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Latest review: Ricoh GR camera

Latest portfolio: Western Sichuan, China, October 2013


19 April 2014 » Camera connectivity—a suggested solution

I have written about camera connectivity a number of times and I know that I may sound like a broken record, but I still find it incomprehensible that camera makers still have not figured this out: it is simplicity and immediacy of image sharing offered by smart phones that has been eating their lunch (I know there are other reasons as well, but I am thinking about the needs of yours truly). As I continued using the Ricoh GR on non–photographic trips while examining my photographic needs, it dawned on me that the camera connectivity solution that would make me—and, I reckon, many other photographers—a happy camper is actually quite simple.

Being a photographer with artistic aspirations, I have to have access to the original data recorded by the sensor and thus use RAW format only (you may choose to shoot JPG, but that is a topic for another day). Most serious photographers, however, are also "civilians"—I want to easily share images that are "less than art" with friends and family. And the point of casual, fun sharing is that it has to be here and now; otherwise, it does not work—either because the images lose their lustre outside the spur of the moment, or because we fail to share them later.

On the subject of "sharing images later", I am sure you know how it goes: we often mean to do it tomorrow, but tomorrow never comes, or it comes when the images are already not as relevant. You can blame our own laziness, but you cannot fight human nature. Can you say you are disciplined enough to sort through, rename, adjust, convert to JPG and then send out the images every single time you intend to share the pictures you have taken? I, for one, cannot. From this perspective, an imperfect JPG image shared through imperfect means (e.g., mobile social media) is better than a perfect RAW file that will remain on your hard drive not renamed, not edited, and not shared.

We already have solid platforms for both careful processing of RAW images (computers) and instant sharing across various networks (smart phones). Thus, all camera makers have to do is befriend these platforms by aligning and closely integrating with them, thus making them a logical and natural extension of the camera. This may sound complex, but all that needs to be done is... efficiently delivering images from the camera to these platforms in appropriate format. So here is the camera connectivity solution that would work for me:

  • The camera should be able to shoot in the RAW + JPG format; this is nothing new, of course, but what is crucial is that the photographer should be able to choose size and quality of JPG images. I would usually use small size, high quality JPG as it would be best suited for immediate sharing.

  • The camera should be able to transfer RAW or JPG files, or both, via Wi–Fi (RAW or JPG, or both) or Bluetooth (JPG) into designated folders on the devices of my choice once Wi-Fi or Bluetooth connection is available; we should be able to choose various combinations of file and device types for transfer. More specifically, I want to pair my camera with my smart phone and computer once and then have RAW files automatically transferred into the "New RAW captures" folder on my Mac Pro, and JPG files automatically copied into the "Camera Roll" folder on my iPhone.

And that is all, really. I do not want to control my camera via my phone, I do not want to have a full–blown mobile OS on my camera, I do not want in–camera RAW processing, and I do not want any other clutter that camera makers like to include. Just get my images onto my smart phone and computer in appropriate format(s). Smartly, quietly, unobtrusively. Then the smart phone and the computer, which are much more powerful at what they were designed to do, will take it from there.

The key, of course, is that such connectivity has to be implemented in a simple and straightforward manner, similar to how images taken with the iPhone quietly ooze into the "Camera uploads" folder in my Dropbox account (and then further to my computer). I do not want to fiddle with camera menus—or even remember about camera connectivity—whenever I want to share an image taken with my camera via, say, WeChat. I want to forget about the time when my camera, smart phone and computer were not seamlessly interconnected.

With this being said, I do realise that simple and elegant solutions often have complex, powerful and expensive architecture behind them. Camera makers may not have the expertise or the resources to provide such solutions. Nonetheless, I will say this: if tomorrow Ricoh release Ricoh GR–C, which is connected as outlined above but otherwise is exactly the same camera as the current GR, I will pay the money and upgrade. And I will continue buying dedicated cameras if such connectivity becomes the norm. Whether it is worthwhile is up to camera makers to decide.


30 March 2014 » Ricoh GR camera: final bits and pieces

I realise that you may be getting a bit tired of the posts on the Ricoh GR camera, so this will be the last entry (hopefully!). I have now added the following contents to the review of the camera:

  • Additional image examples of distortion, RAW headroom and bokeh

  • Other snippets section

  • Final thoughts section

This more or less concludes the review. I know it took me a while to finish it, but I hope the article is worthwhile.


13 March 2014 » Ricoh GR camera: 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
Ricoh GR camera

Dynamic range is excellent: I am yet to encounter an image (properly exposed, of course) where I would not be able to recover highlights or pull out shadow detail—or both.

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.


2 March 2014 » Recent favourite quotation

"Although photography generates works that can be called art—it requires subjectivity, it can lie, it gives aesthetic pleasure—photography is not, to begin with, an art form at all. Like language, it is a medium in which works of art (among other things) are made. Out of language, one can make scientific discourse, bureaucratic memoranda, love letters, grocery lists, and Balzac's Paris. Out of photography, one can make passport pictures, weather photographs, pornographic pictures, X–rays, wedding pictures, and Atget's Paris. Photography is not an art like, say, painting and poetry."

