cameras
  • Best of Year 2013
  • Editors' Choice

Ricoh GR Digital Camera Review

A compact camera, all grown up.

$799.95
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The Ricoh GR (MSRP $799.95) is a camera that's going to fly under the radar of most American shoppers. In part, that's because Ricoh is a name most Americans associate with office equipment, not cameras. In part it's because the GR is a highly specialized camera that will appeal to only the nerdiest of camera nerds. And in part it's because Nikon is offering a nearly identical camera in the form of its Coolpix A.

And that's a real shame, because the GR is an awesome camera.

Essentially, it's a point-and-shoot on steroids. Ricoh has taken the average compact camera body, crammed a DSLR-sized sensor inside, equipped it with a razor-sharp 28mm equivalent lens, and given it a highly customizable control scheme tailored to the needs of experienced shooters. The GR is capable of the best image quality—by far—that we've ever seen from a pants-pocketable camera. What's more, it has superb ergonomics and the kind of unassuming, unthreatening appearance that's perfect for street photography.

We can't give this camera higher praise than to say that we just don't want to let it go.

Living With a Prime Lens

It's not as difficult as you'd think.

Many of you are probably boggling at the idea of spending $800 on a compact camera that can't even zoom. You've already got a smartphone with a fixed-focal camera; why on earth would you need another? Even if you know a thing or two about cameras, the concept still might seem slightly absurd; for the same money you could get a compact mirrorless body and a couple lenses.

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A fixed-focal lens is always a tradeoff: You lose the versatility of a zoom, but end up with a smaller package and higher image quality at the chosen focal length. With the GR, this tradeoff allowed the Ricoh engineers to develop a lens and sensor perfectly tailored to one another, significantly improving the camera's output. And it really is tiny—this thing fit in the jeans pocket of every twenty-something male (and most of the females) in our office with ease.

You won't be shooting wildlife with this camera, but for subjects that are more up close and personal, we'd be hard pressed to name a better camera for a photographer on the go.

In the real world, the Ricoh GR's 28mm field of view is remarkably easy to get along with, and surprisingly versatile. It's wide enough for landscapes and some architectural shots, but perfect for street photography and spontaneous portraits. For those of you coming from smartphone land, it's just a little wider than the 33mm equivalent of the iPhone 5. If you prefer something a little tighter or a little wider, Ricoh has you covered there, too—look for more on that in the features section.

Sure, you won't be shooting any wildlife with this camera, or getting closeups of NFL players from the nosebleed seats. But for subjects that are more up close and personal, we'd be hard pressed to name a better camera for a photographer on the go.

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Design & Handling

By photographers, for photographers

Ricoh hasn't changed the design of its GR series since the original GR Digital (2005), and many of the new GR's visual cues go back to the cult-classic GR1 film camera (1996). We can only think of a couple reasons why that would be the case: Either Ricoh fired its entire design department in 2006, or they got it right early on and simply stuck with what worked. We're going with the latter.

The newest GR is a wonderfully refined photographic tool. Despite its compact build, the camera's ergonomics are stellar. The modest front grip provides the perfect amount of leverage to support the GR's light weight, and the textured rubber of the grip itself offers plenty of traction. The body finish is slightly sandpapery, giving you a little extra peace of mind that it won't slip out of your fingers.

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Build quality is extremely solid. We were surprised at how light the GR felt when we first picked it up, but quickly came to love the camera's effortless portability—you can almost forget it's in your pocket. All of the buttons have a very pleasing tactility, and they're slightly elevated (playback button aside) so that you can quickly find them by feel alone. The shutter release has a springy half-stop followed by a firm full-press, just the way we like it. Only the front dial is a disappointment; it simply feels cheap compared to the other controls.

The control scheme is clearly designed for easy one-handed operation, and in that regard it's a total success.

The control scheme is clearly designed for easy one-handed operation, and in that regard it's a total success. There are only two buttons on the left side of the camera (the flash release and a customizable effects button), with everything else clustered to the right of the rear display. Along with the traditional four-way pad and OK/Menu button, you'll find less common controls like an up/down rocker that controls EV compensation and playback zoom, a joystick/toggle that cycles through five user-defined shooting settings, and a secondary AF button whose function can be changed with the flick of a lever.

Flexibility is a huge part of the Ricoh GR's appeal. A total of five different physical controls can be customized with 26 different functions, and there are three custom shooting modes on the mode dial. Each of those modes can have a separate set of customized controls, making the combinations seem endless. The end result is a camera that can be precisely fine-tuned to suit a huge variety of shooting situations.

