Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: Three cheers for clearance pricing!
The Long Version: No offense, but there's really only so much you can learn from reading about cameras online. Sooner or later the time arrives: back away from the forums, pick up a camera, and GTFO – get the film out, if only metaphorically.
The New Ricoh GR digital – V, but who's counting – is coming. I've read just about everything I can find as I await my preorder, including GRD-era reviews to learn more about the Ricoh GR paradigm. After a dozen days I was completely saturated and there was only one sensible thing to do: I bought a Ricoh GR Digital IV, GRD-IV, pronounced "Girdiv", that was on clearance at the local camera chain.
Well, I suppose "stopping" also would have been a sensible thing to do, but that wouldn't have given me much to write about. So this review is about what I've learned in the time that it's taken me to work the kinks out of the Girdiv's camera strap.
The first thing I've learned is that the reviews that look like fawning adulation aren't as over-the-top as they seem. This is easily the best-designed digital camera that I've used. The GR design language stretches back farther than the Canon G-series, all the way into the film era, where the GR1 was the contemporary of the Nikon F5. Combined with a clear design intention about how the GR would be used, the result is an uncommon clarity of purpose. The GR is a scalpel that makes a Leica look bloated and self-indulgent. I mean, different focal lengths? Who needs that kind of superfluity?
The GR Digital IV, at its core, is a camera with an incredibly well-honed design housing a sensor and processor that were already dated when it was launched in late 2011.
I suspect that the sensor is the same as the one in the Canon S90, which debuted two years before the GRDIV came along; this sensor also appeared in the Canon G11 and Samsung EX1. It's a perfectly respectable choice as long as you don't like high definition video, but it wasn't cutting edge even when the Girdiv first came out. Its contemporaries – the Canon S100 was announced on the same day as the IV, September 15 – offer slightly better DxOMark performance, but more significantly the shot-to-shot time and buffer on the Girdiv has a distinct lag.
For a 'street photography' camera the noticeable delay in shot-to-shot time is either critical or irrelevant. Film cameras from the rangefinder aesthetic school wouldn't be able to take a burst of photos, so the decisive-moment timing purist won't even think about the followup delay. Those of use who are a little more digital in our thinking, especially those used to SLRs, may initially be frustrated by the press-and-pause method.
It's important to point out that the GRD-IV is perfectly snappy taking that first shot. Not only is the AF system fairly quick, sometimes it's not even necessary.
A feature of the GR Digital line – and the film GRs before them – is the ability to take a shot focused at a preset distance by skipping the shutter button's half-press AF-seeking pause. Jab and done. The Girdiv even allows Snap Focus to over-ride the current iso sensitivity and use the cameras' user-set auto-iso range. It's a pretty cool customization ability.
I'm not usually too concerned with the image quality of compact cameras; I choose them for their smaller size so I'm not going to be too picky. But the GRD-IV is a tremendous low-iso small-sensor compact, and holds up reasonably well into the mid-iso range as well. The majority of all of my photography is done within an iso range that can be comfortably handled by film, so I'm not too worried when iso1250 shows some noise. I'm impressed when it doesn't, to be sure, but it's not something that my personal expression depends on.
The 28mm-equivalent prime lens is excellent, both sharper and more flare-resistant than the zoom on the Canon S100. Point light sources within or just outside the frame can cause some unpleasant ghosting, but veiling glare is minimal.
Working with the 28mm-e field of view has taken some adjustment, but that's partly because I haven't used a compact camera since the end of my Five Thousand Photos project six months ago. Half of the 11,000 photos that I took for that series – I'm bad at math – were taken either at the cameras' widest angle or with just a quick tap of the zoom toggle to improve their lens quality. So the GR's prime lens is the natural extension of that priority, and while I occasionally missed the zoom in the first few days, now I don't think about it at all.
Some might call the GRD-IV a niche (rhymes with quiche) camera, but most photos these days are taken with cell phones. Wide and ultra-wide prime lenses dominate social media. While spending actual money on a stand-alone camera that can't take closeup photos during Billy's baseball game might still be a hard sell for most consumers, the entire compact camera market is imploding anyway. Ricoh (et al) don't have much to lose by swinging for the fences.
Physically the GRD-IV is exceptional. The build quality of the camera rivals any other that I've owned, including the Nikon D800, and, dare I say it, the legendary Olympus E-1. It doesn't claim any weather sealing, which is too bad, but it has an excellent control layout and is extremely comfortable to use.
