I haven’t written an article on the Ricoh GR in a very long time. I’ve been shooting with the Ricoh GR series since 1998 and it’s helped shape my style of photography. The ability to capture images with the confidence of a full sized camera with unique features and functions that could only be had with a compact camera makes the Ricoh GR a very powerful photographic tool. I’ve owned many cameras as a professional and enthusiast photographer, but my favourite images were always taken with compact EDC (Every Day Carry) cameras. I have experimented with other compact cameras over the years but I’ve always felt at home with the Ricoh GR. I’m not saying it’s the best, but it’s what I’m use to. I ‘get it’ when people equally praise their beloved Contax T2, Nikon 35Ti, Minolta TC-1, Rollei 35, Olympus XA, Yashica T4, Konica Big Mini, etc. If I bought any of those cameras instead of my Ricoh GR-1 back then perhaps I would be singing a different tune today, although I don’t see many digital cameras with a similar legacy today except for the current Ricoh GR line. So how good is the new Ricoh GR II and is it still a worthy contender to the newly released Fujifilm X70? Let’s find out.
This isn’t going to be a typical review of the Ricoh GR II. I’m not going to list all the specs and features here, nor am I going to do any critical tests looking at lens sharpness or ISO performance. I reviewed it while in Hong Kong a few months back and produced a video review already. This review is more about the images I took during that trip, and I’ll explain some of the reasons why I enjoyed shooting with the GR over the other cameras I brought with me. Am I saying that the Ricoh GR is the best compact camera out there, or the best for travel photography? No, but it is for me. It works with my style of photography, my focal length bias, as well as my photographic priorities.
Instead of talking about pros and cons, let’s just list the things I really like about the Ricoh GR II, which will apply mostly to the previous Ricoh GR, since there really isn’t a huge difference between the two versions. So these are the main reasons why I liked shooting with the GR:
It’s the most powerful point and shoot on the market with the largest sensor in relation to its size
It’s truly pocketable with a built-in lens cover and no standard strap lugs
Unique design and shape that does not look like any other camera on the market other than itself. The original GR-1 from 1997 looks very much like the current GR II. Style and design are important to me
Although the design appears retro, the placement of the buttons and dials are modern and makes complete sense. There is no nod to the past unless it makes sense
True single hand operation when needed, and light enough to shoot all day. Very good ergonomic design
Very customizable features, including your personal ‘MY’ custom settings that go beyond any other camera on the market, including full size DSLRs
Very sharp lens with the perfect 28mm equivalent focal length on a point and shoot, great for street photography or basic snap shots
No optical low-pass filter for very fine resolution on a large APS-C sensor
Better high ISO performance. I rarely shoot above ISO 800 unless I am shooting at night or shooting black and white
Better low light autofocus
Horrible manual focus with no focus peaking or a decent horizontal distance scale in both meters and feet.
No optional hot shoe electronic viewfinder, or at least an optical viewfinder with LCD information overlay
Due to no weather-sealing, there is a ‘dust on sensor’ issue (I have not had this issue but enough have complained so I think I should mention it here)
No optional 16:9 aspect ratio crop. Even just the frame lines for post-cropping would be helpful for framing purposes.
Better JPEGs and better ‘filters’, similar to Fujifilm’s film simulations.
Better wifi implementation with AdHoc connection and native smartphone applications
Average video features. No mic input, no ISO control, no shutter speed or aperture control, only 30fps maximum frame rate. I know this is a weird one, but I really like the GR for recording video
The main reason I enjoy shooting with the Ricoh GR is because it’s the most powerful compact camera (in terms of image quality, functions, ergonomics) in the smallest form factor without feeling too small. Some compacts are smaller, but your fingers feel cramped and is not designed for all day shooting. These same compacts try to be everything to everyone without being great at one thing. Other cameras may be bigger and have more buttons and dials, but are often placed in all the wrong places. Other cameras may be able to change lenses or have a built in zoom, but none of those lenses can keep up optically with the GR’s super sharp prime lens, nor keep it as compact or light at the same price point.
