My impressions of the Ricoh GXR

For a long time I intended to write an extensive impression article about the new Ricoh GXR. I had a first chance to try this camera with the A12 33mm macro lens (50mm equivalent) in December and wrote down my impressions in a diary style that same month. Since early February I got a new opportunity to try the same camera lens unit combination for a longer time, but now Ricoh also supplied their first S10 lens unit with the 24-72mm focal lengths.

In December I wrote that I was impressed with the image quality and loved the look and texture of the jpegs. It did and still does have some banding at ISO3200, but thankfully hardly any chroma noise. The camera handles similar to any Ricoh camera and seems like a natural upgrade for those who want better image quality and the familiarity of the Ricoh cameras. What however remains is the AF speed (or slowness) of the A12 lens unit and the difficulties of accurate manual focusing. Since these negative aspects had been mentioned all over the place I had hoped Ricoh would have fixed it with a firmware update. There is unfortunately still no new firmware available since than.

The current and only S10 lens unit has a 24-72mm lens with the same sensor as the GR Digital III. This combination with the GXR body is the replacement of the GX200. Unlike the GX200, the body is now slightly larger and heavier, but also much more customizable. Also the EVF is a huge improvement. The GX200 was a real base ISO camera and this new combination is certainly an improvement. It has better image quality and could be used well up to ISO 400 in my opinion. The higher ISO (above ISO 400) jpegs looked like Van Gogh paintings to me and there is a lot of smearing going on as result of the noise reduction. That still surprises me. It has been criticized by so many, but Ricoh seems unwilling to return to the much praised characteristics of the GR Digital I image engine. Maybe the Japanese customers like painterly photographs?

Since the S10 lens unit shares the same sensor as the GR Digital III many people indicated or thought that this lens unit would perform similar to the GRDIII. But in my opinion it is nowhere near the performance of the GRDIII with the exception of base ISO. At higher ISO the GRDIII is just so much better with less noise reduced jpegs and better RAW photographs with finer noise. The S10 delivers very blotchy noise at high ISO.

And that brings me back to the A12 macro lens. I have finally been able to try the HD video capability of this lens unit. Probably restricted to the sensor the camera can record 720p video at 24 frames per second. I liked it for the fact that it is capable of 24 fps for a more pleasing film look (it is unfortunately not 23.976 fps which is considered the optimum frame rate for cinematic video). When shooting at higher frame rates you get sharper and more pristine looking video similar to video cameras. Slower frame rates however causes more motion blur which is for many more pleasing to look at and reminds many of watching an analogue film. There is unfortunately no manual control while filming. You can’t control the shutter speed for instance and manual focusing while filming is even harder, because of the very long lens ring travel. And like I mentioned before in December the rolling shutter is really awkward. I would certainly hope that Ricoh adds some manual control features to the GXR for better film capabilities.

So where does this bring me and what do I really think about the GXR? First I have to say that it is typically Ricoh in my opinion to produce a very distinctive camera system for a niche market. I do really appreciate that approach. We all like to compare, but I do believe that it was not at all Ricoh’s intention to produce a competitive camera system to compete with others. More so they intended to produce something special and new for Ricoh owners in particular. And now I wonder where these Ricoh owners life. Look, I don’t mind a 50mm lens, although I would have preferred a 40mm lens instead, but I don’t understand why it should be a macro lens. There seems to be a modest 50mm renaissance going on. These lenses are usually quite small and pretty fast at f/1.8 or even faster. Unless you love to photograph macro a photographer normally would pick up a normal 50mm lens, so I was surprised to see the first lens being a 50mm macro lens at only f/2.5.

Than there is the S10 lens unit that should replace the GX200. Yes, it has better image quality and gets some of the great features of the GR Digital III. However, the camera is also larger and heavier. And than there is the price tag for the GXR and S10 combination. Of course, unlike the GX200, you can now also combine it with different lens units, but at a pretty serious price when you are only interested in the S10 lens unit. Remember that the GX200, or the Panasonic LX3 for instance are just modestly larger than the S10 lens unit and can be easily tucked inside a pocket.

Eventually all this rambling brings me to the possible near feature of this system. Many people, including me, requested for a lens unit road map. Ricoh just recently announced that it will introduce two new lens units this year. First the P10 28-300mm with a back-illuminated CMOS sensor (similar to the CX3) and at the end of 2010 an A12 28mm equivalent f/2.5 lens unit. Now it becomes all dassling for many, but A12 means 12 megapixel CMOS APS-C sensor, S10 is a 10 megapixel small CCD sensor, and P10 means a 10 megapixel back-illuminated CMOS sensor. With these new lens units I have personally been wondering what Ricoh is really up too. Since the P10 lens unit is similar to the CX3 does this mean that they will drop the CX series (they already dropped the GX200)? Who wants to pay a premium price for a CX3 anyway? And even though the A12 28mm will have a much larger sensor than the GR Digital III, it will basically be an upgraded high performance GRD with fantastic image quality even though Ricoh wants to keep the GRD their top of the line camera. To me this is all quite confusing. While Ricoh probably figured a 2010 road map might give people some expectancy and assurance for the near future, it did however create more uncertainty for their other cameras in the line up.

The thing is that for me the Ricoh GXR misses desirability. Those who have a Ricoh knows it is special, but those who haven’t, think it is an ought and future uncertain product. Many much rather want a Leica X1 or a Panasonic GF1 even though these cameras are not at all comparable. Maybe it will be special with the A12 28mm lens, but that could also really harm the sells of the GRD. What makes the GXR special though, and this should really not be ignored in my opinion, is that you can change lens units with different kind of sensors and always keep the same and familiar camera handling and user interface.

All photographs by Wouter Brandsma