Ricoh GV-1 Viewfinder

Concept: 2 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: Society for Camera Anachronisms approved.

The Long Version: The Ricoh GV-1 is an add-on optical viewfinder that's marked with 21mm and 28mm framelines, which makes it a decidedly odd accessory in these days of electronic viewfinders and zoom lenses. It conveys no information aside from a rough approximation of framing in exchange for considerably increasing the bulk and cost of the few cameras that can use it. On the other hand, it does come with a nylon carrying case, so there's that.

Ricoh also makes the GV-2, which is a physically smaller optical viewfinder with only 28mm framelines, but it offers less eye relief than the bulky GV1. That rules it out for me – I can see the GV1's 28mm lines with my glasses on, but the 21mm lines are a struggle. Both Ricoh viewfinders have squarish black stippled metal bodies that match the GR-series cameras.

With an eye to the viewfinder the framelines take up almost the entire field without the 'tunnel' effect that SLRs are famous for. The 28mm framelines are visually larger than a midrange DSLR's viewfinder, and to my eye even exceeds the entire viewing window of the Fujifilm X-Pro and X100/s optical viewfinders. It can't match the awesome m-mount Zeiss Ikon for viewfinder size – few can – but it the GV1 is brighter.

The guides on the GV1 are a bit tighter than the actual capture area, especially toward the bottom of the frame. The lines are basically in a 3:2 aspect ratio, despite the viewfinder being made for for the small-sensor GR Digital line, but it makes surprisingly little difference between the two camera types. The viewfinder is also offset to the right to avoid the pop-up flash that's next to the hotshoe on the GRD cameras, but the new GR has a bit more room up top, which will make it more compatible with other 28mm finders.

The view through the GV1 is very good. Clear, bright, and with good optics in its own right, although its slight barel distortion exceeds that from the lenses of the GR/D4. An interesting side effect of looking through a wide-angle accessory finder like the GV1 is that they make vertical perspective visible, which is something that we're normally blind to although it absolutely will show up in the GR's photos.

For critical framing the GV1 is useless, and for normal use it's not really necessary; the LCD screens on the GD and GRD4 are very good even in bright sun. (Although the lower default brightness of the GR makes it slightly weaker than its predecessor in this regard.) It's occasionally useful as a fast framing aid, even with the LCD on, since I find it more intuitive to bring the camera up and quickly boresight my subject rather than look away from my subject and concentrate on the image on the LCD screen, which may not even be in focus yet. I've done this with taxis and with fighter jets, and it works just fine for snapshots, although obviously composition is somewhat extemporaneous.

Where the optical finder really shines is for discreet photography with the LCD turned off. "Street" photography is an obvious example, but there are ample other times when it's nice to be subtle, smooth, and unobtrusive. Here the GR's focus confirmation LED comes in handy, letting the camera and viewfinder work as one unit. I just have to remember that the brim of my hat won't be in the photo even if it impinges into the viewfinder's field of view.

The time when I'm most likely to remove the GV1 is when I'm taking macro photos, since it's very easy for it to cast a shadow on the subject. The good news is that my GV1 usually lives on the bigger-sensored GR, which is fairly bad at macro photography, leaving my closer-focusing GRD4 naked and ready to go. So the viewfinder even gives me a quick way to tell my two Ricoh cameras apart, which probably isn't a problem that many people will have.

Having the viewfinder attached does considerably increase difficulty in finding a camera case that will hold the complete assembly. I usually carry my GR in a neoprene sleeve that was meant for a 5" tablet; it cost $7 at an office supply store, making it the best accessory-per-dollar I've ever spent on anything photographic.

Seeing the camera with the viewfinder attached has different effects depending on the audience. Non-photographers seem more inclined to notice the camera and then dismiss it; instead of being just another compact digital camera it looks more like a film or toy camera. People who know cameras seem to take it a little more seriously, since it says something about the owner's intent, even if it may be a bit of an affectation.

