My 2011 Ricoh GXR impressions

2011, Photography

Ricoh GXR, f/2.5, 1/1000 sec, 28mm equivalent, ISO 400, -0.3 EV (B&W jpeg edited in Photoshop)

It took me so long to finish this article. I returned the camera almost two months ago, but just too much happened in between to actually finish it. But here is, as promised, my final impression of the Ricoh GXR. For those interested I also wrote about the GXR in 2009 and last year.

Ricoh GXR, f/3.2, 1/1620 sec, 50mm equivalent, ISO 400, 0.0 EV (B&W jpeg edited in Photoshop)

Unlike a year ago Ricoh introduced a second A12 GR lens, the Ricoh A12 28mm lens with APS-C sensor, and a new firmware which should improve the AF of the A12 50mm lens. I tested the 1.29 version (Ricoh just recently released version 1.31. I really wanted to find out how much the firmware improved the performance of the 50mm lens. It is a lens I liked for the way it draws, but disliked because of the AF performance and MF usability.

With the 28mm I was curious how it would compare and differ to my much beloved Ricoh GR Digital III. Even though it is like comparing apples to oranges I was still very interested how the GXR with the 28mm lens might feel compared to the GR Digital III.

Ricoh GXR, f/3.5, 1/75 sec, 28mm equivalent, ISO 1600, -0.3 EV (B&W jpeg edited in Photoshop)

The funny thing is that Ricoh knows they sell most of their cameras in the domestic market and they also likely develop their cameras for their Japanese market too (as far as I know they only use Japanese photographers for testing their cameras). Despite so, their is some interest from photographers elsewhere too for their cameras, but the non-Japanese demands might actually differ. While many people consider the small sensor and the huge depth of field part of the charm of the GR Digital III, there has also been many requests for a larger sensor in the GR Digital the last few years, especially after the release of the Sigma DP1. In some way the GXR with the 28mm GR lens is this camera. It is not really a GR Digital III on steroids. The GRD3 is much more customizable in terms of assigning buttons and the GXR is much more flexible, because you can change lenses and sensors (of course both in fixed combinations). While I like the idea of setting up the GRD3 the way I want to shoot it I also believe that, as a result of all these options, the GRD3 lost part of it’s uniqueness. Simple form factor, fixed focal length. Thankfully it feels like and is a quality and reliable camera. Although being much larger the GXR does feel more simple and more effective than the GRD3. The weight is not too heavy, but not too light weight either. And in combination with the 28mm lens very well balanced. In my opinion the 50mm lens is a bit too large and heavy for the GXR.

Ricoh GXR, f/2.5, 1/125 sec, 28mm equivalent, ISO 400, 0.0 EV (B&W jpeg edited in Photoshop)

Both cameras, the GRD3 and the GXR with the 28mm lens, have their unique selling point, but I personally thought that the GXR with the 28mm lens did an amazing job. While you can use the GRD3 more freely the GXR was really not far behind. It is still small and light enough to use quickly and without true focus concerns. I mean, the AF of the 28mm lens is fast and a lot more precise. And it is still very workable with the snap focus mode unlike the 50mm lens. While the GRD3 is a touch quicker in my opinion, the GXR takes the crown with it’s low light performance. The quality at ISO 1600 is very good and colors remain pleasing saturated. At ISO 3200 there is some banding just like the 50mm lens.

Ricoh GXR, f/2.5, 1/200 sec, 28mm equivalent, ISO 400, -0.7 EV (B&W jpeg edited in Photoshop)

I used the GXR and the 28mm lens with the EVF and a Voigtländer OVF. Although the hotshoe is not properly placed above the lens it still worked quite well with the OVF. I used it in Amsterdam for street photography and it was a perfect combo. Although the lens isn’t really fast, starting at an aperture of f/2.5, I am still surprised how well it works in low light. The lens sensor combination seems to illuminate dark scenes. A pleasant feature that the 50mm lens can do too.

Given the fact that the GRD3 is a pretty expensive camera and that you can get a lot more flexible platform with the GXR, I would certainly take the GXR with the 28mm lens into consideration when you are looking for something like the GRD3. And I can’t predict the future, but I wouldn’t be too surprised if Ricoh would introduce a 28mm small sensor GR lens for the GXR as a follow up for their GRD3.

Ricoh GXR, f/2.5, 1/125 sec, 50mm equivalent, ISO 400, -0.3 EV (B&W jpeg edited in Photoshop)

So how does the GXR with the 50mm compares to the previously handled combo? The 28mm and the 50mm lens have a lot in common. They are both equally fast and the images look very similar in terms of sharpness, texture, and bokeh. This has often been mentioned before, the 50mm lens is a macro lens. It has more glass, more weight, and more length than a normal 50mm lens. Unfortunately this doesn’t make the AF very fast. Also the MF experience wasn’t perfect either. There is no begin or end while turning the focus ring. The GXR and the 50mm lens are still pretty small compared to an average DSLR with a 50mm equivalent lens. It is just that I think the lens is a little too heavy for the body.

Ricoh GXR, f/2.5, 1/34 sec, 50mm equivalent, ISO 400, -0.7 EV (B&W jpeg edited in Photoshop)

It is however an amazing lens when it comes to sharpness, bokeh, and texture. Just like the 28mm lens. A gorgeous portrait lens, although you need models with patience. Even with the version 1.29 firmware the AF isn’t blistering fast. Not a huge problem in daylight, but without any contrast or in the dark it becomes hardly usable. What I did like was a faster mode for manual focusing. By pressing the macro button and then turning focus ring it focuses a lot faster making MF a lot more usable. Still, the AF performance makes it a deal breaker for me. And the discussions on forums remind me of the reactions of Sigma DP1 users that people should stop complaining, because it had a good MF solution.

Ricoh GXR, f/2.8, 1/1230 sec, 50mm equivalent, ISO 400, 0.0 EV (B&W jpeg edited in Photoshop)

It still leaves me with a mixed bag. The 28mm is stellar in my opinion. A great performer and also something to think of when you are considering a Ricoh GRD3 or a Panasonic GF1 with the new 14mm f/2.5 lens for instance. The 50mm lens is high quality lens, but not fast. Both the AF and f/2.5 isn’t really special. In the meantime Ricoh announced a M-mount module for later this year that might interest Leica M users in Japan in particular.

All photographs by Wouter Brandsma

I wrote the article before the March 11 9.0 magnitude earthquake that hit Japan so devastating. Even in the small numbers we can provide help and comfort to those affected.