In terms of sensor size, the APS-C format (24mm x 16mm) has become the equivalent to what the 35mm format was back in the film days. 35mm was the most common and accessible camera format back then, and today it is the APS-C sensor for the majority of DSLRs and mirrorless camera systems. To have a sensor this big in a camera this small makes the Ricoh GR quite unique in the market place. Yes the Nikon Coolpix A was very similar in size with almost identical specs, but it was priced too high and the ergonomics was a bit awkward. This camera was not popular and was soon discontinued. The latest and greatest Fujifilm X70 (check out my first impressions here and here) is also very very similar to the Ricoh GR, but it is slightly bigger and also much heavier. Yes the X70 has a full articulating screen, but the controls are cramped in the back and the camera is still two-handed operation. The GR is light, small, powerful and highly customizable. Street photographers are drawn to this camera and it appears there is very little competition at this time.
We can analyze and compare specs and functions all day, but in the end the most important thing is the shooting experience and the final images. Can the GR take great pictures? If you take the time to learn how to shoot with it, the answer is yes. Vacation photography can be like taking a final exam. There’s a lot of pressure to take great pictures within a limited amount of time. You and your camera have to perform. To make the most of a camera, you must know how to use it properly and practice with it daily. A fixed focal length camera is great training for the eye, learning to see the world through a single focal length. Once you learn how to shoot with a specific camera at a single focal length, your images start developing a certain style or look. This takes time. The GR can be a very powerful tool, but it takes longer than a week to figure it out. Some cameras you can instantly take great pictures right away, while others having a longer learning curve. The GR has a longer learning curve (like many Leica cameras), but once you’ve mastered it, you will be ready to go on vacation and take epic images. Just remember to spend the time to study, practice and prepare for your final exam!
My favourite combo with the Ricoh GR is shooting with a flash for daylight fill. My current favourite is the Fujifilm EF-X20 flash. No it’s not perfect (like the GR), but it’s compact and it has a manual power output control dial on top. No need for TTL, no need to scroll through a menu screen. It’s fast and efficient. Because the GR has a leaf shutter (meaning the shutter is built into the lens and not over the sensor), you can flash sync right up to the maximum shutter speed of 1/4000th allowing for low powered flash output for daylight fill for great street photography images. I’ve indicated in the captions which images contain fill flash, but you can probably pick out the images. The subjects are well lit with very little facial shadows and a 3D look to the image as the fill flash separates the subject from the background in a subtle manner. These are my favourite type of street shots and the GR and EF-X20 combo does a great job. Because the whole kit is super compact and light (almost toy-like) most don’t realize you’re a serious photographer and ignore you. Even if you decide not to shoot discretely and use it to shoot portraits or group shots, the compact form factor helps to put people at ease. I’ve done a complete family portrait series using just the GR and the EF-X20 flash with DSLR level results.
Many ask about the lack of a viewfinder on the GR, if it hinders the ability to take serious images. Yes and no. It’s a different way to capture images, but so is the shooting-style difference between a rangefinder, an SLR, or viewing through a piece of ground glass with a loupe on a large format camera. With each format a good photographer learns to adapt his or her shooting style. In general I prefer to shoot with a viewfinder, but I’ve learned to adapt when shooting with the GR. You do lose stability and clear framing when you don’t use a viewfinder, and in bright daylight, it’s hard to see what’s going on through the back LCD. If you can’t live without an viewfinder, this camera is not for you.
However, I’ve heard people say that a real photographer never uses the LCD screen. I think that’s a very ignorant and narrow view (get it?). Yes using a viewfinder often makes you ‘look’ more serious, and there are many many advantages of shooting with a viewfinder, but using a rear LCD screen doesn’t make a person ‘unprofessional’. In fact, there is one major advantage shooting with the rear LCD screen that even a professional can learn to use to their advantage. During the film era many professional wedding and studio photographers used a similar technique, but in a different way. Once we framed the shot via the viewfinder, we would cover the finder and with our heads up we would look directly at our subjects with direct eye contact. How does this apply to digital photography?
