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


  1. Just wanted to say that I enjoyed reading this a lot and I WANT ONE SO BAD.

    And if Ricoh released a GRii with weather sealing and maybe some K-3 guts, that'd be the no-brainer purchase of the year.


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