Most cameras reviews are based on a simple though misleading logic to write a review shortly after a new camera is released. While there is some logic to it, it is generally not the best way to go.
Why? Digital cameras have reached a level of maturity and one can say that there are not really bad cameras anymore. However, digital devices often tend to get more and more complex and are loaded with a bounty of features that tend to make them more counterintuitive to operate (at least at first). After all, how can one expect a journalist or a photographer who has been shooting, say, Nikon cameras for most of his life to be really objective and at ease when writing about, say, a Fuji or an Olympus camera that he, or she, had only for a few hours/days to test.
Back in the film days (for those of us who are old enough to remember them), this was a non-issue. Back then, most people would choose their camera system based on cost, lens choices and the availability of given accessories (such as close-up lenses for macro shooters or telephoto options for bird or wildlife shooters).
People with smaller hands might have preferred OLYMPUS or PENTAX cameras which already were making a specialty of developing smaller bodies. But all of these factors were easy to grasp for any knowledgeable reviewer. Nowadays, digital cameras are like small computers and often differ more in their interface than the image quality they allow one user to achieve.
For today’s digital photographers, this translates into a simple truth : Reading the user’s manual is a necessary step even for experienced photographers. And some time spent using the camera is really needed for a serious and unbiased review.
I have been using the Ricoh GR for years since its launch! I was already familiar with the Ricoh GR philosophy having used a GRDIII and a GRDIV. I was also very familiar with the Ricoh interface in general having used the now discontinued GXR (and GX100 prior to that). Therefore this “in-depth” review is going to be longer than my other reviews to allow a full understanding of the cameras specifics…
Back when the first GRD was introduced, the 1/1.7″ sensor was the trademark of so-called “serious” compacts. The GRD I was a very utilitarian device without bells & whistles, like a photo sketchbook for the street photographer. Now, barely ten years later, this same 1/1.7” sensor seems doomed and with the advent of the Sony RX100, the 1” sensor seems the “minimum de rigueur” for serious compact cameras. One simple look at the GR next to its predecessor (the GRD IV) illustrates the real “tour de force” of managing to fit a sensor almost nine times as large in the GR despite being barely wider and deeper than its predecessor. Technically, this is the fifth GRD but to illustrate the fact that with the huge increase in sensor size the GRD line is really turning a new corner, the new model is simply named “GR”.
There has been a GRD appearing every other year since the first model and hopefully this would continue with a new model this year. In Japan, the company notoriety is indisputable and the GR line in particular enjoys a cult following. This is not the case outside Asia and I cannot help being amazed that the company which has arguably the best user interface of ANY compact digital cameras has so little brand recognition outside Japan for its digital cameras.
The first thing that immediately becomes obvious is how well the camera feels in the hands despite its diminutive size. I have normal-sized male hands and the camera feels just right, all buttons and dials falling exactly where they are supposed to. The adjustable lever on the back can be pushed in to access five different settings of your choice. With the 2 function buttons that is already 7 different functions that can be accessed with only one hand and more importantly without having to dive into the menu. I personally use both hands to shoot but I know that the one-hand ability is appreciated by lots of shooters.
There are several smaller cameras with relatively large size sensors but, truth be told, none feels as good in the hands as the GR. The Sony RX100 & the Panasonic GM1, for instance, are too small for my hands. Of course one can get an additional handgrip to improve the way the camera holds but no accessory can fix the cluster of dials which is the price to pay for small cameras.
At 240 grams the GR is also very light. The body is mostly made of magnesium alloy and is well built. The camera features a native 3:2 ratio LCD with a high resolution of over 1.2 million dots (featuring the white point technology allowing the LCD to remain visible even in bright outdoors). This is good because the GR does not include an rotating LCD or an electronic finder (built-in or external). The lack of an high-resolution electronic finder is, without a doubt, one of the few serious limitations of the camera.
You can fit an optional optical finder using the hot-shoe on top of the camera. Ricoh has two options for you in addition to those you can find from Voigtlander, Zeiss or Sigma.
First, there is the GV2 with its really tiny size and the larger GV1 finder showing both fields of view of 28mm equivalent and 21mm (the latter one is very handy if you decide to attach the optional GW3 conversion lens that turns the GR FOV from 28mm to a larger 21mm equivalent).
