The Ricoh GXR body and lensors came loaded with firmware v.1.18. I tried out the 50mm on my way back from work and found the AF to be very slow; once on the metro it struggled to focus in that poor light and most of the time just gave up. I didn’t feel positive about the upcoming weeks shooting with the camera. When I got home I went to Ricoh’s website and found that the most current firmware available was v.1.36--I installed it immediately (on the camera body and lensors). Wow, what a difference! In my dimly lit office the camera could now focus without problems, and in the well lit kitchen the AF was a lot faster than earlier in the day. Crisis averted! Moral of the story: Upgrade your firmware the moment you get the camera; find the latest firmware here.
Let me make something clear: All images you will see in this review have been shot in RAW and processed manually in Adobe ACR 5.6. None of them are straight from the camera, as that's not how I make my photographs. I report here on my experiences producing personal work with the GXR, which I treated as if it were my own camera for the 4 weeks I had it. Whenever I went out photographing my aim was to take real photos, not test photos. I used no other camera during this time and the GXR became my "main camera" for this period of time. Thank you to Amin and B&H for providing me with this equipment.
The camera is even smaller than I expected, and except for a slight protrusion in the grip area, it is basically a thick rectangle. Ricoh won’t win any industrial design awards with the GXR! [Edit: Actually, see Remko's comment proving me wrong.] That’s not to say it’s ugly; let’s just call it “functional”. Going back to the grip, it’s covered in rubbery material that helps the fingers keep a solid hold, and this material is present in ? of the back, where the thumb rests. The small grip may not seem like enough, but given how light the camera is I had no problems holding it. But just in case, and as I’ve done with all mirrorless cameras I’ve used, I attached a wrist strap to it--it makes it easier to carry while not shooting and impossible to drop (I tie a knot in the strap so it’s tight on my wrist).
There are plenty of buttons on the back of this small body and a control wheel in front of the shutter release button, but what made me the happiest is the rear jog dial (located where you'd find a second control wheel/dial on a DSLR, this is a rocking dial that is also clickable like a button). There are DSLRs that don’t have one (Pentax K-r, Canon Digital Rebels, Nikon 3100...) and it’s annoying whether you’re shooting M or Av/Tv. In the GXR’s case you can set it to control any of 5 functions, but I left it at ISO almost all the time. It’s not a wheel, it’s a jog dial, but it can get the job done once you’re used to it. It’s also a button, which allows you to quickly choose the function it performs.
And speaking of choosing functions, there at 2 buttons (left and right on the rear control pad) that are simply labelled Fn1 and Fn2; you can assign almost any function to them (choose from 21 options!). Given this apparent philosophy of customisation it came as a let-down to find out I couldn’t customise the magnification/zoom buttons just as much. If you’re not using a zoom lensor, they’re of little use while shooting. You can set them to control digital zoom, EV comp (which is already handled by default by the up/down keys on the control pad), or white balance. Seriously, Ricoh? WB? I would have much preferred an AF and AEL option as I like to decouple AF from the shutter release button; sadly, this is impossible on the GXR (but could be solved with new firmware).
Another bad decision is the macro button, which does nothing but transition from macro to non-macro distances when using AF (it’s a focus distance limiter). If you have set up the camera for Auto Macro, this button is redundant, and if you haven’t, wouldn’t it be better to have this in a menu? Maybe I’m missing something, but I’ve never been in a situation where I’ve thought “oh god, I’ve got to switch to macro RIGHT NOW without a second to lose...thank you for a direct macro button, camera maker! You saved the day.” Nope, never happened to me. The delete button doubles as the self-timer and the display button cycles through various display types: info, info + histogram, no info + grid, no info; what if you want info + grid? Not on this camera. Hold the display button down and the electronic level will appear (see what I was talking about dual-function buttons?). Finishing off the right side of the camera is the play button, which I can’t see it having more than that function.
