The Ricoh GR is a stealth camera

The Ricoh GR is a seemingly simple, point and shoot camera that packs a big sensor, a sharp lens, excellent ergonomics and plenty of manual controls into a body that looks plain enough to make it easy to mistake it for a much simpler and less capable camera (stealth). I’ve been using it for a while and I can say without question that it is one of the finest, most enjoyable cameras I’ve ever used, bar none. I love this camera.

ricoh_gr_open

Background

I’ve had a lot of cameras over the past ten years including some high end DSLR bodies and a lot of high end lenses. Over time, I got rid of my entire DSLR kit: it was spending too much time in a drawer as I used smaller and lighter cameras more, and it was too heavy. I take most of my pictures on hikes and while I started hiking when I still had my DSLR kit, I never took it along: too heavy, too involved to use quickly, and too expensive to risk an accident in the field. I haven’t had a DSLR for a few years now and except for a few instances I don’t miss it. It seems I’m not alone in this, there is a movement away from DSLRs in my category of photographer: advanced amateur, sometimes called “enthusiast” because we’re willing to spend some money to support our hobby. Luckily, as people have tired of the weight and expense of DSLR kits other types of cameras have come online.

Before I get into it I want to acknowledge the effect smartphones have had on this: there is no doubt that they have all but killed lower end point and shoot cameras for many people: the camera in my iPhone 5S is incredible. However, many of us who have smartphones still want dedicated (I was going to say “real” but thought better) cameras that allow more control and arguably, can record higher quality images. One of the many things people like about taking pictures with a smartphone is that they can immediately share them online and this is a plus (many dedicated cameras are now coming with this) but if you want to process your pictures with a larger screen on a computer and you want the manual controls of a dedicated camera, a smartphone can only get you so far.

These days there are many alternatives to DSLRs for making high quality images but the two most popular categories are:

High end point and shoot cameras, the highest end of which might be the Sony RX1r or the Fuji X100S but the group also includes the Sony RX100 (II), the Nikon Coolpix A, and the Ricoh GR. All of these cameras have excellent sensors and high end lenses that are not interchangeable.

Mirrorless camera systems like the Fuji X-E1/2 and its associated lenses, or the various micro 4/3 camera bodies from Olympus and Panasonic and their associated lenses. And, now Sony has two full-frame mirrorless bodies: the A7 and the A7R with associated lenses. These are all “system” cameras that are smaller, lighter versions of what we had with DSLRs. They have excellent sensors, manual controls and lots of lens possibilities.

Every camera listed here can make images that rival DSLRs of just a few years ago: they all have large, low noise sensors and excellent optics. Each of them could be used in fully automatic mode or in fully manual mode or anything in between. In other words, the high end point and shoot and mirrorless categories are taking a large bite out of the DSLR market just like smartphones are taking a large bite out of the lower end point and shoot market.

I’ve bought and returned or sold and/or rented many of the cameras listed here and while they all worked extremely well, none of them got me quite as excited as the Ricoh GR which is the one I’ve ended up with. The Ricoh GR is one of the best designed, easiest to use, and most capable camera I’ve ever used.

The Ricoh GR is not a great camera for everyone

First let me say that while I think the Ricoh GR is exceptional, it’s not for everyone. It has a fixed (non-zoom) 28mm lens so it’s not a great camera for closeup portraits and while its easy to use and can be used in fully automatic mode, there are other cameras that would be better for pure snap shooting. It’s also not an inexpensive camera: I paid $800 for it although I see that its price has dropped at both B&H and Amazon.

