Those who regularly visit my blog know that I prefer to use small sensor cameras for my photography. These cameras are much smaller than dSLR’s and therefore easier to take with you. But the most important reason for me is the way they can draw. For me they create instant sketches. It is something I like, I prefer. Of course I can appreciate a beautiful photograph from a larger sensor camera, but I just like black and white sort of sketches and I think small sensors are really suitable for that.
The previous cameras I wrote about are the Ricoh GX100 and GX200, and the Sigma DP1. From all these cameras my favorite camera has always been the GX100 even though it had some technical flaws. But the one camera I always wanted to use was the Ricoh GR Digital. When the GX100 was introduced (nearly two years after the release of the GR Digital I) I opted for the GX100, because of its more versatile lens and the improved speed with RAW photography. The older GR Digital I had writing times of 12 seconds while the GX100 could reach 6 seconds with a fast SD card. But often I thought I still should have picked up the GR Digital I instead.
Why? Because I have photographed so long with the original GR camera, the GR1 (this is a film camera). I loved the handling and the wonderful 28 mm lens. So it should have been the most logical digital equivalent of my analogue camera. Many still think the B&W jpegs are still very special (although that hasn’t convinced me) and I seemed to like color photographs too. In particular with low and mixed light photography the auto white balance seemed to be unpredictable and resulted in wonderful photographs with pretty amazing colors. Some of the best examples I found here from Hong Kong based photographer Nacoki.
But the fact is that I was too rational in my thinking and instead opted for the GX100. Still a wonderful camera and it served me really well (well almost for a year, before it was replaced by Ricoh with a GX200), but……
So when I got in contact with Ricoh this year I requested a test sample of the new Ricoh GR Digital III. I really wanted to know if this camera would still bring the feeling of the glory days I had with the GR1, a camera that became a cult camera, especially in Japan. At Rangefinderforum.com for instance the camera is still being raved by many of its owners or those who had one.
So for those not familiar with this camera and the history of the GR series the first GR was announced in October 1996, the GR1. It is a high quality compact camera build with outstanding materials like a tough and light magnesium body. And the 28mm fixed wide angle lens was considered one of the best for that price. The Ricoh GR1 competed with other, mostly Japanese, high quality compact camera like the Nikon 28Ti and 35Ti (Ti referring to the titanium body), Konica Hexar AF, Contax T1/T2 (and later the TvS series), Minolta TC1, and the Leica CM and the Minilux series. All these cameras had sophistaced metering systems that could be found in SLR cameras to get accurate exposures with slide film. And the fixed focal length lenses could compete with there SLR equivalents.
Unfortunately though it seems that this niche market is something of the past with the exception of the Sigma DP1, DP2 and the upcoming Leica X1. Some could argue that the current serious compact cameras fill in this niche market, but in my opinion the Ricoh GR Digital is the only camera that currently fulfills that legacy. Not to say that other cameras are not as good, they might well be. But it is just that Ricoh hold truth to the principles of the GR series and to the basics of this particular niche market. And that is a high quality compact camera with exclusive materials and a superb fixed focal length lens. So here I am with the new Ricoh GR Digital III.
To start with
Not too long ago I posted my first and rather short impression of this camera. I mentioned that I really liked the finish of this camera. The non-slippery surface together with the usual Ricoh ergonomics makes this camera very enjoyable to hold in the hand. It is lightweight and very durable too. Another great feature of this camera is the new and much faster lens with a maximum opening of f/1.9! That used to be f/2.4 with the previous versions. It is now the fastest lens you can find on any compact camera which is an impressive achievement in my opinion.
I welcome Ricoh to follow the new trend started with the Panasonic DMC-LX3 to decrease the amount of pixels on the sensor. Instead of another sensor with 12 megapixels, they acquired a 10 megapixel sensor.
Another amazing aspect of this camera is how you can customize this camera. Many buttons and dials can be reassigned, so you will likely find a set up that matches your style of camera handling. Like the GX200 it can register up to 3 personal settings. And new is the shutter speed mode that was requested by many GRD-users in the past.
The camera can be bought with many accessories like optical viewfinders and an add-on conversion lens. There is a viewfinder with 28 mm matching frame lines, the GV-2, and there is a larger optical viewfinder, the GV-1, that not only has the 28mm frame lines, but also the 21mm that can be used in combination with the GW-2 21mm conversion lens. I have been using this camera with the GV-1 viewfinder and found it a joy to use it. Shortly before finishing this writing I finally got the GW-2 lens too so I could extent my impression of the camera. As a result of the new lens design and the changed diameter for the adapter Ricoh skipped the 40mm conversion lens that was available for the GR Digital I and GR Digital II. I still do hope they come up with a new design.
Unfortunately this joy doesn’t come cheap. The camera and accessories will cost you a lot of money. Together with the Leica D-Lux 4 it is one of the most expensive small sensor cameras on the market. But don’t be fooled. The high quality materials and the lens makes this an expensive camera and I think it is worth it (in 1996 I paid something like €490,- for this camera and that is without 13 years of inflation correction!).
