the other depending on one's taste and biases. Bokeh produced by the lens of the Ricoh GR clearly falls into the first class—it is plain gorgeous.

You may argue that the combination of a short focal length and a relatively slow maximum aperture renders the bokeh consideration irrelevant, but in my experience there are numerous situations where it does matter (or maybe, silky bokeh of the Ricoh GR invites you to find more such situations). To prove that both are true—i.e., that in case of the Ricoh GR the bokeh factor is important despite the short focal length, and that it is beautiful—I am posting several fairly typical examples.

 
Ricoh GR camera lens bokeh example #1
 

Ricoh GR camera lens bokeh: example #1

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Ricoh GR camera lens bokeh example #2
 

Ricoh GR camera lens bokeh: example #2

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Ricoh GR camera lens bokeh example #3
 

Ricoh GR camera lens bokeh: example #3

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Ricoh GR camera lens bokeh example #4
 

Ricoh GR camera lens bokeh: example #4

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Ricoh GR camera lens bokeh example #5
 

Ricoh GR camera lens bokeh: example #5

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Ricoh GR camera lens bokeh example #6
 

Ricoh GR camera lens bokeh: example #6

In short, it is really difficult to find much fault with the lens of the Ricoh GR. Indeed, I would readily pay the price of the complete camera for the lens alone!

Image quality

Image quality produced by a digital camera with a fixed lens is a combined result of performance of both the lens and the sensor. As I have shown below, the former does not disappoint the slightest bit; fortunately, the latter is no slouch either—indeed, it seems a perfect match for the superb optic it is mated to.

As megapixel count continues to increase and it has become more of a norm rather than an exception, the sensor of the Ricoh GR does not have an anti–aliasing filter. As a result, pixel–level sharpness and pixel integrity are outstanding; DNG files are very well detailed and require little sharpening to bring out very solid, pleasing crispness.

The flip side of not having an anti–aliasing filter is that moiré and false colour artifacts can rear their ugly head every once in a while, especially if you shoot man–made patterns often. On balance, however, I would rather occasionally deal with a bit of moiré while savouring exceptional crispness than have less moiré and fight pixel–level softness at all times.

Colour fidelity seems a bit strange to my eye. I cannot quite pin it down, but there seems to be inconsistency in colour between the actual scene, the image shown on the LCD screen of the camera, and what I see on my calibrated monitor in Adobe Lightroom—the three have slightly different flavour. It is quite subtle and, at the end of the day, perhaps not too problematic, but it is there.

 
Moscow winter / Ricoh GR camera
 

Moscow winter, 2013

Dynamic range is excellent: I am yet to encounter an image where I would not be able to recover highlights or pull out shadow detail—or both.


  Ricoh GR camera: dynamic range example   Ricoh GR camera: dynamic range example  

Ricoh GR camera: RAW headroom
(Sunday drinks in Yongkang Road, Shanghai)

The pair above is a fairly extreme illustration of RAW headroom, which is excellent, too. The image on the left is as shot and severely underexposed; at first I wanted to delete it, but then I thought I would see what can be done with it. As it turns out, you still can pull the near–HDR result from it in Lightroom (on the right). Yes, there is quite a bit of noise in the shadows even at ISO100, but it can be easily dealt with in post processing.

High ISO performance is in line with what you would expect from a recent APS–C sized sensor. Having done some tests and looked at a variety of files, I have set the upper limit of the Auto–ISO function at ISO3200. Yes, at this setting there is visible noise, dynamic range is decreased and colour fidelity takes a hit; nonetheless, with careful post production it is perfectly usable. ISO6400 can be used for certain types of images, but I prefer not to go that far.

All in all, although one can fret about colour reproduction and occasional moiré, overall image quality produced by the Ricoh GR is excellent. It clearly is in the DSLR territory, and if you consider that it actually comes from a compact camera, it is nothing short of astounding.

Other snippets

  • Although Ricoh GR is a compact camera, it is not a point–and–shoot: because of the large sensor, it requires a very stringent shooting technique. First, to get sharp results one has to hold the camera very steadily and use faster shutter speeds; I have set the slowest shutter speed of the Auto–ISO function to 1/30 seconds—and even then I have to take great care of handholding the camera. Second, the nearly–infinite depth of field of tiny sensors is gone and I have to pay attention to the issue as with a full–blown DSLR.

  • Exposure metering is rather inconsistent and can be all over the place. Overall, I pay more attention to it than I wish I had to. Its saving grace, however, is that exposure compensation is implemented very well, making arriving at desirable exposure fairly easy.

  • Fill flash implementation is poor. Combined with unreliable metering, fill flash photography comes with a lot of fiddling. The workaround that I have adopted is manually setting exposure for background and then adjusting flash output to achieve desirable fill effect.

  • While this criticism is applicable to many current cameras and perhaps it is not fair the single out the Ricoh GR, but the camera is totally backward in terms of connectivity and sharing workflow: the only way to do anything with the images taken with the camera is connecting it (or your SD card through a card reader) to your computer and then going through the ancient, lengthy process of getting your images elsewhere. When will we get rid of computers as the evil necessity of image sharing? Give us Wi–Fi connectivity with proper mobile OS applications, please!

  • If you use the RAW+JPG format, there is no way to choose size and quality of JPG files. Personally, I need the option of having small JPG files of high quality together with original RAW files. This would mitigate the backwardness of connectivity to some extent: JPG files would be used for sharing via email and the Web without any image processing.

 
Ricoh GR camera: dust on the sensor
 

Ricoh GR camera: dust on the sensor
(Bangkok at twilight)

  • After several months of use dust has appeared on the sensor, which means that the camera is not sufficiently sealed. Generally, I do not need weather sealing, but basic internal sealing to prevent dust from reaching the sensor is a must in a camera with a fixed lens. It is the first time this has happened to me with this type of cameras.

Final thoughts

To be honest, I was somewhat skeptical about the Ricoh GR when buying the camera: although the brand has a solid, even stubborn, following among serious photographers and most reviews of the camera seemed quite positive, I was doubtful it could be that good. Well, suffice it to say that the GR dethroned my Sony RX100, which is a considerably more popular camera, unexpectedly discreetly and swiftly. Simply put, the GR offers much more fluid, robust handling, and comparing files from the two cameras makes the Sony RX100 look weak and unsure.

You may be wondering if the difference between the two is that drastic, but I would say that this is a question of perspective: as with so many things in life, it is not about how much better something is, but whether you can go back to what you had before and feel no loss. Having shot with the Ricoh GR, I simply can not pick up the Sony RX100 again, even though it offers zoom capability and other niceties.

While the GR is not perfect and it is possible to find a few things to complain about, if I put whining for the sake of whining aside there are only two issues that I keep banging my head against: namely, low light or low contrast autofocus and ancient connectivity. Other than that, Ricoh have hit a home run with the GR—as of spring 2014, it certainly is one of the most compelling choices among compact cameras.

I am quite amazed that only a year and half ago the Sony RX100 appeared to be a genuine breakthrough product, but now it almost seems to be a thing of the past. This makes me wonder what, and for what reason, will make the Ricoh GR look stale one day. It is quite likely that Ricoh will continue working on improving all aspects of image quality, but I envision that the disruption will come from a different angle: it will be connectivity. It is about time camera makers stop viewing smart phones as an enemy, befriend mobile technology, and thus breathe new life into cameras that already offer outstanding image quality.