Not long after Nikon announced their 28/2.8, 16MP APS-C super-compact, Ricoh also decided it’d be a good time to launch an update to their cult GR Digital line. Version V has done a Leica and dropped the model number to confuse us (and Google searches for the new model), but gained a near-identical spec to the Nikon – also 28/2.8 equivalent, 16MP APS-C sensor without AA filter (it does have square and 35mm crop options, but you can always easily apply those in post). Neither one has IS. I covered most of the spec sheet in the preview, here. Now I’ve had some (albeit very brief) time with a final production prototype*, it’s time to report back here on how it actually fares in the metal.
*Meaning some things like image quality and focusing behaviour may undergo final tweaks before production versions ship, but apparently they’re pretty close to it. My camera is running firmware 1.11.
4 October update: Ricoh has released FW 2.03 which fixes a lot of issues I had with the initial camera such as program mode stopping at f4 – the update is downloadable here.
A continuously updated set of sample images on my Flickr is here.
Readers will know I’m personally a huge fan of the 28mm focal length; it simply matches the way I instinctively happen to see, and it also is fairly close to the natural field of view of human eyes when not focused on anything in particular. It’s a wide enough focal length to require care in composition to avoid flat-looking images, but not so wide that you see the extreme perspective first, and the rest of the composition second. It’s good for general documentary and very versatile if you have no choice but to carry one focal length – for instance if your camera’s size is of paramount importance and it can’t fit an 85mm too (or nobody wants to make one other than Sigma). It’s probably not the best choice for beginners as amateur users tend to produce very flat-looking images with it, thinking that wide lenses are to ‘get more in’ – they’re not – I admit my first encounter with the GR left me lukewarm and cursing the fixed 28mm equivalent.
Angled. All images in this review were shot with a pre-production GR (digital V). And before anybody complains of oversharpening, it’s Flickr’s downsizing algorithm. Click through the image to see the original (unsharpened) image. All EXIF data remains intact.
I’ve owned every GR Digital except the IV, and I still currently own a film GR1v. So perhaps you could say upfront that I’m biased towards liking this camera. To say it feels very familiar in the hand is true; it’s almost the same size and shape as its predecessors, to within a few millimetres (annoyingly though, it still won’t fit inside my leather GRD III belt holster, which has been seasoned over time and is probably my favourite compact camera pouch of all time). How Ricoh accomplished this whilst stuffing a significantly larger – APS-C vs 1/1.7″ – sensor inside is impressive. Of course, some things had to go to make room, so we lose PDAF sensors, image stabilization, and the f1.9 maximum aperture. Instead we have contrast detect only, no IS, and f2.8. In fact, it’s almost the same size as my GR1v – perhaps a couple of millimetres thicker. Except the GR1v has a full frame capture area, a real 28/2.8, a more powerful flash, a status LCD, PDAF and an optical finder with shooting information.
Aside from the innards, a GRD IV (or III, or II, or even I, for that matter) could pick up the GR and not notice any difference until entering a menu. The handling feels almost exactly the same as its predecessors; the magnesium-alloy body is solid and inspires confidence that it could withstand hard professional use. It fits the hand perfectly; the grip shape and materials evolve ever so slightly with every generation, very much for the better. This is easily one of the best-handling and best-feeling compact cameras, bar none; you just want to pick it up, fondle it, and shoot with it. On a haptic scale, the GR pushes absolutely all the right buttons. I personally like the stealthy, all-matte black design very much, though I’m sure there will be some who want a chrome version.
Ergonomics have always been unquestionably the GR line’s strength; in my opinion, the control layout is currently the benchmark for compacts. You even get holes on every corner to place the wrist or neck strap wherever takes your fancy. It feels secure in the hand, and all of the controls fall under the fingers of the right hand. More impressively, for anybody who’s never shot with a GR Digital, those controls are almost all easily accessible with your hand in the shooting position. The one exception is the mechanical flash release, and a new DOF preview button on the left side that can also be programmed to do double duty if pressed briefly instead of held down. Needless to say, the camera doesn’t keep you waiting in any way – file handling and buffering, write speeds, menu navigation – everything feels effectively instant. I’m pleased to report the increasingly bloated and seemingly endless scrolling menus of its predecessors are gone; I don’t feel as though there are any fewer options on this camera, but it seems that the menus are now shorter and much easier to navigate. Power on is snappy, too. On the topic of power, I think the battery life is in the ~250-300 shot per charge range, but I’ll have to have more time with the camera to get a better feel. Note that unlike previous versions, the battery compartment will no longer also accommodate AAA batteries for emergency use. It was a nice to have, but in all my years of ownership, I can’t remember ever having used the feature.
