Review – The Ricoh GR

Large sensors in small cameras! Remember those ads for diamonds that promised that good things come in small packages? The Ricoh GR packs a large APS-C sensor, with a fixed focal length lens that is both small and sharp, built into what might just seem like an ordinary point-and-shoot pocket camera, but instead can often outperform its full-sized DSLR larger cousins. The Ricoh GR is the fourth iteration of this line, and boasts one of the most complete set of menu options a photographer would want, coupled with a fast, F2.8 fixed (28mm equivalent) wide-angle lens and the ability to save RAW files in the Open-source DNG format.

The combination proves to be lightweight and sharp, with an accurate color rendition no matter the situation. The Ricoh GR is emblematic of small, light, unobtrusive, photographic pocket-rockets that allow a return to a less-intrusive style of photography, with sharper and better low-light results than before.

A couple of years ago I tested an earlier version of the GR series and found that it was a competent performer, but today’s GR brings refinement, far better low-light performance, and a somewhat streamlined menu. One large change is the sensor, now a 16-megapixel APS-C sized CMOS sensor. The ISO ranges from 100 to 25,600, and supports the usual modes including Auto, Program, Video, and Manual, and more. The shooting ratio is adjustable, from 1:1, 4:3, and 3:2, with video topping out at 1920 x 1080 (30, 25, 24 fps), which worked well in our tests. Finally, it has three metering modes: Multi, Center-weighted, and my favorite, Spot. Storage is handled using SD cards, and the GR supports SD, SDHC, SDXC cards. There is also 54mbs of internal storage, which come in handy in an emergency. It offers three choices of connectivity - USB 2.0, HDMI, or with a supported Eye-Fi card. The power is supplied via a Lithium-Ion DB65 4.5Wh rechargeable battery. I found that it lasted quite a long time, several days of shooting of 300 plus DNGs (one of the benefits of not having image stabilization, which can really drain a battery in a hurry). So, in short, it has all the features you would expect in a professional level camera.

The menu options are incredibly thorough and so in-depth that they present a bit of a learning curve, and I was careful to keep a copy of the manual for reference on both on my computer and my phone. There are lots of little gotchas. For example, I wanted to use the self-timer, but try as I might it wouldn’t work. The manual didn’t mention it, but after trying to understand the workflow, I went back and figured out that I needed to turn off the continuous firing mode, which unlocked the self-timer function. To really grasp the workflow and setting options, like any professional modern camera, requires taking time to go through every setting and research what it does. Once you’ve done that, you can take advantage of the myriad options available.

One feature I did use was the four-frames-per-second continuous shooting mode. Why? Because in order to keep the GR small, Ricoh had to eliminate sensor- or lens-based image stabilization, which is very helpful in low-light levels. I found that the first and last frames of a burst of shots were often blurred from motion, but those at the center of the burst set were much sharper, ostensibly due to the lack of motion squeezing the shutter and then lifting off the shutter release. Another important feature is the use of the Open-source RAW format – DNG. Not enough cameras offer the ability to save files in this format and it was a pleasure to know that these files should be able to be opened by future generations, free from the secret proprietary formats used by other companies.

The ability to convert RAW files to DNG isn’t new. Adobe has offered a free DNG Converter for years, but what many photographers and archivists don’t realize is that all DNGs aren’t created equally. The DNGs that most of us are familiar with are post-production DNGs such as those created by Adobe Photoshop Lightroom when importing and converting files, or exporting files as DNGs. These DNGs have a lot going for them, including a hash file, adjustable JPEG preview sizes, the ability to imbed the original RAW file, key wording, and more. By comparison, a camera-produced DNG is pretty much an Open-source RAW file. It lacks the adjustable JPEG, the ability to embed the original file (since the original is a DNG, this makes perfect sense), and the hash file is missing. So, many users will import the files and still convert to a DNG to gain the additional protections and features of a post-process DNG. Ricoh is in good company – Leica cameras, among others, also save to DNG.

