I have scientifically determined that 98.478% of people reading this review will already have heard of the Ricoh GR. For the other 1.522% it is not a photocopier. It is a very highly regarded compact digital camera with an APS-C CMOS sensor and fixed 28mm equivalent lens (18.3mm in actual terms). Pentax is now owned by Ricoh and it seems that this relationship is delivering the goods across a whole range of platforms. I’m going to pitch Part 1 of this review quite specifically. I am going to talk about why this relatively uncommon camera may be precisely what you have been looking for. Its a giant slayer….
If you would like to read about the technical specifications, perhaps look at Ricoh and dpreview and here, because this review will be more ‘applied’. Part 2 to this review will soon follow with more detail and comparison images to illustrate the bold statements I am about to make. In the meantime, I shot a third of the images in these two Iceland portfolios with this camera – here and here.
So there you go – the Ricoh GR was made by real camera people…. in fact it was designed by real camera people, who actually use real cameras to take real photographs. Now, this is a revelation in the camera industry, because far too many have design/integration/utility flaws that could only have been missed if an awkward teenager from the mailroom had signed them off (after heading up the development program). The GR is different, because it is genuinely brilliant. I did not say ‘perfectly rounded’, which is IMHO overrated. I prefer large doses of utter brilliance, which the Ricoh GR serves up for the very reasonable price of £400-£450 in the UK and about $600 in the US. That’s 30% of the cost of this lens and Ricoh includes the camera too!
Until New Year I had no intention of buying this camera. Sure, I had read a great many reviews that explained how the lens is amazing, the wonderful Sony sensor, but only a few really touched upon exactly what this camera can do for you and why on earth you could buy one. The reasonably knowledgeable chap at Chester London Camera Exchange said it, when I asked to see the demo model they had in store. He said ‘The Ricoh GR? Oh, OK [gazing around the store trying desperately to locate the blessed thing, which was in a glass cabinet three feet in front of him]. Umm, that’s a specialist camera really”. “Yes it is”, I said in an enthusiastic tone to counter his slightly downbeat introduction, which contained an un-vocalised question ‘why on earth would you want to buy something so specialised?’ That question contains its own answer!
I think I should first explain what lead me to be interested in the Ricoh GR in the first place, as this may well match your own. What problems does it solve? Well, here are a few issues most street and documentary photographers encounter regularly.
Manual focus is often far better for quick shooting than AF is. Even if you have lightning fast AF, like the Sony A6000 in daylight, you don’t know what it will latch onto and the last thing you need is it racing for a gap between two people (subjects) and nailing infinity! With manual focus you can preset focus at a certain distance and set the aperture such that there is a workable ‘zone of focus’ in which everything is sharp. This is particularly effective with wide-angle lenses, where there is a lot of depth of field. This means that you can fire the shutter as soon as your subject is in the right focus ‘zone’ (hence being called ‘zone focusing’). For many people this is the most reliable way of getting sharp shots reliably on very fast past environments, like busy sidewalks.
By using some form of manual focus, the shutter release is very fast indeed as AF does not need to activate, so you gain split second precision as well as accuracy and reliability. The problem is that most cameras that implement manual focus lenses really well, with nice distance and aperture scales are either big and heavy SLRs, or extremely expensive Leica M rangefinders. This outlines the techniques I used to shoot Disorder of Species in Varansi. The moments I wanted to shoot were rare and fleeting. I can honestly say that AF would have driven me crazy. Instead, I shot with a Leica M6 with a 25mm and 35mm lens. I was always set at my ‘zone distance’, which I adjusted depending on the circumstances. If I shot something where I had the time to precisely focus, I did so, but then immediately reset the lens to the ‘zone distance’, which was usually around 2.5 with the 25mm and 3m with the 35mm.
If you are using a manual focus camera, which is zone focused, you are now well prepared for the snap shooting, but for subjects at much greater or shorter distances, you will still need to manually focus and here you are likely to be slower than you would be with AF. In short, you have chosen to specialize somewhat and with the benefits come certain disadvantages.
OK, so if we’ve gone for a camera with quality manual focus options, we are at the point at which we have either a minimum of about 800g (2 lbs) of DSLR or Leica M in our hands (the GR weights in at 245g, which is roughly half a pound i.e. the weight of a 35mm f2.5 Summarit-M alone). Personally I far prefer the rangefinder approach, because DSLR screens are nasty for manual focus and if you have focused at your zone distance, having much of the scene out of focus does my head in.
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