Ricoh GR: Experience

Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 5 out of 5
Yeah, but: Two months and no complaints.

The Long Version: Normally if I'm awake before 6am it means that I can go back to sleep for a couple more hours. Standing on the corner of Yonge and Queen, taking pre-dawn long exposures, is not my normal routine. It was all worth it, though: my camera was perched on top of a traffic control box, six feet off the ground, when a cyclist stopped to wait for the light to change. He glanced up: "Is that the new Ricoh GR?"

As awesome as the GR is to hold and use, it doesn't really look like anything special; it's almost aggressively nondescript. For someone to be able to spot it, in the dark, while busy doing and thinking about other things, is amazing. Certainly it speaks to the cyclist's considerable knowledge and eyesight, but it also shows that the latest camera from Ricoh has made enough of an impression to be noticed.

The nice thing about wandering the streets with a camera is that I never really know what I will find, no matter how often I revisit the same terrain. I do live in a vibrant and active neighbourhood, but that experience of continual discovery is mostly because I'm capable of forgetting about little things like Toronto's annual summer-ending weekend-long air show.

The GR's full-press snap focus setting means that the camera will automatically jump to a pre-set distance when the shutter button isn't given time for the half-press AF pause. This ability comes in handy for unexpected contingencies. I easily changed the snap focus distance to Infinity and continued on my rounds, able to use the standard AF mode for my usual subjects. But when the time was right I caught a close solo flyby from a CF-18, which looks vastly less impressive than it actually was because of the 28mmm-e lens.

Ah, well.

There's a certain thrill that I have with the GR that I rarely experience with other cameras: the frisson of thinking "I wish pressing this button would do that particular thing" and then discovering that it does. What makes it even better is when I'm the one who set it up that way, either in a custom mode or with a button assignment, but then forgot about it. I wanted to change to snap/manual focus while I was taking long exposures, and sure enough I had already configured the 'effect' button for just that moment. Brilliant.

In practice I don't find much difference between manual focus and the full-time snap focus mode, in which the distance is selected from steps of 1m, 1.5m, 2, 2.5, 5, and infinity. Full manual focus allows much finer control, all the way down to the 10cm close-focus limit, but takes a bit longer to dial in because of it. Speed or precision – I usually opt for speed, especially when deep-focus long exposures or impromptu compositions makes an exact focus placement unlikely in the first place. In either manual focus mode the CAF/AF-on button still lets the camera do its thing, so there's no bad choice.

Winter is coming, and with it comes jacket weather and the ability to leave the camera bag at home. The GR, with its GV1 viewfinder attached, lives in my right jacket pocket. If I'm also carrying the GRD4, it will be in my left jacket pocket; sometimes when I'm actively taking photos it ends up in a jeans pocket, depending on what was more convenient when I switched between them. Pocket-carry has been liberating; the only downside has been figuring out where to put my keys, since I'd hate to scratch either camera.

I typically revert to the GRDIV when I need a macro shot, am photographing in bad conditions, or want another camera to play with while the GR's tied up doing long exposures. There was even one time when I shot with a Ricoh in each hand; it was surprisingly easy but probably geekier than I needed to be. I wouldn't suggest buying a second camera just for this purpose, but it worked for me.

When I'm walking with the GR I usually hold it at my side, fingers wrapped around the front of the camera from above, so that I can press the shutter button by squeezing the camera up into my hand. Sneaky, perhaps, but it also gives that different 'from the hip' viewpoint that can be effective. I once used that hold with my GRD4 for an impromptu photo-essay on smokers – that social pastime that smells like farts and concludes with littering – that wouldn't have been possible with an SLR. The Ricoh GR is a squirrel-like mammal in this time of SLR dinosaurs.

I've spent seven years in camera clubs: I don't think I know this gentleman, but we probably have friends in common. He has a high-end cropped-sensor camera with a battery grip, an off-brand superzoom lens complete with poorly-coated UV filter, and it's slung on a rambotographer strap. He's wearing a sun hat in the middle of the night and a shirt that's colour-coordinated to his loaded photographer's safari vest. At his side is what looks like a Manfrotto 190XproB tripod, complete with a branded shoulder strap, and one of those joystick heads that so often seduces people into thinking that they're a good idea. Hey, I owned one of those once – these things happen.

