Why am I doing a review of a discountinued camera? Aren’t people still reviewing old and discontinued film cameras, like the Ricoh GR21? I know, the old Ricoh film GRs are pretty much all cult cameras, but I reckon the recently discontinued Ricoh GR D IV will become one too…one day soon. In addition, the GR D IV is now selling for $200-300 less than when it was a current model, and about half the price of the new GR V. So is the recently discontinued GR worth $400? It depends on your needs, but for me, I think it is, and this review is to explain why. Let’s start with the pros and cons first:
-high quality construction, solid buttons and dials, solid feel.
-well thought out controls and ergonomics (single handed operation)
-the most customizable point and shoot, more than most ILCs
-advanced control over camera functions (manual flash control, white balance compensation)
-advanced features (level and tilt with calibration, skew correct, dynamic range, interval composite)
-amazing 1.23 million pixel LCD screen. It’s enjoyable just looking at your images.
-advanced focus system: dual AF system, snap focus, dual shutter focus-type selector
-great jpegs and DNG RAW files. Highly customizable jpegs.
-really good battery life, compact charger, cheap and generic batteries, AAA back-up
-sharp lens even wide open at F/1.9
-super close 1″ macro mode. Perfect for product and food shots.
-truly pocket-able, unlike GR V, which is only slightly bigger,but just a bit too big (for me)
-compared to big brother, small 1/1.7″ CCD sensor (although there are advantages to small)
-VGA video (although for me, I could care less about video)
-expensive when it was a current model (although the price has dropped significantly)
-non zoom lens (although this is a matter of opinion. I’m fine with 28mm equiv for EDC camera)
-after turning on in play mode only, you can’t jump into shooting mode. You have to cycle off!
Ergonomics and Handling
The first thing people say when I let them play with my GR D IV is how good it feels in the hand, and its true. When I hold the GR (from here on, that’s how I’ll refer to the GR D IV), it just makes me want to take pictures. It’s the same feeling I got when I held the original GR1 in my hand. The grip is firm and natural, and the fingers easily find all the controls and dials and buttons. Because of this comfort and oneness with this photographic tool, the camera almost disappears in our minds, and we focus on taking pictures. This is a good quality for a camera to have, and the engineers at Ricoh have built upon a famous lineage of well designed cameras, beginning with the original GR1 film camera. You can tell this camera was designed by photographers for photographers.
The main power button is recessed in slightly so as not to turn on by accident, and the main top dial won’t turn unless you press the lock button down. In terms of control dials, not only do you have the main front dial by your shutter button finger, you also have the rear toggle next to your thumb. What’s on the other side of your thumb? The well placed exposure compensation toggle. Of course you can change it to some other feature, but I think it’s the best place to put exposure compensation. The entire camera can be customized to your preference, which is great since we all have different preferences. Another wow feature on the GR is th 1.23 million pixel 3″ screen. It’s still class leading, and better than most pro DSLR cameras, and almost triple the resolution of any of the Fuji X series cameras (400K + pixels only). It’s a joy just looking at your images, and with 16x zoom, you can do critical review of focus and resolution on the GR.
The menu system is laid out logically and its easy to read…but it’s long…very long. If you’ve used up all your custom settings, including your two function buttons (although you can get a total of 4 pairs programmed and easily scroll between them for a total of 8 functions), and you have to dig into the menus to find a feature, be prepared to scroll through a long, long menu list. The list is long because the GR has lots and lots of options, but it’s in a single folder, unlike other manufacturers that breaks it up into smaller folders. However, I didn’t find I had to go into the main menu that often, but when I did, it was quite the digging and hunting.
Another unusual behaviour of the GR is the play mode when the camera is turned off. You can view images without turning the camera on by pressing the play button. However, if you do decide to take a picture, you would assume by pressing the shutter button half way, the camera would be ready to take pictures? Nope. You actually have to power down by either pressing and holding the play button, or the main power button, and then turning it back on again. The new GR works exactly the same (this has been fixed in latest firmware for the new GR… just press the shutter button from play mode and you’re ready to shoot), and its irritating. It’s an easy firmware update, and I’m surprised there wasn’t enough complaints on the initial 3 firmware updates on the GR D IV about this.
Another quirk, but this one makes sense is always having to press the menu/ok button after adjusting a feature (exposure comp, focus mode, metering mode, etc.), or else that feature stays on screen, even after you take a picture. This is efficient because if it’s something you’re fiddling with (let’s say it’s ISO or WB), it stays on screen without you having to dig into the menu to find it again, until you’re done with the feature by hitting OK.