Susan Sontag, "On Photography"


28 February 2014 » Ricoh GR camera: the lens

It has totally slipped my mind that I have not finished my review of the Ricoh GR camera. Well, as they say, better late than never, so today I am posting the part on the camera's lens performance. Two more parts—image quality and final thoughts—will follow later in March.

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.

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

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!


18 February 2014 » Recent favourite quotation

"Despite all of the challenges, the experience frankly blew me away—enough that I'd do it again, providing I could find the film. I imagine it's the photographic equivalent of being on crack; an old–school high, very bad for you, antisocial, and highly addictive."

Ming Thein on revisiting slide film


15 February 2014 » Skiing with a Hasselblad—part three

(As a background, please read Skiing with a Hasselblad part one and part two.)

So there I was on the now–familiar slopes of Dolomiti Alps near Arabba, with a Hasselblad V–series kit in my backpack and a tripod attached to it, hoping for the muscle memory to take the lead and skiing become second nature again. Muscle memory, however, did not kick in as soon as I thought it would, and the entire experience felt quite a bit different this time around. And so it unfolded that I skied with the Hasselblad for two days exposing a couple of rolls of film, but left the backpack at the hotel from day three and shot only with the Ricoh GR thereupon. Having given it some serious thought, I think this surprising development resulted from a combination of the following factors.

 
Dolomiti Alps
 

Dolomiti in winter #1
Hasselblad 503CW camera, CFi 5.6/250 lens, Fujifilm Provia 100F slide film


  • Skiing, generally, is incompatible with doing landscape photography properly. First, it is very difficult to evaluate potential compositions as you ski while paying full attention to the slope. Second, once you stop on a mountain slope moving around to adjust perspective is not easy (it is doable, but it is an effort). Third, unpacking the tripod and the camera (and then packing it up, of course) over and over again takes quite a lot of sweat and time. Unless you use skiing as a means of transportation for mountain landscape photography, all of this really spoils the skiing experience. And I was there primarily to enjoy sports.

  • The landscape was as beautiful as ever, but somehow I felt a bit less excited about it—and thus less eager to photograph it in a meticulous manner getting the best image quality possible. Perhaps it was the "familiarity syndrome"; or maybe, the place was not remote, uninhibited, challenging or thought provoking enough to give me a sustained feeling it was truly worth exploring photographically. There is a lot more to landscape photography than just producing beautiful pictures of nature.

  • Image quality produced by the Ricoh GR (lens plus sensor) is absolutely spectacular: indeed, it is the best I have seen so far from any digital camera with the exception of digital backs (but of course, I have not shot with the Nikon D800 or similar high resolution cameras). I thus knew that, were I to come across a compelling composition in spectacular light, I would be perfectly okay in terms of image quality.

 
Dolomiti Alps
 

Dolomiti in winter #2
Hasselblad 503CW camera, CFi 5.6/250 lens, Fujifilm Provia 100F slide film


What I missed while shooting with the Ricoh GR, though, were longer focal lengths. 28mm is a bit too wide for my liking as the only focal length, particularly in the mountains. With hindsight, what would have been ideal for skiing is a compact camera system with three prime lenses that could fit into a belt pack.

It is quite ironic, then, that after looking at all images from the trip I still prefer the ones from the good ol' Blad. Now, there is nothing wrong with the technical image quality of the images shot with the Ricoh GR—it is absolutely fantastic; it is just that, aesthetically, the images sort of smack of... snapshots, which, of course, exactly what they are. Shooting with the Hasselblad imposes a lot of restrictions and really makes you make an effort, which results in much better thought out compositions; with the Ricoh GR, on the other hand, I could shoot away without even bothering to take the skis off. As Orsen Welles has well put, "The absence of limitations is the enemy of art."

As expected, my Sony RX100 did not make it back to Shanghai; it now resides in Germany and depicts totally different subjects. As I parted with the camera, it occurred to me that during the past several years I have been spending roughly one year with each new digital camera—or so I seem to remember. Come to think of it, I actually like the idea of buying one—but only one!—camera every year*. One the one hand, one year is long enough to get to know a camera very well and see if you can bond with it; on the other hand, it is not too long to get stuck in one place and bored. It also gives you a chance to choose and vote for the camera of the year with your own money. Fortunately, camera makers continue to amuse us at a pace that allows this idea to work: 2014 has just began, but we already have some truly bewitching entrants—just look at the Fujifilm X–T1 or Sigma DP2 Quattro! We shall see what my camera of 2014 shall be.

*Strictly as a secondary camera, naturally, as the Hasselblad still remains the King of the hill at Chez Oleg.


