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