Compact Camera, Serious Sensor: Fujifilm X100S, Nikon Coolpix A, and Ricoh GR Roundup, Part I

The Fujifilm X100S, Nikon Coolpix A and Ricoh GR being reviewed. The Nikon 1 V1 photobombed the group shot by showing up at the back.
The Fujifilm X100S, Nikon Coolpix A and Ricoh GR being reviewed. The Nikon 1 V1 photobombed the group shot by showing up at the back.

Introduction

Just a few short years ago, there were generally two groups of cameras: Small cameras with small sensors, and large cameras with larger sensors. No matter what you tried to do, the best you could do if you wanted a small camera with a large sensor was to buy a small SLR and stick some small lenses on it. Then Sigma came up with their good but flawed DP1 along with Olympus and Panasonic with the mirrorless system cameras, and now we are lousy with small cameras with large sensors. This area is now gaining ground, and here in this shootout, we take a look at the three main contenders of 2013: The Fujifilm X100S, the Nikon Coolpix A, and the Ricoh GR. All pack APS-C sized sensors with a fixed lens, and are priced at about US$800 to US$1200, making them pretty close on paper.

This review will be published into two parts, due to the length of it. We will update this space with the link to part two when it is published. For now, here is part one!

The Trio

The Fujifilm X100S is a follow up to the smash hit of 2012, the Fujifilm X100. The main changes are all under the hood, with the new 16 megapixel X-trans sensor that appeared in the X-Pro 1 and X-E1, along with adding phase detect sensors that hopefully solve the slow AF problem of the original.

In the meantime, Nikon, seeing that large sensor compacts are making a splash, have introduced the Coolpix A. It is a camera that looks like the P300 series cameras, but not quite as small. It combines a 16 megapixel sensor similar to the one on the D7000 with a 28mm f/2.8 equivalent lens, the latter of which is something I much prefer over a 35mm equivalent.

Announced after the Nikon, the Ricoh GR may well be the sleeper hit. Priced the lowest, the GR appears to follow its predecessors in offering a camera that is designed for serious photographers. Like the Coolpix A, it offers a 16 megapixel sensor with a 28mm f/2.8 equivalent lens. The GR is, in a way, something close to my heart, as I’ve long lusted for a GR1V, in silver no less, back when I was shooting film. Alas, I never could quite afford it.

Ricoh GR1v
The Ricoh GR1v. Even the old images have a retro feel to them, and this was in 2001! (Ricoh Press Image)

CK: That reminds me, I used to want a GR1v/GR21 at some point when I was still using film cameras! The GR series certainly has a cult following back then. Somehow, I did not really get down to buying one.

YS: Probably price. They cost more than a mid-range SLR back then. In fact, I remember the GR1V costing S$900… this was when the D90’s film equivalent of the time, the Nikon F80, cost S$800.

Design and Hardware

CK: Following the recent trend among camera manufacturers to omit the optical low-pass filter (also known as the anti-aliasing (AA) filter), Fujifilm, Nikon and Ricoh has released these cameras without it. This is supposed to give a better resolution and sharper images, at the expense of higher chance of getting moire. In real world shooting though, I don’t think this is a very major issue.

YS: The Fujifilm uses a non-Bayer colour filter array, which they have called “X-trans” (yay for more Xs), which actually removes the need for an AA filter. What it brings instead of moire, is colour artificating, or at least, potential colour artifacting. We will see later if it is really a problem now that we have some proper RAW tools to go along with the JPEG output made famous in the X-Pro 1 and the X-E1.

David: I believe the full potential of the X-Trans sensor has not been fully exploited even with the latest raw processors. I’m very happy to see these new cameras with the AA filter removed as all three produce high quality images with crisp detail and high resolution. After using the Leica M9 for the past one year, my eyes are used to such crisp resolution and these three cameras do not disappoint.

CK: The Fujifilm X100S stands out among the trio, being the only one with a built-in hybrid optical/electronic viewfinder. This makes it quite a bit larger than the other two, but I find it much nicer to be able to shoot using a viewfinder than using the LCD screen. The controls are styled much like a rangefinder camera, with the shutter speed and exposure compensation dials near the shutter button, and an old-school aperture ring around the lens. This retro look has won the hearts of many a photographer when the X100 is released, and I am sure this will be popular too.

