Ricoh GR: Image Quality

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

The Long Version: Re-reading my favourite book I came across the expression "counting grains of sand". It's a metaphor for tediously wasting time on meaningless minutia; clearly the concept of "pixel peeping" predates digital photography. That's certainly something for me to remember going forward.

This has been a surprisingly difficult review to write. The Ricoh GR is an exciting camera, finally putting a sensor that's worthy of the GR Digital camera body behind an exceptional lens. But for this review I'm just trying to look at image quality; removing size, price, and design from consideration makes the GR a bit more ordinary for a 1.5X sensor. But then again, maybe if I didn't have a Nikon D800 and Sigma 35/1.4A I'd be more appropriately astonished by just how good the GR is.

The GR's previous-generation sensor shows some weakness when compared to kit-lensed SLRs that cost about the same amount, although the detail its fixed lens captures shames the SLRs. Put it up against a fixed-lens camera with the same sized sensor – often the same sensor – and you'll be paying more to carry a larger and/or inferior body.

Everything in photography is a compromise.

After four months with the GR my only image quality stumble comes from its autofocus system. From time to time it will miss the subject and lock on to the background, especially in lower lighting or at closer focusing distances. It's tempting to trust those wide-area AF confirmation boxes, but for critical photos using pinpoint AF is worth the minimal extra effort.

Attentive readers will notice that this isn't actually a problem with the camera. It's purely my own bad handling, sloppy technique, and the excessive vanity of turning off the focus-assist lamp. The GR's incredible resolution, and the narrower focus of its larger sensor, reveals sloppiness that doesn't matter for the small-sensor compacts that the GR resembles. I'd never trust wide-area AF on an SLR to choose correctly or accurately show what it has picked, and the GR demands the same respect.

The Ricoh GR is not a Nikon D800. Pulling up detail in very deep shadows can cause mosquito artifacts around fine details, even at iso100. It's subtle, but it's there. With some high-sensitivity photos I've resorted to monochrome conversions; I won't hesitate to use iso3200 or iso6400 when it lets me make the shot. While this is not unique to the GR, switching to black and white gives more adjustment latitude, and has resulted in some strong photos that I would have otherwise discarded.

Even though it's "only" 16Mpx, the GR's amazingly well-paired sensor and lens has per-pixel detail that rivals or exceeds anything that can be put on an SLR. That becomes very useful when cropping for composition, especially to mimic a 35 or 50mm-equivalent lens. Of course the GR's lens does have mild barrel distortion that's visible when straight lines are important, and there's a bit of vignetting wide open, which is fairly trivial.

My digital camera workflow is to put all of my select images through DxO Optics before doing final adjustments in Lightroom. The GR with v2.0.3 firmware is only compatible with Optics and later, so waiting for the software to catch back up to Ricoh is part of why writing this review took a month longer than I anticipated. The good news is that FW2 and Optics 9 are both worthwhile updates.

That's not to say that the ACR'ed raw files are bad, or even that there's even anything wrong with the SOoC-jpeg images, but rather that this little pocket camera is worth the effort of wringing out the very best per-pixel quality. There are lots of cameras that don't merit that kind of attention, even if it does verge on counting sand.

I recently needed to make a small print, 5x7, of a photo that I took a few months ago. I was working on the details, looking at it at 100%, iso1600, and couldn't figure out why it was so soft with such bad noise. I seriously thought that something had gone tragically wrong to produce such mediocre quality from the GR – but no, it was shot with the Nikon V1 and 18.5mm standard prime. Then it made perfect sense.

The GR is the camera that I carry everywhere and use for as much as possible. It has been to Los Angeles twice, Las Vegas once, and I can guarantee that it will be my only camera for at least one upcoming trip to New York. Now when I'm idly considering adding another camera to my collection it's to be a companion to the GR, and when I'm carrying another camera, film or digital, the GR is always with me.

It doesn't have the best image quality of the cameras that I own, it's not quite the smallest, and it's certainly not the most versatile. But it's a solid little camera that's easy to use, easy to live with, and takes great photos. Everything in photography is a compromise; the GR strikes some excellent ones.

Quick links to the other chapters in the GR saga:

last updated 31 dec 2013


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