By Peter Stewart | 1st May 2016
* note that this review applies both to the original Ricoh GR and the newer revision Ricoh GR II. Both cameras are almost identical, save for the addition of built in Wi-Fi and a few minor changes in the newer model.
I've wanted to write about the legendary little GR for some time now. I've owned mine for about a year and a half now, having used it both as a backup camera alongside my DSLR as-well as an all purpose day carry camera for quick captures and street photography.
Firstly, a quick look at the specs:
16.2MP APS-C CMOS sensor with no low-pass filter
18.5mm (28mm equivalent) F2.8 lens
3.0" 1.2m dot LCD
Up to 4fps continuous shooting
1080p movies at 24, 25 or 30fps
12-bit Raw in DNG format
10MP 35mm equivalent crop mode
Built-in 2-stop ND filter
248 g weight
*Ricoh GR Version II adds built-in Wi-Fi support for streaming images to your smartphone, alongside improvements to RAW burst fire rate, battery life & video autofocus.
The GR is an almost perfect all-purpose camera. It's small and lightweight, fits easily in your pocket due to it's retractible lens, and powers up almost instantaneously so you won't miss those little opportunities where you might otherwise be fumbling to get a larger camera ready.
It's greatest strength lies in just how much resolving power has been crammed into such a tiny pocketable device. The 16mp image sensor easily rivals those found in the majority of mid-range APS-C DSLR's, and it goes even further by removing the optical low-pass filter to grab every ounce of detail out of the sensor.
The fixed focal length 18.5mm (28mm equiv) f/2.8 lens, whilst not the fastest, is surprisingly impressive given it's tiny appearance. Close up shots wide open at f/2.8 exhibit pleasing bokeh and depth separation, and with wider framed shots, the lens still manages to capture a great amount of fine detail, with excellent corner to corner sharpness that would rival most wide angle prime lenses.
Almost every button is customizable, allowing you to allocate settings to a dedicated button, whilst completely disabling unwanted features. The top mode dial has your typical mode settings (P, Av, Tv, M) along with 3 fully custom settings dials. It's a fantastic addition that allows you to allocate different shooting settings that can be switched between in an instant.
For example, I have one custom dial set to my desired daytime street photography settings.
Manual focus set to 1meter @ f/5.6, 1/1000's with Auto ISO enabled and a custom B&W picture style.
I have the second dial setup for night-time street shooting with a flash. Remember I go between these settings with just one flick.
Manual focus set to 1.5meter @ f/5.6, 1/20s, ISO 400, manual flash amount 1/2.8
This feature is great as it saves you fumbling about trying to adjust settings when your shooting environment changes. On a pocket camera, it can take longer to adjust settings when using one of the regular shooting modes (e.g. Aperture Priority) as it lacks some of the dedicated controls you might be used to on a larger DSLR or mirrorless camera.
Street photography is a breeze with the GR. With the right settings and technique, it's much easier to approach your subjects at a very close distance and grab those candid moments that might otherwise be unobtainable with a larger more intimidating camera. The shutter is virtually silent too.
One of the best features that many users love is Snap Focus. This allows you to manually set the desired focusing distance (e.g. 1.5 meter) and fire upon a quick full depress of the shutter button. Meanwhile, a half depress of the shutter will still trigger autofocus. This is fantastic in fast paced environments where there is no time to wait for autofocus to lock on. There have been so many moments where I've captured images likely unobtainable with another camera.
The GR is also a surprisingly good performer for landscape/cityscape photography, given the resolving power of the lens and the sensor, combined with an impressive dynamic range that can be pushed about +3 EV in post-production before banding and color noise become apparent.
For the images below, the metering was set to expose for the sky, resulting is an underexposed foreground. Whilst this could be compensated for by using the built in bracketing mode for HDR, these examples were only single exposures and thus had to be rescued in Photoshop to bring out the information in the shadows. The camera's sensor does a great job of resolving shadow detail, without introducing unwanted artifacts or banding.
Long exposures are also relatively easy to shoot with the camera, as the built in meter allows you to go beyond the usual 30second shutter limit by extending to a whopping 300 seconds (5 minutes). The built in 2-stop ND filter also comes in handy when wanting to slow shutter speeds down even further for situations requiring more motion blur.
There are of course a few downsides to the camera which have frustrated me over the past year of use. No camera is truly perfect of course (well...maybe the Leica M3) but allow me to go over a few of the downsides.
Firstly, the 18.5mm (28mm equiv) focal length. It's wide, often too wide. Most photographers prefer the more pleasing 35mm or 50mm for general use. Whilst it's true that I love the wide field of view for shots that involve getting really close to subjects and filling the frame, often there are times when a more traditional framing is appropriate. There is a setting in-camera to switch to a 35 or 50mm crop shooting mode, but you are sacrificing a fair chunk of resolution.
The second major issue for me has been overall image quality. Whilst it's true that the sensor is capable of capturing a great amount of fine detail, it generally falls apart over ISO 800.
Often when shooting street photography, I am forced to use higher ISO's to compensate for using a fast shutter speed in conjunction with the lens stopped down for greater depth of field. This occasionally puts me in the range of shooting between ISO 800 to 3200.
What I have found is that image quality drops dramatically over ISO 800, with the camera struggling to record accurate color. Noise levels obviously increase, and are not as clean as you might find with some of the latest DSLR or mirrorless cameras. Whilst noise levels don't bother me too much, the combination of noise and weak color tends to result in somewhat murky, bland images when using higher ISO's. Another issue I've found is that depth rendition tends to fall apart at these levels too, with images appearing very flat and lacking in three-dimensional object separation.
A rather obvious omission that has not been brought up yet is that the Ricoh GR lacks a dedicated viewfinder. Whilst personally, I don't consider it a game changer as I've learned to adapt to shooting with the LCD (or the additional GV-1 optical viewfinder), it may be an absolute must have feature that could be an instant detractor for many. Although the majority of the competitors to the GR also lack this feature (more on that in a bit).
Slow shutter sync at night with built-in flash. ISO 800, f/6.3, 1/20s, 1/2.8 flash output
low light and wide open. ISO 320, f/2.8, 1/160s, no flash
So what about the competition?
The most obvious would have to be the Fuji X-70. Recently released, it's very similar to the GR, sporting the same APS-C sized sensor with a 18.5mm fixed lens inside a small, lightweight body, sans dedicated viewfinder.
Naturally, The X-70 is a newer camera and packs the awesome X-Trans sensor, the same found in the highly regarded Fuji X100T. The technology and built-in features do surpass the GR in many regards, yet it is slightly heavier and the lens does not retract back into the camera body for maximum portability.
The price point is roughly similar between the two cameras, with the Fuji X-70 retailing for around $700 and the Ricoh GR-II at $600.