Yes, it is something of an anachronism, but the GR with its matching viewfinder just has a certain integrity that I really enjoy. That might sound trivial or superficial, but i've proven over and over again that I take better photos when I'm using gear that I like. At the very least, I take more photos with gear that I like, and often that's the same thing.

last updated 27 spet 2013


Ricoh GR: Preface

Concept: 5 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: It's just a camera, not anything important.

The Long Version: The Ricoh GR isn't some flawless machine. It's not the most capable, not the best in low light, not the smallest, not the most rugged, and not the highest resolving; it doesn't have the largest dynamic range, the fastest focusing, the longest battery life, or even the fewest optical flaws. Others will be better than it in any of those things, and a some might surpass the GR in several at once.

Notwithstanding: The Ricoh GR is the best camera that I've ever used.

The biggest thing that I've learned from the Ricoh GR is that specialization is the opposite of compromise. Compromises are inherent in photography; as just two examples, cameras that accept interchangeable lenses and lenses with variable focal lengths all exchange aspects of their design, size, cost, and quality for versatility. Usually that's a pretty good deal, and I celebrate the different sets of compromises made by the six or seven camera systems that I own. But the opposite of that is to accept specialization, compromises in application instead of in design, and the results can be glorious.

Underlying intentions and design assumptions matter. Consider the Nikon Coolpix A, a camera with specifications that are almost identical to the GR, but with the soul of a completely different machine because it was conceived of as a fixed-lens camera with a DSLR heritage. It's a good enough camera, from a company that often sets "good enough" as their design objective, but it lacks the GR's essence.

The Ricoh GR comes from a long line of cameras that are all very much like the GR; the current model with its APS-C sensor is even priced very similarly to its small-sensor predecessors. With this new model Ricoh is simply continuing their years of work to make the best GR cameras possible, and clearly takes tremendous satisfaction in this rather esoteric and under-appreciated goal. All of the other camera-making companies are pursuing a much broader strategy that is being is played out across the entire spectrum of the market. The cameras themselves, especially compact cameras, are secondary to some other unstated objective that Ricoh simply doesn't seem to share.

The GR is typically presented as a camera for street photographers. As a small, pocketable, one-handed, nondescript compact camera that will be dismissed by nearly everyone who sees it – photographers, security guards, the general public – the GR has the same single-minded clarity of purpose as a scalpel. The funny thing is that scalpels actually have a lot of different uses; X-Acto knives can be found in any art or office supply store.

"Street" isn't a genre that I'm particularly interested in, and my attempts to dabble in it haven't been particularly successful. Instead I like abstracted compositions with squared-off geometry, active framing, and flat picture space. That's the natural domain of an SLR with a medium-long lens, and yet somehow the GR still works for me. It may be a specialized camera with its fixed wide-angle lens, but don't confuse that with being restricted.

The Ricoh GR is a camera that's worth spending time with, so my review of it will be ongoing and broken into different chapters. The first isn't exclusively about the GR, but rather about the experience of travelling with it in place of an SLR system. The next will be a rather boring recitation of buttons and functions as I go through some of the options that this little camera offers. Following that will be my more usual experiential review and a closer look at image quality.

It should go without saying that a long-term report also seems inevitable.

Quick links to the other chapters in the GR saga:

last updated 8 oct 2013


HALO Portable Smartphone Charger

Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: Not Just For Boy Scouts

The Long Version: This device is a rechargeable battery that will charge your phone when you're in a situation where AC outlets aren't available, with a fairly comprehensive connection system.
Back in November or December 2012 we became aware of this product when it sold the most units in QVC's "Today's Special Value" history. Sold-out within hours and then kept on selling to a computer glitch causing a scramble to obtain more from the manufacturer ASAP. A huge success and fiasco at the same time. (Don't ask how I know any of this).