Size and ergonomics

For those of us who use the controls on cameras outside of the shutter button and on/off switch, size matters. If the camera is too small it can make the controls too small and in turn that can make them harder to use and so, they’ll get used less. If the camera is too big we’re back into DSLR territory. I had a Sony RX100 for a while and loved the camera. I also had the second version of the RX100. This camera has an excellent sensor and is very small, so small that for me, the controls were tough to use, especially in winter with thin glove liners on. Don’t get me wrong, the Sony RX100 is one of the best cameras in this class and it has a stellar Zeiss zoom lens on it but I found its small, flush mounted controls very tough to use in the field.

ricoh_gr_back

For me, a camera needs to be big enough so that I can easily see the labels on the controls without glasses and use them without fumbling with or without thin glove liners on in extreme cold. All DSLRs and no doubt all mirrorless system cameras have big enough controls and the higher end point and shoot cameras like the Fuji X100S and Sony RX1 do as well. The Ricoh GR is a bit smaller and it too has excellent controls, so good in fact that it can be used and adjusted with one (the right) hand making it very popular among street photographers.

Some will look at the size and simple design of this camera and balk at such a high price (understandably) but I see things differently: I’m willing to pay a premium for a camera that comes close to my personal ideal and where the controls fall into the background allowing me to use it without too much confusion about which control does what. I realize that everyone’s learning and operating style’s are different but for me, this camera fits well.

Speed

The Ricoh GR starts up, takes a picture, and shuts down faster than any camera I’ve mentioned here. It is astonishingly fast. One reason for this is that it does not have a zoom lens but there’s more to it than that. A digital camera is really a computer that has to boot up, save a shot to disk/card and do other kinds of things a computer does. The GR just does all of these things blindingly fast so that once you get used to using it and want to change a setting, doing that is faster than almost any other camera. Formatting an SD card takes maybe 2 seconds.

For a nature shooter like me this isn’t as important as it would be to a street shooter and this is one of the reasons the Ricoh GR is so popular among street shooters: it can actually be controlled quickly and easily with one hand.

Large sensor

One of the reasons the Ricoh GR costs as much as it does is because it has a large APS-C sized sensor. The sensor is the part of a digital camera that records the image and its unusual to have such a large sensor in a point and shoot camera.

There is a difference between sensor size and resolution (the number of pixels on a sensor) and the idea that it’s better to have more resolution (measured in megapixels) needs to be combined with sensor size.

Most point and shoot cameras have extremely small sensors which means, cramming 16 or 20 million pixels on them puts the pixels (photo sites) very close together and makes them extremely small. Besides the physical limits on how small a photo site can be, one of the things that happens in the digital photographic process is in low light, the ISO (light sensitivity of the sensor) can be turned up (manually or automatically) and when this happens, the photo sites generate heat. That heat combines with the heat generated by adjacent photo sites and causes an artifact called “noise” in images.

Modern sensors and digital cameras have lots of built-in technology to limit noise or clean it up after the fact but the best way to eliminate noise is to have the right balance of sensor size and resolution so the photo sites aren’t too close together.

All of the cameras I’ve mentioned here have excellent low noise sensors but its unusual to find such sensors in cameras in this class, especially cameras that cost under $1000. This is one of the things that makes the Ricoh GR unique. The similar Nikon Cooloix A still costs over $1000 and it’s been out as long as the Ricoh GR. I had one and returned it liking the Ricoh GR’s controls better.

The other things that comes with the right balance of sensor size and resolution are: better color fidelity, more detail in images, less blown highlights in high contrast images, the ability to crop images without unacceptable loss of resolution, and lastly, the ability to make larger prints.

There are larger sensors in small point and shoot cameras: the Sony RX1 has a full frame sensor in it and having shot with one for a while, I can say that the image quality from that sensor is exceptional. But, the price for that (and the high end Zeiss lens that camera has) is $2700 which puts that camera in a different class than the Ricoh GR.

28mm lens

The Ricoh GR has a 28mm f/2.8 lens that retracts back into the body and is covered when the camera is turned off.

ricoh_gr_closed

Ricoh has produced cameras with 28mm non-zoom lenses before: the GR is the latest camera in a line that’s been around for a while (with smaller sensors). Nikon has now entered this territory with the Coolpix A (also 28mm). But, for many people the idea of a camera in this price range without a zoom lens is a show stopper and this is understandable. It takes time to learn how to “sneaker-zoom” (move your body to frame a shot) and 28mm is a rather wide angle view, not appropriate for all types of photography.