I have said it before in the short impression, but I think the LCD screen is a bit too large. The designers had to move the buttons more to the right. Maybe this is still usable for Japanese hands, but I regularly accidentally touched the display or macro button when I walked around with the camera. On the other hand the LCD screen is incredibly sharp and very clear and probably one of the most usable in bright conditions too.
In depth – ouch!
With every new camera released we of course have the anticipation that the camera will be better than the previous one. Now, I can’t compare the camera to the GR Digital II and the original GR Digital I, but I do have my knowledge with two generations of GX cameras. In my impression of the GX200 I stated that the GX200 DNG’s (RAW images) couldn’t be processed in the same way I used to do with the GX100 DNG’s. In particular darkening the luminance of the blue channel resulted in excessive noise and blotches. That seriously limited my B&W conversion techniques. It was most visible with Adobe Lightroom and Adobe ACR, and to lesser extent with Silkypix. Unfortunately the DNG’s from the GR Digital III form no exception. And while the GR Digital III performs better than the GX200 at higher ISO’s the images are quite soft, even at ISO 100. There is more smearing and less detail going on in the GR Digital III DNG’s and even more so with the jpegs. It surprised me, because I had much better expectations with the arrival of the new sensor which is slightly larger and has less pixels. Besides that I am not really enthusiastic about the results from Adobe Lightroom and Adobe ACR for the RAW conversion. I happen to get the best results with the most pleasing amount of details from RAW Therapee. RAW Developer for the Mac does a pretty good job too with the DNG’s (many thanks to Amin Sabet from Serious Compacts for verifying). Even Silkypix, which has often be considered the best RAW converter for the Ricoh DNG’s couldn’t achieve the same results as RAW Therapee. The only issue I have with RAW Therapee is that it is slow and uses a lot of memory.
Now there are 100% image quality comparisons popping up all over the net and it seems the GR Digital III isn’t the best performer when compared to cameras like the Panasonic LX3 and the Canon G10/G11. If you think these comparisons are vital for your final deciding than that is fine with me, but in my opinion these comparisons makes no sense at all for real world photography. I mean, start making prints to see the differences. And when you just enjoy sharing your photographs online than ask yourself if those 100% image comparisons makes any differences when you post your photographs at a max of 1024 pixels.
While finishing my article Ricoh updated the firmware for the GR Digital III on September 30 to version 1.21. I updated the camera and repeated some of my test. While using the GW-2 conversion lens and manual focus at infinity with an aperture of f/5.0 resulted in soft backgrounds before the update, but had no problems after the update. I also saw strange streaks when I used the magnification feature on the LCD screen for manual focusing, some even mentioned that the magnification turned black. The update resolved this problem.
Now I have said that, I should start mentioning that this camera however is so good in many other departments. The lens is very good, even at f/1.9. And the lens can actually give the photographs some shallow depth of field for nearby subjects (up to 2 to 3 meters and closer). The fast lens gives the camera the edge in low light photography and I found the images very usable up to ISO 800, although some will probably like the ISO 1600 performance too. I thought it wasn’t bad, but almost never used it. The noise is rather nicely and unevenly distributed, although there is some vertical banding at higher ISO’s. Since I am not interested in shadow details I found this not an issue for me. Ricoh seemed to have improved the dynamic range too. Both the DNG’s and the jpegs seem to hold more subtleties and the tonality is finer than with the GX200.
The camera has several metering systems, including a multi exposure metering system, center weighted and a spot metering system. I personally felt comfortable with center weighted, but thought it was good to have spot metering at hand for whenever needed.
Unlike larger sensors smaller sensors do have more light sensitivity. You need to be careful with exposing and it is often best to be on the defensive site. The new sensor for the GR Digital III looks even more sensitive, so at times it is best to underexpose -0.3 to -0.7 EV. to avoid harsh clipped highlights. But be warned anyway. Small sensor cameras have less dynamic range, so it comes down to making choices. Dark shadows and properly exposed highlights, or shadow details and clipped highlights.
But what makes this camera unique is that it is actually a system that can be expanded. The available accessories are all of high quality. The GV-1 viewfinder is very large and bright with clear frame lines that can even be used by those wearing glasses. The GW-2 lens delivers incredible performances and adds a nice weight and balance to the camera. I also liked using the camera with the adapter and hood (GH-2). It makes the camera very easy to handle, in particular with the optical viewfinder, although that won’t make the camera pocketable anymore. To see all the available options check here.
The most important aspect that makes Ricoh cameras distinctive from its competitors is the user interface. The first class hand grip and the easy to reach buttons and dials. I can easily change some settings without even looking.
I already talked about the customization of this camera. And I am surprised to see the efforts Ricoh have made to make this camera special for every owner. Ricoh cameras are regarded as great cameras for street photography, because of the excellent snap mode. When the snap focus is activated, the camera immediately set focus for 2.5 meter which significantly reduces the shutter lag. But guess what? They improved that and now you can set your preference focus distance for the snap mode with options for 1, 2.5 (default) or 5 meter and infinity. You can do this in the menu by changing the snap focus distance, but you can also change it while photographing. Just keep the “up” button pressed and use the front dial to set the focus distance. Quick and easy.