There are a lot of people who think this is what photography is, and as long as they're having fun, more power to them. But look at the two guys in the background.

They're dressed for the occasion, which is an overnight arts festival. They're carrying pocketable cameras, and they're both using stronger Joby Gorillapods than their cameras need. To my eye both of them are just as intent on creating 'good' photos as The Serious Amateur, but they're on their way into the action while he's quite literally outside and above it. Both methods can work, and either can fail, but these days I'm much more interested in seeing a failure that was caught in the swirl of action than a safe and detached composition.

There have been times when I've missed having a zoom lens. There was one particular incident involving a pigeon that I would have liked to optically crop into, which is all that changing the focal length does, but instead I did what I could with the 28mm-equivalent that I had. And really, it wasn't much of a loss. What on earth am I actually going to do with a photo of a pigeon?

When I was travelling with both the GR and Nikon V1 the Ricoh took almost all of my personal photos. Disproportionately few Nikon photos even made it to blog-worthy status, and those were all done with its long zoom lens; its reach would be the only reason why I wasn't using the GR in the first place. Only one of those few photos can actually stand on its own, and even then it's not among the best. Being involved, and being interested, is interesting. Abstracts have a place, but I'm learning that those can be done with a wide lens, too.

Do I miss having a zoom lens on the GR? Not really.

If there was one thing I could change with the GR it would be to add robust weather sealing. I want to know that the GR is as tough as it feels: I've stuck my Olympus E-1 under a running shower and into a fountain's spray, and even joined a carload of photographers on an all-Olympus outing to Niagara Falls just because we could stand in the camera-killing spray with impunity. Ten years later my E-1 remains my go-to unstoppable digital camera, and I still bury it in snow banks just for fun.

There's a certain swagger that comes from carrying a really good camera that can handle anything that nature can throw at it, knowing that it can keep shooting long after all the lesser cameras have either been tucked away or killed. That's the kind of weather sealing that I want. The GR has a bit of that attitude, simply by being so good and just the right size, but it could be better.

With the experience gained in building the Penticoh K3 this level of protection shouldn't be asking too much. I'll happily accept a $1k price-point if some of the other K3 advances also make it into the next generation GR. As a side benefit this would also mean that the front lens element would need to stay in place rather than moving within the barrel to focus; I can't argue with the results but it still freaks me out a bit.

I learned early on that one of the keys to taking better photos is to keep the camera in my hand. Being ready seems to invite opportunities to appear out of nowhere; it's even more important that I don't put the camera away just because I think I'm "done" for the day. There can be a great twilight time when I'm tired but still thinking creatively, and can respond to spontaneous opportunities that I might otherwise walk past.

Another thing that I've learned is to loosen up and play; to take photos in conditions and situations even when there's nothing obviously photographic to do. I once had a great time playing on escalators, letting the conveyor movement form the photo, and that off-hand experiment became the foundation for an ongoing body of work. No, 'just playing around' usually doesn't produce anything of lasting artistic significance, but that's okay. It's all part of thinking photographically and being aware of creative potential around us.

It should go without saying that the Ricoh GR fits into these two rules perfectly. Small, pocketable and easy to bring out to play, it's the camera that I'm most likely to still have in my hand as I'm walking away from where I thought the photos were. Who knows what can happen? Maybe my favorite shot of the day will be something that I snapped while going through a turnstile on the subway.

I often joke – but not here – about how some cameras have a "flight simulator mode". These are the electronic levels that give a huge indicator for roll and pitch right in the middle of the LCD, looking like a fighter-pilot's heads-up display. While I do sometimes enjoy swooping around the room with my camera held out in front of me while making airplane noises, it rarely leads to good photos. So I'm pleased that Ricoh has a smaller electronic level display positioned on the bottom of the screen, discreet enough to leave on all the time but prominent enough to be useful.

Working with a wide lens has been my biggest adjustment with the GR, and it's still not something that I'm completely used to. Any 28mm-equivalent lens will show perspective 'distortion' very easily, and I really like having things square and level. I'll frequently manoeuvre the GR into the approximately correct position and then not actually take the photo until the electronic level turns green, and it's indispensable for positioning the camera on my little Joby tripods. Granted, I'm not always compelled to have the camera pointing straight ahead, but there's no excuse for tilt.

