Camera Review: Ricoh GR

September 24, 2013

By Theano Nikitas

Until recently, Ricoh (which purchased Pentax a couple of years ago), hasn’t had much of a U.S. presence. But with the introduction of the new Ricoh GR, a fixed lens advanced compact digital camera, the company is back in the news and with good reason. While Ricoh is no stranger to producing fixed lens compact cameras, including the 2011 Ricoh GR Digital IV, the new model—while similar in body style—offers a 16-megapixel, APS-C-size sensor (versus the GRD IV’s 10-megapixel, 1/1.7-inch sensor), a completely redesigned optical path, a new image processor, and a newly developed 28mm f/2.8 lens. And those are just a few of the differences between the Ricoh GR and the GR-series compacts that came before it. And, technology changes quickly over the course of a couple of years, as do camera features, so it’s best to view the “new GR” with a pair of fresh eyes.
Given the competition, most notably the $1,100 Nikon Coolpix A and $1,200 Fujifilm X100S with their APS-C-size sensors and, for those with even deeper pockets, the full-frame, $2,800 Sony Cyber-shot RX1, the Ricoh GR’s $800 price tag is immediately eye-catching. But, like the other models, the GR should not be judged by price alone.
The Basics and Beyond
The Ricoh GR is built around a new, APS-C-size, 16-megapixel CMOS sensor. Like some other digital cameras on the market, the GR does not use an optical low-pass filter, with the potential drawing the maximum amount of resolution from its sensor.
As is typical for this type of fixed-lens camera, the GR is equipped with a fast, f/2.8 to f/16, 28mm-equivalent, fixed wide-angle lens. If that’s not wide enough, Ricoh offers an accessory lens and hood that, along with the GH-3 adapter, increases the field of view to 21mm (equivalent). An external flash is also available. 
Compact and lightweight, albeit not much smaller or lighter than the Coolpix A, the GR measures 4.6 x 2.4 x 1.4 inches and weighs 8.6 ounces, fully loaded. Despite its magnesium-alloy body, the GR doesn’t seem quite as well made as the Coolpix A. This may be, in part, because I simply don’t like the camera’s sandpaper-like texture (at least that’s how it feels to me). On the other hand, the GR has a nicely contoured, rubberized grip that’s quite comfortable to hold. 
Equipped with a 3-inch, 1.23-million dot LCD, the only other viewing option is one of two optical viewfinders, which attach via the hot shoe mount. There’s no electronic viewfinder available.
External controls on the GR are a mix of what you’d expect (mode dial, four-way controller, a handful of dedicated buttons) and a few unique options. The smallish mode dial locks to avoid accidental changes, which I find mildly annoying since it’s awkward to press the lock/unlock button and turn the dial at the same time. 
An ADJ jog lever is positioned on the rear of the camera and acts like a quick menu control. Press the lever in and a series of icons appear on the screen representing various parameters. Press the ADJ lever to the left or right to move from one icon to the other and to call up a full on-screen list of options for that parameter; the forward dial or the four-way controller are used to scroll through each option. In theory, the ADJ lever is a good idea but if you nudge it just a little too much (which is easy to do), it jumps across two icons, making it difficult to control. Instead, I found myself using the four-way controller to choose the desired icon and to scroll through the menus more often than not. On the other hand, the ADJ lever and forward dial are a convenient combination, allowing users to maintain a natural grip on the camera while changing settings.
But that nitpick is a small price to pay (if at all) for the GR’s myriad custom options. The above-mentioned ADJ jog lever can be customized to include five parameters of your choice from 13 different functions including ISO, bracketing, dynamic range compensation and picture size. Unfortunately, white balance isn’t among them. If you’d rather, the lever can also be turned off and then dedicated to ISO via a separate menu setting. 
In addition to the custom options for the ADJ lever, the GR offers more than two dozen settings that can be programmed for the two Fn (function) buttons and the Effect button, which doubles as a depth-of-field preview control and is positioned on the left outer surface of the camera. Settings for the Effect control duplicate those in the ADJ custom list and include others such as activating the camera’s neutral density filter, enabling AF/Subject Tracking and switching to JPEG/RAW, among others. If you leave the Effect button at its default setting, you can choose from nine effects such as black-and-white, retro, bleach bypass, high key and miniaturize effects. The GR’s customization is certainly one of its strong points and is well worth exploring.