This GW3 attachment makes the camera significantly less pocketable but offers a very good image quality keeping the maximum aperture at 2.8. There is a little bit of vignetting at the 21mm focal length but nothing that cannot be fixed in post processing. The attachment lens surface is convex so if you lose the original cap (like I did) you may have a hard time finding one that does not touch the lens surface. Sadly, the lens comes with a rather unpractical rubber hood and does not allow to screw-in a lens hood or a filter.
One thing that gets too often overlooked in all the GR reviews I have read is the image ratio. Contrary to lots of other “serious compacts” (like those from Sony, Nikon or Fuji), the GR allows the user to switch image ratio. For me, this is a must-have feature, truly essential for my work for which I need a less oblong ratio than the native 35mm ratio. Most of my images are shot vertically and the 3:2 ratio is way too rectangular for my taste.
Maybe the most obvious remark upon getting familiar with the camera is that the Ricoh GR (much like its predecessors) is not an entry-level camera aimed at “casual users”. No silly modes on the dial, no selfie-mode, no on touch-screen or self-deploying flash…
In fact, each detail of the camera shouts that the camera is aimed at those photographers who want to keep control of their camera. In fact there are several details clearly showing that the GR was designed by people who actually know something about photography. I will single them out in this review by numbering some of these “neat features” ( NF1, NF2,…).
There are several accessories available for the GR. Among them, there are two that I find absolutely indispensable.
First, the BJ-6battery charger which is not included in the box. The 110 version is preferable as it is a cordless version with a very practical fold-out prong. The second one is the optional GH3 lens hood. With the hood on, the camera would barely fit a large coat pocket but comes very handy when shooting against the sun, the rain or to protect the lens from dust. Maybe it is the reason why I never got dust on the sensor like some other GR owners have.
A GR user will also want to acquire one or more additional batteries DB-65 (or the Sigma Version BP-41 which is identical and usually cheaper). Note that the same price comment applies to the Sigma BC-41 as well which is identical to the Ricoh charger. Some prefer to buy third-party batteries which are even cheaper but to me this is like playing “Russian roulette” with your money as there are usually not as reliable or long lasting than the branded ones despite what you may read on the forums. Each to his own, but I have enough data on different camera platforms to motivate my remarks.
Speaking of the battery, lots of reviewers keep complaining about the battery capacity (around 250 shots on the GR). I find these comments irritating and misguided. First, it seems that lots of those reviewers expect a serious compact to have the battery capacity of a big DSLR. The point of a compact camera is to be small and that size requirement also applies to the battery AND the charger. Maybe some of you will remember the first Leica M digital (a flawed product in many ways in my opinion) with its battery charger which was almost as large as the camera itself !!!
Secondly, changing the battery on the GR is like can be done in a few seconds and anyone who is serious about its photography should always carry a spare regardless of the battery life. Another point that a reviewer does not care about but which is important for an user already owning a previous GRD model : Not having to change battery and battery charger with any new “updated” model is both cost-effective and shows that the manufacturer actually cares about its existing clientele.
If there was any complaint to be made about the battery it would be that the indicator level is very crude and similar to a 15 year-old cellular phone but, in all fairness, this drawback is common to most compact digital cameras on the market. I find it odd and disappointing that most digital cameras on the market cannot even show remaining battery charge in percentage like any cheap 10 year old laptop !! Why this issue is never discussed in the camera tests never ceased to amaze me.
Having a small battery also allows to carry comfortably one or two in the smallest pocket available ( shirt, jean you name it).
Some readers also asked me how I carry the camera. I am aware that some GR users love the idea of carrying the camera in a pants or shirt pocket. For me while I carry my GR around my wrist when in a photographic environment (or put in my coat pocket when I am expecting some immediate action, I feel naked without a small bag when I go outside even for a few hours.
There is just too many small things that I want to have with me without encumbering all my pockets : keys, phone, small windbreaker or sweater, bottle of water, pen and notebook, small hand sanitizer, ipad mini. I am talking usually small daypack (less than 4 or 5 pounds total including the weight of the bag) light enough to be carried on one shoulder. If you prefer a small shoulder bag I would strongly recommend this one (here) or this one (here). In my opinion, this DNA line is one of the best, if not the best, line of shoulder bags currently on the market. I have the 13 model number because if I need a smaller bag , I personally prefer a daypack.
Menus and Controls
The menu is organized in three categories: Photo, key custom options, set up. The display in the menu is very sober and very readable. There are no big “faux pas” in the menu but everyone would need to familiarize itself to the menu settings if only to assign functions to all the customizable dials and buttons on the camera.