I can quibble with the best of them, but my only little nit with physical design of the Girdiv is the SD card position. Why camera makers put the SD card slot up against the hinges for the battery door is beyond me; this makes it harder to remove than it should be. Using an Eye-Fi card solves that problem, but the extra WiFi power drain means that the battery compartment is going to get a workout regardless.
In an emergency the GRD family can be powered – briefly – by a pair of AAA batteries. This is done with an extra set of contacts and a flap to reduce the size of the battery compartment, which the regular DB-65 just pushes aside, so there's no need for an adapter. For what it's worth the DB-65 looks to be cross-compatible with the Sigma BP-41 and Pentax LI106, but the Ricoh-branded one is consistently the cheapest of the three.
Now, have a look at the next photo, and check out where I've attached the wrist strap: this is so much more comfortable and convenient than the usual method that other makers should be embarrassed. Naturally, mounting the strap on the top right or left is also an option.
The LCD screen is the best one I've ever used, and it really is visible in Toronto's interpretation of direct sunlight. I do sometimes prefer using the GV-1 viewfinder to frame images, and the camera has a handy green AF-confirmation lamp to support it, but it's really just a matter of working style and personal preference rather than overcoming any sort of deficiency.
Th GV-1 includes both 21mm and 28mm frame lines, and there's also a much smaller GV-2 viewfinder that only shows 28mm. But with my glasses I'm only barely comfortable with the 28mm lines on the GV-1, so I'm glad I chose the bulkier one.
Aside from its approximation of framing, there are two advantages to having the shoe-mounted viewfinder, and they're both that they make the Girdiv look even more harmless than the typical point-and-shoot camera that it superficially resembles. The big GV-1 OVF makes the GRD look like a toy camera, perhaps from the 'Lomo' family, and less like a serious black rectangle. Also, the GR Digital cameras can turn off their LCD – a feat the sparkly new Nikon Coolpix A can't accomplish, not that it's a competition – making them look inert and drawing less attention to themselves.
The OVF downsides, of course, are substantial: they're expensive, easily smudged, and good luck finding a case that will fit the complete assembly.
When the LCD is off hitting a control button can be set to turn it back on momentarily to review the settings change. Unfortunately this involves a bit of a breakdown in the Girdiv's control logic, as the first button press only activates the screen instead of changing the settings. Making adjustments without looking at the camera means remembering if the LCD is on or off. But naturally it's not even that straightforward, as exposure compensation always uses the first button press to call up the adjustment scale and a really good histogram display, regardless of whether the screen is on or off.
Overall I consider the EV control quirk a positive, since exposure compensation is one of the two controls I use the most, so it's good to have it behave consistently regardless of the LCD status. It also makes it easy to call up the histogram without actually changing any settings. But the other control that I use a lot is aperture, and that does behave differently when the screen is off. For everything that isn't EV comp I would vastly prefer it if the first button press would change the intended setting as well as call up the control display on the LCD.
This is a small thing, but it does make a difference in practice, even if the subtlety of this UI quirk is so far beyond the level of competence that other makers strive for. Did you know that the $1100 Coolpix A can't even turn off its LCD screen?
Sadly the LCD display is the source of more of my UI quibbles with the Girdiv. It cycles through in five steps: Info - Info with Histogram - Grid Display - Image Only - LCD Off. I'd really like to be able to take some of those out of the rotation. The display with the histogram is somewhat redundant, as using the exposure compensation rocker automatically calls up an even better histogram. I also don't find the information overlay distracting, so I can live without the info-less screen setting. Being able to choose which screen views to include in the rotation, which in my case would be "Info - Grid - Off", would be a big improvement.
The Grid View screen is worth special mention in its own right, and not in a good way. It's the only view mode that doesn't show which AF areas are active, which is unsettling, and doesn't include the excellent dual-axis level indicators from the two Info display screens, which would be really, really useful to have in conjunction with the grid options. Granted, my D800 can't simultaneously display its grid and level in the viewfinder either, and my V1 doesn't have a grid screen or a level, but the Ricoh interface really does aim higher than those two.
The mode dial on the Girdiv has a safety interlock so that it can't be changed accidentally; this is a design consideration that's reserved for high-end SLRs from the leading national brands. The GRD can embed copyright information into the EXIF information, disable the power LED, and has an intervalometer. It's a little odd that a camera that lets its owner recalibrate the electronic levels doesn't include pixel mapping, but it does have little rubber feet on the bottom to stop the camera from sliding when it's set down.
