The Ricoh GR ($800) is the sleeper digicam of 2013. Ricoh the company is better known for office copiers in the U.S. We joke, but in reality Ricoh has been in the digital camera business for some time – it’s just more popular globally than in the U.S. But Ricoh is now the parent company of the venerable Pentax, which it purchased last year. While the Pentax brand of DSLR and compact system cameras (CSC) remain, the Ricoh name is being used to entice some higher-end users with powerful compacts such as the GR, a camera with a large APS-C sensor and fixed prime lens. The GR gives some of the top camera manufacturers a run for the money, but how much of a run is the question.
Features and design
The Ricoh GR is one of the growing class of large sensor, fixed focus cameras made popular by the Nikon Coolpix A, Fujifilm X100S, and, the king of them all, Sony Cyber-shot RX1. Designed as “carry anywhere, everywhere” cameras for photographers who don’t want the ball-and-chain of a DSLR, this type of compact digicam delivers the high-quality images sophisticated shutterbugs demand.
In a small package no bigger than many far less tricked-out models, you get the same-sized imaging device as a DSLR.
Inside the GR is a 16.2-megapixel APS-C sensor. In a small package no bigger than many far less tricked-out models, you get the same-sized imaging device as a DSLR or mirrorless CSC. The sensor is great for anyone who really cares about image quality. Unlike most pocket cams, the GR and its ilk do not have zoom lenses. Instead, you’ll find a fixed prime 28mm lens. We love lenses like these because of the quality, but this is a very personal decision you alone can make. The GR measures 4.6 x 2.4 x 1.4 inches and weighs 8.6 ounces (with battery and card). It’s not as small as the new Sony Cyber-shot RX100 II or Canon PowerShot S-series, but it’s very portable.
In the looks department, the GR is the basic dressed-in-black camera with a slightly textured finish and a faux leather grip. Plain it may be, but it feels solid. On the front is the 28mm lens with apertures of f/2.8-f/16. It’s not super-wide but it’s the same as the Coolpix A as are many other specs (top ISO, burst fps, and so on). There’s a ring cap for adding conversion lenses or a lens hood. Also on the front of the GR is an AF assist lamp and, surprisingly, a mono mic – this camera does not record stereo like so many new cameras. It’s not a total deal breaker but one would think you could record stereo soundtracks with an $800 camera.
The top deck has a manual pop-up flash, hot shoe, on/off button, shutter, up/down dial for moving through menus, and a locking mode dial. On one level we can appreciate the lock (to turn the dial, you have to push a button to unlock it first) but it’s a bit annoying if you want to quickly turn the dial to take a quick video, especially since there’s no direct red-dot movie key. To be fair, the Coolpix A made you work even harder since it required you to drill down into the menu system rather than just twisting a knob.
The mode dial has everything you’d expect plus one setting only found on Pentax cameras: TAV, which is a combination of aperture- and shutter-priority rather than just one or the other. There’s also smart auto, program AE, manual, movie, and three custom options. Surprisingly, there’s no Scene setting here or anywhere else. This type of camera is really for someone who is familiar with photography and doesn’t need that sort of help but it would make sense for attracting people moving away from point-and-shoots. The camera does offer special effects like High Key, Toy Camera, and so on.
If the GR were one-of-its-kind, we’d probably give it higher marks. Unfortunately, it isn’t the only game in town.
The back has a fixed-mount 3-inch LCD rated 1,230k dots, a tad more than the Coolpix A’s 921k. It’s a solid display and we had few wipe-out issues, even in direct Arizona sunshine. The refresh rate on the screen was a bit slower than other cameras we’ve reviewed recently which was somewhat disconcerting. Again not a deal breaker but Ricoh should address this with the next generation. Next to the display is a switch to move between C-AF and AEL/AFL focusing options. You’ll also find an ADJ (Adjustable) Lever that lets you quickly access ISO, resolution, aspect ratio, AF/MF, and metering. You can use the up/down wheel or the four-way controller to make changes. The controller array is pretty standard with access to flash, white balance, macro, and Function 1. With the latter you get choose a favorite parameter just as you can with the Function 2 button below it. There’s also a Display key (virtual horizons are one option), one for Playback, and a vertical +/- lever to adjust exposure compensation.
On the right side is a compartment with USB/AV-out and an HDMI-out, while the left has the switch to open the flash and an Effect button. Here you can pick one of nine special effects such B&W, positive film, retro, and high key (a lighting effect). This button can also be used for aperture preview. The bottom has the tripod mount and battery/memory card compartment.
