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!