My final Ricoh GX200 impressions
Ricoh GX200, f2.9, 1/80 sec, 35mm equivalent, ISO 100, -0.7 EV (B&W jpeg edited in Adobe Lightroom)
Late August I posted my first initial impressions of the Ricoh GX200. Being enthusiastic about the previous GX100, and the handling of the GX200 prior to my writing, I was somewhat disappointed by the quality of the GX200 RAW files. I had used the camera for a few weeks after receiving it without being able to review the photographs. When I viewed the photographs large on screen the first time I noticed I could not process the photographs the way I used and wanted to do. The editing resulted in more unintended noise, and I missed the byte. The following months I kept using the camera, changed in-camera settings, experimented with under- and overexposing, and had a relook at my image processing in Adobe Lightroom (or other applications) to improve the quality of the images.
And I can say that I have changed my initial thoughts about the GX200. I will explain how I have experimented with the camera and processing software to change my mind. Therefore I will describe a few important items that matters to me when it comes to a camera (though understand that every item is my personal opinion and the readers opinion may and can certainly differ). The three most important items are:
- Camera handling
- The images
- And appropriate workflow
In my first initial impressions I described some of the improvements to the previous model, the GX100. Probably most noticeable is the larger LCD screen with more pixels. As a result the screen is much sharper and works pleasantly. It remains a bright and clear screen that is very useful at bright sunshine. The addition of the third MY setting and an extra function button are welcome new features too. With the GX100 I had assigned the AE option to the function button, but I had to use my left hand to press that button. Now I have the AE option assigned to the second function button, and I can change the most important settings with my right hand. The first function button is not assigned to ISO, so when I want to change the ISO value I can access that menu with a single button.
The shape and grip of the GX200 haven’t changed, but there was really no need to in my opinion. The camera is slightly larger than the Ricoh GR Digital II, but significantly smaller than the Canon Powershot G9 and G10. The camera really has the appearance of a serious camera with a nice black finish.
The camera comes standard with a removable lens cap. Some people, me included, do sometimes forget to remove it when switched on. Thankfully the screens displays a warning. And for those interested, Ricoh supplies a handy pizza like lens cap.
The most significant improvement of the GX200 are the writing times when shooting RAW. It is fast and nimble, and there is basically no hesitation to not shoot RAW with this camera. It now even can shoot 1:1 RAW (requested by many)! Ricoh also added flash compensation to the GX200 which works perfectly in my opinion.
I personally think that Ricoh listened really well to their Ricoh GX100 users, and last year reviewers. Many of the changes on the camera are related to the handling and were requested on many forums and in reviews. What remained is an excellent, easy, comfortable, and most definitely fast compact camera that fits within a niche market. The camera has some unique features unrivaled by its competition, like the step zoom, the three recorded settings, the clear and user-friendly LCD screen and user interface.
The GX200 sports a different sensor than the GX100 with 2 megapixels extra. Since Ricoh doesn’t develop their own sensor they have to buy what the markets offers/forces them. As a result of the new sensor Ricoh updated the GX200 image processing engine.
The new sensor resulted in some different features like a lowest ISO of 64 instead of ISO 80 with the GX100. They increased the amounts of possible in-camera settings with more B&W settings (just like the Ricoh GR Digital 2), and there is a new feature to compensate the white balance.
Even with the noise reduction off there is still some noise reduction applied on the in-camera jpegs, even at the lowest ISO. For the pixel peeper this might be a problem, but for those who actually print their work I personally see no problems. But if you don’t like any noise reduction, or you want to do your own noise reduction, it helps to shoot in RAW. And that brings me to the RAW files.
With the GX100 I intentionally underexposed slightly to retain enough information in the highlights, and because the camera had a tendency to overexpose to retain information in the shadows. Photographs had a nice and fine noise, even so after post processing that could increase the noise. With the GX200 RAW files I noticed more noise in the blue channel that restricted my post processing possibilities. As a result, I looked at how I could improve the image quality of the RAW files, prior before shooting and in the post processing. I will explain more about the post processing in the last segment, ‘the appropriate workflow’. But how to get better quality of files from a camera with a small sensor and a limited dynamic range?