On the top-left of the rear are the remaining 3 buttons: Direct (shows all current settings in a single screen and allows you to navigate them to change them), open lightning (which sadly doesn’t produce a bolt of lightning but simply pops open the flash) and VF/LCD (which switches between the EVF and the LCD, and when the EVF isn’t attached acts as a handy LCD off switch to conserve battery).
Long long long long looooooong. There are 3 sections: Shooting, Key Custom Options and Setup, and they each have 3, 2 and 4 pages, respectively. Take into account the number of lines per page is 10. That’s not the worst part, it’s navigating them that sucks: There is no way to go from page to page without using the up/down arrows to cycle through all 10 items.
Another issue I have with the menus is the scattering of the drive settings. I really don't understand this; there should be an individual menu (called...Drive Settings!) to house single frame, continuous shooting, interval shooting, bracketing and self timer. Instead, it appears Ricoh scattered them randomly within the first 2 pages of the Shooting menu.
Other settings don't seem to have been organised any better and I was very happy when after a few days I had the camera set up like I wanted it and didn't have to go into the menus any more. What a relief!
Here's the #1 tip I can offer a new GXR owner: Go to Setup > page 3 > item 6, Store Menu Cursor Position. Are you there? Good. Now set it to "On". The default is "Off", which means every time you press the Menu key you will appear on the first page of the first menu (Shooting); if that setting in on, then you will appear wherever you were in the menus when you exited. Trust me, it will save you a lot of frustration.
Lenses & Sensors
I'm not going to spend much time on the IQ of the lenses because, as I've written before, I'm not too concerned with them as long as they're the focal length and aperture I want, and their IQ is adequate. I only had two lenses for this test, which are the two 12MP APS-C units currently offered by Ricoh. They are both primes, which suits me fine as that's the type of lens I favour for street photography.
I'll discuss the sensor separately from the lenses, like we used to do back when they didn't come joined at the hip.
The sensors gave consistent results to the unaided eye, meaning I didn't take photos of a test chart with each lensor and compared them, but rather when looking at the images on Adobe Bridge I couldn't tell just by looking at them what lensor I had used. That's good enough for me.
The image quality from these sensors was par for the course of previous generation sensors: Very good up to ISO 800, good at 1600, usable at 3200. Of course, your criteria might differ from mine, so I should warn my dear readers that I am easily pleased when it comes to high ISO--I don't expect nor need to distinguish individual eyelashes in a portrait shot at ISO 3200.
My one question for Ricoh is this: Where is ISO 6400? Even the lowly Olympus E-PL2 with a smaller 4/3 sensor has 6400. I hope a future firmware from Ricoh will add the extra stop of ISO.
As far as dynamic range is concerned, it was enough for me; I didn't have any issues with it. There is some noise in deep shadows, but you have to boost them by 3-4 stops to see it, and even then it's quite grain-like and not distracting; again, I didn't have any issues with it. Where I could run into some issues is with highlight recovery. I didn't conduct any specific tests, but playing around with a few RAW files it didn't seem like there was much headroom in blown highlights, maybe 1/2 stop. Luckily, the GXR meters consistently, so I never found myself having to reel in highlights in postprocessing. One thing I will note is that I ran the GXR at +0.3EV as I found it exposed a bit too dark for me.
Both lenses focus reasonably fast, given that they're using contrast-detect AF. Though no brick walls were harmed in the conducting of this review, I can say that there is no flagrant distortion visible in real photos. Chromatic aberrations are noticeable by their absence; is this due to in-camera correction? I don't know. Do I care? Not really, but you may.
As agreed, I didn't shoot any brick walls, but I can tell you the corners are soft when shot wide open; I found the sweet apertures for these lenses are f/4 to f/8. That said, I had no qualms shooting wide open at f/2.5 when the light levels required it, but in these cases I did my best to keep my subject close to the center of the frame.