I would say the GR is at the top of its class when it comes to ergonomics and handling. Just holding it in your hands makes you want to go out and take pictures, and the customization features really makes the camera your own.
This camera has so many functions and features, it’s mind boggling. It’s a good thing that Ricoh provides a printed manual, because you will be lost without it. I even put quick tabs on the important pages and study the camera while on the bus or when I’m in bed. Yes, there are that many features to go through.
For instance, the camera has two ways to manually control the built in flash: either a +/- 2 flash compensation (like everyone else) or a full ratio 1/1 to 1/64 manual flash control for those of us who can work out manual flash guide numbers (it isn’t that hard once you figure it out). Now that’s control.
The GR also has the most customizable focus system that I’ve ever seen on any camera, more than most pro DSLRs. It has a dual auto focus system: an external phase detect system and a on-sensor contrast detect system. Even when you don’t have the shutter button pressed half way, the phase detect will continue focusing (you can turn this feature off to save battery life), and when you finally press the shutter half way, the contrast detect takes over and fine tunes the focus. You can also set the shutter so that half press activates the regular autofocus, and a full press bypasses the auto focus and jumps straight to your selected SNAP focus distance (1, 1.5, 2.5, 5, infinity) or auto snap (phase detect only). You can also select your focus mode: multi AF, spot AF, subject tract, MF, SNAP and infinity focus mode. That’s a lot of options for a point and shoot camera!
You also have a choice of 6 different bracketing options, including your own custom jpegs (vividness, contrast, sharpness, hue), and a powerful multiple exposure and interval shooting mode. Not only does the GR have level and tilt function, but you can also skew correct images pre or post production, as well as a true 2 image dynamic range combination function. Yes there’s video, but it’s 640 x 480, and it’s buried in SCENE mode, so only use it in an emergency. There’s even a cool (although misnomered) feature that takes up to 16 images and makes a single JPEG in continuous mode (M-Cont.). None of these features makes you take better images (maybe the level and tilt feature), but are fun in a point and shoot camera, and make the overall package worthy as a EDC (every day carry) for a camera nerd.
The image quality of the GR is on par with other cameras with the same 1/1.7″ size sensor. There will be a difference between CCD versus CMOS sensors (CMOS will have better video and high ISO performance), but photographically speaking, I actually prefer the look of CCD image files. The GR looks good up to ISO 800, but the lighting must be reasonably even. Small sensors do not handle dynamic range very well, and so at all ISO speeds, the more even the lighting, the better the image. In addition, the closer the subject is to you the better, since this small sensor can only resolve so much detail, especially at high ISO. For macro photography (food, product shots), the GR is good up to ISO 1600.
Outdoors and shooting at ISO 80, the GR is fantastic. I’ve compared against the new GR V at the lowest ISO, and I can say that the small GR D IV does a pretty good job keeping up, as long as you don’t have to crop, and as long as you don’t need to blow up too big. However, once you go above ISO 80, there’s no competition. The small sensor just can’t compete, even with its super sharp F/1.9 lens. However, comparing the GR with the Panasonic LX series and Canon S series, which have similar size sensors, I can say that I prefer the look of the Ricoh images, as the pixels look more like film grain.
As a basic guideline, I keep the camera at ISO 80-200 for outdoor shots, ISO 400-800 for indoor, and ISO 800-1600 for macro images. I wouldn’t go any higher than 1600. That’s pretty much the limit of this sensor.
Sensor Size vs Compactness and Convenience
At this point you’re probably wondering why not just carry around a bigger camera with a bigger sensor? Although many feel that bigger the sensor the better, we all enjoy the cameras in our smartphones, although the sensors are super tiny. We appreciate their convenience of always being with us, and also because of its small size, it has incredible depth of field. Its the same thing with these smaller sensor point and shoot cameras. Yes, there are now APS-C sensor point and shoots that are pretty darn close in size with our smaller sensor siblings.
As an example, I’m testing both the Ricoh GR D IV and the brand new APS-C sensor Ricoh GR (V). In terms of size, they are not too far off, so why buy or keep a smaller sensor camera? Here is a list of PROs for the older, smaller sensor GR D IV:
1. Smaller sensor means greater depth of field for those who shoot street photography. F/1.9 on a 1/1.7″ sensor is equivalent to a full-frame sensor camera at almost F/9.0!! Now that’s focus depth!!