The GR Digital III has two function buttons that can be reassigned to your personal preferences. Even the zoom button can be assigned to three functions including the exposure compensation. And what I also liked was to reassign the front dial to the shutter speed and the rear dial for aperture when using the camera in manual mode. Something that is normally vice versa.
When you use the camera with an optical viewfinder you can switch the LCD screen off. People already marveled the new Leica X1 for having a AF confirmation light on the back that can be seen while viewing through the viewfinder, but the GR Digital cameras have had this for ages. And when you have the LCD screen turned off it can still show your settings when you change the exposure.
Sorry for those interest in modern day features like face detection systems and image stabilization. You won’t find it, but don’t be worried either. Your experience will make the difference with this camera. And since the camera has a wide angle lens I didn’t miss the image stabilization. But to be fair and honest, I never use it either for my Ricoh GX200.
I must say that I am impressed with the Ricoh GR Digital III. I have some concerns with the image quality. The images appear softer (especially the jpegs) and processing the DNG’s in many RAW converters causes quite noisy and blotchy results. Maybe this can be fixed with a firmware update, but in the meantime I suggest using RAW Therapee or RAW Developer (only Mac). These issues might be a real problem for you when you mostly enjoy images at 100% magnification, but I find it less of a problem when you print your photographs or when you mostly publish and share your photographs online.
For the hefty price you get a unique camera with an amazing lens. No zoom, so to zoom you need to get closer or take more distance. It brings photography back to the essence in my opinion. You need to think harder and you become more careful with your framing.
But you also get the excellent Ricoh support and regular firmware updates until the camera is being replaced by a new one. In fact, the latest firmware usually introduces some newest features of the new camera in the older one too. A bonus you won’t likely get from other manufacturers.
Despite some minor flaws I described above and the fact that the camera has only a fixed focal length lens (28mm while I started to prefer 35mm with my GX200) I will absolutely miss this camera when it is returned to Ricoh. I only used my GX200 for some boring comparison shots, but always had the GR Digital III with me for the last couple of weeks. When I would be in the same position like 2.5 years ago I would definitely and instantly pick up the GR Digital III instead of the GX200.
Not quite comparable, but with a fixed focal length are the Sigma DP2 (41mm lens) and the to be released Leica X1 (36mm). Both these cameras have a larger sensor (dSLR size!), but all come at a considerably higher price (the Leica will cost $2,000!).
The only other cameras to consider are some of the better and more advanced serious compact cameras. The first one comes from the same Ricoh house, the GX200. The camera comes with a moderate zoom range, 24 to 72mm, and shares many of the GRD technologies. Read my previous impression of this camera to find out more about it. The lens isn’t as fast as the GR Digital III and it isn’t the best performer at higher ISO’s. I find it really good at ISO 100 and usable at ISO 200. Above it is all a different game.
The closest rival besides the DP1 and the GX200 is the Panasonic Panasonic DMC-LX3. It has a 24 to 60mm lens and a maximum aperture of f/2.0! This is a very popular camera world wide. I tried it and found the high dynamic B&W setting fantastic. I didn’t like the typical Panasonic jog dial and you need to use Silkypix to get the best results from the camera for the RAW files since a lot of correction is taking place on the files. I didn’t like it that the camera constantly reseted itself after the power was turned off. But firmware version 2.0 has just been released and the last used zoom and menu setting will be resumed after you turn the power on again. A great new added feature and it shows the commitment Panasonic makes for this camera and its users.
To other contenders are the very popular Canon Powershot G11 which actually has the same sensor as the GR Digital III. some regard this camera as a brick, but has a pretty old school user interface and a decent lens starting at 28mm (, but f/2.8). Canon’s second camera is the new S90 which shares the same technology as the G11, but has an even faster lens starting at f/2.0 and a very interesting user interface with a lens ring that can be used for several camera changes.
And of course, not to be forgotten, there are some cameras still around there which could be considered obsolete by today’s standards, like the former Ricoh GR Digital II or the even older GR Digital I. Although the latter one is really much harder to find.
In the end though I really have been impressed by the Ricoh GR Digital III and can recommend it for those who are interested in a camera that has some of the best user interfaces and is designed with photography in mind.
Other reviews and information about the Ricoh GR Digital III
One of the first reviews posted was on Alpha Mount World by Carl Garrard. Pavel Kudrys at Ricohforum.com is regularly posting some of the tests he is conducting including comparisons with other Ricoh cameras, including the Ricoh GR Digital II. And a new review of the GR Digital III is expected soon by Cristian Sorega who has been using the camera for quite some time. He will be comparing the GR Digital III too to the first and previous GR Digital. And for many GR Digital III photographs you might want to check the Ricoh GR Digital III group.
All photographs by Wouter Brandsma