Features

Little flash, lots of substance

On many modern cameras—from point-and-shoots to DSLRs—we often see dozens of scene modes, self-timer options, burst shooting rates, noise reduction levels, and the like. Way more, in fact, than most owners will ever use. Come on, Panasonic... does anyone really need 11 different noise reduction settings?

Ricoh takes a simpler approach, and noise reduction is a particularly illustrative example. With the GR, your NR options are Off, Auto, and Manual. Manual NR lets you apply Weak, Medium, and Strong NR at ISO levels of your choosing. We set our GR up to apply Weak NR above ISO 400, Medium above ISO 1600, and Strong smoothing above ISO 6400, but you could just as easily turn Weak and Medium off and leave High on for the highest ISOs, or use any other combination you can imagine. This philosophy of providing only a bare minimum of presets, but giving the option for endless customization, is typical of the GR's user interface.

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The dedicated picture effects button can be reprogrammed to one of 26 custom settings.

The one notable exception to the rule is effects presets; the GR gives you nine of them, and most are excellent. We loved the shots we got using the Black & White and Hi-Contrast B&W effects modes, and the Cross Process effect was also one of the best attempts we've seen at recreating the real thing. All of the effects can be fine-tuned to your tastes by pressing the Fn2 button.

Though the GR is limited to a 28mm fixed focal length, Ricoh's engineers have provided a couple workarounds that can turn it into a surprisingly useful three-lens kit. The baked-in 35mm mode simply crops the central portion of the sensor to produce 10-megapixel images with a narrower field of view. The cropped shots look great, without any apparent image quality degradation. If you have a bit more money to throw around, there's also a 21mm wide-angle conversion lens (priced around $200 in Japan, but not yet available in the US). Early reports are that it's remarkably sharp, but sadly we haven't been able to get our hands on one for testing.

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The menu system is deep and technical, but not obfuscating like some can be. (Lookin' at you, Olympus...)

While autofocus speed isn't one of the GR's strengths, there's kind of a workaround for that, too. Snap Focus is a nifty digital take on the age-old technique of zone focusing that allows you to pre-set the camera to a specific focusing distance and just fire away. Thanks to the wide-angle lens, this means you can guarantee pretty much everything will be in focus if you set the snap distance to 2.5 meters and stop the lens down to f/8. The end result? No autofocus necessary for run-and-gun street photography.

Cleverly, the snap focus function can be utilized in a number of different ways. For instance, you can set the GR to snap focus on a full press even when the camera is set to use autofocus. (A great way to ensure your panic shots come out crystal-clear.) Alternatively, you can engage the dedicated snap focus mode and still get autofocus functionality by pressing the secondary dedicated AF button.

The GR provides a number assists for manual focus fanatics, but we found the MF implementation to be way too awkward for serious use.

The GR provides a number assists for manual focus fanatics, including focus peaking and image magnification, but we found the MF implementation to be way too awkward for serious use. This is one of the only areas where the Nikon Coolpix A has a clear edge, thanks to its manual focus ring. We were also disappointed that the GR doesn't offer an electronic viewfinder option, nor does it come bundled with an optical finder. True, there are two OVF accessory options (GV-1 and GV-2), but both retail for more than $200. (However, many users have employed cheaper 28mm finders from Sigma, Olympus, and other manufacturers to good effect.)

For traditionalist stills photographers, the GR is a godsend. But those used to cameras with more modern conveniences might be perturbed by a few of the Ricoh's shortcomings. For one thing, the camera's HD video mode is particularly weak. You can't adjust any vital settings, not even a little bit: no aperture, no shutter speed, no ISO, no audio levels, no nothin'. The only other major shortcoming is the lack of image stabilization. While we understand it's a sacrifice made to reduce the size of the camera, it's a real stumbling block when shooting in dim conditions.

Performance

Compact camera photos have never looked so good.

In our time shooting with the Ricoh GR, we were consistently impressed with its exceptional clarity and beautiful rendering. Whether shooting wide open at close range or stopped down at a distance, photos exhibited crisp detail, perfect exposure, and a rich tonality that looked great in color but really shone in black and white. The GR is also one of a growing number of cameras that make excellent use of picture effects, making it fun for enthusiasts to shoot JPEG again.

By all accounts, the GR uses a variant of the Sony-built 16-megapixel APS-C CMOS image sensor found in numerous recent DSLRs. Like the Pentax K-5 IIs and Nikon Coolpix A, it also lacks a low-pass filter, adding extra sharpness to its output at the expense of moiré. As you'd expect from such a proven (and filter-free) high-performance sensor, the GR's output was bitingly sharp. Starting at the maximum aperture of f/2.8, we measured staggeringly high resolution at the center of the image and very good results even in the extreme borders and corners. Stopping down to f/4 and f/5.6 produced stellar sharpness across the frame. We couldn't really ask for more.

