It was 1998 and my wife and I were about to embark on our honeymoon in Vegas, which would include a scenic drive to Hoover Dam and the Grand Canyon. I was already dragging 2 SLR bodies, 3 lenses, 2 tripods, and lots of film. However, I didn’t have a point and shoot camera. I wasn’t going to drag an SLR to dinner or a show, so I needed something that would satisfy my need for optical quality and image control, versus compact size. Enter the original Ricoh GR1.
I loved my Ricoh GR1. During that honeymoon, I actually put more rolls through that camera than the other 2 SLR’s combined. I even started loading it with black and white film and used it for my wedding jobs, and many of those images became the most loved pictures of the entire wedding!
The Ricoh GR family has a short but prolific history, beginning with the GR1, GR10, GR1S, GR1V, GR21, GR Digital, GR D II, GR D III, GR D IV, and finally the current GR (V). What makes the current one so different than the past 4 digital GR’s is that it has a much larger APS-C size sensor. Is this a big deal? It’s a modern technological accomplishment, as the new Ricoh GR is the smallest APS-C sized compact point and shoot on the market.
How small is small? It’s small enough to fit snugly inside your front pocket or inside your suit jacket…but it is snug. Although the Ricoh GR D IV is only slightly smaller, you won’t mistake one for the other when it comes to weight or size. I still prefer to carry the GR D IV comfortably in my pocket and keep the GR V in my bag. However, to be able to shoot DSLR quality images from such a compact camera is pretty exciting for us camera nerds.
Other than the sensor, does the new GR have other qualities worthy of our attention as avid photographers? A definite yes. The new GR has improved upon many of the features of the previous GR D IV to make handling and operation even faster and more efficient. I can say this because I have both the GR D IV and the GR V in front of me right now.
Both have great one-handed operation ability, advantageous for street photography, even shooting with an umbrella in one hand if it starts to rain. Improved over the GR D IV, the new GR now has instant access to ISO by using the ADJ toggle (the GR-D IV has this feature now with the most recent firmware update!), and also has a dedicated white balance button on the main control wheel on the back. These two functions are probably the most commonly adjusted parameters, and so should have a permanent home; unlike on the GR D IV, where I had to use up both custom function 1 and 2 for both WB and ISO control. In addition to the custom function 1 and 2 buttons, the new GR also has a side button below the flash pop-up switch as the custom effects button (B&W, Cross Process, Positive Film, etc.), although I decided to change it to SNAP focus distance adjustment. And that’s the beauty of the Ricoh GR series digital cameras: it’s very customizable, more than most pro DSLR’s or ILC’s.
Even the three personal settings on the top dial (MY1, MY2, MY3) have more custom parameters than any other camera I’ve ever used. Everything from ISO, effects mode, focus mode, SNAP focus distance, display layout, exposure compensation, image size and type (RAW.JPEG, both), noise reduction, dynamic range is all stored in your 3 personal settings. Even more obscure parameters such as flash curtain sync, ISO step setting (1/3 or full stops), and custom function button usage are all remembered by MY settings. In fact, you can customize your camera so much that if someone else is handed your specific GR, they would be lost! That’s either a good thing or a bad thing, but remember, the GR has a P mode and a full auto mode for newbies.
I don’t have time to go over each and every button and feature, and every which way you can customize the GR layout, but it’s a dizzying array of choices. Or course, you can always choose to keep it stock as well, which is still very logically laid out and understandable. Even for me, I’ve probably only customized 70% of my GR D IV, and less than 50% of my test GR V.
How does the new GR handle in real world shooting scenarios? The autofocus in daylight is pretty good. It’s not DSLR level fast, but it’s adequate for a fixed lens, fixed focal length point and shoot camera with an APS-C sensor. Testing it against the Fuji X-100S in bright daylight, I felt the Ricoh was slightly quicker and more solid when locked onto focus. On both the Fuji and Ricoh, since the camera has a larger sensor, hence a larger lens, you can tell the focus motor have more torque and is working harder than on a typical enthusiast P&S camera with a smaller sensor (Canon S110, Panasonic LX-7, Sony RX100); and yet, the focus motor seems quieter than their smaller peers.
Another thing about AF is that I never turn on the focus assist light on any of my cameras, so when the light levels drop, I get to see how good the autofocus is. I have to say the few things that the older GR does better than the new, low light autofocus is definitely one of them. Since the older GR had a dual phase detect and a sensor based contrast detect autofocus system, it could handle low light autofocus with ease. The new GR V has trouble in low light, even in the shadows during the day when indoors. If you’re planning to use the GR V at an indoor event, you will have to turn on the autofocus assist light…and even then, I think the camera will struggle. The only way around it is to learn how to use SNAP focusing.