Once the situation stabilized we ordered three, in silver, blue, and black. Pink and cheetah print didn't really appeal to us. As shown, there is a USB "Y" cable that has another USB on the other end as well as a proprietary connector for the included adapters. Now that the Android smartphone market has settled on micro-usb life is much simpler since we can all share and stockpile chargers, and an adapter for iPhone 4 and earlier is also included along with that dinosaur mini-USB as used on compact cameras and other devices from the last decade. (Remember when every time you upgraded your cellphone the charging connector was completely new and you had to buy a spare for the office and yet another car charger? No wonder everyone got so angry when the iPhone 5 came out).
The "Y" cord is handy because when connected to your Samsung or Apple USB 5-volt AC adapter you can charge your phone AND the HALO at the same time, provided the adapter delivers sufficient amperage. The short cable length is actually a good thing, because when used to deliver power from the HALO to your device it's easy to drop it into your camera bag, purse, or hold in your hand while continuing business without a big tangle of cable.

This version from HALO will charge most current smartphones just as fast an OEM wall unit, and holds enough juice to bring a Galaxy S3 or S4 and most others from death's door to a full charge with enough left over to get another 50%, more or less. After using ours for all of 2013 thus far, there has been no degradation of results, so I feel like the electronics are solid. There's a multi-colored LED display on one end that works when charging OR discharging the battery. Build quality is rock solid, with very durable finishes and excellent materials and design.

What's funny is that it took months for us to get other people to understand this product in the first place. In March, Sylvia and I went on vacation with three friends to Lake Tahoe. Since we're both informed smartphone users and know that turning off WIFI is important when travelling so your phone isn't burning battery searching for non-existent networks at 35,000 feet, our HALO's didn't come into play until our friends couldn't find an AC outlet at Las Vegas's airport terminals that wasn't being hogged by a college student.
When we fly and/or wait pretty much all day on the way to the Dominican Republic in January, our HALO's are going to be worth every penny.

Sylvia's nephew graduated from US Air Force basic training in July, so I gave him our spare black HALO after finding out that he wouldn't get his cellphone back until the bus ride to the airport on the way to tech school. (He's going to be an air traffic controller).
Not only would his battery be flat after sitting in lockup for 6 weeks, but there wouldn't be an opportunity to get a good charge any other way. He's a young guy who was away from his phone for way too long, so I figured the HALO would save his ass. At first he was: "Oh...uhh...thanks..." but from the intel I got after leaving the party, he figured out what it really meant and started carrying it around and showing it off as the coolest thing ever. Just like I predicted, he was the only one of his buds who was able to charge his phone on the bus and the plane, and connect with the outside world after a long time away.

There are other brands, and HALO has other form factors of portable chargers that are bigger and deliver more juice at a higher price. We like ours for the small size and convenience, but your needs may require something different.
While this particular model is featured in the review, I'm more concerned with advocating the concept of ANY portable rechargeable spare universal battery. Speaking from experience, people will remember you favorably as the guy who whipped-out the slick power thingy long after midnight that got them enough juice to return text messages and GPS their way home from a party or club.
When you recall the stories of folks stranded in blizzards or deserts who could've been saved had their batteries lasted longer, I consider owning something like this to be an essential part of smart people's survival gear.
Mine lives in my camera backpack, and Sylvia's is always in her purse. They get used more often than we thought they would, but mainly they are there when we REALLY need them.


Ricoh GR: Travel

Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 5 out of 5
Yeah, but: This is only Part One.

The Long Version: There was one time when I missed having my D800 with me. I was in an elevator, three thousand kilometres from my home, on my way to photograph a bunch of friends getting reading for a wedding. I'm not the most outgoing individual, and am not naturally drawn to people photography; the gravitas of a big camera would have been something to take authority from, or hide behind. Instead I was carrying the little Ricoh GR, and for a fleeting minute it felt like one of those dreams where I would be arriving at the party naked.

But if I had my D800 the photos would have been worse. It's too much camera to be sticking in someone's face, and would have shot like a thunderclap in a small hotel room. And I knew that, too, even as I was briefly wanting the God Nikon.

At no other point in my week-long trip to Los Angeles and Las Vegas did I wish I was carrying more weight or a bigger camera.