But the other thing that I've done is quit being so uptight, creatively speaking. Having the GR (and GRD4 before it) has had a direct effect on how I see and photograph, as any good tool should. I now take photos that I simply would have walked away from before, creating several that I'm pleased with in the process. I've also gotten better with tools that mitigate skewed perspective – old habits and all that.

It seems a little churlish, as I stand here on the brink of winter, to be overpowering daylight. But being able to treat the sun as a secondary light is a useful technique, and it's something that the GR is very good at.

Ambient light and flash are both affected by iso sensitivity, aperture, and optional ND filters, but shutter speed only changes the ambient light, giving creative control over the ambient-flash balance. The GR can shoot at an awesome 1/2500 at f/2.8 and has no limit to its flash sync speed. Add in the two-stop ND filter and it's the same as shooting at f/2.8 and 1/10,000s as far as the ambient light level is concerned, but a speedlight only needs to be able to hit its target at the equivalent of an f/5.6 aperture. That's not a big challenge, especially with an external flash.

The "No Parking" photo above was taken at 1/1000s and f/8 at iso100, under-exposing the mid-day sun by about three stops, with an Olympus FL50 and optical trigger brought out of retirement to provide the main light. While juggling manual settings on both the camera and flash takes a little practice, it isn't difficult.

A much simpler benefit of this unrestricted sync speed is that even a little pop-up flash can provide fill in full daylight. Although this exceptional flash ability isn't specific to the GR – it's shared by any camera with a leaf shutter – it's my answer to all of those reviewers who pigeon-hole the little prince as a "street photography camera".

An assortment of experiences doesn't really lend itself to a conclusion, so the good news is that I'm not done yet. An actual look at the image quality of the GR is still to come, and while there won't be any great insights in it, it will conclude my currently series on the camera. I've also previously written a guide to the buttons and customizability of the camera, as well as a philosophical prologue. What can I say? I like this camera, and have been spending a lot of time with it.

But for those who want to spare themselves more reading – lordy, are you ever in the wrong place – my summary is that this is an exceptional and transformative camera. Most people, even most serious photographers, shouldn't own it. Those not-so-serious photographers, who can work with whatever is in their hand to explore, play, and make art, should give it a look.

Quick links to the other chapters in the GR saga:

last updated 26 oct 2013


Built Slim Neoprene Sleeve

Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: Of course this is about the Ricoh GR.

The Long Version: It's a little odd that I've wanted to buy something made by Built NY for almost a decade, but it took until now to find something that I both needed and would spend the money on. They've made the neoprene rectangle with bulgy corners into something of an icon, and it tends to be priced accordingly. But one recent day I was wandering through the clearance bins of the happiest place on earth – Staples / Business Depot – and found their slim sleeve designed for the Kindle Fire. This will fit any generic 5" tablet, but more importantly, fits a Ricoh GR with an optical viewfinder attached.

The sleeve is nicely made, with cushy neoprene, the wetsuit material, and a soft liner. Its shape is designed to catch and hold a tablet, so that they won't slide out accidentally, and it's also quite effective at holding a camera. I dropped my sleeved GR onto a marble sidewalk – viva Las Vegas! – and not only was the camera protected, it didn't move within the sleeve at all. Yet the camera is still easy to remove whenever I want it, even though it's never a one-handed operation with any sleeve that I've used.

I almost always carry my small cameras inside of other bags, making a zipperless, flapless, velcroless sleeve the most convenient and lowest-bulk carrying option. This Built sleeve is at least as protective as the more customary nylon-and-padding compact camera pouch, has nothing that can scratch or make noise, and costs about the same as a good pouch even when it's not on clearance. This 5" size is a good match for larger compact cameras, and would be my choice for the Canon G-series, which is a perennial problem to house. There are smaller models designed for phones that should fit other cameras, too.

But there'a a broader lesson here that goes beyond this specific case: us photographers need to get away from photography every now and then. The solutions to the problems that we face, both practical and artistic, may already exist in another genre.

