I really wanted to review the Ricoh GR Digital IV. Its predecessors have been beloved by street (and “stroll”) photographers, particularly for black and white shooting. It is small and “pocketable” (4.28 x 2.35 x 1.28") and built like a tank (magnesium body with a great rubbery grip) with intuitive controls and a very nice LCD screen (3 inches with 1,230,000 pixels!) on the back. The camera features a 1/1.7” sensor with an effective 10 megapixels. It also has a prime rather than zoom lens, and its a pretty wide 28mm equivalent prime at that, but it is fast at f1.9 max aperture. And it is not cheap for a compact, costing the same as the Fuji X10 I recently reviewed which is also well built but which has a larger sensor and a fast manual zoom lens.
I had some specific uses in mind for this camera before I ever received it. I envisioned it as a take anywhere and everywhere camera for those times when having a camera on me is more important than ultimate image quality. While a lot of people may find the constriction of a prime lens, well, constricting, I have always found that my shooting conforms to the lens I’m using after a little practice. Shooting a prime removes one consideration when taking pictures - which focal length to use. But I planned to remove another consideration - which way to orient the camera - by shooting square. The GRD will actually produce square format RAW files if you want that. Moreover, it can be set to automatically pick the ISO up to any of several max numbers from 400 to 3200. I found that it did a pretty good job of picking the lowest usable ISO so I set it to automatically go up to 3200. I shot exclusively in Aperture priority mode, often at the widest aperture of f1.9. The goal here was to reduce the options I had to think about when taking pictures to the essentials - where to point the thing and when to press the shutter. After a while I realized that not all of my compositions were working in the square format so I resorted back to shooting the full 4/3 sensor and cropping as needed. But basically this is how I used the camera: Aperture priority, auto ISO up to 3200, RAW. I processed all pictures in Lightroom 3.6 and the black and whites were further refined in Nik Silver Efex Pro 2.
Controls and SettingsControls are ample for a compact camera. The main dial on top has the standard Aperture and Shutter priority modes as well as Manual and Program, a “Scene” mode that I didn’t try, and up to 3 modes that can be programmed in by the user. There is a dial on the front top which is convenient (and used to adjust aperture in the mode I shot, for example). Access to a menu system that is very well thought out (and which features tack sharp text on the brilliant screen) is achieved via the pretty much universal buttons on the back - though here again there are two function buttons that are programmable by the user for quick access to frequently used features. There is also a button to pop up a tiny flash - though I’m not a flash kind of person so I didn’t push it.
There is a build quality to the GRD IV that is just remarkable. It is small, but every square inch is top quality - fit, finish, engineering - it is all there to create a real tool for photographers. It is no wonder that these cameras have a cult following. There aren’t a lot of bells and whistles, but just the things that a “serious” photographer needs.
In the Field
In the field, this little gem shines. The IV features a couple of improvements on the older models. The first is image stabilization. This makes a camera that was already a favorite compact for low light situations even more useful, although maybe not as much as one would think. The primary problem is that it will pick settings that will allow sharp hand holding but will allow shutter speeds that causing blurring of live subjects if they move just a little. This could no doubt be minimized with custom settings to keep the aperture wide and the shutter speed a bit faster with auto ISO take up the slack. I just didn’t have opportunity to use it under these situations enough to do that. But this brings me to the second improvement - autofocus. This camera features a brilliant new hybrid system that uses not only the contrast system employed by other non-DSLR cameras, but an external autofocus system. Here is description from Ricoh’s website:
All I can say is that based on my experience, this is not marketing hyperbole. The GRD IV focuses faster than any compact I’ve ever used, even into shadowy regions that don’t have a lot of contrast in them. It isn’t as fast as a DSLR, but it is noticeably faster than other compacts I have tried. And when it can’t lock in focus, you know almost instantly. The focusing rectangle on the screen just turns red - there is no hunting as motors and gears grind back and forth in futility. You know immediately and can try again. As this is a camera perfectly suited for hand held, “focus and recompose” photography, this system works beautifully.It is newly equipped with an external autofocus sensor developed in-house that allows for high-speed, high-precision distance calculations for up to 190 points. The camera needs as little as 0.2 seconds for the autofocus to adjust, approximately half the time for the GR DIGITAL III. The scan area for contrast autofocusing is limited so the external autofocus sensor can adjust the focus even if you do not half-press the shutter-release button, allowing for more rapid focus adjustments than previous models. Improvements to the algorithm have increased the speed—as much as doubled it—even for macro autofocusing that uses only the contrast autofocus system.
