My Ricoh GR impressions

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As a predominantly small sensor photographer, preferring the sketchy look, I have consciously and consistently stayed away from large sensor cameras. For a long while my Panasonic GF1 was what I considered the maximum. So in the last three years my main camera was the Ricoh GR Digital 3. I appreciated the limitations provided by the small sensor and the 28mm fixed prime lens. Only hindered by lesser performance at high ISO’s in low light and some AF problems this year and two years ago. So when Ricoh announced the GR with an APS-C sized CMOS sensor it immediately caught my attention. Not necessarily for the much better expected image quality, but more the better low light performance.

For many years the Ricoh GR Digital cameras weren’t noticed by many photographers and the main websites. Recently though, the Ricoh GR however already got its fair share of attention and many wrote about the history and specifications. I don’t plan to do that again. I mean, we all know that the camera has a long history and that this is the first GR with a larger sensor. The only thing really worth mentioning is that the GR kept the Snap mode. A mode where the focus is immediately set to a particular focus distance which minimizes the shutter lag drastically. Many would say this is a key feature for street photography, but what about parties (in particular with kids) or in low light?

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Those photographers who had a previous GR Digital will immediately feel at home with the GR. The body is only a bit larger, but in a good way. When Ricoh started to use the 3″ inch LCD screen in the GR Digital 3 I critized that some of the buttons got too close to each other and that you could accidentally hit a button with your right thumb. With the increased size of the body it directly had a positive effect on the button layout. My thumb has more space, but all buttons are still easily accessible.

The camera operates nimble and you can configure the camera the way you want to. Kai from the DigitalRev said it was a camera for geeks and when you first go to the menu, you immediately realize that basically everything can be altered. The adjustment lever on the back can be set to your personal liking. There are two additional Fn buttons, and even the effect button on the left side can be reconfigured. All this gizmo stuff is of course great, but can also be daunting. Personally I prefer to set up the camera as fast as possible. For me that means, Av mode, using the Fn1 button for switching from Spot AF to Snap mode, the Fn2 button for adjusting the focal distance for the Snap mode, and the adjustment lever for rapidly changing ISO.

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When you open the package you will immediately notice that there is no battery charger. It can now be USB charged. Some like that, some don’t. Let just say I feel fortunate of having a suitable Ricoh battery charger. What I do like is that it not only takes DB-65 batteries, but also the older DB-60 battery used in the GRD3. Ricoh delivers the camera with a RAW converter by Silkypix. It works, enough sayd. Ricoh sells an additional lens adapter and 21mm converter lens. Also the GV1 and GV2 viewfinder are still sold for this camera.

I use the GR with a 28mm Voigtländer optical viewfinder. I prefer the 3:2 frame lines. The camera exposure metering is set to multi and for the white balance I like Multi-P Auto. It just works convenient and reliable for me. Like many other Ricoh cameras the GR is shutter speed limited at 1/2000 sec at the lens wide open, because it uses a leaf shutter. Therefore it comes in handy that they added a ND-filter. I put the ND-filter in auto and the camera automatically uses it whenever needed. Excellent! Some worried that the lens was ONLY f/2.8 instead of the f/1.9 GRD3 and GRD4 lens. At f/2.8 with the larger sensor it is still a lot more usable in low light.

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Everything on the GR seems at the right place. It operates fast and you change settings on the fly. In low light the AF seems to struggle a bit, but the wide angle lens and the snap mode still provide enough depth of field.

The most noticeable feature of the new GR is the larger sensor. Oh boy, what a differences it does make. The images are a lot cleaner, especially at low ISO. Its performance in low light is significantly better too and I feel comfortable using it up to ISO6400. Which is a lot better too than the Ricoh GXR with the A12 28mm lens module that showed banding from ISO3200 and up. My camera does show hot pixels that steadily increases from ISO1600. I asked several other owners about this and some even shared photographs with me, but until now it seems I have a one off. I have still asked Pentax Ricoh to examine it.

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Admitted, I had my concern about the cleaner images. And at low ISO I feel it is too clean for my taste, but I think many others will certainly like it. I prefer a modest texture in my image and I found a sweet spot at ISO 400 for good light. Still with all the tonality from this sensor, yet with a very fine noise structure. And talking about noise. It is very fine, even at ISO6400 and doesn’t come with those ugly blue blotches. Some say, it appears film like. Dunno, but it works for me. And best, it makes up for great looking black & white photographs.