When using the back LCD screen for framing, you gain your visual field-of-view. With both eyes looking forward and your head up, you see 180 degrees in front of you, with 100% forward peripheral view. Once you learn what the angle of view of the lens is without having to look at the screen, you can pretty much shoot blind on the street. The majority of my fill flash images were taken this way: zone focusing (2.5-3 meters), f/4.0 to allow for better flash exposure, and shooting without looking at the screen at all. 100% of my attention was on the people walking towards me and coming in from the sides as well. No object entered into my frame without me knowing about it far in advance. This helps my ‘chaotic’ street images look more planned and organized. Even now when I shoot portraits or group shots, once I frame the image via a viewfinder or the LCD screen, I always look up and make visual contact with my subjects. The connection I have with my subjects is very important, and the reverse is true as well. A kind smile and an enthusiastic demeanour goes a long way to relax and engage your subject.
Many ask about my shooting specs when I take pictures, so I’ve added my shooting information so you can have a basic idea of how I captured my images. I like shooting ISO 320 and above, helping me with higher shutter speeds as well as the ability to bring out details in the shadows in post processing. I shoot in aperture priority on the streets (especially when using fill flash) with a medium wide angle lens to get the right amount of background separation; and I shoot at f/4-5.6 to allow for the small fill flash output to be effective. If I stopped down to f/8.0 for greater depth of field, then I would have to increase my flash output to 1:1 (on the EF-X20 the guide number is 20 meters) with negative results. It would drain my battery quicker, much slower flash refresh rate, it would make the use of flash more obvious by completely washing out the ambient light hitting the subjects, and it would make it more obvious I was using flash with my subjects. By shooting at f/4, I can shoot at ISO 400-800 in good daylight and use only 1/16th flash output, giving a really nice balance between ambient and fill flash.
The danger of shooting at f/4.0 with an APS-C sensored camera is that the DOF is not that deep, and with the GR having average autofocus speeds, there is a high chance of blurry and out-of-focus images. The Ricoh GR is just average when it comes to good light AF, but in low light the GR is almost unusable for moving subjects. For many this is the ‘make or break’ feature. As modern photographers we have come to rely heavily on autofocus to take great pictures, but remember that autofocus did not become mainstream until 1985 when Minolta came out with the Dynax/Maxxum 5000. Before that, every great image was manually focused, weather it was sports, photojournalism or fast moving children. How did we do it back then? Skill and practice. And remember in the film era, we couldn’t see the results of our images for hours or days. I’m not excusing the bad AF on the GR, but I rarely rely 100% on any camera’s AF system.
One main trick is to separate the AF trigger from the shutter button to the rear AF-L button, and this is possible with most full featured digital cameras. On the Ricoh GR, set the camera in manual focus mode and make sure to be in C-AF mode (you can also use the AEF/AFL mode but make sure the lock feature is off). When you press the rear C-AF button the GR automatically autofocuses for you and remains at that focus distance. Decide ahead of time where you want the subject to be in your frame and pre-focus (zone focus) to that distance by picking any non-moving subject and focus on it. Visually remember that distance and practice to shoot at that distance. I use to practice by using a tape measure in front of me to remember what 2.5-3 meters looked like. For street photography it’s easier that you don’t move and instead allow the subject to walk into your frame and to your preset distance. Yes this technique is easier when your subject is moving across your frame (like a car or bicycle) but becomes more difficult when your subject is moving towards you. However, over time you will get better at shooting like this. Another great feature on every GR ever made is ‘Snap Focus’. You decide on a pre-determined focus distance (1-5m or infinity), and no matter what focus mode you are in, when you press the shutter button all the way down without a half-press, the GR will bypass focus and go directly to your set snap focus distance. This is great if you constantly shoot at a specified distance. There’s no need to autofocus, but you do need to have a good sense of your preferred distance to your subject. This is how the pros did it for decades before autofocus and it’s a very consistent way to get sharp images with absolutely no focus lag!