A12 28mm f/2.5
At first I had a hard time with this lens. That's not the lens's fault, but rather me not being used to using such a wide angle. By forcing myself outside of my comfort zone and using this lens for long spells, I learned to appreciate the focal length and what it had to offer. Indeed, I ended up taking many images that would have been impossible had I been shooting with the 50mm.
The lens focuses reasonably close at 20cm, as measured from the sensor; that's about 17cm from the front of the lens. This allows for the classic wideangle view where one gets very close to the subject while showing a lot of the background thanks to the wide FoV. The action of the focus ring on this lens was very smooth, making it nice to turn for manual focusing, but easy to knock out of focus too.
A12 50mm f/2.5 Macro
This is my go-to focal length for street photography so I immediately felt at home with it mounted on the camera. This lens is also close focusing (hence the term 'macro' in the name), allowing for a 1:2 magnification ratio. This might be useful to some, but I would have preferred a lens with maybe 1:4 magnification but a wider aperture, say f/2 or f/1.8. Maybe Ricoh will offer the option soon because they do have a patent for a 33mm (50mm-equiv.) f/1.8 macro from back in 2009. Of course, making this lens macro increases its size, which is why I'd prefer it to be non macro.
Unlike the 28mm, the 50mm lens had a very tight-feeling focus ring, making it a chore to turn. The action is so different from the 28mm that I wonder if it was defective. Luckily, I found AF to work fine for my needs, so I rarely used manual focus.
As for its macro function, it came in handy more than once when I came upon something tiny I wanted to photograph. It does only allow 1:2, but this is challenging enough when hand-holding on a slightly windy day...photographing an ant on a flower. The above photo is cropped slightly, and is one of a few attempts, but that's the good part about digital, that you can take a few shots and you're likely to get the focus right on one of them.
Macro lenses have long focus throws, which can make them slow to focus if they start hunting and need to run from one end of their focus distance to the other to find the subject in focus. There are no switches on the lens itself, but there is a focus limiter set through software which has its own button on the body. This is both smart and useful, and you can set it so that AF will use the complete focus range, macro range, or long distance range, depending on how far your subject is.
VF-2 Electronic Viewfinder
I finally figured something out: I like viewfinders, but I hate add-on viewfinders. If I'm going to have an electronic VF on my camera, I want it to be integrated into the body and not some piece I slide precariously into the hotshoe. The camera is small and rectangular, and the VF-2 sticks out, almost literally, like a sore thumb. I was constantly worried it would come off the hotshoe as the camera dangled from my wrist strap, and when the time came to take a shot, I found myself using the rear LCD most of the time. In the end, I just left the VF-2 at home.
Having said all that, this is just my experience and it has nothing to do with the VF-2 being an EVF, something it does quite well. I've read elsewhere that the image it shows is the same size as that of the Panasonic G2 and GH2, but to me it felt smaller (I couldn't compare them side to side), though still a good enough size for me. I liked that it could be tilted up by 90 degrees, which came in handy when taking flower shots lying on the ground, and even when shooting standing up but crouching down a bit, as I could just tilt my head down saving me from bending my knees so much.
The EVF has a very generous diopter adjustment and photographers with glasses should be able to see the whole frame without problems; plus, the rubber cup won't scratch their glasses. I nice touch is that the rigid pleather case it comes with has a small collar allowing you to attach it to the camera strap.
Shooting with the GXR in the Real World
I went out shooting often with my new tiny friend, and it was an overall enjoyable experience. I shot mainly in Av with the rear rocking dial set to control ISO; the two Fn buttons were set for Snap Focus and Focus Mode, and EV comp. was available via the zoom buttons whenever necessary. If I wanted to move the focus point, I had to press the rocking dial, choose the appropriate icon, click again, then manoeuvre the AF region to where I wanted it. It sounds complicated, but once I'd done it a few times I was able to go through the motions quickly and use it even for non-stationary subjects. Oh, and if this was the last function used on this dial, clicking it again would bring it up directly, saving some time.