And it's worthwhile to browse the clearance bins from time to time.

last updated 19 oct 2013


Hipstreet Pandora Standing Sleeve (iPad Mini)

Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 3 out of 5
Yeah, but: Perhaps all the good names were already taken.

The Long Version: The point of having a small tablet is that it's small. I knew I would be buying an iPad Mini – MiniPad – at the end of the summer, so I had been looking at cases for a while. But most of the cases on the market are big: multi-layer folios, snap-on plastic backs with 'smart cover' integration, and crash-boxes designed for use by paratroopers. All I wanted was something that I could hold in my hand easily, protect the tablet when travelling, and let me prop the thing up when I wanted to regard it from afar.

I found the Hipstreet 'Pandora' sleeve in the clearance bin at Staples. It's a clever design with folding seams and stiffener panels that both protect the tablet and let the case be folded into a wedge shape to let it be used as a stand; magnets along the opening locks it in place as a stand and snug the sleeve closed when it's flat. There's a little sewn-on tab that catches the bottom of the tablet for use as a stand, and it will hold it in both landscape and portrait orientation.

The material is a not-unpleasant leather-like plastic, which provides plenty of grip for carrying the case, with a soft lining inside. After having mine for a couple of days I went back to Staples and bought a second one, which was lucky timing since the clearance bin was almost empty. It's fairly utilitarian, but it does a good job and has a very clever design. I may still buy something a little more colourful, but I'm glad that I have a spare in case I wear the first one out.

Updated: I've turned my miniPad into a little netbook by adding one of those Logitech Ultrathin keyboards to it. I'm pleased to say that the whole assembly is still able to squeeze into this sleeve.

last updated 3 nov 2013


Ricoh GR: Buttons

Concept: 4 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: This is the boring bit.

The Long Version: A friend of mine occasionally talks about an abstract special quality that he calls "thing-ness", and the 2013 Ricoh GR makes an exquisite job out of being a thing. Its design has been refined over generations of cameras, digital and film, so it makes sense that the GR is the only camera I've handled that improves on the feel of the slightly smaller Ricoh GRD4. The new GR is simply a pleasure to hold, and makes me wonder why any company would ever design a flat-fronted camera.

There's an odd paradox that high-end compact cameras often feel better-built than midrange SLRs that cost considerably more, and accordingly the immediate impression of the Ricoh GR is solidity. It has a heft and a presence to it, both in the hand and in action, that marks it as a serious little machine. Yet it's a light camera, weighing about as much as similarly-sized compacts from other makers, and less than the larger and self-consciously photographer-centric designs from Canon and Nikon.

The LCD on the GR is worth a special mention because it's actually usable in daylight. It defaults to a slightly lower brightness than the GRD4, which may contribute to the GR's strong battery life numbers, but I never resort to using the hotshoe-mounted optical finder to make up for any LCD shortcomings. The GR also removes my two complaints about the GRD4's LCD interface: we can now choose how many info screens there are, which streamlines the interface, and it's able to show both the alignment grid and the electronic level at the same time.

The GR charges its battery in the camera, via a short custom USB cable. I like that it can charge via USB, since it means that booster batteries for phones can keep the camera running even without AC power, but Ricoh should have included a stand-alone charger instead of yet another 5V USB block. But now that the decision's been made, someone needs to kit up an extra DB-65 battery and BJ-6 charger for GR owners to buy at a discount.

For what it's worth, the battery is the same as the venerable Panasonic CGA-S005, making clones and compatibles rather easy to find, although I haven't tried this myself. Ricoh's batteries tend to be the cheapest of the name-brand ones that are compatible, and I've never had an off-brand battery that matched a branded one.

When the camera is plugged in to charge the green LED on the LCD bezel lights, and turns off when the battery is done. Unfortunately the camera can't do anything else while charging, so forget about plugging it in while reviewing images or working through its menu. Ricoh doesn't get much wrong, so making two missteps with its power supply is very surprising.