The biggest con of this camera is the manual focus feature. The Ricoh GR has horrible manual focus and I’ve rarely been able to use it effectively. Yes it’s a quick single handed way to focus (press up on the 4 way controller on the back and spin the front dial) but the resolution is so low that it’s not sharp enough to do critical focus. This is not acceptable since the GR has a very high resolution 1.23 million dot LCD screen. Even if you decide to focus by scale, the tiny, vertical, meters only scale is not accurate enough for critical focus. This is where an external EVF would come in handy. I’ve never found using the rear LCD to manually focus very effective on any camera, even with focus peaking. The GR has no effective manual focus aid except by zooming in, and even then it’s one of the worst (equally as bad on the Leica T and X Vario). This is the biggest con on the Ricoh GR and I hope the next version will include focus peaking, a better focus distance scale with both meters and feet (similar to Fujifilm’s), and an optional EVF for those who need to do critical focusing (the very cool Ricoh GXR has an optional external EVF). Faster low light AF would be nice, but better manual focusing would actually be a more effective feature. Please update this Ricoh.
The Ricoh GR II (all digial GR’s in fact) have a 3 point strap system that allows for different orientations and styles of carrying your camera. I prefer the standard around-the-neck style for a few reasons. I’m rarely in 100% shooting mode while on vacation so attaching a wrist strap just isn’t practical nor functional for me. I want to be able to have both hands free at any time and having a camera around your neck is the best way to do so. I also find that when you’re ready to shoot with a camera strapped to your wrist, the act of raising your arm attracts more attention as you look more serious versus having it around your neck like a tourist. Even when I’m not in tourist mode, because I review cameras and I usually have more than one with me, having a camera strapped to my wrists limits my ability to quickly switch between cameras, or in the case of an ILC, the ability to quickly switch lenses or accessories without having to stop and put everything down on a flat surface. Some like attaching a strap with the camera in the vertical position, but I’ve never found it very practical. If I was to use a wrist strap on the GR, there is the option of using the lower right connection, freeing up the top right corner where most of the controls are on the GR. Most cameras don’t have this option. Thank you for options Ricoh.
Newer cameras now brag about start-up time and this feature is important, but not in isolation. The GR isn’t the fastest kid on the block (just under a second) but it’s quick once it’s ready to shoot. With your hand in the shooting position you can easily turn the GR on, off, go into play mode, adjust shooting modes, adjust all your settings and shoot without ever repositioning your right hand. This means you can shoot while holding an umbrella, a shopping bag, your loved one’s hand, or while riding a bike. This is the major advantage of shooting with a point and shoot, but with the GR you still have the power and control of a full featured DSLR. There’s also lots of thumb real estate (almost 2″ across and 2.5″ vertical), comfortable for all day shooting, something that is missing from many compact enthusiast cameras currently available (including the Sony RX100 and Fujifilm X70). The one control feature I dislike and feels completely out of place on the GR is the rear toggle dial aka ‘ADJ Lever’. The lever itself is in the right position and has the right functions (direct ISO control, quick menu access, rear control dial), but feels cheap and should be the same as the full spinning front dial. I would also like the next GR to allow for full customization of the 4 way control dial buttons, currently with only the left button as Fn1 button (macro for top, flash control for right, WB for bottom).
Another weird feature that many probably never use on the GR is video. It could be much better if Ricoh would just allow for a few changes with firmware. It is probably one of the best dial implementations since it actually has a full video option on the main control dial, something missing on most competing cameras. I despise the recessed red video button on most new digital cameras because they are hard to press when you want to use it, but also easy to hit by accident when you don’t want to shoot video. The GR is easy since you use the shutter button to start and stop video, but only when you’re in video mode. This makes more sense. However, Ricoh has to update the video features with manual control of aperture and shutter speed, ISO control, up to 60fps option and a microphone input. Many might not think of using the GR for video but I love it.
