Earlier at the start of this year, I was lucky enough to have not one, but two of the cameras I lusted earlier in my photographic career show up – the Contax T3, reviewed here, and the Ricoh GR1V, which is the subject of this article. My first encounter with the GR1 was in 2001, when I was a student and there was still an independent pro camera store on Oxford’s High street. I was looking for a compact point and shoot and played with just about everything they had to offer, but landed up being seduced by something small and horrible (an APS Fuji Tiara 1010i, of all things). The GR1 (or perhaps it was a GR1v) was the only one that left much of an impression due to the way it felt, and the rather stiff price tag. Later, I recall a time in late 2005 or early 2006 when I visited a local camera store – at that point I was very much in the acquisition phase (not that it ever really stopped) on the hunt for exotic old lenses; the faster the better because I was still dealing with the limitations of the D2H. They had the Ricoh GR-Digital in stock, and the GR1V too – I landed up handling both, once again very much liking the feel of the GR1V, but walking out with the GR-Digital.
I’ve had a love-hate relationship with the GR Digital series – I never felt that comfortable with the 28mm lens on the I, and the image quality wasn’t really that good given the price of the camera, compounded by a virtually unusable RAW mode; however, I did love the ergonomics and build quality. Plus it had the best control system of any compact up to that point. I had a GR-Digital II on long term loan whilst I was editor of CLICK!; this was a fun camera, probably because it now shot buffered RAW, had a better sensor, and I’d learned how to properly use a wide angle. GR-Digital III served as my carry-everywhere camera for two years until the E-PM1 showed up, since replaced by the RX100. I digress: as excellent as the later generation GR-Digital series is, I’ve always felt the one that got away was the GR1v – and in some ways, a solid representation of the ultimate pocket camera: small, fast, light, controllable, packing a useable viewfinder, and excellent controls. Oh, and a large sensor.
The GR series actually comes in a few flavors: the original GR1, GR10, GR1s, GR1v and GR1v date, and finally, a GR21; all are available in black or natural magnesium finishes; all have 28/2.8 lenses except the GR21, which has a 21/3.5 that doesn’t fully collapse back into the body. The GR1s and GR1v have improved optical coatings for better flare resistance, and the GR1v adds multiple SNAP distances and manual ISO selection. All cameras are magnesium alloy, feature bodies that aren’t much thicker than a 35mm film canister (and in some places, thinner) phase detection AF, viewfinders with fairly comprehensive information displays, and a backlit top panel LCD for mode setting and frame count. They also have two knobs on top: the left is for exposure compensation, and the right moves between program and aperture selection, with manual ISO override being the last setting, and everything moving in 1/2 stop increments. There’s a flash mode switch on the back, a power button, a couple of indicator lights, and that’s about it. Date imprint – on the version that has it – is controlled by a clock which is visible and set via buttons and a tiny LCD on the side of the handgrip. The front portion of the retracting lens has a negative bayonet to mount the tiny supplied hood.
I opted for a black GR1v non-date, sourced by Bellamy Hunt at Japan Camera Hunter. Unlike the Contax T3, this one is mine – bought and paid for to keep. I had high expectations of this camera – born of both popular photographic lore and my experience with the digital series. Would it live up to expectations?
So far, the answer is yes and no. There are things which I like a lot in operation, things that I don’t, and things that I’m ambivalent about. Let’s start with the bad. Firstly, the viewfinder is nowhere near as clear or contrasty as the Contax T3’s; I suspect it’s because the outer protective panel that covers the internal optics and PDAF windows are made of plastic, not sapphire. It could also be because of the LCD overlay, which carries the frame and parallax correction lines, shutter speed and focus information. It also flares a bit, which can result in odd haloes – don’t worry, these won’t be present on your images. Unlike the T3, the framelines are very visible under all light conditions, and there’s enough eye relief for spectacle wearers. There are a couple of lines that activate for near-distance parallax correction, too. Under low light, there’s an LED illuminator for the viewfinder information. As mentioned, you also get some basic information in the finder about shutter speed on the left edge (to the nearest stop or thereabouts), focused distance (via a series of symbols – flower, one person, two people, mountain) and the AF box used. All in all – not the most comprehensive system I’ve seen, but I’m amazed it’s taken until the recently-announced Fuji X10s for a digital compact to carry anywhere near the same information in anywhere near the same size viewfinder – the GR1v’s finder isn’t massive and doesn’t provide the same view as an M Leica, but it’s certainly no worse than what passes as a viewfinder in today’s entry-level DSLRs.
On the subject of autofocus: I can’t think of any other film compact that allows you a choice of not only manual preset distances (1m, 2m, 3m, 5m and infinity), single or multi-point AF modes, and an infinity lock. The GR1v has three fairly tightly clustered points around the center of the frame, which are determined using a phase-detection array; it’s both active and passive, which means that it’s very fast under just about all light conditions – comparable to the current GR-Digital IV, which is fast – but also that it has a non-cancellable AF assist lamp. Fortunately, it’s dark red because the PDAF system appears to use infrared. Once focus has locked, the finder shows both which point was used (left, right or center assuming you didn’t select single point mode, MF or infinity) and the chosen distance. Interestingly, Ricohs have always offered one other unique mode – SNAP – which defaults the lens to a preset distance (I think around 2-3m, or perhaps it’s hyperfocal). On the GR1v, it’s fixed; on the digitals, you can use SNAP in conjunction with AF – if you jab the shutter and the camera can’t find focus in time, then it just goes to the SNAP distance; if it can, then normal AF is in play.