The Fujifilm X100S makes a good street camera with its 35mm (equivalent) field of view and the improved AF speeds over the X100 it replaced.
The Fujifilm X100S makes a good street camera with its 35mm (equivalent) field of view and the improved AF speeds over the X100 it replaced. (Photo by CK.)

The Ricoh GR and Coolpix A on the other hand, are designed more like your typical compact cameras. The advantage of this is that they are much more unobtrusive and inconspicuous, making them very well suited to street photography. However, both sport a 28mm equivalent lens with a maximum aperture of f/2.8, so you’d have to get a little closer to your subject compared to the 35mm f/2.0 lens on the Fujifilm X100S. Whether this is an issue or not will largely depend on your personal shooting style.

All three are very well-built, with the Ricoh GR being the lightest of them all. Combined with the small size, this makes it a very small and pocketable camera, ideal to have with you all the time, ready to capture that decisive moment.

YS: Indeed, all three cameras are very well built, however, I did not like whatever the X100 had for its black portion. I think it is meant to imitate vulcanised rubber like the Leicas, but it certainly feels more like slippery plastic.

One accusation against the X100 and the X100S is that the magnesium alloy used makes the camera feel very light and cheap. Well, in this round up, the Fujifilm’s extra weight actually worked against it for me. I cannot imagine what it would have been like if they went full retro and used something like brass!

David: X100S too light? You will love the Pentax MX-1, with its brass top and bottom plates making it a weighty piece of gear indeed. But back to these cameras, the X100s certainly could afford to be slightly heavier, if not to make it feel like the premium camera it’s supposed to be, and certainly closer to the heritage of the Leica rangefinders which are the inspiration for the design. The X100S certainly boasts one of the best feature among these three large sensor compacts – that wonderful hybrid viewfinder. To me, that’s the single most significant technological tour de force of Fuji – the shooting experience is nothing short of Leica-like with the clear window finder, and with the ability to target focus through the window finder, it shoots like how a Leica AF rangefinder would – if Leica gets around to building one.

The Coolpix A does have the weight, but to me it has a compact camera design which makes it the least attractive to me. It does have well weighted buttons and a mode dial which is stiff enough not  to be accidentally moved. Nothing much to write about it though – it’s a compact camera with compact camera design.

The diminutive size of the Coolpix A allows you to get very close to your subjects without them being bothered. (Photo by David)
The diminutive size of the Coolpix A allows you to get very close to your subjects without them being bothered. (Photo by David.)

The Ricoh GR has a utilitarian look that feels solid in the hand – indeed this is the one single camera which allows me to use single handed (more on that later). Thankfully the design and controls are almost exactly the same as the GRDiv, the GXR and other previous generations of cameras in the long lineage of Ricoh compacts with 28mm field of view lenses, which confers a high degree of familiarity – after all the controls and ergonomics of the Ricoh compacts are some of the best in the business.

Operation and Handling

A shot from the Nikon Coolpix A - the 28mm (equivalent) field of view is great for wide shots like this. The dynamic range is also excellent, rendering highlights and shadows pretty well.
A shot from the Nikon Coolpix A – the 28mm (equivalent) field of view is great for wide shots like this. The dynamic range is also excellent, rendering highlights and shadows pretty well. (Photo by CK.)

CK: The controls of the Coolpix A are somewhat similar to that of the V1 and other Coolpixes, with buttons flanking both sides of the 921,000 dot 3” LCD. As with most Nikon cameras, some settings (e.g. ISO) require a 2-handed operation of pressing a button and turning a dial. The way some menu items are arranged on the Coolpix A are kind of strange. For example, the movie mode is hidden in “Continuous Shooting Mode” option. Most other similar cameras have a separate movie mode accessible via the mode dial.

YS: Actually, I felt that the Coolpix A operated more like a low-end Nikon DSLR, up to and including that “i” button, which is not a favourite of mine, in part because in these DSLRs, Nikon eschews a dedicated ISO button for it. At least with the A, there is a button that is reserved for ISO, at least by default.