New for the GR V is a rear toggle switch to choose between AF-C (AF-ON) and AE/AFL functions for a switch that’s ostensibly both. Oddly, choosing AE/AFL causes the camera to cycle focus before locking – regardless of whether focus was achieved immediately beforehand or not. In my mind, one of the things that set the earlier GR Digitals apart from other compacts was the level of control the camera gave you over the focusing system. It’s also one of the two things that frustrates me the most about the new GR V.
All of the focusing options from its predecessors have made it into the GR V; which is to say we still have multi-target AF, single target AF, pinpoint, movable target and tracking AF; there’s a macro mode that focuses down to 10cm, and of course, manual focus. Unique to Ricoh is the snap focus mode, where the lens will default to a certain distance setting if the shutter is jabbed straight down past the intermediate position and the camera isn’t given time to find focus; I almost never used this on my GRD III, simply because most of the time it was fast enough – or I was using the excellent manual focus mode in hyperfocal. It’s worth noting that whilst the focusing scale implementation is probably the best in the business (distances marked with the set distance shown and depth of field scales for the selected aperture overlaid) – changing distance isn’t intuitive at all. The trouble is, unlike the previous cameras, I can’t help but feel the GR V actually needs its snap focus override.
The reason is inconsistent AF performance. In bright light or high contrast situations, it’s extremely fast indeed; matching the Olympus OM-D – fast enough to make you half-press the shutter again because you weren’t quite sure it nailed focus the first time. The minute light falls to moderate indoor levels, focusing slows down to be merely average; if your target has little contrast, things become downright glacial. The camera will rack through the entire focus range, very slowly, and often either fail to find focus at all, or worse, lock on to the wrong thing. Here’s the problem: focusing speed is anywhere from blindingly fast to terrible, and the transition point varies. (The Coolpix A always focuses at the same speed, regardless of light levels: it’s somewhere in between the Ricoh’s extremes, but closer to the fast end.) However, it’s probably worth noting that the PDAF system of the GR1v (no CDAF off unexposed film, obviously) is noticeably slower and less accurate than the GR – to put things in perspective. As for continuous AF – don’t bother. Ricoh should implement a firmware option to have the switch work as AE/AFL (button works without refocusing) and MF (AF-ON on button if desired).
The GR’s program mode is rather strange: it won’t ever choose to shoot wide open, even if light is low; it will prefer to go to very high ISOs (assuming auto-ISO – with customizable thresholds for ISO and shutter speed – is enabled) and open no wider than f4. Presumably this is a hold-over from the days when AF wasn’t that accurate and lenses weren’t at their best wide open; I can’t imagine why it’s needed now given we have subject-specific CDAF and optics that were designed to be used at maximum aperture. Even if you program-shift, what happens is that the camera won’t drop ISO – say we start at f4 1/60s AUTO ISO 3200; you’d expect it to shift to f2.8 1/60s AUTO ISO 1600; instead you get f2.8 1/125s AUTO ISO 3200 – even though you set your auto-ISO threshold to drop at 1/60s. It also won’t show you the chosen exposure until you half press the shutter. There’s also the interesting TAv mode, which is basically ISO priority – it will ignore your AUTO ISO settings, and just pick whatever ISO fits your chosen aperture and shutter speed – even if that’s 19,500.
Let’s talk a bit about image quality. The optics of the lens are as-claimed, for the most part: resolution is excellent across the frame at all apertures and geometric distortion appears to be relatively low, but there are caveats. Performance degrades slightly at minimum focusing distance (10cm); the center remains excellent, but you start to see coma and smearing towards the edges of the frame. What the MTF charts don’t show is that lateral CA is a bit of an issue, especially in the corners; though they’re sharp, they can occasionally appear smeary especially if there’s a high contrast subject there. Flare and coma are visible with bright point sources in frame, but not especially objectionable. Throughout the testing, I couldn’t help but feel that the lens retains something of the character of the original GR1v’s lens; moderate overall contrast, moderate microcontrast, fairly good resolution wide-open (but clearly better stopped down) and a tendency towards warm transmission. There’s a sort of ’rounded smoothness’ about the rendering rather than the modern contrast-plus biting sharpness of the Nikon Coolpix A.