2. Smaller sensor usually means better macro focus ability. The GR D IV can focus to less than 1″!! The new GR can only focus to a class leading 3.9″ (the Fuji X-100S and Nikon Coolpix A is even worse).
3. Small enough to carry in front pocket or inside of suit jacket without being uncomfortable. The new GR is small for APS-C, and only slightly bigger than the older GR D IV, but still big enough not to be comfortable to carry in front pocket. It’s slightly too big…
4. better autofocus in low light. The old GR has a dual autofocus system that can lock on even in almost pitch dark. Bring to a party, no problem. The new GR hunts and struggles in low light. Don’t bring to a party…
5. Better battery life. Both the old and new GR use the same battery, but the older GR uses less juice, even though they both have the same amazing 1.23 million pixel LCD screen. I think it’s because of the bigger sensor and the bigger motor to help focus the bigger lens.
6. Image stabilization. I found the IS on the GR D IV is only about 1 stop effective, but that’s like shooting ISO 400 instead of 800, so that’s still something. The new GR has no IS.
7. Brighter lens. The older GR has a F/1.9 lens, versus the F/2.8 on the new GR, another 1 stop difference. That’s a total of a 2 stop advantage for the older GR camera.
Moreover, although there are many reasons to upgrade to the newer, bigger, better Ricoh GR (V), there are reasons to keep your older Ricoh GR D IV, or to buy one. Portability, better battery life, better AF, image stabilized, brighter lens, better macro and depth of field are good reasons for the older GR. If I bought the new GR, would I keep the older GR? I probably would. I always need a work horse point and shoot camera that I take with me to work, bike ride, snowboarding, go out for dinner, etc.
Is the Ricoh GR D IV still a player in the congested point and shoot market, competing with smart phones and tablet PCs? The low end point and shoot market has almost disappeared. The only survivors will be the higher end models with DSLR type control and features. Fortunately for the GR D IV, Ricoh decided almost 2 years ago to pack it with tons of cool features and plenty of customization and control that allows it to survive even in today’s crowded market.
If you already own the GR D IV, is it worth the upgrade to the new GR with APS-C sensor? I think it’s a natural evolution to move up to a bigger sensor with more megapixels, but the leap from the IV to the V seems more like a completely different category of camera. I think a serious photographer should have a small sensor point and shoot, as well as a full featured APS-C sensored all-in-one work horse. There are some things the larger camera can’t do that the smaller camera can.
The smaller GR can autofocus in low light, making it ideal for indoor photography with flash. The smaller GR can also do macro photography very well, making it perfect for product shots (of other cameras!) or food images. Because of the greater depth of field, if you’re a street photographer utilizing the SNAP focus feature of the GR cameras, you will actually get more in-focus images with the smaller GR D IV, versus the bigger GR V. Finally, the older GR has a few features that were removed on the bigger sibling: 16:9 aspect ratio shooting, memory reversal continuous (16 frames on a single image), true 2 image DR combination, image stabilization, function button pairing (4 sets of Fn1 and Fn2 settings), and a sophisticated dual autofocus system using phase detect and contrast detect.
However, because the features and build and specs (other than the sensor) are so similar between the old GR and the new, my guess is that many with GR D IV’s will probably end up selling theirs on EBAY or Craigslist. That’s good news for those who wanted to try the GR D IV but didn’t want to pay $600 before. For $400 now you can buy a new one, or for $325-350 you can find one used. Is it worth it? It is for me. I think its the perfect compact point and shoot camera that a serious photographer would always want by their side, wherever they are. Sure, it’s not an APS-C size sensor, but that’s sometimes a good thing as we’ve discovered. And its way better than your smart phone camera. Your best camera is the camera you have with you, and the Ricoh GR D IV can easily come with you wherever you go. That’s why I’ve replaced my faithful Panasonic LX-3 of 4 years with the Ricoh GR D IV as my EDC camera. I’m happy, and I know you will be too. Happy shooting!!
August 7th, 2013: If you can believe it, Ricoh has just updated the firmware for the GR D IV today. Check out the link: http://ricoh.com/r_dc/download/firmware/grd4/
Check out my review of the new Ricoh GR V here.
Check out my article on how to utilize the GR’s custom function modes here.
Check out my BOKEH test between the GR D IV, iPhone4 and Fuji X-100S here.
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