In use, the whole setup is pretty intuitive – the camera’s thin body hides nicely inside any pocket (it’s thinner than the RX100; I measure it at just 23mm at the thinnest point and 30mm at the thickest – the grip portion which also accommodates the film cannister) and the ergonomics and feel are superb. It’s light due to the magnesium body, but it’s solid and tightly put together. Perhaps the only fiddly bit is setting a manual distance, which requires you to have a long press of the MODE button on the selection before SNAP, so that when you enter SNAP, you can then use short presses to select your desired distance, or another long press to exit. Practically though – the ability to switch between aperture and program modes very quickly is great if you’re going indoors-outdoors a lot, especially in the tropics; indoors, flip it to 2.8; one detent turn to the right gives you program for when you exit the building. Important, especially you can’t alter sensitivity for each frame (film, duh) and the maximum speed of the GR1v’s leaf shutter is just 1/500s. It’s equally handy to be able to check your settings beforehand, too – selected aperture and exposure compensation are visible straight away. It’s also worth noting that as with all compacts, the GR1v uses a leaf shutter – which is both quiet and low vibration. Sadly, the operating noises – focusing, winding etc – are much louder than the shutter click.
Speaking of winding, you’re not going to load film in this one in a hurry: it prewinds the film out of the cassette, which takes about 30 seconds or so. This means that a) if the camera gets opened by clumsy fingers or overzealous security personnel, the images you’ve already shot are safely back inside the canister, b) it knows exactly how many images are left, and c) you can rewind a roll halfway through, press the rewind button a second time while it’s winding to leave the leader out, then shoot the same roll in another camera (NOT a GR1v, obviously) up to the remaining frame. Or you can just press the rewind button once it starts auto-winding on the last frame to leave the leader out to make loading your developing spools easier.
One fairly common known problem with the GR1 series is the top LCD has a habit of fading out and failing to display anything at all; not critical but it does make figuring out how many shots you have left or what AF mode you’re in quite tricky. The rest of the camera still works fine, though. Ricoh in Japan are still accepting repairs (to the best of my knowledge) and apparently they also offer a service to adjust the tension of your shutter button – I’m quite happy with mine as stock, thank you.
It’s time to talk about image quality. Wide open, the lens gives the impression of a more classical-rendering optic: slightly lower contrast, a little haze, but still resolving fine details well; it doesn’t have the same snappy micro- and macro-contrast that the Zeiss optic in the Contax T3 has; the negatives produced simply aren’t quite as punchy. Stop it down a bit though, and the punch and detail comes back; it’s hard to test conclusively, but I suspect the sweet spot is from f5.6 onwards. Presumably, flare might have been an issue at some point – hence the little bayonet hood – but I haven’t seen it in any of my images. Still, the lens most certainly produces pleasing tones, and I’d consider moderate contrast to be an asset especially in the tropics, where direct sun can be incredibly bright and your dynamic range enormous.
Overall, I’m satisfied and reasonably happy with my negatives, but not overjoyed and surprised – admittedly this could be down to my processing or film choice as much as anything else. The level of detail resolved certainly appeared to be as good as what I achieved with other 35mm cameras and the same film, though it didn’t leave me with the same ‘wow’ factor as the Contax T3. It seems that the ideal compact film camera would be a merger of the two – the lens of the T3 inside the body of the GR1v – sadly, I don’t think we’re going to see any more new 35mm film designs apart from toy cameras, let alone a serious ‘professional’ grade one. Still, don’t let this stop you from picking one up to try: as with all things film, prices are holding fairly steady, which means you can always turn it over again at little to no net cost should you not like it. We buy these things without the same expectations as digital; think of it as a way to get the same ‘look’ – by which I mean depth of field and angle of view properties – as a full frame camera in a much, much smaller package. Sure, resolution and technical image quality probably lacks behind the current bunch of high end compacts (including the GR-Digital IV) – but that’s not why we shoot film, is it? MT
Coda: I wrote this review before shooting with the camera in Yangon; I’ve also significantly improved my processing and scanning technique (not so apparent at web size, but very, very obvious when viewing at higher resolutions). The three rolls of Delta 100 that came back, frankly blew me away. I’m definitely getting that silly grin now: the camera produced results far above my expectations, and on par with anything as good as I’ve seen on 35mm film. There were two images that stuck in my mind for detail, microcontrast and tonality; both are direct scans and have had nothing done to them other than my usual automated action for converting and re-inverting negatives. Read: no local corrections. The first is my attempt at a hommage to Sebastiao Salgado’s legendary Workers series; the second, merely a teabreak. Regardless, the resolving power and characteristics of this lens are most impressive indeed – it also makes me wonder how we ever managed conclusive tests before digital repeatability…MT
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