Let me start with the main plus point the Coolpix A has among the three: Its directional pad is dedicated to AF point selection. I especially dislike cameras which require a button to be pressed first before the AF point can be set (hello most Canons at default settings). The rationale that AF point can be nudged can be safely disregarded after all my years of shooting with Nikons without a nudged AF point accident. A downside is that it starts off slow, as it seems to be intent on marching through the screen pixel by pixel in the first few seconds of holding it down. Most cameras that employ this method of AF point movement really should have an that customises it how it moves.

The rest of the Coolpix A is a mixed bag. Like most Nikons, the ISO button is on the left side of the camera, requiring two hands to change it. On a compact with minimal space for buttons, two large buttons are reserved for zooming in and zooming out. The menu system on first glance looks like a Nikon DSLR, until you realise the Custom Function menu is not there. Some customisation has been collapsed to the Setup menu, but the customisation is far less than that on a high-end Nikon DSLR. For instance, you cannot specify what the dial on the directional pad does, or swap it with the main rear command dial in manual exposure mode.

I think what made using the Coolpix A frustrating for me in the end was that it was an exercise in cognitive dissonance: I was expecting something like my D300, instead I experienced a combination of a D3200 and a Coolpix. For those who come with less emotional and technical baggage, the Coolpix should have a competent, if unexciting, UI. The live view is slightly quirky too. The Coolpix A will try to maintain a high frame rate, so in very dim areas the image can be hard to see. It also appears to be use whatever aperture is being set, so at small apertures like f/8, expect a very dark live view image.

David: All right, so we’re in agreement that the controls of the Coolpix A is pretty much the worst of the lot – I couldn’t get used to it the whole time I was testing it and if you ask me now, the only thing I can remember about it is the fact you need to hold down a button with your left hand and turn a dial with the right to change most settings, which pretty much forces me to use both hands to use the camera.

CK: Isn’t that like Nikon DSLRs? Probably because I’ve been using the Nikon 1 V1 for a while now, I didn’t find the Coolpix A to be as frustrating to use as YS and David. I am also not one who changes settings often, so I seldom have to go into the UI to make these changes.

YS: Yes, if you can get used to the disaster of a UI that is the Nikon 1, you can get used to anything. Image review that cannot be turned off? Goodness.

CK: Don’t remind me, the compulsory image review in the EVF is annoying. But the Coolpix A does have a dedicated ISO button, something sorely lacking on the V1.

YS: The Ricoh GR, on the other hand, is just amazing (and not a UI disaster). I really liked the ways it can be configured, and I loved the way the jog lever on the rear could be used to change the ISO outside of the manual exposure mode, where it either changes the shutter speed or aperture then. It’s a shame more manufacturers do not offer this option. ISO 200 too low? A couple of flicks and I’m at ISO 800.

David: Like I said, the Ricoh GR is the king of ergonomically designed cameras, and it seems designed to allow one handed (CK: Warning: too biased) operation – indeed I’ve got into the habit of using it precisely just that – one handed with the other hand free. When I brought it to Japan, I was sometimes holding shopping bags with the rest while changing ISO, snap focus distance, aperture and shutter speeds (I shoot manual mode only) like a king with one hand.

With almost all the buttons placed on the right hand side of the LCD, the Ricoh GR appears to be designed for 1-handed operation. All the controls are easily accessible by the right thumb and can be easily set without having to press any button+dial combinations. A lot of the buttons are also customisable to suit your shooting style, so you can quickly and easily change settings on the go.

The macro mode of the Ricoh GR, combined with the wide angle lens and the ease of single-handed operation let me shoot this wide angle macro of some flowers by the bridge, and also include the background elements as well. There's David on the bridge fudging with the Coolpix A.
The macro mode of the Ricoh GR, combined with the wide angle lens and the ease of single-handed operation let me shoot this wide angle macro of some flowers by the bridge, and also include the background elements as well. There’s David on the bridge fudging with the Coolpix A. (Photo by CK.)