Any street photographer knows that stealth is a welcome trait, and this camera helps tremendously by being almost silent. In fact, on an average street the sounds of people and vehicles drown out the soft huh-wick sound the leaf shutter makes. If I was ever spotted taking a photograph, it was not because of the camera making noise. Furthermore, it is so small, that it doesn't call attention, and I could often stand next to someone with the camera to my side, or even lifted to my chest, and they wouldn't realise I was photographing. On the occasions someone noticed, they didn't look intimidated like they do when I'm using my DSLR. And yes, I did get caught sometimes.
Auto focus was good. Not excellent, not lightning fast, but good enough that I got the shot I wanted most of the time. Accuracy was extremely good, though not perfect, as on a few occasions the LCD picked something to focus on, but the photo was focused far behind the subject. This happened maybe 4 times over the 4 weeks I used it, so it's not a big deal, but I thought I'd mention it. As for manual focus, I found little need for it thanks to Ricoh's exclusive (as far as I know) Snap Focus feature, whereby you can choose a distance and assign one of the Fn buttons to focus the camera to that distance when you press it. You can choose from 1m to 3.5m in 0.5m increments, and also 5m and infinity. I had mine set for 3.5m, which with the 28mm lens gave me a depth of field of around 3-10m when shooting wide open, and around 2m-infinity at f/4. I know this because in manual focus (or Snap Focus) modes, there is a DoF scale on the left side of the screen. All camera brands should take note.
Once I was familiar enough with the camera to use it without looking down, it became an extension of my arm, and I found myself shooting a lot without looking at the screen, just bringing it up to my belly, crossing my arms, from the side with my arm hanging down and tripping the shutter with my thumb... Sometimes I would lift the camera over my head, pointing it down, and because it's so small, everyone thought I was a silly tourist and didn't pay much attention. In fact, because people pay less attention to you when you don't look like you're taking a photograph, that's exactly what I did a lot of the time. Can you do this with a DSLR? Sure you can, and I do, but it's that much harder to control a DSLR with a single hand given its bulk and weight.
I complained earlier on about the menus, but I rarely, if ever, had to access them "in the field", so that turned out to not be much of a problem. Shooting during the day also helped me keep ISO down, which helped IQ, but I did sometimes miss an ISO 100 option for slower shutter speeds.
And speaking of slow speeds, the GXR does take its time writing to memory, so don't buy this camera if you like to spray and pray. I tested out the Continuous Drive Mode and found it took 4 shots in quick succession before locking up for several seconds while it wrote to the card. This was shooting RAW+ (there is not "just RAW"), so it's better in just JPEG, but it's not great either way. As for me? I rarely take more than one shot a second, so it didn't bother me. But beware here, when in Continuous Drive Mode, it doesn't matter if you take the maximum number of shots or just one, after you're done, the camera will lock up until it's finished writing the files out (obviously, it locks up longer the more shots you took). When in Single Drive Mode, you get a black out lasting about 1s after every shot, and during this time you see nothing on the LCD or EVF, and you can't take any shots. You've been warned.
I like this little camera! It's unobtrusive, easy to carry, sturdy, customisable, and the 12MP sensor performs adequately. The 2 lenses I tried worked nicely, though I would have preferred a faster than f/2.5 aperture on the 50mm. The camera is a bit slow to process images and shot-to-shot times are longish in single-shot mode; for my style of shooting that was fine, but I know it will annoy other shooters. Autofocus worked well enough for me and I rarely missed a shot because of it; manual focus, on the other hand, I really hated, unless I was zone focusing, in which case it has the best system on the market. I cannot overstate how important it was to me that it has two control dials, one in front and the other in the front; this is how all cameras should be! The rear rocking dial isn't as nice to use as a wheel, but it's effective and gets the job done. Being able to shoot this camera in M mode and have dials for both aperture and shutter speed was glorious. Despite being such a lovely camera to use, it does have some issues that I suspect will keep it from selling well.
