7 Reasons Why the Ricoh GR is the Perfect Travel Companion (For Now)

My name is Hendrik Wieduwilt, and I’m a journalist and photographer based in Berlin, Germany. I went to Cuba with a full frame DSLR and ended up deliberately using only a compact, the Ricoh GR — and not even the latest version (the almost identical GR II).

There were rumors about a Ricoh GR III, which some expected to be announced later in 2017. That did not happen and some may remember there were also rumors that Pentax may exit the camera business for good. So it’s definitely time for a plea to Pentax: Keep producing those small black bricks!

Let me give you 7 good reasons.

Cuba is photographer’s heaven: People live their lives outside, you can easily find vivid colors, wrinkly faces, and sceneries which look like a movie scene from the 50s – you know, the Cuba Cliché, but so much more. For the trip, I had packed my daily companion, the Ricoh GR (I) but actually planned to use mainly a full frame DSLR with a pro level standard zoom, an old Nikkor 24-70 f/2.8. Like Steve McCurry, you know? Everybody wants to be Steve McCurry at some point.

For some night shooting, I threw in a fast, lightweight prime (the Nikkor 50 f/1.8g). I thought I’d be shooting with the zoom all day long (it’s well known to be very sharp and focusses fast) and sometimes take the Ricoh for, you know, more “casual” shooting (whatever that means).

It didn’t quite go that way, though.

I ditched the zoom after just my first photo walk through Havana. You draw attention. You need all your ninja tricks to disguise what you’re actually doing – shooting people on the streets without asking for permission. I guess you even walk differently with several pounds of technology in your hand. And it feels so wrong to put that huge gun on a table next to Cigars and Mojitos. See, McCurry had set up some of his most iconic shots. That’s not possible when you want to move around quickly. It’s my vacation, not a job! For the casual photographer, the Ricoh GR is a much better fit.

Reason 1: It’s small and discrete

That woman in that shot above looks tough, protective of her home and a bit fierce even. The Ricoh allows you to shoot at waist level and stay unnoticed. With the 28mm equivalent fixed focal length, it’s not easy to keep the frame clean. The view is rather wide compared to other focal lengths for street photography like 35mm or 50mm.

Also, at f/2.8 (f/4 full frame equivalent) you cannot just blur the background to isolate your subject. And that’s the fun part about this little gem: You learn to live and grow with these limitations. In this case, the colors and the door frame helped a lot to lead the eye and to keep the shot clean.

Reason 2: The great screen

Another situation where it was very helpful to have such a small, unassuming camera: That kissing kid was quite a Casanova. I pretended to take photos of the landscape and from time to time shot him from the hip, without turning towards the kids. You really don’t want to be that creep who points a big fat zoom lens at some school kids, do you?

Since the Ricoh is so sharp, you can crop from a 28mm to a 35mm without any regrets, even for medium-sized prints. The Ricoh has no articulating screen, though — but actually I never really needed one. The screen doesn’t reflect much so you can see the composition even in the brightest sunlight while holding the camera at arm’s length.

Reason 3: It’s so, so fast

Like many enthusiastic photographers, I’m always afraid to shoot the same things the same way it has been done a billion times before.

So, walking around the Capitolio, a beautiful landmark in Havana, I deleted every shot I took right away — the building seemed dull from every angle I could think off, also because I really suck at architecture photography. Then I met this guy, standing in the dark. And there you have it: The Capitolio — albeit only in the reflection of his sunglasses.

The Ricoh’s popup flash was incredibly helpful: You can activate it just by flipping a switch – no menu-diving, you can even do it before you switch it on. For close-up portrait work like this, I assigned one of the three custom settings: Aperture closed for maximum depth-of-field, high shutter speed to prevent motion blur, fixed focus in macro mode and a medium flash power (powerful yet not too strong to prevent long cycle times). These two little things allow me to switch from shooting, say, an urban landscape, over to an extended flash portrait session in less of a second! No annoying “wait – I just need to make some adjustments… almost there… ah, wait why…” situations! (This is important especially when you’re traveling in a group or with your partner. Nobody wants to wait for the clumsy photo-geek. Nobody.)

Reason 4: Easy B/W Conversions

Another big plus of the Ricoh GR: It’s very easy to produce decent black & white conversions.

Some might be afraid that 28mm is too limiting, especially when it comes to portraits. And yes, it is difficult – but definitely possible. Granted, it’s not going to be as flattering as a classic 85mm shot (noses appear bigger etc.). But in exchange, you get a sense of intimacy that is sometimes missed in longer focal lengths.