Perhaps one of the more interesting controls on the GR is its exposure compensation lever. At first glimpse, it looks like a zoom rocker on the back of a consumer camera but it is convenient for moving through the GR’s +/- 4 exposure value range. 
The Ricoh GR offers all the features you’d expect from a camera in this class and more. In addition to a full range of automatic and manual exposure controls, Ricoh includes a TAV mode: you set the aperture and shutter speed and the camera adjusts the ISO. In addition to being able to manually set a focus point, this function can also be used to set the AE point, in conjunction with the autofocus point or on its own. A virtual level (with a tilt option), live histogram, multiple white balance options, 35mm crop, interval shooting and multiple exposures are among some of this well-equipped camera’s other functions.
Performance, Video and Image Quality
Given the camera’s fixed lens, I found little need for pushing the camera to its speed limits of about 4 frames per second. What’s impressive, though, is its almost limitless JPEG continuous shooting, which Ricoh lists as a far-more-than-necessary 999 frames. 
Autofocus (AF) is fairly responsive, particularly under good light, as expected. The camera’s special Snap Focus and Full Press Snap Focus modes are faster but only because the focus distance has been preselected. They work fine, although AF seems to be more accurate.
Battery life is about 290 shots, which is certainly respectable. Unfortunately, the in-camera charging is less than convenient if you have a second battery, since it ties up the camera for the entire time and there are no external charger accessories available.
Although the GR offers full-HD video and Effects can be used while shooting movies, there are few control options. You can preset some focusing options beforehand but everything else is pretty much automatic. Video quality is OK, but nothing special.
The Ricoh GR’s ISO ranges from 100 to 25600. I generally kept the ISO below 3200 for the best results. One of the GR’s more interesting, and useful, features is the ability to manually set the amount (weak, medium, strong) of noise reduction (NR) according to ISO. For example, you can instruct the camera to apply weak NR to anything shot over ISO 800, medium NR to images captured at ISO 1600 and strong NR to photos shot above ISO 3200. Auto and off options are also available. The camera does a pretty good job of retaining details up to about ISO 3200, even without NR. However, medium and strong NR settings can be a little heavy-handed, so if you need to shoot above ISO 1600, for example, you might want to apply noise reduction in post-processing.
Overall, however, the camera delivers when it comes to image quality. You might want to try a couple of different metering modes for more accurate exposure, but I found that—more often than not—exposures were generally pretty good. Colors were rendered naturally, although the Nikon Coolpix A’s colors are punchier on default settings. But if you want more vivid colors, you can either choose the Vivid mode or create a custom setting. Dynamic range can also be adjusted separately but I found that, by default, the GR delivered a respectable range from shadows to highlights.
Unless you’re shooting wide open, the lens produces sharp images from corner to corner (with only a touch of corner-softness at f/2.8). Detail capture was pretty impressive and there was little noticeable chromatic aberration. 
The Bottom Line
Adding the Ricoh GR to the already-excellent mix of fixed-lens, advanced compact cameras makes the choice even more difficult. Its closest competitor, the Nikon Coolpix A, may not have the same extensive custom options as the GR but, after testing both cameras, I personally would give a slight edge to the Coolpix A’s punchier colors and slightly sharper output. And the Coolpix A is easier to use.
On the other hand, there’s no denying that the depth and breadth of the GR’s features and customization are inherently appealing. And, given the two cameras’ more-than-pleasing image quality and the GR’s lower price, the Ricoh model may be the better choice for photographers who want to fine-tune their camera’s controls.
Pros: Extensive customization; excellent image quality; sharp lens; good high-ISO performance; reasonable price
Cons: Higher learning curve with custom options; only optical viewfinder options (no electronic viewfinder); USB/in-camera charging only
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