I check the manual for the GRD-IV more than any camera that isn't a Nikon SLR. Some of this is simply due to the different way that Ricoh thinks and writes compared to the bigger brands – 'white saturation display' means blinking highlights on the LCD – but it's mostly because there are so many interlocking options. Not all of these are readily apparent or grouped in the menus, but with a bit of perseverance it generally works out in the end.
There's an entire menu section devoted to how the function buttons can be set, paired, and changed. Most menu options are confirmed simply by choosing them from the pop-out options list and then navigating away; there's no need for a separate "OK" button-press before moving on to something else. Touching the shutter button can also be set to confirm changes, making for a quick and responsive camera to navigate. I'll say it again: this is the best-designed digital camera that I've ever used. It somehow manages to simultaneously rival my D800 for customization and my Zeiss Icon for operational elegance, which is an unlikely combination to hit.
The Girdiv is unlike other cameras in how it chooses its own settings, too. I typically use aperture priority and allow its iso to run as high as 640 without supervision, and it really seems to enjoy it. The selection of these values is unusually granular: the EXIF data shows it using iso values such as 168, 176, 183, and 192; I have more photos taken at a shutter speed of 1/130s than at 1/125. If nothing else it makes for an interesting Lightroom catalog.
Buying a camera so that I could learn to use another camera seems a little odd, even to me. But Ricoh uses the same battery in the New GR, and the 2013 camera doesn't include a stand-alone battery charger, so I can almost believe that owning both of them makes sense. And given that I sold my Canon S100 for about what the Girdiv cost, it worked out fairly well for me.
I prefer the small-sensor Ricoh to its Canon counterpart, giving me a camera that I enjoy and use in exchange for one that I had stopped using, so the trade is a win-win. The Ricoh is more satisfying, offers few real limitations in actual practice, and its image quality is better enough that I can use it for prints that the Canon compact couldn't do. Maybe, just maybe, the GRD-IV will continue in active use even when there's a GRD-V in the house. Time will tell.
I've been interested in the GR family since I saw a GR1v years ago, but the cost of the small-sensor digital versions just seemed too far out of line with the rest of the market. Cutting the price in half has fixed that problem for the old model, and I'm very pleased to see the New GR with its 1.5x sensor being priced quite aggressively compared to other high-end compacts. The camera industry could definitely use a little more Ricoh.
updated mere days later: I've been able to take a New Ricoh GR for a spin, and wrote about it.
Updated again, 15 May 2013: My, My, My.
I know it's time to move on, but I've been spending some time with the "MY" modes, and they're worth reopening the review for.
Many decent cameras, such as my now-departed S100, can store a particular settings state in a custom memory mode. For the Canon camera I used this for my long exposure preferences, which were wildly different from my usual values, but having a single user-set mode made made it more of a party trick than something that was useful on a day-to-day basis. That's probably why I didn't rush to set up the "MY" positions on the Girdiv's dial, and that was a mistake.
The GRD4, like the upcoming GR that I'm practicing for, has three "MY" shooting modes, so there's no need to reserve them for exotic contortions. And just about everything can be remembered, such as the LCD display mode and permitted auto-iso range, along with more typical things like exposure mode and settings. Making the camera even better, there's a menu that lets just about every camera setting be edited after the mode position is registered. If you later want a different custom self-timer configuration, noise reduction threshold, or grid display, the process to change the saved settings is just as easy to use as everything else on the camera.
I've set "MY2" to my preferred all-around settings: aperture priority, f/1.9, auto-iso authorized to 640, LCD on, etcetera. This way it doesn't matter if I was last taking macro photos at f/8, or landscapes at iso80, the camera always starts up the same way. I know exactly what the camera will do just by looking at the mode dial it when I turn it on, and predictability is a good thing.
The settings I've saved to "MY1" are identical to "MY2", except the LCD is turned off. A minor difference, perhaps, but this fixes one of my few nagging UI quibbles. No more cycling through the different view modes with the display button, just push-and-turn and done. Similarly, "MY3" holds my 'street' settings. The LCD stays off, the camera moves to shutter priority at 1/500s, and auto-iso can run as high as 1250: perfect for catching grab shots when I'm on the move. Having this programmed into a MY mode makes 'snap focus', a distinctively Ricoh feature, vastly more useful for me.
The GRD4's amount of customization would be pretty impressive even if it stopped right there, but of course it doesn't. I've still only just started to understand the different ways the camera can be configured and changed from moment to moment. And to reward all of this hard work, the Girdiv can even store additional inactive "MY" settings in its memory. These stand ready to be called into service with fewer button-presses than it takes for me to change the iso setting on my Nikon V1.
Not bad for a point-and-shoot.
last updated 15 may 2013