In the 1990’s, camera makers silently went to war with their most innovative designs, which caused the eruption of the first High End Compact Camera era.
While Contax continued to be successful with its compact T-series, Minolta debuted its titanium TC-1 with the premium handmade 28mm f/3.5 G-Rokkor lens. Nikon won the hearts of photographers worldwide with the 35Ti and the limited edition 28Ti. Olympus delivered the special edition Ecru and the “leather-tech” LT-1. In 1996, Ricoh released the first of the GR series, the GR1, aiming at the professional photography audience. Within a short time, the Ricoh GR1 gained a cult status among the street photographers with its simple, yet effective design. Today, Daidō Moriyama is still walking the streets of Japan with one of the GR series in his pocket.
However, the GR line isn’t the choice of every street photographer. Some love the design. Some hate it. Ricoh has recently changed the perspective of some photographers in the West; still, the GR series isn’t as popular as the Sony RX100 series, or the Olympus PENs.
I was fortunate to have the experience with one of the 5,000 Ricoh GR Limited Edition after I received it as a birthday gift from a friend. It quickly became the diverse pocket camera in my box of tricks. But for every fantastic camera, even with the luxurious Leica, there were always a few quirts by design.
Beside the cosmetic look and the bonus accessories, the Ricoh GR Limited Edition carried the same features found in the regular model. The GH-3 lens hood and the adapter could be useful, but I rarely used them. It’d be nice if Ricoh replaced the hood and the adapter with an optical viewfinder. I was not thrilled with the glossy, grayish green paint on the GR Limited Edition. I wished that the body had the same olive-green color of the GC-5 leather case that came with the unit. Oh, and in my opinion, the fake-wood grip was just adding tackiness to the high-end design.
As for the Ricoh GR in general, the 100% field-of-view, fixed LCD was actually nice. By using the same WhiteMagic LCD technology as the Sony RX1/RX100, Ricoh was able to offer brilliant, clear viewing images even in direct bright sunny days. The next great thing about the Ricoh GR was the little lock button on the mode dial. I didn’t have to check my shooting mode each time I took the GR out of my bag or my jeans pocket. Front and back dials on a digital compact camera? Really? This was just awesome. Non of the Leica D-Lux 6, or the Canon GX 1 MK II offered this useful feature. Not even the $1,096 Nikon CoolPix A.
Apart from the 16 megapixels, APS-C CMOS sensor, the GR also sported AA filter-less, and 12-bit RAW in DNG format. That meant image sharpness and I didn’t have to update my editing software to process the raw files. For those who prefer using OOC JPEG files, the Advance GR Engine V image sensor ensured low noise, color accuracy, superb image quality.
The superb optical wide-angle lens had become Ricoh’s trademark since the beginning of the GR series. The retractable 18.3mm 1:2.8, 9 blade diaphragm aperture, 7 elements in 5 groups, including 2 aspherical optics, was indeed low vignetting, sharp—even at large aperture, and very little distortion. Of course, not everybody loved the 28mm equivalent focal length; however, with the updated firmware 4.0 version, I could choose between the 35mm, or the 47mm crop mode. When I activated one of the crop modes, the GR sensor trimmed away the edge of the image to simulate the chosen focal length. In the 35mm crop mode, the resolution dropped from 16 megapixels to 10 megapixels. In the 47mm crop mode, the result would be around 6 megapixels.
The Ricoh GR used both AF External Sensor (CDAF) and contrast AF method, along with the TTL 190 points Hybrid AF. It came with eight focus modes, included the easy to use manual focus. Unlike other cameras on the market, the GR allowed shooters to choose between positioning both the focus and exposure point, or just to move the exposure point. When the exposure point was chosen, the AF sensor automatically put the GR into Multi AF mode. This was indeed a useful feature for portrait photography, or when critical exposure control was required.
For most street photographers, the Snap Focus mode was among their favorite settings. After the focusing zone was set in Snap Focus mode, shooters could press the shutter to capture the images instantly. To quickly change the Snap Focus distance, shooters could press the Macro button—Macro mode had to be in its off position, then used the front wheel to select another focusing zone. Combining with a small aperture, shooters could benefit a nearly unlimited depth of field and instant focusing response.
