Return of the Legend: Hands-On with the Ricoh GR

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This is a “first look” preview of a pre-production unit of the Ricoh GR, which I have been fortunate enough to get my hands on — for a day. My time with it is limited to the half-day of shooting I had, and I am only sharing my initial impressions of it.

The images are selected to demonstrate the fast response of the Ricoh GR, and not the noise performance because it will not be fair to make any judgment based on a pre-production unit. Most of the images are in monochrome because I prefer black-and-white in street photography. None of the images have been cropped, to demonstrate the focal length effect of the Ricoh GR.

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I shall not be comparing it with the Nikon Coolpix A as there are detailed specs comparisons out there already, and without a production unit of each side-by-side, comparisons are frankly quite futile. As I was shooting with a pre-production unit, I would not like to go into too much detail about stuff like image quality, as quite understandably the final production unit will show improvements. You will however read about my impressions of it as a street camera in terms of usability and functionality.

The Ricoh GR

The Ricoh GR has an impressive lineage, starting from the film Ricoh GR1 introduced in 1996. The camera set the tone and direction for the GR series, focusing on delivering the best image quality with a fast 28mm prime lens in a compact chassis. The series ended on a high with the Ricoh GR1V, which was made famous by the legendary Japanese street photographer Daido Moriyama who used it for his grainy monochromic depiction of the streets of Japan.

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Nine years later, the series went digital with the Ricoh GR Digital, maintaining the GR-series’ trademark sleek body and 28mm prime lens. However, the sensors used were of the 1/1.7-1.8” variety and users clamoured for the day Ricoh will deliver a large sensor GR-series, and Ricoh responded in 2013 with the launch of the Ricoh GR…

The Ricoh GR’s crowning achievement is squeezing in a 16MP APS-C sensor into that supermodel body, making it possibly the smallest APS-C sensor camera in the world. It retains the GR trademark 28mm focal length, although maximum aperture has been reduced slightly to f/2.8. Ricoh claims a maximum ISO rating of 25,600, which sounds groovy but I’ll believe it when I see the proof in the pudding. The Ricoh GR even pumps out 1080p movies at 24, 25 or 30fps, but I hardly think HD movies are the reason why anyone buys a Ricoh GR. Because at speculated USD800 retail price, you have to want this camera for its sole purpose in life – as a street photography camera.

“Made for the Streets”

Hold on to your horses, I am told. Who died and made you the God of Photography to pigeonhole the Ricoh GR as “street photography” tool? Seriously, an Apache is stealthy, silent, armor-plated, seats only two, and armed with 30mm cannon and Hellfire missiles. It is obvious that its only mission in life is to destroy and annihilate. A Ricoh GR is compact, matte black, silent and fast, and that makes it the weapon for hunting down street photos. Sure you can use a Ricoh GR for your holiday snaps, but that will be like buying your own fully loaded Apache to take you from one board meeting to the next.

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The Ricoh GR is impressively small. Small because it fits into your jeans pocket easily, and impressive because the engineers shoe-horned a APS-C sensor in that Kate Moss body. The dimensions of the Ricoh GR hardly budge compared to my classic film GR1V, which means it is very pocketable as a dinner or travel camera as well. With that size and weight, it’s perfect for prowling the streets the entire day and never feel fatigued. See the perfect shot? Run for it! Let’s see you try that with a DSLR. And by the way, the Ricoh GR should be bundled with great shoes, because you would need to run a lot, thanks to the 28mm lens.

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Robert Capa Shouldn’t be Taken Too Seriously

The great photojournalist Robert Capa famously said, “if your photos ain’t good enough, you ain’t close enough”… before he stepped on a landmine in Indochina. The Ricoh GR takes his philosophy very literally, because with armed with a 28mm lens, there ain’t any way to take a photo without walking real close to a subject and snapping off your images before your subject snaps (at you, that is.) The wide-angle focal length has been a trademark of the GR-series, but it really is not for everyone. To fill the frame with a reasonably sized subject, you have to be within two meters (or six feet), which means members of the Anthropophobic Anonymous need not apply for this camera. You must not fear walking up to subjects to take your shots, and the Ricoh GR has a trick up its sleeve to make street photography a snap – literally.