Moiré was definitely an issue in images with repeating patterns like vertical blinds and finely woven fabrics, but these issues were easily corrected in good post-production software (Adobe Lightroom 5 has a particularly good implementation). Better yet, the GR has an in-camera moiré removal tool that works quite well.

Shots from the GR exhibited crisp detail, perfect exposure, and a rich tonality that looked great in color but really shone in black and white.

In our lab tests, the GR kept a good handle on noise up through ISO 800, and shots at sensitivities as high as ISO 3200 were still plenty good for small prints or web use. Noise became a serious issue at ISO 6400, and the two highest ISO settings were borderline unusable thanks to a combination of high noise levels and green color shift. Dynamic range was excellent at base ISO, allowing plenty of latitude to rescue highlights and particularly shadows in post-processing. DR remained exceptional through ISO 800, after which it quickly dropped off. As always, we recommend shooting RAW to get the best possible dynamic range.

Video quality was decidedly sub-par. Even when shooting in the maximum 1080/30p setting and with good light, videos were soft (maxing out at 525 lp/ph) and riddled with distracting image artifacts. Trailing was an obvious issue and videos weren't very smooth, even compared to typical 1080/30p clips. The camera's autofocus system also tries to refocus far too often, resulting in jittery footage of static scenes; we recommend shooting in manual focus or snap focus mode to avoid this issue. Better yet, just ignore the video mode altogether.

When shooting stills in good light, the GR's autofocus speed was what we'd call acceptable—not bad enough to be noticeable, but not good enough to stand out, either. But in poor light we noticed it right away, for all the wrong reasons: The contrast-based AF system racked back and forth through the focus range, passing the ideal point of focus several times before coming to rest. This process usually took a few seconds, meaning (for example) that you'll need to ask your friends to hold still if you want to get a clear shot at the bar. The camera rarely fails to find focus, but the wait can be frustrating.

For an in-depth analysis of all our lab test results, please visit the Science Page.

Conclusion

A legend in the making

There are a lot of arguments against buying a camera like the Ricoh GR. Its fixed, wide-angle focal length means you can't really use it for sports or action. Abysmal video quality means it's an abject failure as a multimedia device. And at $800... well, you could get a DSLR and a couple lenses for the same price.

The Ricoh GR may never be a camera for the masses, but it has all the ingredients of a cult classic.

But there are just as many reasons to buy in. First and foremost, there's absolutely no other way to get this level of image quality into your pocket for under $1,000. We really can't get over how sharp shots are from Ricoh's 28mm lens, and how malleable the camera's files are in post-production. We loved the tasteful, well-implemented picture effects, which make shooting JPEGs (particularly black-and-white street snaps) a viable option.

The GR is also one of the best-handling pocketable cameras we've ever used. Controls are laid out intelligently, there's a ton of room for customization, and thanks to its clever design you can easily use the camera one-handed. The GR's light weight belies its superb build quality, with wonderfully tactile buttons and dials, and a fit and finish that inspires confidence. It's a camera that feels like it will stand up to daily use—essential in a go-everywhere companion.

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The menu system is just as customizable as the controls, letting you mold operation to your personal tastes in dozens of little ways. It can be a little overwhelming at first, especially since there's just so much you can adjust, but the GR's minimalistic menu design and intuitive options (for more experienced photographers, at least) quickly become second nature. As with the best cameras, the GR becomes a natural extension of your eye—something that you control without thinking, rather than something you have to consciously master.

We haven't yet tested the $1,100 Nikon Coolpix A, but we can't find anything in its spec sheet that justifies its $300 price premium.

Less experienced shooters might not have the same reaction, though. Sure, you can put the GR in full auto mode and snap away, but the lack of image stabilization means you need to experiment to find an ideal minimum shutter speed that will let you avoid motion blur in dim light, and the lack of zoom (aside from the 35mm crop option) means you need to learn to "see" in 28mm.

It should be noted that we haven't yet tested the $1,100 Nikon Coolpix A, a camera that offers the same shooting resolution, same focal length, and same form factor. Looking at the spec sheets, we can't find anything to indicate that it would deviate drastically from the GR's performance profile, nor can we see anything that really justifies its $300 price gap. Future lab results will clear up all lingering doubts, but for the moment we're recommending the GR wholeheartedly.

In the end, one thing's certain: The Ricoh GR may never be a camera for the masses, but it has all the ingredients of a cult classic—a camera that collectors and enthusiasts will talk about in hushed tones for years to come.

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