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


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