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The famous Ricoh “Snap” mode is what attracts serious photographers to this cult brand. Simply put, the Snap mode allows the camera to be focused at a pre-determined distance, so the camera reacts instantly and captures the shot without any delay in focusing. Let’s say I set the Snap mode to 2m, so I walk up to the subject and press the shutter release, and the camera grabs the shot without any time taken to autofocus. You won’t be caught dead standing in front of an unwilling subject with your camera desperately trying to focus, while your subject eyeballs you to death with the Eye of Sauron. Walk up to the preset distance, press the shutter and walk away. Like magic!

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But what if you are incredibly bad at estimating distance? I personally know a lot of people who can’t tell three feet from three meters. It’s a good thing that the Ricoh GR has great autofocus speeds, so you can still focus quickly and get out of there alive. But seriously, most people in the streets are not about to beat you into pulp for taking their photos, although it helps loads that the Ricoh GR is virtually silent with its leaf shutter. If you are trying to sneak a shot of the librarian (but why would you?), you can barely hear the “snick” of the leaf shutter in the dead of the library. The sound of the autofocus and shutter compares well to the Fuji X100s, which is class leading for being stealthy. All that while delivering a maximum shutter speed of 1/2000th to 1/4000th second, depending on the aperture selected. That is just absolutely amazing!

Handles Like a Dream

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So the Ricoh GR is sleek, has a fast lens, autofocuses quickly and quietly, lets you preset focus distance and packs an APS-C sensor. But what really endeared all the photographers to the Ricoh GR series is the layout of the controls. If you use one in the streets (or any situation where you need to change settings quickly), you will realize – the Ricoh GR interface is truly designed for photographers by photographers.

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The back of the GR may look slightly more complicated than the average compact camera, but every control is designed to fall into position easily for most hands (unless your name happens to be Bruce Banner), and the tactile feel of each button and toggle just reeks of quality. On most cameras, you change ISO setting by pressing the ISO button while toggling a switch to select the speeds. The Ricoh GR lets you change ISO on the flyer via a rocker switch with your thumb. Press down on the same rocker switch, and you can access and change your image quality/size, metering pattern, autofocus mode and single/continuous shooting.

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Your index finger rests ergonomically on the front dial, allowing you to change aperture or shutter speeds smoothly and quickly. Dial in exposure compensation with the vertical rocker switch, and even macro is just one click away (not two clicks as with most cameras, the GR doesn’t ask you “are you sure?”). The mode setting on the top has a click indent to prevent you from changing your mode settings accidentally. I simply love how brilliantly the controls are positioned, as well as how quickly I can change settings on the go! Even the playback button is on the right, letting you control all the settings with just one hand. My only complaint would be that the horizontal rocker switch is a wee bit too sensitive, launching me into selecting other modes when all I wanted was to change ISO.

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The Ricoh GR features a new TAv mode, which is a combination of Shutter (T) and Aperture (Av) priority modes. Simply put, you set the aperture and shutter speeds desired, and the camera selects the ISO speed to deliver optimum exposure. In practice, this is brilliant for street photography because you are basically setting the distance and focus zone, as well as the safe shutter speed to prevent image blur, while letting the camera fluctuate through the ISO range. For street photography, graininess is secondary to capturing a sharp and focused picture, so the Ricoh’s TAv mode has succeeded brilliantly in putting all the priorities in the right places.

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The Ricoh GR’s three inch LCD screen delivers reasonably good resolution (not class leading though) and it remains readable in most light. Ricoh’s menu is pretty clear and intuitive, and I love how the setting displays do not clutter up screen to distract you from composing your shot. The display can be turned off for discreet photography. Write speed is good, and the Ricoh GR boasts up to 4fps continuous shooting (which I found myself using more often than I expected). Battery life is reasonable (I got around 300 plus shot from a fully charged battery), and the grippy rubber makes the Ricoh GR a joy to hold securely all day long.

What’s Wrong With It?

As a camera design, the Ricoh GR really got a lot of things right and very few things wrong. I was shown the 21mm optical wide-angle adaptor, which I did not try, but it was a hulking chunk of glass that threatens to rip the lens of out the camera. I cannot imagine using such a heavy 21mm adaptor on a compact and sleek camera like the Ricoh GR.

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The tripod mount is literally millimeters away from the battery/card flap, which makes it difficult to changing battery or card while using a quick release plate. Obvious the designers never though of this as a flaw, because they never intended anyone to use the camera on a tripod in the first place. Remember… the Ricoh GR is a street camera!

Sample Photographs

Here are some photos I shot using the camera (You can find more in this HD slideshow hosted on YouTube):

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Would I Put My Own Money Where My Mouth Is?