Setting up the GR's customizable settings can be overwhelming, and may take months to dial in properly, but there's so much that it does right straight out of the box. The front control wheel changes the active shooting parameter – Av, Tv, program shift – and the vertical +/- toggle on the back gives direct access to exposure compensation. The horizontal 'Adj' toggle can be set for direct access to the iso level, or choose the "auto-hi" iso mode that lets you specify a minimum shutter speed and sensitivity limit. Unless you're shooting jpegs, there's really not much else to worry about. But of course the GR can do far more than that, even for raw shooters.

The GR has three configurable function buttons, all of which can have different values in any of the GR's three programmable shooting modes, and five easy-access 'quick menu' style items. No, the camera can't be set up for birding, but there's very little about it that can't be dialled in to work exactly the way each individual owner desires.

I use the programmable MY-modes extensively, including one to register my normal shooting parameters, so I always know exactly how the camera will work each time I turn it on. It doesn't matter if I was last using the macro mode, or some wacky exposure combination in manual: I know that the camera will boot up in Av mode at f/2.8, no macro, with auto-high iso allowed to range as high as 3200 to maintain a generous 1/125 shutter speed.

Another MY- position is set for street photography. In this case the camera keeps its LCD off, is set for shutter-priority at 1/500s, wide AF with continuous shooting, and its iso sensitivity is allowed to go as high as 6400. I also have the picture style set to black and white, even though the raw image is always recorded in colour, to let me review the images in monochrome.

The GR has rekindled my love of long exposures. My third programmable mode dial position turns the ND filter on, sets iso to 100, and the shutter speed to eight seconds, the GR's longest. The camera will then choose whichever aperture setting works, and I let it automatically shorten the shutter speed when f/16 is still too bright. Perfect exposures, every time. And because I mostly use it at night, the camera also uses centre-weighted metering, -1EV exposure compensation, and dark-frame subtraction noise reduction is turned on. Naturally, the GR is also told to use the two-second self-timer. The two-second timer rocks.

Many compact cameras try to be clever, but Ricoh makes ones that are genuinely smart. They know that a two-second timer is only used to avoid camera shake, so the AF-assist light doesn't flash during the countdown. With a longer duration, the kind of time that someone will use to include themselves in the frame, the countdown light flashes. Ricoh took the time to actually understand how the cameras they make will be used. The Nikon D800 and Canon 5Dmk3, $3K baby-flagships that they are, light their AF illuminators when the two-second timer is running.

Now, the GR does have its operational quirks and frustrations. There doesn't seem to be any way to magnify the screen for manual focus assistance, and magnifying the active AF point doesn't give any escape to view the entire composition before taking the photo. On the other hand, the Snap and Manual focus modes can bring up a distance scale that displays the depth of field for the current aperture. Excellent for street photography, not so helpful for studio portraiture. Life's a barter.

The GR's magnification in macro mode is rather modest. I've certainly seen worse from large-sensored compacts LINK TO G1X, but it's nowhere near as effective as the GRD4 or other small-sensored compacts. Photography, as always, involves compromises, and this is the one that I'm most likely to run into when I'm using the camera. It could possibly be overcome by adding the GH3 filter adapter and using magnifying diopters, but I'm not sure the shortcoming warrants the severity of that solution. Instead I just carry my GRD4 as well.

It's also worth noting that having the macro mode enabled does slow down the rack-to-infinity focusing speed, so the GR isn't one of those cameras that can always be left with the little flower icon on.

Focusing speed in general is quite good. Not SLR-fast, but fast enough when the light is adequate, and less so when it isn't. Its continuous shooting speed, on the other hand, is ample – raw-only is better than 6fps for a brief burst. Once again the GR turns out to be a disappointment for birders, but it's enough to catch fleeting gestures or expressions.

The v2.03 firmware update has improved the focusing system. Pressing the AFL/AEL button to lock focus now enables Spot mode even when the camera would normally use multi-area AF, which is much faster than changing the AF area mode through a custom button or the ADJ menu. I now have my GR set to "lock focus only" with the AFL/AEL button – and it shows its handy distance-and-dof scale to confirm my target – as half-pressing the shutter button will lock the exposure. Brilliant: exactly how I want the camera to work.