The good news is that, once you have customized the camera to your liking, you will hardly need to go back to the menu (other than for formatting the card). Speaking of SD cards, one small but appreciable detail is the ability to shoot a few images without a SD card thanks to its internal memory of 54 MB. This can come pretty handy if you ever cannot find a card right away.
In addition to the classic PSAM (for program, shutter priority, aperture priority, manual) modes, the top dial also features a video mode and three customizable modes labeled MY1, MY2 & MY3. This dial has a lock preventing the dial to rotate accidentally in the bag or the jacket which happens a lot on other small cameras (like the Fuji X’s or the first Olympus Em5 for instance).
Each of the custom modes allows to store several sets of settings making the GR one, if not the, most customizable camera with a fixed lens.
While the camera has a program mode I think the GR is aimed first at photographers who like to stay in control of the exposure parameters. I, for one readily admit that I am a “manual mode” kind of shooter. This is true, regardless of the camera, and the GR is especially kind to manual mode users. First, you can really customize the display and if you like uncluttered lcd with just the shutter speeds , apertures and iso settings well you’re in luck. Here is time to get another ” neat trick. If you were shooting say inside a church or a dark street and a few seconds later there is a sunny exposure to be made. Instead of losing a few precious seconds to change the aperture and the speed, just press the exposure compensation lever and it will automatically adjusts to the recommended exposure and then you just take the picture.
Another very useful control is the AF lock located on the right side of the LCD. It is ideally placed to be activated by the thumb and remains activated until pushed again. Of course there is a sign in the finder to remind you that the focus is locked. Something also worth noticing is that even when you are in snap focus mode, pressing this Af button activates the af without having to leave the snap focus mode. Brilliant ! another important control implemented flawlessly by Ricoh engineers.
The manual focus on the GR is not that practical as it is often the case on small compact cameras. Fortunately this is not really an issue because of another non AF mode which is, I believe unique to the Ricoh : Without a doubt, the camera control which makes the GR stand out from the crowd is the extremely useful “Snap focus” function.
Basically what Snap allows you to do is to preset the camera focus at a distance of 1,1.5,2,2.5, 5 meters ( plus focus at infinity) You can choose to use the snap mode or even include it when you are in AF mode. When the camera is in AF mode simply pressing the shutter all the way ignores the AF and focuses at the preselected focus distance previously chosen by you. (as long as you have set the camera to react that way). If you select the snap focus distance at 2,5 meters (or less) having the GR lens perform that well at F8 or F11 ( like the GR does) is really a HUGE advantage. When you select a snap focus distance of 5 meters, you will not need to close the lens aperture that much.
This allows to basically avoid any shutter lag when taking a picture and allow for in-focus image when AF is not really an option.
I cannot count how many times I have shoot this way. My guess is more than HALF of all my images with the GR were made using this mode. This is why I have the AF/snap switch assigned to my FN1 button.
On this subject, for those interested, here are my settings for the custom backdial and the three functions buttons :
Adj. dial : ISO, Snapfocus dist. , Effect, Cont.mode, Expo. Metering
FN1 : AF/SNAP
FN2 : 28/35mm crop ( 47mm crop is deactivated)
FN3 (effect button) : ND filter
Autofocus is fast in anything but the darkest conditions. The GR is an contrast af camera which means that while it may not always compete with the fastest DSLR and their phase detection AF system, it is also more accurate which is a compromise I am happy to make. As is the case for all recent digital cameras, autofocusing in difficult lighting depends more on the understanding of contrast autofocusing by the user than the camera itself. I personally only use spot AF (pinpoint AF is also a very good choice). The other instance when AF might get a little bit tricky is when you are just at the limit of the distance required to activate the macro mode.
In my opinion the number one area where the GR shows its age is the buffer capacity. when shooting RAW+jpeg, the GR only allows four images before slowing down.
The Ricoh has, like most cameras nowadays, a list of special effect filters (eleven filters to be exact). By talking to hundreds of GR users, it is very clear that most photographers only use a few on a regular basis but preferences vary greatly among them. Personally, I mostly use the positive filter (which is my default setting for color pictures in jpeg) which I found more pleasing than the natural default setting. Once in a while, I use the bleach bypass. It would have been nice to be able to select only the filters you use like on the olympus m 4/3rd bodies. No big deal but maybe this could be addressed in a future firmware update.
