Ricoh stunned the world this week with the announcement of the impending availability of the world’ smallest APS-C sensor compact camera, the Ricoh GR, and naturally most of the major news sites went gaga over the next few days with previews of the camera. I’m not going to rehash many of the points already mentioned and dispense with the superlatives that have been associated with this new camera. As the owner of a Ricoh GXR system with the 28mm module with a APS-C sensor, I already knew the potential of a small camera system equipped with a APS-C camera, even if most previews and writeups of the camera seem to conveniently forget the fact the GXR with 28mm module actually exists.
What I’m instead going to write about here is the raison d’etre of such a camera - I’ve read previews and comments online commenting on the commercial viability or even photographic need for such a camera, with some also alluding to the fact that the Nikon Coolpix A was already on the market, and the Ricoh was merely copying the design. A few previews tried to dissect the camera based on specs, measuring auto focus speed and comparing with the Nikon Coolpix A. Some bemoaned the lack of a built in viewfinder, and some questioned the “slow” aperture of f2.8 for the lens. All have missed the point.
Firstly, just to clear the air, a little historical perspective. Nikon did indeed produce a 28mm compact, the Nikon 28ti in 1994, and this was earlier than Ricoh’s own effort, which was the Ricoh GR1 which debuted in 1996, a fixed lens 28mm compact. However, like today, the Ricoh GR1 stunned the world and quickly achieved cult status – I don’t have sales data from that era but the fact that Nikon never did follow up on the 28mm ti was telling – Ricoh went on to spawn several different versions of the GR1, which culminated in the Ricoh GR1v, a premium compact professional photographers took with them alongside their bigger systems, and the GR21, a fixed lens 21mm compact, with a lens so good, that a Leica version of the lens with the same design was made. In the digital era, that same line of cameras generated a line of digital fixed lens 28mm equivalent small sensor compacts bearing the GRD (D for digital) moniker, the latest being the GRD IV. No doubt the popularity of Ricoh cameras was also boosted by the “patron saint” of Ricoh, Daido Moriyama, the celebrated Japanese photographer / master of the snapshot aesthetic, the quinessential master of photography based on a stream of consciousness. (Every camera brand needs a person like this – Leica had Henri Cartier Bresson, Nikon had David Douglas Duncan, Canon had James Nachtwey…..you get the idea..) If you don’t know him, this short clip on him is worth a look.
While preparing for this article, I happen to come across the fact that the GRD IV is available as cheaply as $390 at TK Foto in Singapore. (Again, standard disclaimer applies – we have no link to them nor is this an endorsement of any sort for TK Foto). Since the GXR with 28mm module is bigger than the GRD, and the new GR is going to be almost just as tiny as the GRD, I couldn’t resist the temptation of the close-out price and bought a unit for myself with my own money to try out for myself the appeal of a (jeans) pocketable compact. Just after one day, I finally realised that the GXR, good as it may be, does not approach the GRD on the “cult” and “fun” factor.
How did such an innocuous camera brand as Ricoh create a cult classic based on a fixed lens camera? Firstly, the 28mm focal length is a classic photojournalism / documentary focal length, wide enough to take in the environment in story telling compositions, but not too wide as to cause massive distortion, especially of people’s faces. I remember meeting James Nachtwey years ago in Singapore, where he said he mostly only used his 17-35mm f2.8 Canon zoom from the 28mm onwards, because anything wider creates uncomfortable distortion of reality. The 28mm lens lends itself easily then, to the snapshot aesthetic, the picture taken on the fly, on the spur of the moment driven by emotions and passions stirred by the scene. With its generous depth of field, focusing does not have to be so precise, and one can zone focus quite easily.