One of the things that many DSLR owners learn over time is that prime lenses (lenses with a single focal length) produce sharper images than zoom lenses. This is a generalization but its worth considering. Producing a zoom lens that’s sharp at all of its focal lengths is a very difficult thing for camera makers to do and because of this, high end zoom lenses are expensive. High end zoom lenses that have large apertures across their zoom range are even more expensive and tend to be heavy (more glass). It’s rare to find a constant aperture zoom lens among point and shoot cameras, most cameras in this category that have zoom lenses have variable aperture lenses. An example is the Sony RX100 which has a zoom lens that is 28mm f/1.8 on the wide end and 100mm f/4.9 on the long end.

A liability of a zoom lens in the point and shoot world is that when framing a picture with the LCD you’re holding the camera at arm’s length and its not easy to keep steady. As you zoom into longer focal lengths you amplify the effects of camera shake: it’s tough to take a sharp picture at 100mm with a point and shoot camera that’s not steadied on a tripod or braced against your face. When I had the RX100 I noticed that I rarely used the zoom, doing most of my shooting at 28mm.

The Fuji X100S and the Sony RX1 have fixed prime lenses as well but they’re both 35mm and for some, this focal length is a nice compromise between 28mm (wide) and 50mm (normal). I’m not sure how I feel about 35mm yet but for the nature photography I do on hikes, I’m finding 28mm perfect. Interestingly, the Ricoh GR has a setting that will crop the angle of view in the camera to 35mm (also resulting in less resolution in the image).

The Ricoh GR lens isn’t all that fast: f/2.8 is a large aperture but f/1.8 or f/2 would be better. For the kinds of photography I do I’ve not found this to be a problem: most of my nature shots are done at f/8 or even smaller apertures as I want the deepest focus and the most detail I can get without using a tripod.

More on ergonomics and controls

The power button is more recessed than the shutter button but not flush mounted so it can be felt. But, it has a green light around it so that it can easily be seen and differentiated from other buttons in the dark. That light can be turned off in settings if it isn’t needed. I leave it on and don’t notice any battery drain because of it. Extremely useful for quickly finding the power button.

IMG_0018

The mode dial has a button lock on it that makes it impossible to turn without releasing the lock. This means that you can’t accidentally move it when slipping the camera into a case only to find out you’re in M mode instead of P when you turn it on again. It also means that in cold weather with gloves on its tough to change the mode dial. Not a problem for me, I’m an AV (aperture priority) kinda guy most of the time.

In Av mode the front dial controls aperture just like on a DSLR. While it may be cool to control aperture on the lens (Leica, Fuji X100S, Sony RX1) it’s easier to do it with one’s finger on this dial. The front dial can control whatever you need it to determined by mode and setup. This is a great feature for a point and shoot camera.

Exposure compensation is controlled with a rocker and is easily changed with the right thumb. This is one control that can get bumped in normal use so one does have to keep an eye on its setting readout on the LCD screen.

ISO, metering, and other often changed controls are extremely easy to get at and change with the thumb toggle. This control takes some getting used to as its quite sensitive but it too can be used with the right thumb very quickly in normal use. I use it regularly with thin gloves on in winter.

Strap attachment points

Most cameras, even compact cameras have loops for a right wrist strap and maybe another attachment point on the top left so one could attach a neck/shoulder strap. Ricoh has those two attachment points and one more on the bottom right so the camera can be carried on its side around one’s neck.

IMG_0014

This is a brilliant piece of ergonomic engineering and I’m using attachment loops from Op/Tech for both a wrist strap or, if I want to switch, a shoulder strap. Brilliant.

