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.

My impressions of the Ricoh GXR

2010, Photography

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