You've come a long way, baby
Once upon a time, the biggest problem with camera phones was the camera itself. One of the world's first camera phone, the J-SH04 was released in 2000. Boy did we come a long way, right? It could should tiny 0.11 megapixels images. It went up from there. The camera is a big deal in any phone nowadays, Apple has it's “Shot on iPhone” campaign and bunch of other brands do the same, some even partnering up with Leica to give their phone a legs up above the competition.
Speaking of partnerships, I was recently looking at the reveal of the Nokia 9 pureview who's got Zeiss backing them up, look at that beast:
Oh Mama, that thing has 5 cameras. Yeah you heard that right 5 cameras! It can capture an amazing amount of detail, has RAW shooting and even a monochrome mode (this thing has 3 monochrome cameras), crazy low light capability, killer dynamic range. While watching the presentation, I started to want a bit. What photographer doesn't want the bestest image quality they can get, right?
Well, I slapped myself right there and remembered my dashed hopes and dreams with camera phones. This brings me to…
My quest for the best camera phone
I'm probably not alone, I just want one device. It can take calls and browse the web, and also be a great camera that would allow me to leave my pocket one at home. I had one of the first ones really pushing the camera: The Sony Satio. Afterwards I had the sleek but ultimately garbage Samsung Galaxy Zoom, then I go the looks-like-a-camera Panasonic CM1, and now I settle on an old LG G5 with camera grip. Here are some shots with various phones/camera phones, in order: Blackberry Priv, Samsung Galaxy Zoom, LG G5, Blackberry Priv, Panasonic CM1
There are some good news and some bad news. The good news is, there is absolutely no doubt that camera phones get more and more amazing everyday. The Panasonic CM1 crammed a 1 inch sensor into a very small portable package. And there is absolutely no doubt you can make some pretty outstanding work with relatively recent phones.
Even better, camera phones have 2 advantages for street photographers: One is the phone itself, because you can totally fake you are using your phone, you can get some pretty stealthy shots with it. And the second is, incredible fps. Many modern phones offer increased fps, like my old G5, it has 30 fps! Just keep the shutter released press and voilà!
But while camera phones make awesome images, here's the issue…
The problem with camera phones
Here's the problem with camera phones. They have camera POWER but they don't have camera HANDLING. Phone have had “good enough” image quality for years, but there has not been one camera phone I have EVER trusted in my life. Every single camera phone out there are phones first. They handle like phones, and then some wizbang camera has been attached afterwards. What that means is, you are stuck shooting with your hands like this:
This is less than ideal and VERY limiting to photographers. Especially for street photographers, because most phones will not allow for one handed shooting. Right after fancying the new Nokia 9 pureview, I reminded myself that no matter the fancy new camera tech, it would handle like the dozens of phones I had and the lusting stopped right then.
The one camera I believed would be the end-all of all camera phones was the Panasonic CM1. It looks very camera-ish, and definitely has the camera power. The handling however is a different situation. I had to put a grip on it to make it feel more camera-like but the handling is again, phone-like. Phone manufacturers put too much emphasis on image quality and VERY little thought on handling.
It doesn't matter how good your camera is if you can't get the images you want. Take the LG G5 I currently have, I told myself the handling wasn't that great (even with the camera grip) but the fact that I could shoot 30fps means that I could just get 3-5 seconds worth of images and I would surely get the shot. That is not the case, because I have never been able to frame correctly, even winging it with the 30 fps.
There's nothing more frustrating than seeing a shot, and pulling your phone, knowing that the angle you actually want you probably won't get because you can't hold the phone well enough. Add to that the fact that you can never change settings easily (it's either in the menus or you have to touch the screen to change them) and you are probably going to miss those in-the-moment shots.