More than with a dSLR you have to make choices when you expose for a scene. When you underexpose you will likely get more information in the highlights, but you will also get darker shadows. I personally don’t mind darker shadows, but unfortunately underexposing will also result in darker mid grays. In post processing this can (and I noticed often will) lead to more blotchy noise in your images. I noticed that when you don’t compensate your metering, or even slightly overexpose, at daytime or with a bright light you will get more detailed RAW files. This works really well at ISO 200 and even ISO 400. And with some luck, when you nail your exposure right, you will get pretty decent ISO 800 photographs too. The most important part is to expose your subject right, even when that will give some blown highlights at other parts of your photograph.
Use the LCD screen or viewfinder to frame, and use the live histogram to expose properly. The histogram is so much more accurate than the LCD screen. The metering system is pretty accurate, and the white balance works quite well (although for my B&W photography I am personally less interested in the accuracy of the white balance).
While I had some difficulties with the RAW files at first I start to like the look of the GX200 RAW files. I just took some extra time. The reason I start to like it has to do with the last segment. I have already made large A2-sized prints and they look sweet. The noise that might be a problem for you on screen will mostly be gone when printed (or give a pleasant texture).
But how are the jpegs? In my opinion these are very useful. Sharpness at +2 will give you some sharpening artifacts. Like said before, there will always be some sort of noise reduction, even when you switched the in-camera noise reduction off. But I think it doesn’t harm the photograph. Of course for those who prefer to view their photographs at 100% magnification it will be. But those who actually view them normally or even print them will have no problems in my opinion.
The success of a digital camera is probably most determined by someone’s workflow. And that workflow consists of the camera handling, photography making, and editing. A well handling camera is more likely to be picked up by a photographer, even when the camera won’t give you the best results (this matters especially for amateur photographers). The photography making has all to do with how well the camera exposes, your personal skills, and learning the limitations and possibilities of your camera. And for the editing you try to find the application that works the best for you, and achieves the best possible results you envision.
I for instance use Adobe Lightroom as my primary editing application. When I want to do more with editing like burning and dodging, I edit the photographs in Photoshop. I have tried several other application like Silkypix, RAW Developer (Mac only), LightZone, and Capture One for editing my RAW files, but I still prefer the user interface and results of Lightroom. Some applications might give you better end results, but are not necessarily the most user-friendly applications.
When I first opened my GX200 RAW files in Lightroom I had some problems with my favorite B&W conversion technique. This was mostly the result of more noise in the blue channel. But also underexposing affected the RAW files more than the GX100 RAW files (because of the different sensor and processing engine).
Instead of using the luminance sliders to brighten or darken particular colors in Lightroom, I started to experiment with the exposure, black point, and brightness slider to give a pleasant contrast that didn’t give more noise. Especially RAW files that were exposed with the most information captured in the brightest section were so much better to be edited.
Another application (or better said plug-in) that is pleasant to use, is Nik Silver Efex Pro in Photoshop (can also be used in Apple Aperture, but that is Mac only). Edit the RAW file basically in auto mode with ACR and then use Silver Efex Pro. It is absolutely a stunning piece of software that delivers great looking results.
For whom is the Ricoh GX200 intended? The GX200 is intended as a versatile, but serious high-end compact camera with serious photography in mind. It enables photographers to shoot a wide range of scenes including landscapes, portraits and close-ups. If you know a thing or two about photography you will probably like this camera. It is a great travel camera, or a second ‘where-ever-you-go’ camera next to your larger camera system.