Those familiar with the Ricoh GR predecessors learned that it was best to set the exposure compensation to -0.3EV at default. I know it was the first thing I also did with this camera. I learned though that the GR already exposes quite conservative. As a result I think it is best to keep the compensation set at zero, especially when photograph in RAW only. And when you first check your photographs on your computer you instantly notice the larger dynamic range. I tell you, this GR is way beyond any digital GR previously released.

Unlike the GR predecessors the shutter makes a little bit more noise, but I you got used to it I didn’t notice it anymore. Typical for Ricoh cameras the shutter speed sill remains maximized wide open at 1/2000 sec. In bright light that could be a concern, but the camera comes with a built-in ND filter.

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With the Ricoh GR also come some new features known from Pentax dSLR cameras. Some can be found in the firmware, others in the camera modes. Previous GR models all had P, A, S and M modes (for program, aperture, speed and manual). The GR now has P, Av, Tv, TAv and M mode. Av is the replacement for A and Tv for S. All these work unchanged. They just changed the naming. The TAv mode is new for Ricoh and is a clever mode where you set the aperture and shutter speed while the camera calculates the needed ISO. It seems to do a good job at good to moderate light, but when it becomes darker the camera somehow finds ISO25600 (!) the best sensitivity. Some might like the noise at ISO25600, but due to this behavior I find this mode less usable. The manual seems to suggest that AUTO ISO can be used with the TAv mode too, but I learned that the manual is wrong here. So I prefer Av mode instead where I set the ISO.

One other thing immediately noticed is the sharpness. The GR doesn’t come with an AA filter. In post processing you hardly have to add sharpening. The lens is sharp too. Even at f/2.8 it shows good sharpness in the corners and that progresses when you go for a smaller aperture until f/8. There is one caveat though. Moiré! With very fine and regular textures it can produce moiré and a wavy pattern. In Adobe Lightroom, my preferred post processing application, it cleans up really well. And also Silkypix, which is bundled with the GR, handles it really well. Although it can take a while for the program to handle it. I had set up the camera without applying noise reduction for the out of camera jpegs. Somehow though it seems to fix moiré, which can look really ought. This became most noticeable with brick walls. And brick walls? These are kind of hard to ignore here in the Netherlands.

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That brings me to the in-camera jpegs. At default the jpegs look very good. Certainly less sharp than the RAW images, but colors are pleasing. The camera also has a lot of effects available, like the high contrast B&W and bleach bypass. One other nice feature, known by current Fuji camera users, is the possibility to process RAW images in-camera. With my GRD3 I felt comfortable to just use the jpegs instead of the RAW images. Taking in account the moiré handling in jpeg I decided to stick to RAW only though. Not a deal breaker you know. These images are very malleable.

The RAW images come with a rather subdued color profile, but with a simple S-curve in post processing the colors quickly come alive. Ricoh and Pentax cameras provide RAW images in the DNG format. Nice, because most RAW converters will be able to open and process these. The downside can be that it may take a while before these RAW converters come with a proper camera profile. The GR is no exception. Most will likely use the Adobe RAW converter and at default it can display red colors a bit strange. Lightroom 5 now supports the Ricoh GR and on seriouscompacts you can find good info how to add the Ricoh GR camera profile to older versions of Lightroom or the RAW converter for Photoshop. This camera profile makes a lot of difference.

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I was worried that the larger sensor would somehow affect my photography. I learned though that the benefits at the high ISO side outweighed the downsides of the cleaner images at low ISO’s. The Ricoh GR doesn’t come with a viewfinder unlike the Fuji X100s and some would call that a dealbreaker. I photographed more freely in the last years and accepted the small optical viewfinder in the hotshoe as an alternative.

So what to remember of the GR though? It is a very nimble and fun camera with unlimited possibilities. The only constrains can be your own imagination. After less then a week I felt so comfortable with the camera that I did not need to think anymore about the settings. It just worked for me the way I intended it. This Ricoh GR could well become a new classic. The image quality is amazing, but still comes in a familiar Ricoh package. In the end it is still a tool for me and it should be one I don’t notice at all. For my kind of photography it just works. It works for me, because I am in charge.

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All photographs by Wouter Brandsma