The most important question in this preview article: Would I buy it?

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The Ricoh GR that I’ve used is a pre-production set, which means several things are not up to par with the production model. Specifically I had some overexposure issues with the auto exposure under simple lighting scenes (which should be really easy to correct on the production set), and the noise level seems to be higher than I’d expect for an APS-C sensor. However, the Ricoh GR shows immense potential for street photography with its layout and focusing speed. With its compact size, fast AF (or Snap mode) and flexibility of the TAv, I probably never had a higher hit rate of keepers in half a day than with the Ricoh GR.

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And so assuming the production cameras can deliver on the noise control and automatic exposure accuracy, the final question is – are you a 28mm focal length photographer? For the thousands of Ricoh GR-series fans out there accustomed to 28mm, the upgrade to the Ricoh GR must be a no-brainer. It can be an intimidating experience shooting up-close with the Ricoh GR’s 28mm lens, but that is the price to pay for GReatness!

  • chubbs

    I don’t understand why companies make compacts with prime lenses that both extend and have that little trap door over the lens. I suppose it make them more compact when switched off, but I’ve never met a person who was a fan of the extra time they add and the potential they have for grit to get caught.

    I guess there must be something behind them, since they seem to crop up often enough.

    Thanks for the review by the way, this camera sure seems like a competent performer anyway.

  • janozik

    I Japan this will be epic! Nice street shooter!

  • César Fabián Romero Félix

    Nice review, i just comment to tell you something is odd in your site today. In 3 articles i’ve seen distorted images (see attachment), i think there might be some wrong html code.

  • dannybuoy

    Fallen in love with 28mm recently. Taaaake my money

  • Raul

    You know what’s more annoying than a street photographer? A street photographer writing a camera review. You really got that lady in her wheelchair!

  • DOzymeda

    I am not too impressed with the sharpness of the samples posted above. Even at web size. AF issues? “Snap mode” problem? At 18mm (28 f3.5 equivalent for 35mm film) I dont care so much about the APS-C sensor. Depth of field is quite high anyway. The remaining unsharpness looks just fuzzy, not as smooth as a longer focal length would produce.

  • Vlad Dusil

    I had the chance to hold this camera for a few minutes and the very initial impressions are extremely positive. Very light, small, grippy and responsive. For the price it’s a no-brainer.

  • lidocaineus

    I don’t understand the benefits of using snap mode versus setting focus in autofocus or manual mode, then switching to manual to turn off focus hunting, ie zone focusing. Someone clarify?

  • Hal Jason

    Everything that is wrong with this camera is apparent in the above view of it and the GR1V. I don’t want a mode select dial, I just want to take a damn picture.

    I do like the ability to lock in a focal distance for faster shooting, but I do not know if that is enough to elevate this camera over the competition.

  • Norshan Nusi

    Why do I feel that some of the pictures….focus locked to the background even though the subject is in front?

  • Michael Zhang

    Thanks for reporting this issue. We’ve deactivated the new image caching system we were trying. What browser/OS are you using?

  • Timtop

    Why are so many people so obsessed with sharpness all the time!? When have you ever looked at a great (street) photograph by one of the masters, past or present, and said ‘if only that thing at the side that isn’t the subject or related to the subject in any way was tack sharp’?! Some people actually reduce sharpening on modern digital files to help undo that plastic fake digital sheen that others seem to aspire to.

    On another note, in reply to [lidocaineus], the benefit of snap over pre-focusing and switching to manual is..SPEED. The snap mode can be adjusted and utilized with one hand, blindly, whilst approaching a subject. Bang – shot in the bag. These ricohs are built for speed, for instantaneous capturing of frames. So this is why the odd ‘less than pin sharp’ image doesn’t matter. At least you got the image.

  • Ken Ward

    Nice camera. I already have two GRDs the most recent being the GRD3 so I’m already a fan. However, Judging by the results of this ‘hands-on’ I can’t see any point in upgrading from the 3. The images displayed here don’t seem to represent a great leap forward in terms of quality. It’s also slightly larger in size, so not so pocketable. I’m still tempted by the proposition, I just need a little more convincing.

  • Mantis

    Street photography is about documenting everyday humanity.
    It’s probably the most important type of photography.

  • lidocaineus

    I suppose, though it still seems like barely an alternate take on zone focusing; if you see someone approaching and you want to take a photo of them, you already know where they’ll be sharp using zone focusing. You can also adjust it on the fly with a distance meter. It seems like this is only advantageous because the lens lacks a distance meter, and you can still prefocus using still objects + a larger DOF.