Granted, landscape shooters or anyone who doesn't need to shoot at angles or quickly, this does not apply. But for street photography, I've only been frustrated with camera phones for the last 10 years. The handling is never there. The ease of changing settings is never there. Even the Panasonic CM1, that has a dial on the front is not enough. At minimum a serious camera needs 2 dials to change settings, if you have to go press buttons to change the settings from shutter speed to ISO, that's not going to work when you need things fast.
It's ironic because the camera-phone is the first device in history where you have all of the photographic process from capture to publishing right in your pocket. To be honest, I've given up on camera phones, I just have my phone and my pocket camera with me. It's just weird that I prefer an 8 year old camera with barely a few frames per second, has worse IQ than my phone that can take 30 fps shots.
And again it all comes down to HANDLING. It's the one thing phones are missing. And it's probably never going to happen. Because camera needs are different than phone needs. The best camera phone would probably be like a camera with a touchscreen in the back. But what about the camera dials and buttons? As a phone user, you probably wouldn't want anything messing with your screen. As a camera user you want those buttons. But when you hold your phone, you don't want to be pressing random buttons. Here's what I mean:
Take your pocket camera and hold it in front of you. Notice anything? Yep, the back area has been designed to accommodate your thumb and lower thumb area. All of this has been designed so that you have a nice grip to have your index finger press the shutter release button. Look at this lady here:
Now imagine there are no creases, this area is just screen real estate, this immediately kills handling. And while you might WANT this area while shooting. It's also a phone. How would you like to be stuck with a phone like the bottom right one:
This also brings another point: Bulk. Cameras are bulky and what's great with bulk is HANDLING. You can hold it better. Phones stopped being bulky a long time ago. So when you want to hold your slab of a phone with one hand it feels weird as your fingers try to get a grip on the back of the phone and not let it slip.
Is there a solution?
The good news is, there is a solution to this conundrum between phone and camera. A modular phone. The phone can be removed to be it's own slab, or you can put it into a camera module to get a nice grip with buttons. Something like “Pictar” wanted to do:
You can see how the guy is handling the phone, and observe the thumb rest area. Something like that, but with normal camera buttons in the back. But the way things are going with modular phones, where nothing ever pans out, this is more of a pipe dream than anything.
I love camera phones, and they only get even more awesome everyday. However, it doesn't matter how great they are if you can't trust them to get the shot. The main problem I have found over 10 years comes down to handling. And while this problem looks easy to solve on the surface, if you just add camera handling to a phone, it would probably suck as a phone. Let's hope brands like Nokia or Samsung will finally make a phone that makes photographers want to leave their dedicated compacts at home. Until then, my trusty Ricoh GRD IV is always by my side.
I finally handled for the first time in my life a Ricoh GRs1, and yes, I'm talking about the 19 year old camera that looks exactly the same to my 3 year old digital GR. It’s incredible to see the concept of this camera has remain unchanged through the years.
I wrote some sort of a ‘review' back in 2013 here in Inspired Eye if you want to get more technical about it, but if you are reading this, is because you pretty much know by now the story and legacy about this ‘cult' camera. This article is about my experiences with this stunning piece of engineering.
When I first bought my GR, the 28mm focal length was something new to me. I’ve always been a 35/40 type-guy, yet I was decided to give this camera a try because it ticked every other box I was always interested in on a ‘serious' digital compact.
Big sensor, real-jeans-pocket-size camera, great in-camera flash, high-res LCD (back in 2013 high res LCDs were still not the norm), fast AF, universal DNG raw files (no need to wait for adobe to upgrade Lightroom), and the most attractive feature of all, even now on 2016: AF Snap (hyperlocal shooting).
No one else was close to this. For the first time I saw a compact film like camera but digital, small and unobtrusive, with serious image quality.
I was part of the few who early on believed in the whole ‘mirrorless’ philosophy. Basically the idea was to take away all the unnecessary steroids DSLR were having, while retaining most if not all it's features, including the most important, image quality. But mirrorless, like the iPhone have only been with us less than a decade, yet the race and technological progress has been nothing short of astounding.