Nevertheless Ricoh has little presence in some of the largest consumer markets, like the US and Canada. They are very popular in Japan, and they have a pretty loyal fan base worldwide. For long it seemed photographers, manufacturers (and reviewers) didn’t notice Ricoh, despite the fact that the GX100 and the current GX200 have some very unique features. I mention the 24mm wide angle, the step zoom, the three registered personal settings, the additional DW-6 wide angle and TC-1 teleconversion lens, and the VF-1 electronic viewfinder (although I don’t use that). Most consumers looked at the Canon Powershot G9, the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX2/Leica D-Lux 3, or the Nikon P5000.
Panasonic/Leica are the first manufacturers who looked at the GX200 and tried to improve their top compact cameras. The market reacted enthusiastic and basically said that the new Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3/Leica D-Lux4 are one of a kind cameras with a very fast 24-60mm lens, and extra accessories. But when you take the domestic market of Japan, it becomes obvious that the LX3 is directly targeted against the GX200. And it is likely that Ricoh will respond adequately with a GX300, as they acknowledged to me at photokina. They will remain fully committed to further improving their GX (and GRD) cameras, especially the image quality.
And is the Ricoh GX200 a suitable camera for you? If you own the GX100 and you are pleased with that camera, I might say that an upgrade isn’t really necessary. When you still own the older GX or GX8, than the GX200 will be a major improvement. If you want a fast responsive, and versatile camera capable of shooting RAW, than I can really recommend this camera. It is excellent competition for the Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3 and the Leica D-Lux4. The Panasonic/Leica combo have the edge in their fast lens with a maximum aperture of f2.0, but that lens does seem to suffer from more barrel distortion and chromatic aberration. Currently you can only use Silkypix (for the Panasonic) and Capture One (for the Leica) to process their RAW files since both manufacturers worked closely with the developers of these RAW processors to automatically adjust some of the lens flaws. I am not being fair though, because also RAW Developer (though Mac only), RAW Therapee (beta) and dcraw can open and process the RAW files from Panasonic and Leica. But these applications don’t apply any correction.
The GX200 DNG RAW files on the other hand can likely be opened and processed in your favorite editing application, ranging from the Adobe Photoshop family, Apple iPhoto and Aperture, and the mentioned RAW processors above, and many more. That way you can easily integrate this camera in your current workflow.
The Ricoh GX100 has some caveats. Some owners, including me, had problems with dust in the lens or on the sensor. The lens assembly and sensor are produced as a single unit, and therefore Ricoh will always replace the lens assembly when dust problems occurred. Although Ricoh at first hesitated acknowledging this problem with the GX100, they were aware that either the rather unprotected battery compartment or the telescopic retraction system of the lens could be faults for this problem. Also some owners had problems with a stucked lens on the GX100 and had to remove the battery completely in order to make the camera functional again. In the last three months I personally had no problems with the GX200, and also haven’t seen any mentioning of problems with the GX200 on forums. I really think that the GX200 is a much more reliable camera and they pushed the limits of what is possible with a small sensor camera.
More than with any other small sensor camera, you might have noticed that many Ricoh owners prefer to use their camera primarily for B&W photography. Search for instance on flickr, or see the numerous forums with Ricoh topics. The nice thing about the Ricoh GX200 is that you can set the in-camera settings to B&W, see your scene in B&W on the screen, and still save an unedited RAW file. In particular the fine noise structure of the RAW files gives a pleasant texture to the B&W photographs from the GX200.
I should say that this camera performances best up to ISO 400. If that is perfectly fine for you, and you still want a zoom lens with a little, but very usable zoom range (although I personally never use the 50 and 72mm focal lengths), than this camera can be a strong contender against the new Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX3 and Leica D-Lux 4. Where the image quality probably will be better from the LX3 and D-Lux 4, especially at higher ISO’s, the GX200 will absolutely be the better handling camera. The grip and user interface are unrivaled by any other manufacturer.
And if you want to learn about this camera and the decision making continue here.
All photographs by Wouter Brandsma