One Guy’s Thoughts: The New Ricoh GR

The new Ricoh GR, with almost the same dimensions as the GRD IV, with a much bigger APS-C sized sensor inside.

The new Ricoh GR, with almost the same dimensions as the GRD IV, with a much bigger APS-C sized sensor inside.

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.

The back of the new Ricoh GR - they managed to squeeze in one more extra external control!

The back of the new Ricoh GR – they managed to squeeze in one more extra external control!

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.

Fully decked out Ricoh GR, with 21mm lens converter (something which is not an option on the Nikon Coolpix A) and the 21 / 28mm optical viewfinder

Fully decked out Ricoh GR, with 21mm lens converter (something which is not an option on the Nikon Coolpix A) and the 21 / 28mm optical viewfinder

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.

My new Ricoh GRD IV, bought yesterday at a close out price of ony USD $322, now that the new GR has been launched. It's a steal at that price, for what is still a very good small sensor camera.

My new Ricoh GRD IV, bought yesterday at a close out price of ony USD $322, now that the new GR has been launched. It’s a steal at that price, for what is still a very good small sensor camera.

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.

My new Ricoh GRD IV (left) next to the venerable Ricoh GXR with 28mm equivalent APS-C sensor lens module.

My new Ricoh GRD IV (left) next to the venerable Ricoh GXR with 28mm equivalent APS-C sensor lens module.

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.

Salary men going to work in Shinjuku, Tokyo. I shot this with focus pre-set at 2.5m with the Ricoh GXR and the 24-85mm lens module, set to the 24mm end. Zone focusing is the name of the game with Ricoh cameras.

Salary men going to work in Shinjuku, Tokyo. I shot this with focus pre-set at 2.5m with the Ricoh GXR and the 24-85mm lens module, set to the 24mm end. Zone focusing is the name of the game with Ricoh cameras.

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.

Homeless in Odakyu mall, Shinjuku, Tokyo. Image captured with snap focus at the man walked pass.

Homeless in Odakyu mall, Shinjuku, Tokyo. Image captured with snap focus at the man walked pass.

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.

Woman walking down Ginza, Tokyo.

Woman walking down Ginza, Tokyo. I took this shot with focus pre-set using snap focus and lifting my camera up as I walked past her. With the quiet leaf shutter, and without looking through the viewfinder (there was none anyway!) I managed to capture her mood without disturbing her.

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.

Brick wall test..... NOT! This was an interesting flat I came across this morning at Red Hill, Singapore. The extreme compactness of the camera meant I could not resist pulling it out to take some shots. This is what photography is about - the immediacy of the moment.

Brick wall test….. NOT! This was an interesting flat I came across this morning at Red Hill, Singapore. The extreme compactness of the camera meant I could not resist pulling it out to take some shots. This is what photography is about – the immediacy of the moment.

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.

To borrow a phrase from Daido Moriyama, undoubtedly Ricoh's

To borrow a phrase from Daido Moriyama, undoubtedly Ricoh’s “patron saint” photographer, this was a no finder shot from the hip with my new Ricoh GRD from this morning.

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.

Crime Alert at Red Hill estate - the snap shot as taken by my new Ricoh GRD IV this morning. These pictures are freshly taken for this article!

Crime Alert at Red Hill estate – the snap shot as taken by my new Ricoh GRD IV this morning. These pictures are freshly taken for this article!

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.

Old flats at Red Hill estate shot with my new Ricoh GRD IV this morning.

Old flats at Red Hill estate shot with my new Ricoh GRD IV this morning.

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.

The macro function of the GRD, allowing one to focus down to 1cm, makes me see things in a whole new different way.

The macro function of the GRD, allowing one to focus down to 1cm, makes me see things in a whole new different way.

On the left, the Ricoh GXR with an APS-C sensor. On the right, the Ricoh GRD IV with a small sensor. Now in the GR, we can have both!

On the left, the Ricoh GXR with an APS-C sensor. On the right, the Ricoh GRD IV with a small sensor. Now in the GR, we can have both!

The GRD IV on the right is much smaller and more portable, but with a small sensor. The new Ricoh GR promises the big sensor in a similar sized body.

The GRD IV on the right is much smaller and more portable, but with a small sensor. The new Ricoh GR promises the big sensor in a similar sized body.

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.

Spring Singapore building basking in the morning sun. Shot this morning with my new Ricoh GRD IV which I bought only yesterday.

Spring Singapore building basking in the morning sun. Shot this morning with my new Ricoh GRD IV which I bought only yesterday.

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).

The small compact size of the Ricoh encourages one to see, and shoot motifs on the fly, without getting too technical.

The small compact size of the Ricoh encourages one to see, and shoot motifs on the fly, without getting too technical.

A new era of mobile, compact camera digital photography is dawning on this, celebrating the snapshot aesthetic, with the Ricoh GR promising to

A new era of mobile, compact camera digital photography is dawning on this, celebrating the snapshot aesthetic, with the Ricoh GR promising to “be our eyes” to see the world.

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!