Ricoh goes to pains to point out that the camera is fitted with a 9-bladed diaphragm for better bokeh; however, given the real focal length of 18mm and modest f2.8 maximum aperture, you’re not really going to be seeing a lot of out of focus areas unless used a close range and wide open. Should that kind of photography take your fancy, the GR also includes a built in ND filter (that can also be automatically activated if shutter speeds exceed the maximum available) – probably also useful given that at f2.8, 1/2000s is the upper limit; you don’t get the full 1/4000s until f5.6.
I’ve still not been able to determine if the sensor outputs 12 bit or 14 bit files; regardless, dynamic range is excellent (as-expected) on this Sony-derived unit; it’s not clear if it’s the same sensor as the K5IIs or D7000, but it does have exactly the same pixel dimensions – 4928×3264 – as the Coolpix A. It also lacks an anti-aliasing filter, which results in the expected crisply-rendered detail. Bearing in mind that the camera I had was a final pre-production prototype, I found the default color palette to be somewhat odd, though. Reds and oranges have a tendency to shift pink, WB temperatures are completely off (about 1000K cooler and 10-15 points more magenta than they should be, for daylight balance) exacerbated under incandescent light. I suppose this results in more pleasing skin tones, but not accurate colors overall – I felt the overall rendition to be biased a bit hot. It’s correctable by profiling the camera, but this is something I’d rather not have to do as playing around with one channel over another will inevitably affect image quality. It definitely doesn’t have the same tonal response as my GRDIII did. Hopefully this is something that will be fixed in the final firmware. Interestingly, the files make excellent B&W conversions with little tonal work required; I can’t help but wonder if this was a priority for the development team given the GR’s lineage and legacy.
High ISO performance is excellent through 1600, very good at 3200 and 6400 – and I personally wouldn’t go higher than this. It’s clear that you’re entering boost territory at 12800 and 25600; blue channel noise rises significantly, compromising dynamic range to the point that I probably wouldn’t even use these for B&W work – unless you particularly like having only black and white. Note that noise reduction appears to affect raw files too; the good news is that you can switch it off entirely, and select at precisely which ISO values high/medium/low/off NR settings kick in.
Before I start the conclusion, I’d like to note upfront that this article will evaluate the GR V based on its own merits; in part two (tomorrow) we’ll put it up against its natural rival – the Coolpix A. However, there are a mind-boggling number of customisations available, and some of them are a little cryptic. Oddly, its JPEG colors are much better than RAW, especially reds; it’s quite possible that it’s because my unit is pre-production, so I don’t want to draw any final conclusions about image quality just yet. RAW color is fairly easily fixable, though – it took me about ten minutes of tweaking before I had a set of ACR defaults I was happy with (and these were used for the images in this review). More concerning was inconsistent AF speed and program mode behaviour – I don’t feel it got in the way of any shots, but I didn’t feel fully confident of how the camera was going to behave under every situation. Frequently I found myself defaulting to MF mode and zone focusing.
The GR series has always been a very specific sort of tool, aimed at a narrow niche: it’s the serious photographer’s compact. The GR V doesn’t change that one single bit; if you’re prepared to invest a little time in learning and configuring the camera, it’s a very pleasant thing to shoot. Image quality doesn’t disappoint, either – though I think the marketing people and various popular fora were a bit optimistic in saying it would categorically destroy the Coolpix A. (As we’ll see tomorrow, it’s nowhere near as clear cut – even factoring in the $300 price differential.) The last thing to consider is the price point; at $799, this is new territory for a premium, large-sensor compact; though it’s still significantly more expensive than the compact M4/3 camera and pancake lens bundles; I can’t help the latter would make a more flexible and user-friendly choice for the average user. If you do want to take control of your camera, and value the build-feel, the Ricoh is definitely worthy of consideration; my time with it was all too short. I’m hoping to get an extended loan in the near future to complete part three of this review: does it finally inherit the GR1v’s position in every way? MT
A big thank you to Travel Photographer Malaysia and DSC World for the loan.
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