What’s in the box
The camera comes with a battery, AC adapter, a 146-page printed instruction manual, and hot shoe cover. There’s also a USB cable, strap, and disc with SilkyPix Developer Studio LE software for handling images and developing RAW files. The supplied battery is rated 290 shots – a solid number and better than the Coolpix A’s 230 shots. Ricoh doesn’t supply a wall charger so you’ll need to plug the camera in every night just to ensure you’ve got a full jolt. We know manufacturers have to scrimp wherever they can to increase profits but this is an $800 camera and they should spring for the charger.
Performance and use
At slightly more than 8 ounces the GR is a breeze to carry around. That said, the heavier Coolpix A feels much more solid. Is this ephemeral feeling worth $300? This is your call but that didn’t tip the scales for us – other more substantial issues did.
We used the GR over the course of several weeks, moving through the mode dial during the process. Top resolution of 4928 x 3264 pixels was the setting for stills and 1080/30 fps for movies. Most of our photos were JPEG Fine but we shot RAW+JPEG as well.
Before getting into the results – which were solid but not outstanding – let’s discuss some of the issues we had using the camera. The biggest? The lack of a focusing ring on the lens. This is pretty staggering when you think about it since one of the joys of photography is manually zeroing in on a subject. Worse still is the awkward way Ricoh has you perform a manual adjustment – you have to press the up arrow on the controller and, while holding it, press the Up/Down dial on the front. Pardon us but this is absurd. In fact, it almost colored our entire view of the camera. Fortunately most of the other adjustments were straightforward once you give the supplied owner’s manual a quick read, but as far as user interfaces go, this was one of the weakest we’ve encountered in quite some time. Not a total disaster but an upgrade is on order. We don’t mind working but much rather “work” on our images, rather than the camera.
One day we took a journey to Arizona Falls in Phoenix to put the camera through some additional paces; yes, there are waterfalls in the desert thanks to the canal irrigation system. No matter, it gave us the opportunity to use shutter priority to capture flowing water and the results were quite good. In this instance the UI was simple to use and, as you can see by the samples, the GR takes nice photographs.
The results on the movie front weren’t nearly as good. In fact, the quality is fairly low with some moiré, washed-out colors and too much digital noise. Not that the Coolpix was that much better but it was –this type of camera is better for stills rather than videos. If you’re into motion, the Sony RX100 II is the pick over this pair.
When we were at the falls, we brought additional cameras so we could do some side-by-side comparisons. One was the Fujifilm X-M1 ($799 with a 24-76mm zoom), which also has a 16MP APS-C sensor. The quality of the X-M1 was better overall but it’s a larger CSC with an interchangeable lens, so it’s not an apple-to-apples comparison. We bring this up so you don’t get seduced by just the pixel count of the sensor; there are many other components that come into play with any camera (our review of the X-M1 will be posted soon).
We performed our typical noise test with the Ricoh GR. It has a basic ISO range of 200-6,400 but can hit 100 on the low end and 25,600 on the high in extended range. The GR is not impressive, especially compared to the Coolpix A. We’d stay at 800-1,600 at the most and that’s pushing it. Shooting low-light JPEGs is not this camera’s forte – if you shoot RAW you’ll have more control and get better results.
As much as we like to save money, the Coolpix A is a better overall camera than the Ricoh GR. The Nikon’s images are sharper and colors more accurate. The fact the Coolpix has built-in image stabilization while the GR does not is definitely a factor. Also the lack of a focus ring takes away half the fun of shooting with an enthusiast camera. The Ricoh can take solid photos with enough light but in dim settings it doesn’t have the ISO chops of the Nikon. We’ll give Ricoh credit for making the effort in the growing large sensor/fixed focus arena but Nikon gets the prize in this shootout (Sony’s RX1 outshines them all, but, based on price, that camera is playing in a different ballpark). If the GR were one-of-its-kind, we’d probably give it higher marks. Unfortunately, it isn’t the only game in town. Bottom line – the GR is a fine camera, but the Coolpix A is worth the extra money.
- Compact size, large APS-C sensor
- 28mm prime lens
- Solid photos with enough light
- Extensive controls and customization
- No focus ring on lens
- Dual mics are mono
- No built-in image stabilization
- Noisier than main competitor