  • pentaxuser

    when I saw the crime alert, I already realized it is my downstairs.

    people from compact camera world already used to the Zoom lens world.
    Prime lens compact hard for people to understand at beginning.

    • http://www.facebook.com/davidteoboonhwee David Teo Boon Hwee

      haha wow u live at redhill? I’ve been visiting that area and it seems that the sign has been there for the whole of April…..

  • http://www.facebook.com/ray.sachs.58 Ray Sachs

    As a Ricoh shooter for a few years now (I actually sold film Ricohs back in the ’80s), I mostly agree with your article. But I’ve gotta say, as someone who’s owned a GRD3, who still owns a GXR-28, and who has spent a month with a Nikon Coolpix A, I don’t agree that the “Coolpix A is a camera of another gestalt, with a set of interfaces that is menu driven”. The Nikon isn’t quite as configurable as the Ricoh, but its not far off. Very easy to configure and have all of the key controls within a button push. A very nice flow to shooting. It doesn’t have snap focus, for sure, but after spending a lot of time with the GXR, which has both snap focus and a focus ring on the lens, I actually find I prefer a rotary control to change focus distance most of the time. Instead of a limited number of finite stops, its quicker and easier to just intuitively keep the focus at around five feet with the appropriate aperture and slightly tweak the distance down for real close work or out some for longer shots (although in any kind of light, 5-6 feet and about f7 will give you the world in focus).

    When I’d used the Nikon for a couple of weeks I was writing about it on another website and my description was a GRD on steroids. Well, now the GR is the TRUE GR on steroids, but the Nikon isn’t far off. Its an excellent street camera, as the Ricoh will be. Preliminary reports (VERY preliminary I’d say) is that the Ricoh is sharper in the corners than the Nikon but the Nikon is better at high ISO than the Ricoh. I’m gonna test ‘em back to back to see if its a notable difference, but as a street shooter who cares a lot more about high ISO for low light street work than I do about sharp corners, the Nikon is still in the running. I don’t believe they’re as different as you seem to think, although the details are handled differently.

    • YS

      I can see where David is coming from: The A looks to handle like that of an entry level Nikon with that “i” button interface, and even as a Nikon shooter, they are not quite my favourite choice of cameras. Still, it’s not all bad, as at least there’s a dedicated ISO button. I haven’t spent any concrete time with the A, so much of it will depend on how the AF handles. If it’s like the 1 series, the “tyranny” (David, less with the hyperbole please) is a non-issue. If it’s like a typical Coolpix, however…

    • http://www.facebook.com/davidteoboonhwee David Teo Boon Hwee

      Thanks for your reply Ray! Glad to see you over here! :) I’ll have to spend more time with the Coolpix A then – my experience with it was limited, and my impression of it was that it was not as intuitive as the Ricohs. As for high ISO, I guess we have to wait for the actual GR in order to do a comparison!

  • http://www.facebook.com/SuperSamiDo Sami Do

    Thank you for the review and the shaing of your enthusiasm! I still have a rollei 35, a minox 35 and a gr1and in the digital age carry a sony rx100 or a canon g15 in a jacket pocket. My nex7/nex5 or gxr M module being too large and the sony rx1 being too expensive, I can’t wait for the new gr to be available. Of course it won’t answer every need but would be excellent as you pointed out for street and will always be there, in my pants pocket!

    • http://www.facebook.com/davidteoboonhwee David Teo Boon Hwee

      It is as you said – a camera always in the pants, though the latest trend in jeans seems to be skinny types which don’t seem to leave much pocket space! :P

  • sasa208

    Great article!
    I might get the GR later this year, however the great offer you mentioned for the GRD 4, any chance the store ship overseas? I cannot find it on their site..

    • YS

      Where do you live? I believe with the GR coming, there should be sales of it coming, especially in the USA.

    • http://www.facebook.com/davidteoboonhwee David Teo Boon Hwee

      Hi

      I believe this is a TK Foto only offer, and they do not have a web front or store to ship overseas.

      Even in Singapore, this is the only shop that has that offer – all other brick and mortar camera shops are pricing it higher….

  • poppy

    Great article. Used to own a GRD 3. Does TK Foto still have stock of the GRD 4? When did you get yours?

    • YS

      I believe they still do, yes.

    • http://www.facebook.com/davidteoboonhwee David Teo Boon Hwee

      Hi

      I believe TK Foto still has stock… I know of 3 other people who bought theirs over the past week! :)

  • http://www.bigheadtaco.com/ Bigheadtaco

    I’m glad to see I’m not the only blogger who’s doing a late review of the Ricoh GR-D IV. I too recently acquired a heavily discounted GR-D IV and decided to review it for my blog (www.bigheadtaco.com).

    I agree with all your positive points of the Ricoh. As an original owner of the GR-1, I know the advantages of the ability to shoot quickly and intuitively with a camera. I’ve shot with some great cameras, but many shoot slowly (Fuji X-100 is a perfect example) and so are difficult to use as a street shooter.

    Check out my quick review post here with a full review to come in a few weeks!! Thanks again for your concise review!

    http://t.co/zdD9BzAzGI