I also found the Infinity Focus useful for dimly lit sceneries. Once chosen, this option locked the focus to infinity, allowing me to quickly snap the distant subjects with no focusing lag.
For time-sensitive sceneries, I liked the Full Press Snap option; it could be activated in any AF modes. The Full Press Snap would force the GR into the chosen Snap Focus distance and I could take my shots instantly.
Another useful feature for street photographers was the Spot Focus mode. I often set my aperture to f/5.6, pre-focus the Ricoh GR using this option, switched the camera to Manual Focus mode, then waited for my subjects to walk into my focusing range. This option worked well for walk-by-shooting, too.
The Ricoh GR also offered Face Recognition Priority; however, this option only worked within the Auto setting mode.
The tiny flash on the GR was a meh, but its settings allowed me to fully adjust the intensity of the flash from -2.0 to +2.0 in the increments of 1/3 EV. I could also set the flash to fire either at the first or the second curtain timing.
Since the GR used leaf shutter, the flash sync could go up to 1/2000 sec.. And yes, the shutter was super quiet.
One of the three tests I conducted on the GR Limited Edition was food photography. At first, I was disappointed because the 4-inches Macro mode didn’t allow me to get close to the texture of the food to capture the details I’d like to. But that was just me being silly. Who’d want to look at a single pea in a blurry sea of fried rice?
In fashion, the little GR amazed me with its capability. Sure, it would not give me a whopping 80 megapixels of the Phase One IQ280 digital back, but with 16 megapixels and the ability to use its little pop-up flash to trigger 2 Nikon SB-900 and a SB-800, I could create pretty decent shots for a print magazine. Similar to street photography, fashion photography involved a lot of movements from the models; lot of candid shots, too. The best settings in this field of photography was the combination of large aperture and fast shutter speed. The TAv mode.
The GR was the first in line that inherited the TAv mode from Pentax’s innovative technology. Once activated, the TAv automatically chose a suitable ISO which based on my choice of aperture and shutter speed. What didn’t work for me was that the GR would render an ISO 25600, resulting unusable images. My cure for this design quirk was to turn off the Continuous mode, set the Dynamic Range to Strong, and chose Aperture Priority for the Shutter/Aperture Auto Shift. This would limit the GR from reaching ISO above 8000. Although this setting had no effect on the RAW, the shallow curve of the Strong Dynamic Range setting would be seen on OOC jpg files.
As for street photography. I ran the Ricoh GR through different settings. I went back and forth between the combinations of Manual mode and Snap Focus, Aperture Priority and Infinity Focus, TAv and Subject Tracking, etc.. I found that the most suitable settings for my shooting style was the combination of the TAv mode with the Multi AF and Full Press Snap. For the street at night, I pre-focused the GR using Spot Focus mode, then switched to Manual Focus as I mentioned in the paragraph above. In some cases, the Infinity Focus saved the night.
Auto White Balance worked well until I stretched the test under those low intensity, reddish High Pressure Sodium lamps on Huntington Beach Pier. Manual White Balance helped a little, but didn’t take away all the reddish. I guessed I blamed this one on the dim light.
Overall, I liked the Ricoh GR for its size, the quiet leaf shutter, the TAv mode, and its snappy auto focus—in daylight, of course. Going through the system menu was a breeze because of its simple and clean layout. I also liked the fact that I could save pretty much any setting to its memory. Although I wasn’t too fond of the fixed 28mm equivalent focal length, I was very happy with the optical sharpness. Like any highend DSLR, the GR gave me the complete control and fine tuning the exposure. Best of all, I could set a suitable aperture for my desired depth of field and a shutter speed that was either quick or slow enough to freeze or to blur my creative images.
In conclusion, the Ricoh GR wasn’t the best camera for street photography—there will never be one—but I assured you that it wasn’t a toy point-n-shoot. Once you learned to control the camera, the GR would change your perspective and style of shooting street photography.
I am glad to have the GR as an extension to my Fujifilm X-Pro I.