I use these products from Op/Tech:

Mini QD Loops on camera
Cam Strap QD wrist strap
Bin/Op Stap QD shoulder strap

IMG_0013 IMG_0015

I can leave two attachment points on the camera and attach a wrist strap or, detach that and attach a shoulder strap that keeps the camera hanging comfortably with the short side up. The wrist (cam) strap from Op/Tech is much more secure than the one that comes from Ricoh.

Batteries and charger

The Ricoh GR comes with a battery and a USB cable and AC adaptor for charging the battery in the camera. Many, including me, don’t like this method although one can use the cable to charge the GR in the car with a USB lighter adaptor like you might have for your iPhone.

I like to carry at least one extra battery and I like an external charger and the one I’ve got is this one: Wasabi Power Battery (2-Pack) and Charger for Ricoh GR.

The Wasabi batteries seem to last as long or longer than the OEM battery that came with the camera and the charger will charge both the Wasabi batteries and the OEM battery. It’s a great deal at $24.99 and a must have for this camera.

Image effects

I do a lot of my shooting in RAW mode (what the sensor records is what I work with in Lightroom) but lately I’ve been experimenting with the Ricoh GR’s built in image effects which only work on JPEG files. I’m getting the best of both worlds by setting the camera up to record both a RAW image and a JPEG for each shot and I’m using various image effects like high contrast black and white on the JPEGs.

One can also set the camera up to just record RAW images but display a high contrast black and white image on the LCD allowing you to compose more easily but use Lightroom to convert the RAW image to high contrast black and white. This will retain more detail as the camera won’t be compressing the image.

Issues

I haven’t figured out how macro mode works yet or, it’s got problems. Autofocus seems to hunt too much in macro mode. One feature that will be great for those who spend a lot of time in macro mode, less great for those who don’t, is that once you enter that mode the camera will stay there even when turned off. Many other point and shoot cameras will default to non-macro mode when turned off and then back on. Again, this isn’t necessarily bad, but if you forget to turn it off, it will be on when you start up the camera again. Because I’ve had problems with it, I stopping using it until I figure out what I’m doing wrong, or what the camera is doing wrong.

My Ricoh GR crashed a few times on me and this gave me great pause. But it seems I had an old and corrupted SD card in it, replacing the card seems to have solved the crash problem. We’ll see going forward.

I’m not ashamed to call myself a point and shoot photographer

What using the Ricoh GR has done for me, besides giving me a lot of excellent images, is hooked me on the high end point and shoot category of camera. I had various point and shoot cameras at the same time I was using a Canon 5D but those (mostly Canon S and G series cameras) never gave me the kind of depth in my images that I got from a DSLR with a decent lens. Now, with bigger sensors and better lenses, this class of camera is good enough for the kind of photography I do.

No doubt aspects of this camera can and maybe will be improved or, other manufacturers will produce cameras in this category that I like as well or better. What worries me is that the real money isn’t in this kind of camera. The real money (for manufacturers) is in system cameras where buying the body and a kit lens is just the start, one might buy many more lenses and attachments over time. While I could get into that again with the current mirrorless line, it doesn’t appeal to me as much as the high end point and shoot category which may or may not be a category the manufacturers want to support over time.

Here’s hoping that they do.

Resources

Here are some resources and sites that will give you some more information about the camera, including some subjective reviews. If you know of others, please post them in comments and I’ll check them out and maybe add them here.

Ricoh GR review at Steve Huff (Watch Steve’s video review to get a sense of how the camera works and looks in hand)
Ricoh GR Review at DP Review
Ricoh GR review at Imaging Resource
Ricoh GR review at Pocket Lint
Informal Ricoh GR Review: Discussion with 3 photographers
Flickr: Ricoh GR Digital (group)

Photographers I follow who shoot with the Ricoh GR

Gary Sharp
Helena Normark
Craig Atkinson
ledesma Photography (note all the links on his page)
Wouter Brandsma
Positively Fourth

6 comments

  1. Very informative review Richard! I used to have a GRD III and loved it! Now I’m thinking of buying the GR to complement my Nikon D700 with a high quality 28mm instead of buying a 28mm Nikon lens. What do you think of this alternative? I mainly do landscape and cityscape / objects. I don’t want to carry tons of gear and my 50 1.4 plus the GR would be just fine.
    Thanks for your advice!
    Thierry
    http://www.thierryauge.fr

    1. Thierry: I’m commenting here and emailing as well.

      Nothing will compare with a full frame sensor for certain kinds of effects (with the right lenses) but the GR is about as good as it gets in a compact camera (with an APS-C sized sensor).