The main thing holding the GXR back is the lens and sensor being attached to each other. I'm sure there are many photographers who will not be able to get over this "feature" of the system, and they have good reasons. I think 12MP is fine for most people's needs, but the high ISO capabilities of the sensor lag behind sensors in current compacts such as the Sony NEX line, and maybe even micro-4/3. In 2 or 3 years it will be way behind micro-4/3 sensors and owners might feel cheated at having to repurchase ALL their lenses if they want a new sensor. And this is the reason why I don't expect Ricoh to sell many of these cameras. But that might be OK with Ricoh, who have always seemed to me to be that cool kid who doesn't talk to anyone in school and sits at the back of the class, but knows the answers to everything and always gets an A in every exam. However, now that Ricoh have bought Pentax, that kid might have decided to start making noise and let everyone know who he is. Will we hear his message? Or will it get lost in the cacophony of competing me-too cameras from the competition? Time will tell.
- Small body size, yet sturdy and well built
- Good ergonomics for such a small camera
- Two control dials
- Near-silent operation (when all sounds turned off)
- Best zone focusing system on the market
- Lots of customisable external controls
- Highly customisable settings
- Lots of control over noise reduction (overall levels and by ISO)
- Three custom shooting modes
- Good EVF (given current state of EVFs)
- Focus distance limiter for the 50mm macro lensor
- Did I mention it has TWO control dials on a really small body?
- No Auto ISO in M mode
- Long shot-to-shot time
- Manual focus is slow and kludgey to use
- Max ISO is only 3200
- High ISO IQ not up to current standards
- Magnification for manual focus is too mooshy
- Rear screen and EVF ramp up when light levels are low (this is a personal pet peeve)
- Lens isn't always kept wide open during live view, which can hinder manual focusing
- Menus slow to navigate and somewhat randomly organised
- Middle-of-the-pack AF speed
- Max of 1/1000s shutter speed when lens wide open due to leaf shutter
- No dedicated AF button
- Cannot shoot just RAW, it has to be RAW+JPEG
- No 1/2 stops for aperture and shutter speed, only 1/3 stops
- Only full stops for ISO intervals
Addendum: My Thoughts on Ricoh's Strategy with the GXR System
Since the introduction of the GXR system I have been racking my brains trying to figure out why anyone would weld the sensor to the glass. I still don't have any definitive answers, but I do have some ideas of what Ricoh should do to boost sales of the system. I present them here for your reading pleasure.
- Offer to upgrade your lensors with a new sensor for a nominal fee, say every 2 years.
- Offer discounts if you turn in your old lensor when purchasing a new one with a better sensor. Ricoh could reuse the glass assuming they don't change optical formulas.
- Call it a test run, and just release a module with a Ricoh mount and lenses for it. If they're really smart, they'll use the upcoming M mount module with added connections so Ricoh GXR lenses can be mounted and their AF controlled, while at the same time allowing use of standard M mount lenses. Call it the GXM mount.
- Lower the prices on lensors so it's not so painful to rebuy your whole collection every time a new sensor comes around.
I doubt they'll follow idea #4, but I suspect we won't be seeing many more lensors released. You see, the fewer lenses you own, the easier it will be for you to rebuy them when you upgrade your sensor.
Idea #3 is the one that makes the most sense, but I would be willing to bet Fuji beats them to it.
Miserere is a scientist by day, which is why he tries to keep his photography passion as non-technical as possible. Having attempted almost every genre, he has settled on Street Photography as it provides a mixture of sleuthing, gymnastics, law, psychology and random smiling that keeps him entertained. While mostly a B&W artist, he occasionally uses colour, if nothing else to make sure his camera still works properly. His photography can be seen at World of Miserere. He is also founder and editor of Enticing the Light, a Photography website dedicated to interviews, opinions, reviews, news and more, all of it doused with good humour. For the last few years he's lived just outside Boston, USA. -Amin
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