In good light, even when shooting in “auto ISO” mode, the small sensor picks low numbers and the camera produces lovely landscapes.
Although known largely as a compact camera of choice for black and white photography, the camera can also handle color well, whether subtle
It also has an effective macro (and “super macro”) mode as you can see above, and below.
It’s a handy camera for those “selfies” taken from arm’s length,
and its images can handle a fair amount of manipulation,
but this thing really shines as a camera to carry around for those observations made while strolling
and for recording “moments” indoors
although you are far better off going with black and white instead of color at ISO 3200
The GRD IV is another excellent camera. I’m afraid that people are going to think that I am something of a pushover since I always seem to like the cameras I review. However, all of the cameras have been among their manufacturers’ top compact cameras and I am readily willing to admit that I am a fan of “serious” compacts. I like small cameras and these top line compacts often have better build quality and more accessible controls than entry-level DSLRs. They just have small sensors, and thus less image quality. But if you are more interested in a camera that is small enough to take with you everywhere and be there when you need a camera, it is hard to go wrong with any of the top-tier compacts. However, because this camera has a rather wide prime lens and a rather high price, it is not for everyone. Obviously, if you need a zoom, or a little more image quality would better suit you than then portability, this is not the camera for you. It is best suited to those who have some pretty specific ideas about how they would use this tool because while it is quite versatile and capable of lots of tweaking to accommodate the preferences of many photographer (including color photographers), it is still a camera with “constrictions” on its usability. I think those “constrictions” can be turned into positives but then I’m a bit weird and a bit old. While I think it shines as a compact, even at ISO 3200 when you have to use it and can live with black and white, it is obvious that Ricoh is happy to have this serve a niche audience rather than the masses. But that niche isn’t just street photographers - is is anyone who wants a small quality camera to always have on them.
Compared to the Fujifilm X10: the GRD IV is smaller and is much more “pocketable” and has more customization features and a significantly better, brighter LCD screen. Also, although the X10 is no slouch in the autofocus department among compacts, the GRD is faster and more certain. But the bigger sensor of the X10 gives better image quality, particularly at higher ISOs where the EXR sensor and the image processing produces beautiful (if only 6mp) pictures. While the GRD delivers competent colors, the X10 produces sparkling colors that really grab you.
Compared to the Olympus XZ-1: I am going to say that I think the noise from the comparably sized sensors is about the same. Both have more noise at higher ISOs than the now discontinued Canon S95 I reviewed, but also seem to have a bit more detail. I think the Oly has a bit richer color, but the GRD’s color can be adjusted easily in post-production. The Canon S series is a little smaller than the GRD, and thus fit a little better in a shirt pocket, and are well-built with more versatile zoom lenses, but the lens is not quite as fast (and is pretty slow really once you start zooming), but the GRD feels and looks like a more sturdy camera. I like the look of the lens on the Oly (and the look of the pictures it produces) but it is bigger and is not in the same league with the Canons and the GRD when it comes to fitting in a pocket. Neither the Oly nor the Canon line are as well made and thought out as the Ricoh (though both are good in that regard as well).
Compared to the Sigma DP2x: The Sigma image quality belongs in a class unto itself. Like the Ricoh it features an excellent prime lens, although it has a more useful (to me) 41mm equivalent view. The GRD is much smaller and its LCD screen blows the rather pitifully dim and reflective and low res one on the Sigma completely out of the water. Both are more “niche” cameras than the Oly and Canon lines, but the niches are slightly different. If unique image quality that only comes from a Foveon sensor is what you need in a small package, the Sigma may be for you. But as a tool that produces good results and is easy to use and customize, the GRD is clearly the winner.
Jeff Damron has been photographing since receiving a Minolta SLR and a basic darkroom setup in 1976. His favorite film camera is the Contax G1, which he considers his first "compact" camera. He writes about monochrome photography at his site, Better in Black and White. -Amin
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