Why is SNAP or zone focusing so great? It teaches the photographer not to always rely on the autofocus system. No matter how smart cameras become, it can never replace the human eye and judgement for speed or accuracy. When you walk down the street and there’s 5 people at all different distances, how does the camera know who to focus on? By using zone focusing, you visually learn pre-measured distances (1M, 1.5M, 2.M, 2.5M, 5M) and when your subject is at that distance, you hit the shutter button. In fact, once you learn to pre-visualize a specific angle of view (28mm equiv is 75 degree angle of view) you don’t even have to look at the LCD monitor to take the picture.
Now this isn’t an excuse for the GR’s mediocre low light autofocus perfomance. This camera should do better, although the Nikon Coolpix A, Fuji X-100S and the Leica X-Vario also have under-performing low autofocus. The Ricoh GR D IV and even my old Panasonic LX-3 outperform these newer cameras in low light. Perhaps these fixed lens APS-C sensored cameras are a new bread and need new technology to optimize its low light performance. We’ll see what happens in the next few years as this category evolves and matures.
The most important thing everyone wants to know is about image quality. Is it equal to a DSLR with an APS-C sensor? Well, it depends. There’s a wide range of APS-C sensors on the market, and there’s entry level DSLR body and lens kits for under $400, while other kits go all the way up to over $2500. In fact, Canon alone has 54 DSLR body and kit combinations available at B&H at this moment.
So in terms of image quality, where does the new GR stand? I would say that it can’t keep up with the top APS-C DSLRs on the market (A77, 7D, D300S), in terms of image noise or absolute resolution. However, considering that the GR is smaller and lighter than most of these DSLR’s vertical control grip/battery pack, I would say the compromise in image quality versus its size and weight is more than reasonable…it’s amazing!!
The biggest weakness of the APS-C size sensor in such a small body is image noise at higher ISO. The biggest enemy of image noise is heat, and bigger the body, the easier the camera can dissipate the heat away from the sensor. The smaller the body, the harder time it has to keep the sensor and camera cool, thus heat builds up, which contributes to the noise in the final image. By nature, cameras like the Ricoh GR and Nikon Coolpix A will struggle with image noise because of their compact size. Is the noise horrible? No its not. In fact, up to 6400 is easily printable to up to 8 x 10. On a computer screen, ISO 3200 looks nice, and since Ricoh’s noise looks more like film grain than most JPEGs by other brands (see above image shot at 3200), higher ISO’s in certain situations actually look better with noise (eg. B&W conversion images).
Overall I’m very pleased with the image quality coming out of the new GR. It’s only slightly bigger than the GR D IV, and yet we’re getting an image sensor almost 9 times larger! The 28mm equiv lens is a complex design with 2 aspherical elements, and with no anti-aliasing filter in front of the sensor, the end result is a very sharp, contrasty, and even image. The only complaint I would have is with the auto white balance, but you can easily adjust the colour to your own preference in-camera anyway, and most fine-tune WB during post production, so it’s not a huge deal. In fact, it’s an easy firmware update if enough people complain. In fact, Ricoh is famous for multiple firmware updates throughout the life of a camera, often improving and adding new features (the previous GR D IV had its final update 4-5 months before it was discontinued).
So my final say on the Ricoh GR? Is it worth the upgrade from the GR D IV? If resolution is of the utmost concern, then please upgrade. However, the operation and handling of the new GR has also improved quite a bit as well, as I found myself shooting quicker without having to dig into the menu system. There are a few things that the older GR does better, but I’ll go over the details in the GR D IV review. The new GR has improved on almost every feature from the older GR, from image quality, start up speed, control and handling, menu organization, more custom options, more shooting options. It’s also kept all the best features from the previous camera as well: compact size, solid build quality, very nice 28mm equiv lens, 1.23 million pixel 3″ LCD screen, same battery with similar battery life, similar control layout, and the famous SNAP mode found on every GR ever made.
Would I buy the new Ricoh GR? Absolutely. I’ve had my test camera for almost a month so far, and it feels right at home in my camera bag. For me, a point and shoot is a lot like a modern smart phone. You have it with you all the time, and so you sort of bond with it. It has to feel good in the hands, and it should make you want to pick it up and play with it. Every Ricoh GR I’ve ever owned has done that for me. While on the bus, or while I’m sitting on the couch, I have the GR next to me. I pick it up, flip through some images, I play with the controls. The fact you can heavily customize how it operates only adds to its sense of being an extension of your hands and eyes. If I had to grab one camera as I dash out the door, it would definitely be the new Ricoh GR. It’s not a perfect camera, but its perfect enough for me…
Thanks to Ricoh Canada for loaning me the camera, and I hope to review more Pentax-Ricoh products in the near future! If you have any questions, please comment below, or email me. Don’t forget to follow me on Twitter and Instagram as well! Happy shooting!
Check out my full review of the Ricoh GR D IV here!
Check out my YouTube video reviewing the GR family, and a quick review of the new GR!