Actually, I still remember, 4 or 5 years ago when Olympus first launched their OMD EM5 camera, I participated on a gear head forum at the time (those that most of us like to deny) were I wrote: ‘I wish they could put a full frame sensor inside the OMD body, and have a digital version of a realistic film size camera'. That comment went on fire, with a lot of keyboard ‘engineers', and ‘doctors in physics' explaining how stupid my comment was, and how impossible was to achieve that, because ‘you simply can't bend the laws of physics'. A couple of years later, Sony announced the A7. Who knew.
But despite the huge offering and technological race a bunch of camera manufacturers have gone for in the past 6 years, very few of them decided to also focus on what some call the ‘serious compact' audience. Which is not all that small as many would think, usually ‘serious compacts' users are both professional and amateur photographers alike which have more than one camera system which decided to get a camera that would give them the same or very close image quality as their main gear, but on a very compact, fixed lens, pocket-size camera which you could carry anywhere.
In the good ol’ days, every manufacturer would offer one or two fixed lens compacts. Some of this compacts were so good that even some well known photographers have even made a career of shooting with tiny amateur-looking compact cameras. People like Terry Richardson, Mario Testino, Anders Petersen, Jacob Aue Sobol, Daido Moriyama and Saul Leiter just to name very few, share the love of shooting pocket-fixed-lens cameras.
Well, what does any of that have to do with the Ricoh GR?, well I guess, what I'm trying to say is that, for the past 16 years of digital photography and specially the past 5, the race between manufacturers has been monumental. Theres a camera release at least every 6 months. Yet no one had considered making serious digital compacts (big performance inside a small body). Leica released its first APSC size sensor, X1 compact camera back in 2009, yet, it wasn't until Fuji came out of nowhere with their groundbreaking X100 camera back in 2011 which turned quite a few heads around across the globe.
Personally, I jumped at the opportunity, and while everything on the Fuji was perfect, it was a bit too slow for my taste/needs, specially coming from my 5D Mkii.
Around this time I was already eyeing the Ricoh GRD series, which seemed excellent, but with a tiny ‘point-n-shoot’ sensor, so I decided to wait. It wasn’t until early 2013, that Ricoh announced the Ricoh GR, same idea as their previous digital versions but now with an APSC type sensor in the same size body which at the same time was much smaller than the Fuji. In fact, until today, July 2016, I believe no other camera manufacturer has come up with anything as physically as small while having a big sensor performance as the Ricoh GR.
Having said that, it seems that there's a perceived notion for some that the smaller the camera the ‘less impressive’, ‘serious' or professional it is, and on the other hand, the bigger the camera the more ‘professional' and ‘better' the results will be. Well, like anything in life this is both right and wrong.
Smaller cameras serve a huge array of purposes; you could carry them in your pockets and not carry a camera bag, a lot of master photographers have proposed the idea of the ‘one camera, one less’ philosophy, which by doing so, you can force yourself to be more creative with your framing by learning new ways of capturing the world around you.
But they are not just great creatively. When you learn how to use them properly, you will be rewarded with some incredible benefits, such as amazing image quality. This is partly because, when manufacturers build a compact fixed lens camera, they can design a lens specifically to match the sensor to perfection which gives much better performance than interchangeable lens cameras.
Part of the magic behind the Ricoh GR is that it can be both, a complete mum-and-dad-holiday snapshot camera or a complete customisable professional camera, albeit with a 28mm fixed lens. Sure, most cameras have an automatic mode and a ‘professional’ one, but when you take the Ricoh out of the ‘green’ icon on its mode dial, you can customise every single button on the camera, which goes as far as changing the color of the light that surrounds the power button for ultimate stealthiness. Will things like that make you a better photographer?, no, not at all, but it goes to tell you, ‘yes we know you guys are geeky enough and ‘need’ little details like this. Rest assured that we took care of every single detail inside this camera, use it like YOU please, not like how WE want’. And that is great.