When the GR came out it did have only one competing camera the Nikon Coolpix A. However, the A was missing several smart features of the GR (snap focus, ND filter built-in, optional lens converter,…) and was significantly more expensive than the GR at launch. So, unless you are so familiar with the Nikon user interface to the point of being reluctant to use a better one, this is a no-brainer.
Self retracting lens
The GR has one of these self- retracting lens which makes the camera thinner in the off position. The built in auto cap allows the camera to be very quickly turned on and off.
This self-retracting design probably makes the camera more sensitive to dust intrusion on the sensor and there has been some cases on the internet forums complaining about this issue.
I never had this problem on either my GR (or on my GRD’s III & IV) despite intensive use. Maybe it has to do because I use it with the hood (except for carrying purposes).
Another neat feature that does not get mentioned enough in the quick previews is that the left side of the camera is flat. This detail allows to get some support on any flat surface when shooting vertically. I cannot count how many times this little detail allowed me to shoot handheld when others had to pull out the tripod or risk camera shake. Put the camera down on a surface or against a wall to use the camera hand held at low shutter speeds.
Finally, the next trick may come to you as a surprise. The GR is known to be weak in this regard. However, I am amused to note that, in the two instances when I needed to use video, only the GR has a feature that I find essential. Let me explain : Sometimes there are video clips on the net that I would like to send to my friends. Chiefly funny videos(10 best jokes, 10 funniest commercials or stuff like that).
When I do I never find everything in the video to be funny or worth sharing and therefore need to be able to only record the content I want to share. I neither have the skill (nor the desire) to use video editing for such a basic request. Now guess what I found out that if I use say my PANASONIC LX100 or my OLYMPUS EM5 mark II, two cameras reputed for their video abilities, I cannot do that.
For this simple request really, the ONLY of my cameras that can pause the camera simply without creating a multitude of files or wasting some precious card space is (you guessed it) the GR. Just press the function 2 button to pause and press it again to resume recording.
File quality and Performance
As illustrated by many printed and online tests, image quality on the GR is very high. Noise remains a non-issue until 1600 Iso. 3200 iso remains usable for small to medium B&W prints with some noise software reduction.
One thing that really shines on the GR is the lens. It is very sharp at full aperture and the corners are already very good at F 2.8 Maybe even more impressive is how well the GR maintains its sharpness over the aperture range.
Of course, the lack of an anti-aliasing filter participates in no small way in the general impression of sharpness. Ricoh was one of the first company to voluntarily omit this filter in its now defunct GXR and once you have seen the difference it is hard to go back to a camera featuring this low-pass filter.
In my experience, the sweet spot of the lens on the camera is between F4. and F5.6. There is hardly any vignetting or distortion to notice. Diffraction does not really appear until F11. While apertures past F13 are better avoided (which is made easier thanks to the built-in ND filter), all apertures are usable which is pretty rare in a compact camera. To keep results to your liking you can not only adjust the noise reduction applied to the files but customize this level of noise reduction according to the sensitivity. This is another unique feature of the GR, which proves once again that the GR was designed for demanding users.
- VERY efficient user interface even improved from previous models (best of ANY compact/hybrid camera)
- High quality image up until 1600 ISO (great optic, no alias filter)
- Snap focus mode very convenient for street and impromptu photography
- Optional 35mm in-camera crop
- High quality 21mm lens converter
- In-camera Neutral density filter
- DNG standard RAW
- Small battery and small charger ( though charger not included in GR package) very convenient for travel (especially the US version)
- NO optional external EVF
- NO Image stabilization
- Limited buffer size (only 4 images when using RAW)
- A fourth button for custom function would be useful considering ND Filter and 35mm crop
- Very basic battery level indicator (worse than previous GRD ?)
- Annoying no flash symbol in finder (even when flash function is turned off in the menu)
- No customization possible for the “special effect filters” menu
- The GW-3 optional wide angle converter does not take filters and the lens surface is exposed.
- Lousy hood for the 21mm converter.
Reading the photo-forums on the net, it is clear that a lot of people interested in digital photography like to change camera often (at least once a year, if not more). For some it is indeed difficult to resist plunging for a new camera with a higher count Mp sensor, a bigger/ faster this or that.
As for one , I always thought of photography as a craft and like a good artisan, one does not need (or want) to change his/her tool all the time. I am very satisfied using my GR almost daily. After years of use I am approaching the 25,000 shutter count mark.