12 January 2014 » Miscellaneous updates

As regular readers may recall, a while ago my friend Lovrenc sent me two rolls of ADOX CMS 20, which is an ASA20 super–fine–grain super–sharp black–and–white film. I used the two rolls for two different purposes. Because the film has very low sensitivity, I used the first roll with Neutral Density filters at small apertures to obtain very long exposures. At least in theory, this would have allowed me to photograph the busy streets of Shanghai as if they were perfectly devoid of people. At the same time, the second roll was exposed to see just how sharp and grainless the film is: I used one of the sharpest lenses that I have (Hasselblad CFE 2.8/80) at an optimal aperture without any filters.

It took me some time to finish exposing the two rolls because of busy work schedule, uncooperating weather and just good old procrastination—I am sure you know how these things go. Then I had to find a way to send the film back to Lovrenc for processing, and, once processed, we had to figure out how to send the negatives back to me (Lovrenc lives in Slovenia while I am based in Shanghai). At long last, I am happy to report on the results.

The first part of the experiment miserably failed. I shot the first roll at ASA16 setting with a 4–stop Neutral Density filter at f/22; further taking into account the reciprocity failure factor, I arrived at exposures in the range of six to eight minutes. It was the reciprocity failure factor that caused the failure: we estimated it as best we could, but our assessment apparently was way off as all negatives ended up grossly underexposed. Reciprocity failure signature of the ADOX CMS 20 requires further study.

The second part of the experiment was a lot easier and successful. After receiving the negatives I scanned some of them with the use of a Hasselblad Flextight X5 scanner at a native optical resolution of 3200ppi. This produced very large files with pixel dimensions of 6800 by 6800 pixels, which is equivalent to 46 megapixels. Below are a couple of examples: the first image shows grain while the second image shows sharpness at 100% magnification (both were sharpened in Photoshop with the use of the PixelGenius PhotoKit Sharpener plug–in).

 
ADOX CMS 20 film test image
 

ADOX CMS 20 film test shot #1


 
ADOX CMS 20 film test image
 

ADOX CMS 20 film test shot #1: grain at 100% magnification

As you can see above, grain is very, very fine indeed. I actually would not want it to be any finer than this: as film grain is random, it translates into very pleasing, natural texture in prints. It is precisely the lack of grain and texture that may make prints from files taken with digital cameras look too plastic.

 
ADOX CMS 20 film test image
 

ADOX CMS 20 film test shot #2


 
ADOX CMS 20 film test image
 

ADOX CMS 20 film test shot #2: resolution at 100% magnification

Resolution is absolutely spectacular as well: once again, keep in mind that you are looking at 100% magnification of a file that is 6800 by 6800 pixels in dimension.

There is no doubt that ADOX CMS 20 is an absolutely remarkable film in terms of grain and resolution. This being said, I have to note that using it, or taking advantage of its high resolution, can be impractical in many situations. The second test shot above was taken under ideal conditions, i.e. on a tripod, at an optimal aperture, without filters and with lens focused at infinity; however, real–life photography seldom happens under ideal conditions. Because of the low sensitivity you are bound to have long exposures; given this, you cannot use the film without a tripod, and nor can you have any movement within frame. If you need to have a more or less acceptable depth of field you will have to use smaller apertures, which will jeopardise image resolution because of diffraction. I use filters very often, too.

Nonetheless, I am once again pleasantly reminded that film still remains a perfectly viable and enourmously compelling medium in this digital age. Resolution? ADOX CMS 20 is your answer. Colour? Velvia 50 is your solution. Simplicity of workflow and concentration on aesthetics? Film is still the recipe. Although you have to give up a bit of convenience, film can also help you mustering a lot more commitment to your photographic work. Nothing to complain about, if you ask me.

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I have now posted the final selection of images that I took in Western Sichuan Province, China in October 2013 and would like to invite you to look at the ultimate gallery. Just for the record, I shot 28 rolls of 120 film (12 shots per roll) and at first kept 108 slides. As I worked on the images the number of retained slides went down to 98. I posted a whopping 27 images on this site at the end of last year, but the final gallery now has only 14 images. Being your own editor is an immensly tough task, but as has been well said, in writing—and I would add photography—you must kill your darlings.

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Another thing that regular readers may recall is that a couple of years ago I went skiing to Italy and used my Hasselblad V–series system and a smallish tripod on the slopes of Dolomite Alps. The idea sounded a bit cockamamie—and dangerous—at first, but it worked out exceedingly well. Later this month I am going to repeat the exercise: I am going skiing to the same place and will use the Hasselblad 503CW camera with three lenses (80mm, 150mm and 250mm) for photography again. I will bring my Ricoh GR and Sony RX100 as well; it is possible, however, that the latter will not come back: I have not used the camera ever since I bought the GR, so I will give it to one of my friends who may be willing to use it. More on the trip after I return.

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