There are more considerations. The DSLR won’t fit in any pocket (or even some handbags) and so isn’t coming along every time you leave the house and the latter you are terrified of having stolen and still won’t fit in a pocket and so stays at home (only in a safe) when you are not engaged in dedicated photography activities. Almost all compacts are out, because they have truly stinking manual focus implementation for zone focusing and most have small sensors, with resultant poor high ISO performance. The Fuji X100 series and the like have great IQ, but manual focus implementation is still fairly poor IMO…and they still won’t fit in a pocket.
Please understand that I have mentioned a lot of great camera systems for producing world-class images. I am not saying you cannot make amazing images with them, only pointing out certain limitations. It always comes down to personal preference and some get on just fine with the DSLR approach, but there is good reason why so many street photographers feel like they have discovered little slice of heaven when they first use a Leica M, but they still have disadvantages and are darned expensive.
So what is special about the Ricoh GR here? Well, if you can live with a fixed 28mm equivalent lens, quite a lot of the aforementioned problems, compromises and niggles vanish.
Yes, it can go everywhere with you. I would not want to try the 110m hurdles with it in my front trouser pocket, but it is quite flat and will nicely slip into a jacket pocket, or handbag. It is a true compact, albeit at the larger end of the spectrum.
This is the big one and it is fair to say that for street shooters, this camera embodies the most intelligently thought out solution and it actually works.
Firstly, you can shoot in regular AF and there are manual focus options too. The AF is brisk in good light, but not at all impressive in poor (especially artificial) light. It is contrast detect based and needs fair contrast to gain traction. Switching to a single point is all but mandatory in low light. It’s a shame it is not faster in low light, but the following features steal the show.
There is a Snap Focus mode, which allows you to enter a pre-set focus distance and which can be set up in two different ways:
- The camera will fire at the snap distance whenever you trip the shutter, however you trip the shutter.
- The camera will AF normally if you half press the shutter button and then fire when you complete the full press. However, if you press the shutter button down in one swift press (with no pause half way), the camera will fire at the set snap distance.
Oooh. This starts to look interesting doesn’t it? Option 2 looks awfully like it is giving you the best of both world, whereby you can shoot using AF most of the time, but when something suddenly presents, or you see an opportunity and can create the right distance, snap focus is open to you. Brilliant…. oh, and the camera is effectively silent.
There is a third option, however and that is to set the camera to shoot in manual focus mode and program the rear AEL/AFL button to act as a rear focus button. Once pressed, the camera will focus and remember this distance i.e. it becomes the set manual focus distance. This means you can walk around readjusting your ‘zone distance’ by zapping things are that distance as you go. Thus far, I have used option 2 above, but this manual focus/back focus button system also has huge potential. None of this would work well if the implementation was poor, so it’s a good job that it isn’t! Not only are the ergonomics excellent, but Ricoh has made it easy to customize the various custom buttons and to readily access useful features like setting the snap distance. It also has three dedicated custom settings that can be programmed in and then set using the mode dial. Excellent.
I summary, you have a classic looking compact camera, with no focus ring and no distance scale that provides a better, more rounded solution for street photographers than dedicated manual cameras. Who would have expected that?
The camera packs an APS-C Sony manufactured sensor and this sentence ends with ‘which I prefer over full-frame’. APS-C means we get about one stop more depth of field. Yes, this means the 18.3mm f2.8 lens provides about the equivalent of 28mm f4 subject/background separation on full frame (FF), wide open (at f2.8), but for street shooters, this is not the end where I am terribly concerned as I tend not to pursue shallow depth of field (YMMV). What I like is the fact that I can shoot a stop wider open than with FF, or at the same aperture and get even more reliably in focus. The sensor cannot really be regarded separately to the lens, because the two have been ‘mated’ (with images processing thrown into the mix). What I can say is that I absolutely love the output. There has clearly been an emphasis on resolution and bite over noise control, but that said I like the look of the files at 3200 just fine. They have noise, but they have bite and the feel is not objectionable at all. In fact, I find it might even be referred to as having ‘character’, which is not a term one would expect to apply to the files emanating from a purely functional black box made by photocopier people.
Pentax/Ricoh colour is something that I have heard criticism of online, which left me mystified when I opened the first files and saw beautiful, natural colour, lots of colour depth and tonality that would fool you into thinking a much larger sensor had taken the photos. This is 16MP APS-C on nitro: I have never seen 16MP look anything like this good and it certainly shows up the weaknesses in the M43 output on my GM-1, which is all but indistinguishable from the GX-7 and shares many characteristics with the Olympus OM-D line. There is less base ISO noise, much more colour depth and the files just look oh so natural. That is the term that fits best. The files really do look natural and if you do not over work them in post, they completely fail to serve up the glaring reminders that ‘this is digital’ that come cameras do. There is definitely a similarity to the very natural look of the Sony A7 and A7R files, but somehow the colour is even more delicate. Getting bold punchy colours is easy in post, but getting a file right out of the camera that looks absolutely unmolested by digital trickery can be quite rare and the GR gives us that. We also have 14 stops of dynamic range on tap, so no problems there.
To ballpark the noise, its not as good as a Sony A7, but much better than M43IMO. More detail is retained and files don’t get the high frequency fuzzy noise that irks me with M43 (the reason why I tend to use mine either at up to 400, or above 3200 so I get nice fat grain). For my purposes 100-200 are super clean. 400 is showing very faint noise at 100% and ever so slight reduction in the very finest detail.
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