Which brings us to our second point, one which was rarely dwelled upon in previews and reviews online. Two words – SNAP FOCUS, explains why the GR line of cameras were so popular on the streets. To the uninitiated, auto focus speed was all that mattered – together with a bunch of configurable AF points. Here’s the kicker – no AF system in the world is going to be as fast as a camera that doesn’t need to focus – and the GR line of cameras are exactly just that – cameras designed to get away from the tyranny of focusing. With the intelligent snap focus mode on the GRD / new GR, one can preset the focus distance from 1m, 1.5, 2m, 2.5m, 3m, 5m and infinity. Better still, this was not done from a menu, but a different button press of the ADJ button, or any of the configurable Function keys, coupled with a rotation of the top-down dial located at the top of the camera to quickly select the focus distance, and a half press of the shutter button to confirm. (Previous versions of the GRD, together with the GXR had better interfaces for this -there was no need to press the shutter button to confirm – the GRD IV was the first camera to break this established convention, to the chagrin of owners). Here’s an example with snap focus, with the GXR 28mm module.
Here’s another example where the lack of an optical viewfinder is inconsequential on the streets. The snapshot aesthetic places emphasis on the mood and emotion of the image, and less on the technical details.
On the streets, with the aperture at f8, simply presetting the focus to 2.5m allows one to shoot with everything in acceptably good focus from about 2m to infinity, with depth of field taking care of everything else. Personally, I estimate the distance of the subject before hand, and preset the distance accordingly, and without the need to aim / target AF points / recomposing / shifting AF points, the time to shoot is almost instantaneous.
The GRD IV / GXR added something else to the very intelligent snap focus mode, something which can only be designed by actual photographers. In AF mode, one can AF normally with a half press of the button, but if one presses the shutter fully without half pressing, the camera will shoot at the preset snap focus distance already configured. That means you can be shooting landscapes, when suddenly a person walks in front of you 2 to 3m away. Simply by fully pressing the shutter button, you are now focused at 2.5m and get the shot of the person in focus, with the landscape in the background. No other cameras have such functionality except the Ricoh GRD / GXR, and now, the new GR. Shooting fireworks, landscapes and other subjects requiring infinity focus is now also a snap – literally. Simply set the focus distance to infinity.
That is why I feel reviews harping on the contrast detect speeds of the GR compared to the Nikon Coolpix A missed the focus on the camera (pun intended), even if the GR is said to be faster than the Coolpix A. The Coolpix A is a camera of another gestalt, with a set of interfaces that is menu driven.
Speaking of interfaces, the next reason why the GRD is a cult is the highly configurable interface and the sheer pleasure of the controls. Almost every review talks about this, and in this case, they are right. Short of the highly tactile feel of a Leica M, the Ricoh has the next best feel – high build quality, with the small metal body and an interface that just makes sense, with the ability to configure up to 6 different sets of personalised interfaces and controls, and different controls offered for almost any function without delving into the menus. The Ricoh works according to how you want it to.
The size of the GRD also lends itself to be carried anywhere. Look at the size of the GXR compared to the GRD – I thought the GXR was small for an APS-C sized sensor camera, but with the new GR, now we can have our cake and eat it too – small size bodies with big hearts (sensors). This small size is not to be under-estimated – this thing just begs to be used – when you have it with you, you have the feeling of wanting to shoot, to see things in a different light. It encourages creativity, and more importantly, it encourages one to have fun. And that is ultimately what photography should be – creative, inspired and fun.
Another factor underlining the popularity of Ricoh GRD cameras is the support given by Ricoh over the years to continually improve the firmware of their cameras. After I bought my GRD yesterday, I proceed to download and update firmware for the camera, the latest of which dates January 22, 2013. This is not a firmware to fix bugs – but to improve the camera with new options and features, for a camera last launched in 2011, prehistoric years in digital camera terms.
All in all, this makes the new GR an exciting prospect, especially with tried and tested Sony 16 megapixel sensor without an anti-aliasing filter – a good move to improve resolution, something which I’ve enjoyed with images from my Leica M9. I think photographers all over realised too – the level of interest, intrigue for this camera, and even ignorant criticism far surpasses that of the Nikon Coolpix A (which is no slouch itself, to be honest).
I will still keep the GRD IV, seeing that I bought it so cheaply new, and the drawing of the small sensor, with its generous depth of field, remains unique. I am also inclined to keep the GXR’s 28mm module, though that remains to be seen. But I definitely can’t wait for the new GR to be released!