    I’m also unsure of how you can execute snap mode adjustments blindly – don’t you have to look at the screen? Is there a hardware dial for adjusting snap mode?

  • ta

    I just want to know when it is coming out, like an actual date. I must have one now!!!

  • nicolas

    27th May according to b&h

  • MS

    I’ll take the GR1V anyday!

  • Fullstop

    prime lens at 2.8? pffft

  • julius

    main problem is still no viewfinder! how are you supposed to frame? spend another $200+ on an accessory optical finder? c’mon ricoh. take a look at the competition.

  • Jason

    Most likely due to size constraints. I highly doubt you would need to go any faster with this sensor and lens. Bokeh is pretty much a non issue with a 28mm equivalent lens and most street photographers want a wider dof anyway.

  • César Fabián Romero Félix

    i’m on firefox 21/windows 7 sp1

  • Timtop

    Hi – yes it is really zone focusing in all but name, and to get around the lack of lens distance markings/focus ring. But as these Ricohs don’t have the lens ring, snap focus is next best – and in my case, preferred. This is because it makes for a different and fun shooting experience. Due to the size, it’s in your pocket one moment, then the next it’s been swung out, turned on and the shot taken (all because you KNOW it’s set to f8 2.5m snap, so you don’t even have to look at any focus markings or check the aperture ring or turn a dial – it’s all set already!). It can be done blindly because (and i shoot with the screen off all the time, only coming on to display text if a setting is changed – a battery blessing) i know that is i press Up and flip the back wheel once, the distance has changed to say, 5m. down twice, it’s 1.5m, up once, 2.5m, and so on – no need to look at anything.

  • taneli34523523

    So the one with full frame 35mm is .. smaller? There’s no reason they couldn’t have done the digital one with a 35mm sensor too

  • taneli34523523

    Excluding costs of course

  • taneli34523523

    Excluding costs of course

  • Ken Elliott

    For me – no viewfinder, no sale.

  • ras

    is the way you cycle through focus distances in snap mode back to the way they did it with the grd 3?

  • Brandon

    My gf’s Sony RX100 has awesome face detection capabilities which I have learn to use as a great tool for quick focusing in tight scenes. Does the GR have anything similar?

  • Igor Ken

    my gf has that camera too, we tried it for street photography but had a lot of out of focus pictures…

  • streetshooter

    You did a real nice hands on review. Not to much but just enough to make everything informative and interesting. Kudos for keeping things real….don

  • Kristofer Samuelsson

    thank you. I read your Review and bought it yesterday. after a day’s shooting, I am completely sold. very good image quality (and I’m used to the D800 and X100). However, is there any face detection / recognition and how is it that cropping 1:1 works in Raw / DNG but not 3:4 format? Finally, does it stand for rain like x100? /Kristofer

  • Ariel Cohen

    Lovely pictures!

  • emile danle

    yeah great camera and 300 dollars less than coolpix A APS-C too. sometimes this camera overexpose and focus not right in low light. Maybe because no automatic stablilization. Also found red colors a bit different but can coorect it. Also great correction for image size. great camera at great great price, now.

  • emile danle

    and there is a function to correct moire lines on the go. greeeeat

  • thedudewhotellsithowitis

    these photographs are disgusting. these people had their picture taken without wanting it. scum bag wanna be henri cartier. go get a real hobby and leave society and its people alone. you’re not an artist and you’re not a humanitarian. no one cares about your work. trust me. no one. suck it trebek.

  • marijnvo

    Can someone please help me? The portraits are blurry 4 out of 5 photo’s. It’s focussing (automatically) on the background, so only on non-moving objects. No matter what I try autofocus or how I usually make photos, even with daylight!
    Do you know how to fix this? Or is my camera broken?

  • streetshooter

    You may be using one press snap without realizing it. Try to do a 1/2 press to get focus lock and then continue the shutter release. If you use full press snap, the camera will focus to the preset snap distance.
    Feel free to contact me if you have problems .

  • marijnvo

    Hi Don, thanks for your help. Actually even when I half press, than it also is focussing on the (non moving) back ground with a green rectangle, hereby everything moving (important) gets very blurry. Even when the background is very small, than only that part is sharp. In low light it even gets worse, sometimes showing a green focus lock rectangle when the whole photo
    is blurry.

  • streetshooter

    Sounds like snap mode … have Skype?