The camera itself is a joy to shoot with. It is fast, light, and the lens is sharp from edge to edge, even when wide open. The two dials can be used to set some personal presets. I was curious how the GR stacked up against the Olympus E-M1 that is based upon the smaller Micro 4/3 sensor and is almost twice the cost, but offers the advantages of interchangeable lenses, and image stabilization. The 18.3mm F2.8 lens is extraordinarily sharp, especially at the center with the lens wide open. In the comparison shots, note the chromatic aberration distortion and color fringing plainly visible in the Olympus image of the lanyard taken with the standard kit lens on the OMD E-M1, which didn't happen with the GR. This might be due to the fact that it was shot with the kit zoom, and didn't occur with an older Olympus 17mm F2.8 fixed lens. Is it a limitation to only have a fixed focal length lens? With zooms becoming wider and faster, more photographers have returned to prime lenses, finally discovering just how bad those zooms are, and just how much they were missing by using them. It is astonishing to see what today’s sensors can produce once properly paired with a fixed, high-quality lens. The classic Leica combination was with either a 24mm or 35mm lens, and many of the greatest images in photo history were shot with that combination. Personally, I’d love a camera that would fit in my pocket, yet produce pin-sharp images with little distortion or noise. There were times I wished I’d had image stabilization since I am most often shooting in low light. I’ve also wished for an optional electronic (EVF) viewfinder, since using a EVF forces you to hold the camera close to your torso, allowing a more stable environment with less shake than looking at the display on the back of the camera. It also provides more privacy during your shooting. Hopefully Ricoh will finally add that capability, just as Olympus did with their Pen series.

In the portrait of Mac Edition Radio contributor Frank Schramm, shot at 3200 ISO, the detail of his black sweater reveals an absence of artifacts, and realistic rendering of the fabric of his sweater and the train seat. Shot wide open at 2.8, it is a testament to the GR’s ability to render both highlights, and deep shadows, at a high ISO.

The series of comparison photos shot outside of the Jacob Javitz Convention Center in New York during PhotoPlus Expo with an Olympus supplied OMD E-M1 highlights the differences, or more pointedly the lack of significant differences between the two cameras, with the OMD E-M1 selling for almost double the price, albeit with a lot more flexibility. But if all you are looking at is pure performance, the GR holds its own, with more detail, certainly wide-open. I shot the scene with a first-generation Olympus M series 17mm F2.8 lens, which is close the angle-of-view of the GR’s lens.

The Olympus 17mm lens was clearly sharper then the Olympus kit zoom that I shot with, the old adage about using a prime lens for the sharpest photos was clearly demonstrated in my shooting tests. The GR was a bit underexposed compared to the E-M1, but the details of the sign, and the far-away building, both show how good shadow detail, and highlight capture. There is a bit more noise in the GR in the skies, but the images tend to be a bit sharper, that I chalked up to the fact that the GR doesn't employ an anti-aliasing filter.

As mentioned earlier, the lanyard detail shot with the E-M1 exhibits considerable fringe that I chalked up the supplied kit zoom’s optics. One difference between the cameras is that the GR seems to handle higher ISO’s better starting at 800. The GR’s lens performance wide-open stood out. The photo of the steps up the Parthenon in Athens, atop the Acropolis, was purposely shot close to wide-open at F 4.0, at 1/750th of a second, and image shows the ability of the GR to handle wide contrast ranges, and the detail shows just how crisp the lens is nearly wide-open. 

I shot photos with the GR in just about every situation imaginable, from sports to portraits, from macro views to grand vistas, in bright light and low light, from 100 to 800 ISO and above. I used it in the US, and abroad, and it never once failed me. It was demonstrably sharper than many of my colleagues’ much larger DSLRs, and my aching back was all the better for it - it allowed me to work without the visible presence of a large threatening camera around my neck. Its large sensor, high-quality, superb optics, fully featured menu options are contained in a package about the size of an average cell phone. The Ricoh GR is a serious tool that deserves the cult status it has earned over the years. Highly recommended!

Harris Fogel, with additional reporting by Frank Schramm, posted 6/15/2014

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Photographs by ©Harris Fogel, 2014.