YS: Ah yes, the snap focus feature. David has been raving about it all this while, so I think I will let him continue with an explanation, and why it is so awesome.

David: To the uninitiated, auto focus speed in a camera 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 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 press and hold of the top button of the 4 way controller at the back of the GR and rotating the top-down dial at the top of the camera, OR with a 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. (Using the top button of the 4 way controller is preferred as there would be no need to press shutter button to confirm).

Using snap focus, one can work very fast and efficiently not just on the streets, but even in indorr low light conditions. If one is familiar with the different working distances (and to be honest, one only needs to know the 2-2.5m distance, as that’s the working distance most suitable for the 28mm equivalent lens), one can forget about focusing totally.

YS: Manual focus control, alas, is somewhat lacking on the GR. Compared to the X100S and the Coolpix A, there is no manual focus ring on the lens, which initially had me stumped on how to adjust the focusing. After being schooled by a wise-cracking 17 year-old, the answer was to press the Macro button first (Up on the directional pad) before rotating the main command dial. A somewhat less intuitive approach in an otherwise very intuitive camera. At least there is a very nice implementation of focus peaking.

There are many other areas in the GR where the photography-oriented approach shows. Activating exposure compensation on the dedicated lever brings up a histogram. A button on the left side of the camera is placed where your left thumb is when holding the camera in the traditional way, and while customisable, always defaults to depth-of-field preview when held down for a short while. The only thing I wish that was present is a control dedicated to switching the AF point. Perhaps a dedicated joystick for the next version?

The camera is also the smallest and lightest of the bunch, so that is another positive contribution. Unlike in system cameras, I do want my compacts to be genuinely light.

David: The GR has other photographic centric features, which shows that actual photographers were involved in the design of the camera, not just a bunch of engineers. One of my favorite is the “One Press M mode” – when one is in M mode (like me – who likes direct control of aperture and shutter speeds), one can press the exposure compensation button (either one) and the exposure will be instantly reset to auto-meter readings (I specified that this mode works in aperture priority manner, so the GR will only reset my shutter speeds and leave my aperture alone).

Imagine you are using manual mode in a dark church during a wedding, where the lighting is consistently low and you’re at f2.8, 1/30. Suddenly, you hear a commotion outside the church and as you step out of the church into bright sunlight, you press the exposure compensation button to reset the exposure to meter defaults, fine tune it if necessary, and take a shot, and step right into the church still in manual exposure mode, and with one press of the exposure compensation button, you’re once more in the ball-park range of exposure metering.

Why not just set to aperture priority you ask? Well, anyone who shoots regularly will know that aperture priority is heavily influenced by point light sources, large areas of darkness and such and if the light does not change, manual exposure is still the best.

YS: Hey, only if you’re not rocking the Nikon Matrix Meter. (I kid)

CK: But David, are you using manual mode correctly? Speaking of large areas of darkness confusing the camera’s meter, the Ricoh does appear to handle it pretty well, as you can see in this shot below. The other 2 cameras slightly overexposed the steeple, but not the GR.

The Ricoh appears to handle exposure pretty well, it was not fooled by the large areas of darkness surrounding the cathedral steeple. The other 2 cameras slightly overexposed it. (Photo by CK.)
The Ricoh appears to handle exposure pretty well, it was not fooled by the large areas of darkness surrounding the cathedral steeple. The other 2 cameras slightly overexposed it. (Photo by CK.)

David: It is also best used on the GR (manual exposure) because the GR has live-exposure preview using the LCD screen with on-screen histogram – every change you made with the shutter speed or aperture is reflected in the LCD. And the GR is also highly customisable – almost every button can be re-programmed.

CK: One particularly nice feature of the Ricoh GR is the “TAv” mode. This lets you choose your desired shutter speed and aperture, and the camera chooses a suitable ISO sensitivity. For people shooting in low light (e.g. concerts, wildlife) where there is a need to get a minimum shutter speed to prevent motion blur and a particular aperture for sufficient depth of field, the TAv mode is very useful.

On to the Fujifilm X100S: As mentioned previously, it is designed to look and feel like a rangefinder camera, with physical dials for controlling the exposure settings. The old-school photographers will be able to instantly get used to this. Most other settings will need you to delve into the menus though.