Apparently your brain knows how to extract the shooting distance from the chosen perspective. You just feel… close. If you look at 28mm portraits most of the time you’ll realize the face is not directed towards the lens and the shooting angle is a bit lower than usual.

Also, in all of these cases, I had to find a solution to isolate my subject. Mostly I simply used contrast. The fill flash helped to give sharp details and make the subject pop.

Reason 5: Rich files that you can transfer via wifi (post-processing on the go!)

I took this shot in Viñales. With a faster full frame prime and a long focal length, I could have blurred the background a tiny bit to draw attention to any person in the foreground. That’s not possible with an equivalent of a 28mm f/4. So I used what was available: A cone of light, producing contrast.

A great thing about the Ricoh GR II: Apparently you can transfer raw images via Wi-Fi to your phone. This is great when you sit down for a Mojito and want to upload an image to send home. Since the Ricoh’s files are rich and the dynamic range decent you might want to process them using Snapseed or Lightroom mobile. Plus: More processing on the run means less time spent sitting in front of a computer.

Reason 6: The electronic Level

Puddles! Many photographers like to tilt displays for these kind of ground-level shots and many ask for one in the next GR. But except maybe for vlogging or selfies, do you really need an articulated screen? Use passion instead: For this kind of shots you need to hold the camera as close to the surface as possible — but the little black brick only weighs about 200g so you can do this all day long.

The excellent electronic level helps a lot when you’re shooting in awkward positions. And that gorgeous screen! I didn’t realize how good this screen is until I started using a Leica Q for a while (lost a battle with G.A.S.). The Ricoh’s screen is far better because there’s barely any reflection on it.

Reason 7: Sharp – always

That shot is not for everybody. It’s certainly not a Robert Doisneau-like romantic kissing scene. It’s rather rough. The Ricoh is able to produce some unforgiving sharpness in macro mode, especially with the built-in flash for some highlights. This is one of the major advantages of the Ricoh GR over the Fuji X100 series: It’s a lot sharper when used wide open and at close distances. Also, it doesn’t mess with reality like the X-Trans sensors (waxy skin and water color-effect).

This one was an accident: I was trying to get a portrait of an elderly woman sitting on some stairs in Velado, Havanna. After my first shot I just wanted to chimp but then accidentally took another photo, with the camera pointing downwards, where her hands were. I immediately realized that this would make a much better photo than the portrait I had in mind.

I took some more shots, somewhat pretending that I still could not control my camera. My take away: “Pars pro toto” — sometimes only small parts of your subject can tell the whole story. In a full portrait, you probably wouldn’t pay attention to her nails and shoes.

Guess what: Also cats are more relaxed in front of a small camera!

(By now you will have realized that the colors in this series are pretty strong. I admit: I turned them up a bit more to underline how colorful the streets of Cuba are. Like Martin Parr said: Part of photography is exaggeration.)

Reason 7: Limitations

So… is the Ricoh GR better suited for travel photography than a DSLR? For me, the answer is “definitely”. Most shots I took with the DSLR were kind of boring. The ones I took with the Ricoh showed… at least a bit more effort on my side.

With the DSLR I was always drawn to try out the cool stuff, the sharpness of the lens, its bokeh, some fancy AF function, Nikon’s expensive “nano-crystal coat” (by shooting directly into the sun) or the decent behavior of the full frame sensor at higher ISOs. The same happens with my Leica Q.

It’s almost as if the marketing department was my mentor. That’s childish, I know, but I cannot stop doing it. The Ricoh helps me to concentrate on photography instead of special effects.

I guess there was not a single shot that I missed because the compact couldn’t handle it. Very dark scenes with movement (think: people inside) are indeed not the perfect environment for the Ricoh — that’s the main reason why I tried the Leica Q for some time. But if movement is not an issue you can just dial down the shutter speed. I highly recommend using an external viewfinder for that. You’ll be able to shoot at 1/20 of a second, maybe even 1/15 if you press the camera firmly against your cheekbone instead of holding it with your arms extended.

So, Pentax, if you’re reading this: Pretty-please, never stop producing these gems. And don’t change too much in the GR III. We appreciate it!

About the author: Hendrik Wieduwilt is an amateur photographer, journalist, and legal affairs correspondent based in Berlin, Germany. You can find more of his work on his website, Instagram, and Twitter.