As a quick glance at my recent photographs will show, I’ve lately been shooting a lot with the Ricoh GR. It’s a wonderful camera and I’ve found it very inspiring. In fact it’s reminded me how much fun photography can be. I’ve rediscovered the sheer joy of simply shooting anything that catches my eye.
The following is not a review… it’s more a collection of my thoughts after a couple of months of extensive use.
The GR is the latest in a long line of compacts, stretching back to the Ricoh GR1 released in 1996. They are loved by street photographers and have been used by none other than Daido Moriyama.
My Ricoh, the one in the pictures here, is the limited edition version. For what it’s worth I didn’t buy it because of it’s limited status, nor because of it’s rather odd (but not unpleasant) greenish colour, but simply because it came with the GH-3 adaptor, a hood and a leather case for a very good used price.
The Ricoh GR is tiny and very lightweight but, unlike earlier GR models, it has a relatively large APS-C sensor squeezed into it’s diminutive body. It also has no anti-aliasing filter. It’s therefore no surprise that the image quality is superb.
The lens is a fixed 28mm equivalent which is gorgeous and really sharp across the whole of the frame. The widest aperture is f2.8. Some photographers will be put off by the fixed lens but it’s perfect for me because I only shoot prime lenses. I honestly think that the discipline and involvement in the shot that prime lenses require leads to better photography. Of course, even now in the age of computer designed lenses a good prime is still likely to be of superior quality to a zoom. Others may be put off by the rather wide 28mm field of view. I might initially have preferred a 35mm for street photography, but I’m learning to like the extra width and for landscapes 28mm is a real advantage.
Perhaps the most special feature of the Ricoh GR is the snap focus. This allows the focus distance to be set at 1m, 1.5m, 2m, 2.5m, 5m or infinity. With a 28mm lens this makes zone-focusing really easy. The infinity setting is also extremely useful, especially at night when auto-focus struggles. It’s always mystified me why a lot of cameras and lenses, even high-end ones, often leave the photographer stuck with no distance markings nor depth of field indicators on displays. This makes zone-focusing pretty much impossible. Even finding infinity can be problematic. Not so with the GR. But that’s not all… the Ricoh GR allows you to have the best of both worlds. You can set it up so that if you half press the shutter you’ll get auto-focus but if you quickly give the shutter a full press it will shoot instantly at the current snap focus distance. This is such an obviously useful feature that it should be available on all cameras.
In case this is not clear to all readers, zone focus is not some old-school, purist, out-dated technique. It is almost essential for any shooting situation where time is extremely short, such as street photography. Even the fastest auto-focus systems are still sometimes too slow to capture fleeting events but even if they were instantaneous, or you spray and pray on continuous, there is still the frequent problem of them focusing on the wrong thing.
Obviously one of the main attractions of the GR for street photography is stealth. It’s so small that in many situations it’s virtually invisible, but even when spotted it looks like a tourist point-and-shoot. This is very much in contrast to cameras such as the Fuji X-100, Olympus OM-D and Panasonic GX7 which rather draw attention to themselves and their owner.
The Ricoh GR is one of the most customisable cameras I have ever come across. Just about every function can be assigned to every control, and all of these settings can be recalled via the ‘MY’ settings on the mode dial. Even the focus distance can be recalled.
There is a special TAv mode where you can set shutter speed and aperture and let the camera choose ISO. Perfect! This is somewhat compromised by the inability to set a limit on how high ISO can go but it’s still very useful in a number of situations.
The controls are abundant and the main shooting controls are placed so that the GR can be shot with one hand. There is a mode dial, a control dial on the top, a jog controller on the back, a four-way controller, a host of other buttons and even an AEL/AFL – C-FA button. This really is a photographer’s compact.
It’s not just street photographers that are catered for however: there’s a level and tilt gauge, built in 2-stop ND filter, interval timer, multi-exposure mode, auto-bracket and a host of other features. There’s even a pop-up built-in flash.
Want to sync flash at 1/2000 sec? The leaf shutter in the GR makes that possible.
Another example of the thought that has gone into the design of this camera is the fact that although there is a bulb mode, there are shutter speeds of 60 secs, 120 secs, 240 secs, and 300 secs. It’s so obvious when you think about it. Why should long exposure necessarily require a remote control?
There is an adaptor, the GH-3, which allows for the use of filters and a hood. The camera is somewhat prone to flare so the hood is important in bright sunlight. The GH-3 is unfortunately made of plastic – but you can’t have everything. In addition there is a wide-angle converter lens, the GW-3, which turns the 28m equivalent lens into a 21mm equivalent. There is remarkably little loss of image quality when using the GW-3 and there is negligable distortion, even in the corners. It is however rather large and the GR can no longer be described as “compact” when it is attached. It’s great to have the wide-angle option though.
There are a few downsides of course, nothing in life is perfect after all:
(1) This is the big one. There is no viewfinder. This is why I ignored the Ricoh GR for so long. It’s only when I developed a lot more experience with various current cameras that I realised what the GR had to offer. The LCD on the GR is actually very good, even in quite bright light, so it’s not too much of a problem. It also helped that I already own a Voigtlander 28mm optical viewfinder. Sadly the frame-lines of the Voigtlander are way-off when it’s used on the GR, in fact the entire field of view more closely approximates what the image will look like, but it works well enough if I really feel the need.
(2) The display screen does not tilt. This is likely due to size constraints. It’s not a big deal but could be annoying if the camera is low down on a portable tripod.
(3) You will get moiré in some images. Without the blurring effect of an anti-aliasing filter some repeating patterns, in buildings and fabrics especially, will interact with the regular grid on the sensor and result in a nasty interference pattern in the image. The colour swirls of moiré can be removed in post with some effort, but the patterns of lights and darks are very hard to get rid of. I’ve not yet had much problem with moiré but it’s inevitable sooner or later. I know of one photographer in the Netherlands who found it turning up all the time in the brickwork of the old buildings.
(4) Manual focus is available but is not operated by a ring on the lens. Worse, a very awkward combination of button hold and jog dial is required. Put simply, manual focus is fiddly and not very practical. With snap focus this is not too much of a problem but it could have been so much better.
(5) Auto-focus is none too good in low light. Again snap comes to the rescue here.
All things considered however it’s a stunning camera. I can see myself using the Ricoh GR as my main carry-everywhere camera for the foreseeable future. Apart from the fixed 28mm equivalent lens there is little reason to use anything else. It won’t match my Sigma Merrill’s for landscape image quality but it’s not that far behind and it’s a far better camera.
Small cameras are not just useful for street or casual photography. The photo on the right shows my Ricoh GR being used for long exposure work. It’s fitted with the GH-3 and a Formatt-Hitech 67mm filter holder with a ProStop IRND filter. It’s still a tiny package that can be carried everywhere.
I am a long-time sufferer of gear-acquisition syndrome. The Ricoh GR might just be the cure.
Having said that, I have just spent more money (when will it end?) on a MeFOTO DayTrip tripod which is a much smaller model than the MeFOTO RoadTrip in the photo below. The tiny Ricoh needs a tiny tripod.