      If you have a lightweight tripod and an extra small camera body plate to attach to the GR, there’s no reason you couldn’t use it for the same kind of landscape work you use the Nikon for (you don’t need a fast lens for landscapes so f/2.8 isn’t going to be a problem). If you don’t use a tripod for your Nikon you won’t need one for the GR.

      All of that said, I think getting one is a great idea for you: not lugging around a big kit will change your life. Trust me, I dumped a Canon 5D and lots of very nice L glass to move into compact cameras and I’ve not looked back. I’m completely satisfied with the quality of the images I’m getting out of the GR and I got from the Sony RX100 (I, II, and III). The reason I got rid of the Sony wasn’t for lack of IQ, it was because I didn’t care for its ergonomics. The GR has superior ergonomics and is a very fast camera to operate.

      There are times I’d like a wider angle of view than 28mm but they’re few.

      Plus, this is a nice time to buy one, the price has come down $100 since I bought mine.

      So I’d say, go for it. And, let me know what you think if you get it.

      By the way, I’ve had this camera for a year now and have done a lot of shooting with it and my opinion has only gotten stronger; it’s the best camera I’ve ever had (and that includes my beloved Canon 5D).

      1. Thanks Richard for your quick response!
        I know GR is an excellent camera, one of the best (or the best?) compact in that category ever !
        However, what holds me back is the APS-C sensor: is the dynamic range as good as a full frame DSLR?
        I sometimes like to have a short depth of field (for a detail to stand out on a blurred background): is f/2.8 enough for such effects? I won’t obtain the same result as with a 28mm f/1.8 prime lens (the latest Nikon G version is supposed to be stellar!)
        Plus, I’m not a fan of screen viewing and the optional viewfinder is not precise enough.
        Well, not easy to decideā€¦

  2. thierryauge11: These are all great questions, let me see if I can answer some of them:

    1. The dynamic range on the GR will never be as broad as with your full frame camera but it’s amazingly good for a compact camera. I highly recommend following the Ricoh GR tag at this site:

    http://richardsnotes.org/tag/ricoh-gr/

    and see what some of us have done with it.

    And, you might also poke around Flickr by clicking on any of the embedded images, then following the Ricoh GR tag or poking around in various Ricoh GR groups (there are many).

    2. Aperture and depth of field will always be problematic with a wide angle lens (tougher to go shallow than longer lenses) but it certainly can be done. Move closer to subject, make sure background is pretty far away and you can isolate a subject with even smaller apertures. I had reservations about f/2.8 being the limit but after a year of using the camera I can honestly say I’ve never run into a situation where I missed f/2 or f/1.8.

    Again, look around at this site and online, you’ll see plenty of creamy bokeh created with the GR.

    3. The viewfinder vs LCD issue is a real one and while I’ve always liked a viewfinder for various reasons, I’ve not had any problems with the LCD on the Ricoh. But, another camera to consider, although bigger and more expensive, is the Fuji X100 series (latest being the “T”). I’ll be buying a T when they become available for the times I want a viewfinder and a slightly longer (35mm) angle of view. It too has an APS-C sensor. But, it’s a larger camera and of course, you’re missing the wider view.

    If I had to choose one, I’d go with the GR, it’s really a wonderful camera and I doubt you’d feel constrained with it.

    Check out the work my flickr contact and friend Helena Normark has done with the GR. She also has a Sony A7 but still uses the GR for much of her work. You’ll find her on this site in the tabs at the top “Curated Posts.”

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