Manual focus mode set at exactly 3 meters when I’m ready to shoot
Aperture Priority set at exactly f/5.6
Picture Format RAW+ JPEG in 3:2 aspect ratio
Jpeg effect: Hi-Contrast B&W with custom setting (-2 contrast, +2 sharpness)
Jpeg custom setting 1: (-1 vivid, -2 contrast, 0 sharpness, weak vignetting)
Function Button 1: crop mode (28,35,47mm); Function Button 2: Jpeg and RAW+
Snap focus set to 2.5M
ISO in full stops
Flash Mode: force flash
Display Mode: setting 2
Manual focus mode set at 3 meters with rear C-AF button set to focus priority
Aperture priority set to f/4.0
Picture format RAW+ and JPEG
JPEG effect was normal with custom settings 1 at -1 vivid, -1 contrast, +1 sharpness, weak vignetting
Fn1: 28/35/47 crop
Snap focus: 2.5 M
ISO in full stops
Effect button: ND filter
But how does this camera shoot? My experience in Hong Kong with the Ricoh GR II was great. I currently own the Ricoh GR (V) Limited Edition so I was not surprised by anything. The only major difference is the addition of the wifi, but since the wifi function is really bad (worse than Leica), I didn’t bother using it. Other than that the new GR II was a pleasure to use while on vacation. For me, light weight and compactness is one of my highest priorities when shooting on the street, especially while on vacation with my wife and family. I don’t want to be seen as the guy always dragging around lots of equipment while having a good time. I use to be that guy with the big backpack full of lenses and accessories and I hated it, and my pictures suffered too. I find that a compact point and shoot with a fixed lens helps me to be consistent with my shooting ability but still allows me to be more creative, a very unique combination. How is this possible? Because the camera and its controls can be ignored (once you learn how to use it), I can focus on getting great images, not fiddling with my camera or lens options.
The GR was already set up before my vacation, and I tweaked a few things once I arrived. I recommend you do this with all your cameras before you shoot, make sure it’s ready to go. The Ricoh GR had an unfair advantage over my other review cameras because I was already well acquainted with it. Other than my bias for the GR and the 28mm equivalent lens, this little compact can really pack a punch when it comes to image quality and shooting features. Better AF and manual focus would make this camera better, but even without it, many great images can be created because of the well-thought-out button layout and feature set. The new Fujifilm X70 will take a chunk out of the sales from Ricoh for those wishing to upgrade their current GR or those who wish to get into this category of camera, but I’m not worried. The Ricoh GR has been around for 18 years and I don’t think it’s going anywhere anytime soon.
Although I personally had a great time shooting with the Ricoh GR II while on vacation, would I recommend this current version? Yes I was disappointed that it took Ricoh over 2 years to create the GR II with basically the addition of wifi and a few firmware updates which can easily be applied to the previous generation GR. The GR II did feel a bit faster and more stable, but that’s not enough for someone with the previous model to upgrade. I would recommend to wait for the GR IIs or GR III for current GR owners. However, if you are currently looking to buy the GR II as your first compact EDC camera, I would recommend looking at the Fujifilm X70 as well. Although they are very similar in many ways, there a a few big differences. The X70 has a fully articulating screen, something that perhaps a street photography doesn’t need or want, but it is nice to have for certain things. Also, the X70 is a stand alone camera, meaning you don’t need to own other Fujifilm cameras to buy the new X70, just like the Ricoh GR series. Many Nikon, Canon and Sony shooters also own Ricoh GR’s as a back up or vacation camera. Now they have the option of the X70. I am currently reviewing the X70 and I really enjoy shooting with it. If someone asked me which camera is better, I would say that it depends on who the photographer is.
The Ricoh GR II is for someone who knows what they are doing and don’t mind spending time to set up the camera and customizing it to their own shooting style. The GR is a very powerful camera if you spend the time to learn all its features. Initially the X70 will seem better because it’s easier to shoot with, but this doesn’t make it the better camera. Once you learn how to shoot with the GR and learn how to process the RAW files, the GR images are fantastic. The X70 has better high ISO performance, but the Ricoh has better low ISO performance with a base ISO of 100. The X70 has better JPEGs but the Ricoh has the standard DNG RAW files, easier to process. The lens on the GR is also better (I will elaborate on a future review with side-by-side images). The X70 has an articulating screen, but the GR has a better button and dial layout, as well as more thumb real estate for all day shooting comfort. The X70 button and dial layout feels cramped and uncomfortable. The GR is also more compact with a built in lens cover and also 100g lighter. So depending on your priorities, both the Ricoh GR II and the new Fujifilm X70 are great EDC cameras for the enthusiast photographer wanting the largest possible sensor in the smallest possible size.