Ricoh GXR Review
Just when we were getting used to what a digital camera should look like, Ricoh have pulled a rabbit out of the hat and launched a new system that has got everyone talking. Grant Scott gets all the bits in order and gets his mind around the GXR concept.
The GXR experience began for me in a small hotel room in central London filled with ‘seen it all before’ photographic journalists in early December. Ricoh’s Japanese research and development team had flown in especially to remove dark cloths from awkward shapes to reveal what they believe to be the future of digital photography. You could cut the silence and disbelief which greeted their presentation with a knife.
The question on everybody’s lips was why? Why be so brave, so creative, so bold, so imaginative, and maybe, so mad? Whenever a major international manufacturer in any electronic field decides to buck the trend and take their own road, the spectre of previous brave adventures looms large. Betamax, Sinclair C5, Philips Laserdisc, MiniDiscs etc. We remember them all, but did we buy them? Of course, the answer is no, and they are remembered only as gloriously misconceived failures. Now we have the Ricoh GXR system, will it be added to this list of ignominy?
Well, before we make any rash decisions, let’s have a look at Ricoh’s message behind the GXR system. The basic concept is simple. Different types of photography require different types of lenses and different types of lenses require different types of sensors to achieve optimum quality. Therefore, if you change your sensor with your lens then you will get the best quality of images. Simple. The development of sensor technology is advancing rapidly, so if you have a system where you can upgrade the sensor without having to buy a new camera, then that has to be good. I’m with them so far, and yes it does all make sense. You are, essentially, buying a new ‘camera’ every time you buy the lens: the GXR body is little more than a shell containing the screen, card slot, controls and flash. So what’s the problem?
Well, there is no problem with the build quality; as with the excellent GRIII, the finish and ergonomics of the GXR are well considered and resolved. Buttons and levers are sensibly positioned and sensibly sized. The LCD screen is bright and the menu system easy to navigate. There is a built-in flash and hot shoe for the dedicated flash gun and viewfinder adaptor. It’s got everything right, but it is a little boring.
If this camera has any rivals, they are the Panasonic Lumix GF1 and the Olympus EP-1 and 2 and they’re all good-looking cameras. The GXR is not. It’s like a Volvo: everything is in the right place, everything works well and is built well, you just wouldn’t lust after one. It’s a sensible choice, but not much fun.
That, of course, is the case when you look at the GXR as a normal camera. But with a small movement to the left of a just big enough lever to the right of the hand grip, the sensible Volvo suddenly becomes a very different beast. With the lever held to the left you can the slide the whole lens and sensor away from the body of the camera, leaving you with a grip and screen in one hand and a lens and sensor in the other. It’s a strange feeling and a very strange sight. The mechanism that allows this to happen is simple and well made, but it took me a good few attempts to do this and replace the lens unit before I felt entirely comfortable with the concept (and a few mis-feeds onto the connecting runners, which caused momentary panic).
The unit I was supplied with came with two lens units: the 50mm F2.5 Macro and the 24-27mm F2.5-4.4 and the viewfinder accessory. The viewfinder looked great when attached and, like the body, was a well-resolved piece of design, I just found it hard to use and unnecessary, particularly as the presentation of the screen menu through it was too small to be practical. I began working with the 50mm lens, well aware that, with the GXR system, I am not reviewing the camera, but the lens, and therefore only within a specific genre of photography appropriate for that lens.
However, let’s start with the camera body. There are four external controls that form the creative base of the GXR system. Located on the top right is the Mode dial, which Ricoh refers to as the Up-down dial, and on the back is the Adj dial. These allow you to choose which shooting mode you use, with a choice of full auto, program shift, aperture-priority, shutter-priority and full manual, and to control the settings of the particular mode you’ve chosen.
So when I set the GXR in its manual mode, by default the Up-down dial sets the aperture and the Adj button sets the shutter speed. By then pressing the Adj dial you can quickly adjust five different commonly used settings: White Balance, ISO Speed, Quality, Image Settings and the AF Target. The AF Target is a useful setting that allows you to shift the target for AF or AE or both, without having to move the camera, which I found to be particularly useful.
If you’re going to use the GXR for all your different photographic needs as Ricoh wants you to, you’re going to need to set customised settings. The GXR offers three My Settings modes accessible via the Mode control. The two Function (Fn) buttons can also be customised and the navigation pad on the rear offers both Fn1 and Fn2 settings, which can be re-configured as well. Useful, as by default they alter the focus type and the manual flash strength.
The 3in, 920K LCD screen is the same as those on the Ricoh CX1 and GR Digital III. This is a good thing as it is a fantastic screen and one of the best I’ve ever used on this size of camera. The high-resolution LCD provides a wide viewing angle and high contrast, with a special fluorine coat and hard coating to prevent scratches, plus 100% sRGB coverage for more accurate colour reproduction.
This is a clever, complex and high-specification little camera with over 20 external controls, and a range of focusing and metering modes that should cover most situations. The multi AF system has nine separate auto focus points, as well as Spot AF, Manual Focus and a Snap mode, which can be changed to focus at either 1m, 2.5m, 5m or infinity.
All of this and a Pre-AF mode, which when selected accelerates the focusing time by following the subject’s movement before the shutter release button is pressed half way — a very useful function when photographing birds in flight and moving wildlife. In terms of metering, the multi metering mode is 256 segment, and there’s also a centre weighted average and spot metering.
