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…