Visiting family in Los Angeles meant lots of opportunities for casual photography, as well as returning to one of my favourite landscape locations. Moving on to a wedding in Las Vegas would involve street and urban photography in my off-time as well as filling in around the edges of the paid event photographers for the big day. That wedding also meant that I'd need two "good" cameras, as Penny would be photographing the female half of the preparations.

My original plan had been to carry the Nikon D800 with the 60mm Micro and Sigma 35/1.4 along with the Nikon V1 with its 10-30, 30-110, and 18.5mm prime. That would fill my boxy Lowepro Stealth Reporter, leaving my iPad Mini sticking out the back, and barely have room for batteries, let alone the chargers and everything else I'd need. Fortunately, my preorder for the GR, placed with Ricoh in May, came through just three days before I flew out – on the Friday before a long weekend – and changed everything.

The D800 and its two lenses stayed home: five pounds of weight gone, just like that, along with the need for the boxy nylon camera bucket. Now my entire kit fit inside a little 7L MEC Pod sling pack, which made everything else I did over the trip easier and better. Even with all of the ancillary bits and pieces that I wanted with me, my fully loaded carry-on weight was only nine pounds, and my working weight was substantially lighter than that. The GR's higher quality and smaller size also meant that the V1 was demoted from its expected role as my main camera, and while it was irreplaceable for the wedding and associated events, it took less than 20% of my personal photos.

When the quality and portability of the GR is mentioned on photography forums there's always someone who espouses something that they already own: the NEX-whichever and 16-50 power zoom lens, or a Panalympus with Pancakes, or the Fuji ex-film series. None of those are even in the same league as the Ricoh GR. I own three different mirrorless camera systems, and have travelled with each of them. A camera this good and this small hasn't happened before.

First of all, the collapsing Sony 16-50 is the camel scrotum of camera lenses – not in a good way – and all interchangeable lens systems have design and size restrictions that simply don't apply to a fixed-lens camera. The Ricoh GR's dedicated prime lens resolves more detail, and with fewer deficiencies, than much larger and more expensive machines. The GR is unquestionably more specialized than a camera with interchangeable lenses, but it's also far less compromised.

Secondly, the Ricoh GR comes from a long line of advanced small cameras, and its operation has been exquisitely thought out. With the exception of its mechanical flash release, the GR can be configured so that every single shooting function can be used and changed one-handed. That makes for a completely different paradigm than a camera that requires two hands to use properly. Complimenting this is its slim design, which makes it more pocketable than awkwardly-named fixed-lens cameras like the Sony RX100M2 or Coolpix A. The GR is the most transparent digital camera that I've ever worked with, and it just goes away when it's not needed any more.

The catch, of course, is that the GR accomplishes its small size and excellent image quality via an unzooming 28mm-equivalent lens. That's not my favourite single focal length – I prefer 60mm – and wide lenses do tend to be more difficult to use than long ones. Add in the imprecision of holding and framing with an LCD-only camera to the wide-angle ability to exaggerate perspective and hilarity often ensues. It's certainly not for everyone. But my time with both the GR and the small-sensor GRD4 has convinced me that 28mm is an excellent if-there-can-be-only-one focal length. Those who disagree are welcome to treat the GR as a 10Mpx 35mm-equivalent camera if they prefer.

Travelling with the GR made for the best effort:reward ratio of any photographic trip I've ever taken. In Los Angeles I would carry the GR and three-lens V1 system in my shoulder bag, almost always choosing the GR but having the V1 and its long zoom immediately available when I wanted it. That same bag could only have fit the much heavier D800 with one lens; photographic flexibility would have meant carrying a much bigger and even heavier camera bag when I went to the beach, toured a local battleship, or walked around the neighbourhood. The GR/V1 pairing gave me tremendous flexibility, good-to-excellent quality, and a much more pleasant trip overall.