Flipping the switch that surrounds this button enables continuous auto focus, turning it into the sports-shooter's back AF-ON button, while the shutter button retains its wide-area single-AF activation for the times when continuous focus isn't activated. I adore how one button combines with a toggle switch to have two functions that are logically connected but have opposite effects. I know exactly how the camera will work, and can change from one specialized setting to the other, simply by feel and without moving my hold from the shooting position.

The GR doesn't offer any sort of image stabilization, and the combination of its high resolution, light weight, and LCD framing does make it susceptible to camera shake. Don't expect to reliably hand-hold a 1/30 shutter speed. I set mine for 1/125, and have been quite happy with that, although 1/60 would probably be okay.

The trick here is to use the auto-high iso mode, which lets you set a minimum shutter speed and maximum sensitivity, not the "auto" mode that is enabled straight out of the box. This one tripped me up on my first outing with the new camera because of another personality quirk that the GR has.

The GR is honest, even if it's not helpful sometimes. The DNG files only embed a small jpeg image with their raw data, so shooting raw-only means that magnifying the images on the cameras' LCD isn't very satisfying. Checking for sharpness is pretty much hopeless. Jpeg images can be enlarged without any difficulty, including those shot in raw+jpeg; in a pinch a raw image can be converted to a jpeg in-camera, but that's just a little bit clunky.

One other quirk to keep in mind with the physical operation of the GR: it has a fixed 28mm-equivalent prime lens. That might bother some people.

Owning a GR and a GRD4 has changed my standards. I've been using the GR every day for over a month now, taking over 3000 photos in the process, and the camera just keeps getting better. Moments of frustration with its design and operation are almost completely absent, while with other cameras they range between occasional and endemic. There are cameras – popular, mainstream cameras – that I simply would not buy because their usability is so incredibly poor. The GR proves that bad design isn't mandatory.

The GR is the best digital camera that I've ever used – others may take better photos, but none do a better job of being a camera. Its design and operational elegance rivals my ZM Zeiss Icon, a camera that was made to improve on the lessons from a half-century of Leica engineering, and possibly exceeds it. I never thought that a digital camera could accomplish that task.

The fact that the GR's image quality is excellent is a nice bonus, as well. More on that in a bit.

Quick links to the other chapters in the GR saga:

last updated 8 oct 2013


Victorinox Small Tinker

Concept: 3 out of 5
Execution: 4 out of 5
Yeah, but: Small is good.

The Long Version: The Victorinox Tinker, August's SAK of the Month, is a very useful knife. It's a two-layer knife with the basic utility toolset: philips driver and awl, small and large blades, and the cap lifter and can opener. The small Tinker is exactly the same knife, except 8% smaller. That's enough to make it the SAK of the Month for October.

The 91mm standard-sized Tinker isn't my favourite two-layer knife; March's SAKOTM, the Compact, offers more versatility for the same size, with few drawbacks. But the simple little knife from February, the Bantam, is my favourite of all of the cellidor-handled knives I own. I bought the Small to see if that smaller form factor would still be as charming with a slightly thicker knife.

Tinker, Small Tinker

The Small Tinker is the same length as the Bantam, but is wider to accomodate two tool layers that split out the functions of the Bantam's two tools. The blade becomes the large and small blade layer, the combo tool becomes the openers layer. While I could have stopped there and saved a few dollars by buying the Recruit, the Small Tinker's backside tools don't add much to the size and weight of the knife.

Having both 91mm and 84mm Tinkers has let me do some direct comparisons between the tools. The large blade, cap lifter, and can opener are all scaled down on the smaller knife, but the screwdriver tips of the openers remains the same size. The small blade, backside T-handle Philips driver, and awl are the same between both knives.

A perfectly valid question would be why anyone would own both the small and standard tinker. Frankly, I'm having a hard time answering that one. My suggestion would be that the Small Tinker would be nicely paired with the Mechanic, an Alox knife for utility tasks, or the Compact for variety. For those who want just a single knife, though, the Small Tinker remains an excellent choice.

The strength of a Swiss Army Knife isn't that it has the best tools for the job, but that it's the tool that's most likely to be available. The Small Tinker is smaller enough that it's a bit easier to carry than the 91mm variant, but its tools remain just as useful. That makes it pretty easy to recommend.

last updated 4 oct 2013

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