Multi-pattern auto white balance is always a useful mode to choose for scenes with mixed lighting, and the GXR version of this setting handles the problem in a particularly clever way, breaking the image down into small areas and setting the white balance for each one. In practice, it produces a subtle but noticeable effect that is particularly useful for capturing more natural portraits when using flash. To further aid the photographer’s creative control of light, the power of the built-in flash can be set at 12 levels, from full flash to 1/64, enabling you to balance the intensity of flash for both the subject and background.
This attention to detail and the problems faced by photographers continues with the inclusion of an electronic leveller to ensure level shots while viewing through the LCD monitor, both in landscape and portrait mode. If you’re using the external viewfinder, or can't see the LCD screen due to bright sunlight, then the camera can also be set to make a sound to indicate a level horizon. It doesn’t sound like a big deal, but in practice it really helps to make all those wide-angle landscapes perfectly level. They’ve even included an old-fashioned printed manual to pop in your kit bag for the inevitable on-location function check. It really feels like the GXR was put together by a photographer!
It takes about 0.5 second to store a JPEG image, allowing you to keep shooting as they are being recorded onto the memory card, and there is virtually no LCD blackout between each shot. Shooting in RAW mode is also quick, taking around one second to store a RAW image, and you can also take another shot while it’s being written to memory. In the fastest Continuous mode, the camera takes three frames per second with the 50mm unit, but only 1.6 fps with the 24-72mm unit, both rates for an unlimited number of JPEG or RAW images, which doesn’t compare particularly well to even entry-level DSLRs, which for me is a major factor when considering the GXR and its price.
Now let’s take a look at the lenses. Essentially, as I mentioned before, with each lens unit you’re getting a completely new camera with very different capabilities. Whether this is a good thing or not is going to depend on how well Ricoh does with its stated aim of using highly optimised lens/sensor combinations, and how much it is prepared to invest in producing a range of options that’s compelling enough to tempt buyers away from more conventional systems such as Micro Four Thirds.
The S10 incorporates a 10 megapixel 1/1.7in image sensor and a 24-72mm, 3x zoom lens. This combination is generally being seen as similar to the discontinued Ricoh GX100 compact, which had the same size sensor and the same zoom range. This has caused an undercurrent of comment that, disregarding any differences in image quality, the S10 is almost exactly replicating one of Ricoh’s existing compacts, in a larger size and with a much bigger price tag.
Focusing with the 24-72mm camera unit is quick in good light, taking less than 0.5 seconds, and the camera happily achieves focus most of the time indoors or in low-light situations. But the small 1/1.7in sensor will definitely spark discussion, with many being disappointed that Ricoh chose not to include an APS-C sensor. As far as picture image is concerned with the A10 attached, I can’t really complain, but they didn’t blow me away in the same way that those produced with the Panasonic Lumix GF1. They are just okay, but no where near DSLR standard.
When the second unit, the A12 with the 50mm lens, is slipped in place things get a little more interesting. The A12 is fitted with a 12.3 APS-C image sensor and a 50mm f/2.5 fixed-focal macro lens. A unique offering in the Ricoh range, which makes it the first ever Ricoh camera to feature the same-sized sensor that the majority of DSLRs use. In one quick snap on, the GXR is in the same league as a DSLR and the other compact cameras fitted with an APS-C sensor. The choice of the 50mm macro lens is also a good choice, as it’s useful for both street photography and macro work, and the fast maximum aperture of f/2.5 is a real benefit for low-light shooting and creating shallow depth of field images. The 50mm lens is slightly slower to focus than the 24-72mm lens, however. This is acceptable when shooting close-up still life, but not so when trying to capture a street image or decisive moment. Ricoh has included a manual focusing ring to aid with this, but it does require you to retrain your eye and hand if you’re an auto focus fan.
Whichever lens is being used in this system, one major benefit is clear: the total lack of dust on the sensor thanks to the lens/sensor sealed unit. This means that it has no automatic dust reduction system built in, so it will be interesting to see whether dust can get to the sensor in any other way. If it does, then Ricoh will have to come up with a cheap and easy solution pretty quickly.
So it’s a game of two halves. A great little camera as you would expect from a company like Ricoh with a rich pedigree in quality compacts, built with an attention to detail that photographers appreciate. You also have to admire the company’s brave approach to the future of cameras. But — and it’s a big but — should you buy one yet?
At the moment, the range of lenses is not wide enough to fulfil Ricoh’s expectations for the system. It has promised more soon as well as even more innovative concepts, but at the moment you get the feeling it has tried to come up with a package to please most photographers. The problem for Ricoh at the moment is there are other cameras in the market that do what the current GXR can do, but better. However, when you consider the GXR as a system and what it could offer, then you have a very different proposition. I hope Ricoh sticks with the GXR system and that it doesn’t become another Betamax. If it does get it right, this could be the beginning of a new era of small cameras. Watch this space!
Screen size 3in
Card format 86MB Internal, SD, SDHC
Battery model DB-90 rechargable battery (3.6V)? Weight (g) 160 size 113.9 x 70.2 x 28.9mm
Exposure modes Auto, program shift, aperture priority, shutter priority, manual, scene (movie, portrait, sports, landscape, nightscape, skew correction
Screen resolution 920,000 pixels
File formats JPEG (Exif Ver. 2.21), RAW (DNG), AVI
Connectivity USB 2.0 Hi-Speed Mini-B connector
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