Street photography with the GR in Las Vegas was quite literally a snap. Being able to use the camera with one hand, and set most of its functions with barely a glance, drew minimal attention and let me take many photos that I could never have managed with an SLR. I didn't even bother with a camera bag when I was on the strip at night, since the GR could fit in a pocket even with the little Joby Micro 800 tripod attached. The Ricoh GR immediately rekindled my love of urban long exposures, and reconfiguring it from taking low-iso long exposures to being ready for high-iso street snapshots was as simple as choosing a new custom-programmed position on the mode dial.

Every time I picked up my camera bag, or saw someone walking with a big camera, I was happy that I had left my D800 kit at home. I almost felt badly for the SLR-users lugging their ungainly contrivances of tripods and wide-angle lenses around Las Vegas Boulevard at night. Just one year ago beavering away with a little compact camera would have been a waste of effort, but now the world has changed. The last time I saw an impending shift this large was when I was trying to explain the brand-new Lightroom software to photographers who told me that Adobe Bridge did everything they needed.

I'm not about to put my D800 up for sale, and I know that I'll be taking trips with it in the future. Its image quality and flexibility remain unsurpassed. If weight is not an issue, like when on a supported tour or travelling by car, I'll happily load up a big backpack and head out the door. But I'll still be bringing the GR to tuck in a pocket.

If I'm flying, or taking intercity buses, weight and bulk transform into luxuries and impediments. Pairing the excellent GR with the versatile Nikon V1 worked very well given the requirements of this trip, and I know I'll be using that combination the next time I'm in Coney Island. But I also foresee other trips, possibly including multi-day bus forays, done entirely with my GR and GRD4.

Cheap SD cards remove the need for storage drives, and phones and tablets are making laptop computers redundant. The GR's in-camera charging means that the same USB power block can supply my phone, tablet, and camera; if that fails then the GRD4 can squeak as many photos as you'd get from a short roll of film out of a pair of AAA batteries. It has never been easier to travel long distances lightly and with excellent gear.

With the GR I finally have a camera that's small enough to carry and use anywhere, and good enough that it's worth taking those once-in-a-longtime photos with. Even better, it's a genuinely compact camera that doesn't require workarounds and compromises in its use. It's not perfect, but it's exceptionally well designed and hits the sweet spot for almost everything it does.

Quick links to the other chapters in the GR saga:

last updated 14 sept 2013


Victorinox Trekker

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 2 out of 5
Yeah, but: The One-Handed models are better.

The Long Version: It's always nice when I read one of those "what knife should I carry" forum threads only to discover that I already own the tool that keeps being recommended over and over again. It's unlikely to happen, but there's no question that the Victorinox Trekker is what I would want to carry if I ever find myself in nature for any length of time. That's enough to make it September's SAK of the Month.

The Victorinox Trekker – aka Trailmaster in places where Cold Steel doesn't have that name locked down – is a very serious SAK. Notable for having a locking blade and nylon handles, there's also a one-handed opening version that's the basis for the contemporary knives for both the German and Swiss armies, and that model is worth a serious investigation for anyone who wants to never lose their tweezers or toothpick.

As a 111mm knife, the Trekker is substantially larger and heavier than the 93mm Alox knives; to be completely honest, I find it far too large to carry for casual or occasional use. But that's not a problem for people who want a medium-to-hard-use tool, which the Trekker undoubtedly is. Both the blade and the cap lifter have liner-locking mechanisms to keep them in place, and both are considerably larger and heavier-duty than their smaller-SAK counterparts. Even the attachment point for the split ring is stronger than the usual, and could probably be a powerful striking tool in its own right.

The Trekker also includes the extremely useful wood saw, which is my weapon of choice whenever I need to deal with wood or plastic, as well as the standard can opener, backside philips and awl, and it has the standard tweezers and toothpick in the handle. I'd combine it with a small pouch for belt carry, and just add a hatchet, tent, camp stove, food, water purifier, sleeping bag, cot, and a personal locator beacon for an excellent outdoors kit.

My Trekker pre-dates the one-handed models, which is what I would buy now if I had to do it all over again. But this is one of those times when there's no bad choice, and these biggest Swiss Army Knives deserve a considerable amount of respect.

last updated 13 sept 2013

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