YS: I like the dials of the Fujifilm X100S, but after the GR, it does feel a little less smooth to use. To clarify: The X100S has two controls for aperture and shutter speed that operate like an old film camera, but the problem with a modern digital camera is that it requires much more than just two controls. The rest of the camera lacks the customisation that makes the GR so nice to use. As an example, there is a thumb lever nestled below the shutter speed and exposure compensation dials, and it can be clicked like a button. It cannot be customised, and I was left wishing it would do other than magnify the view when clicked, and change the aperture in ⅓ stops when flicked.

The rear directional pad dial still needs harder detent stops. While not as bad as the original X100, I still on occasion rotate the dial when I meant to press one of the buttons. Changing the AF point on the X100S necessitates a troublesome button press beforehand, but at least Fujifilm puts hard-coded positions for the AF points, so it is less aggravating to switch between them.

Manual focusing on the X100S is also pretty good, thanks to the combined manual focus ring and focus peaking. For those who were looking forward to the split image finder, I think you will be disappointed. Outside of areas where there are straight vertical lines, it is much harder to use than the superior peak focusing method. An example where nostalgia does not stand up to the truth of reality. The manual focus ring is improved, I feel, though I still feel I would rather have a linear reaction to the turns of the ring rather than this speed-dependent behaviour.

CK: I feel the implementation of the split image could have been done better. Right now, it’s not quite the same as a classic film SLR, which is much easier to see the split compared to the digital one in the X100S. So yeah, it’s more of a novelty than anything else. But hey, nostalgia sells, doesn’t it?

David: I’m a weird old school photographer, so the way I setup and use the X100 may not be quite conventional. Due to my preference for locking focus every shot (ala using manual focus cameras or back-button focus with my DSLRs), I shoot the original X100 and the new X100S in this way – I set up the camera in manual mode, and use the the AE/AFL button at the back to activate AF. Everytime I do that and release the button the focus does not change until I initiate another AE/AFL button press. With the original X100, the manual focus box is pretty large, so I simply place the button right corner of the box over the target. My camera is set to show the distance scale at the bottom of the viewfinder, and using that I can tell if I achieve focus or I’m locking focus into the distance – I sometimes use the focus magnification button to double confirm. This has proven to be a surprisingly accurate way to target and lock focus. With the new X100S, I do the same, but I had to disable manual focus aids such as the split image focusing and focus peaking.

Speaking of these new focus assist modes, I love them in the EVF mode, especially the split image focusing, which reminds me of my M9, but sadly, it forces me to be in EVF (not my preference) and also, it’s really more accurate if one activates the focus magnification, which breaks the “rangefinder” feel.

CK: In terms of handling, the Ricoh GR has a very well designed. It’s rubberised and just the right size and thickness for a camera of this size, making it very nice to hold in one hand. The Coolpix A on the other hand, has just a thin, straight rubber strip which is not much use as a grip.

The X100S’s larger body also means it’s a little easier to grip, helped a little by the contoured grip on the front of the body.

YS:  The rubber grip on the GR is indeed the best among the three: I feel like I can hold it in my hand and shoot with it all day! The Coolpix A has a small rubber strip which is not too bad as well.I personally did not like the X100S in this aspect. The large size coupled with the slippery grip meant I never felt truly comfortable holding it.

YS’s Shutter Release Button Rating

The main page explains it in greater detail, along with the master list of cameras, but in short: non-click shutter release buttons are better when needing to squeeze every last bit of steadiness from the photo taking. So, here are my ratings for these three cameras.

Nikon Coolpix A: Average. Slight click, with a somewhat squishy feel.

Ricoh GR: Average. I do like the raised shape, and there is very little play, but there is still a slight click.

Fujifilm X100S: Poor. Of all the retro things present on the X100S, this is one that is absent. The feel is more akin to a hundred dollar compact camera than a thousand dollar camera with its very pronounced click. Soft shutter release buttons do not help here either.

End of Part I

Find out more about the cameras’ performance as well as our conclusions in part II!

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