Now, for the past 3 years, probably like many of you, I have bought and sold a few cameras and lenses, yet there’s one piece in my kit that is not going anywhere soon, maybe never, or until it breaks. That is the GR.
I simply love this camera. Mine has taken some beating and has been from the extreme colds of Patagonia, to the extremely hot and dusty Myanmar, and everywhere in between New Zealand as well as on my everyday bag to work and bars during weekends. No, this camera is not weather sealed but is really built to last, no plastic or flimsy parts. This is a well thought out camera that fits your hand like a glove. The grip is perfect, it balances so well.
I also print a lot of my work (part of the reason why I wanted/needed a big sensor), and have made huge prints out of it as well. I have printed up to A0 (841 x 1189mm / 33.1 x 46.8in) size prints and the files are just stunning. Printing is were you REALLY see how a camera performs, and though I understand its limitations, I know that for the occasional A0 print I want/need to do, this camera can do everything before that.
Is this camera perfect? No, of course not, which one is, really. I don’t think 28mm field of view is for everyone to start. Also there has been reports of dust in the sensor on some blogs. Mine actually came with dust from the factory which was immediately replaced for a new one and has since worked like a charm for the past 3 years.
There’s no 4k video either, no touch screen, no tilting LCD, no OVF nor EVF, but expecting that is completely missing the point of this camera which is: Simplicity. This ain’t no ‘hybrid-do-it-all’ type camera, this is a camera that does one thing only, and that is to take great pictures, and its probably one the best at it, I found.
Yes, I wish it had more megapixels, was faster, and a brighter lens all on within the same size, but we will have to see what Ricoh does with the upcoming version, if there is a new version of it.
I guess my only complain about the Ricoh GR is that I wish Ricoh did more cameras (I mean Ricoh, not Pentax), I haver personally never seen such a well laid out camera. Simple menus, fast, responsive, customisable, ergonomics, etc. Only time will tell if they do, in the meantime I will keep triggering my GR’s shutter until it breaks, which Im really hoping it won’t be soon. 3 years and counting…
After a lifetime of shooting film, I never thought I’d go high tech … but then I got an iPhone, which turned out to be my gateway camera to digital.
It led to a little Lumix, which led to a slightly bigger Fuji, the X100. I love that camera a lot, but felt like I wanted a bit more flexibility, so I ended up with the X-Pro1.
Both the Fuji cameras are great in that many of the controls are manual. I don’t want to have my face in a menu to make adjustments, and with the Fuji I can set up a shot in seconds with a few flicks and twists.
Plus the option to have both the optical and electronic viewfinder is nice. The autofocus on the X-Pro1 isn’t as efficient as the X100, but I don’t rely on it that much so it’s not a problem.
At first I used the lens that came with it, a clunky zoom; I was so happy to have the camera that I suffered through it without protesting too much. But then I got the 35mm 1.4 and everything clicked, so to speak.
The body-lens combination makes for a manageable weight and size to haul around for endless miles of sleuthing the streets. And the lens suits me perfectly. It’s so lovely, is very happy when wide open, and is obedient in my quest to capture the strange and dreamy side of the world.
The only problem I’ve ever had it with was during the historic 2016 blizzard when some of the functions went on the blink. Though I was admittedly abusive, shooting for hours in NYC’s biggest snowstorm on record … but it recovered quickly and completely all on its own.
I couldn’t be happier with this camera; I will use it until it gives up the ghost. It’s such an ally. It’s simple but a workhorse; has a high-tech heart but obliges me in taking soft moody pictures. The image quality is great, even JPEGs straight from the camera are honorable.
If I were more of a technical shooter I would likely push its functions more, but the most important part for me is how it feels in my hand and how it works with me in taking the photos I want to take. I couldn’t ask for more in those realms.
Unless of course it had a place to put film! Which I miss a lot … but then I take out my old Leicas and shoot film that never gets scanned, and I’m reminded again how much I love my Fuji.