|Ricoh GR II: 1/60th sec f/4.0 @ ISO 400
I haven't written an article on the Ricoh GR in a very long time. I've been shooting with the Ricoh GR series since 1998 and it's helped shape my style of photography. The ability to capture images with the confidence of a full sized camera with unique features and functions that could only be had with a compact camera makes the Ricoh GR a very powerful photographic tool. I've owned many cameras as a professional and enthusiast photographer, but my favourite images were always taken with compact EDC (Every Day Carry) cameras. I have experimented with other compact cameras over the years but I've always felt at home with the Ricoh GR. I'm not saying it's the best, but it's what I'm use to. I 'get it' when people equally praise their beloved Contax T2, Nikon 35Ti, Minolta TC-1, Rollei 35, Olympus XA, Yashica T4, Konica Big Mini, etc. If I bought any of those cameras instead of my Ricoh GR-1 back then perhaps I would be singing a different tune today, although I don't see many digital cameras with a similar legacy today except for the current Ricoh GR line. So how good is the new Ricoh GR II and is it still a worthy contender to the newly released Fujifilm X70? Let's find out.
|Ricoh GR II: 1/640th sec f/4.0 @ ISO 800
This isn't going to be a typical review of the Ricoh GR II. I'm not going to list all the specs and features here, nor am I going to do any critical tests looking at lens sharpness or ISO performance. I reviewed it while in Hong Kong a few months back and produced a video review already. This review is more about the images I took during that trip, and I'll explain some of the reasons why I enjoyed shooting with the GR over the other cameras I brought with me. Am I saying that the Ricoh GR is the best compact camera out there, or the best for travel photography? No, but it is for me. It works with my style of photography, my focal length bias, as well as my photographic priorities.
Instead of talking about pros and cons, let's just list the things I really like about the Ricoh GR II, which will apply mostly to the previous Ricoh GR, since there really isn't a huge difference between the two versions. So these are the main reasons why I liked shooting with the GR:
- It's the most powerful point and shoot on the market with the largest sensor in relation to its size
- It's truly pocketable with a built-in lens cover and no standard strap lugs
- Unique design and shape that does not look like any other camera on the market other than itself. The original GR-1 from 1997 looks very much like the current GR II. Style and design are important to me
- Although the design appears retro, the placement of the buttons and dials are modern and makes complete sense. There is no nod to the past unless it makes sense
- True single hand operation when needed, and light enough to shoot all day. Very good ergonomic design
- Very customizable features, including your personal 'MY' custom settings that go beyond any other camera on the market, including full size DSLRs
- Very sharp lens with the perfect 28mm equivalent focal length on a point and shoot, great for street photography or basic snap shots
- No optical low-pass filter for very fine resolution on a large APS-C sensor
We will elaborate on the things I like about the Ricoh GR II, but let's go over some things that irritate me about it as well, including some things I would like to see improved:
- Better high ISO performance. I rarely shoot above ISO 800 unless I am shooting at night or shooting black and white
- Better low light autofocus
- Horrible manual focus with no focus peaking or a decent horizontal distance scale in both meters and feet.
- No optional hot shoe electronic viewfinder, or at least an optical viewfinder with LCD information overlay
- Due to no weather-sealing, there is a 'dust on sensor' issue (I have not had this issue but enough have complained so I think I should mention it here)
- No optional 16:9 aspect ratio crop. Even just the frame lines for post-cropping would be helpful for framing purposes.
- Better JPEGs and better 'filters', similar to Fujifilm's film simulations.
- Better wifi implementation with AdHoc connection and native smartphone applications
- Average video features. No mic input, no ISO control, no shutter speed or aperture control, only 30fps maximum frame rate. I know this is a weird one, but I really like the GR for recording video
|Ricoh GR II: 1/250th f/4.0 @ ISO 800. Fill-flash with Fujifilm EF-X20 at 1/16th power
The main reason I enjoy shooting with the Ricoh GR is because it's the most powerful compact camera (in terms of image quality, functions, ergonomics) in the smallest form factor without feeling too small. Some compacts are smaller, but your fingers feel cramped and is not designed for all day shooting. These same compacts try to be everything to everyone without being great at one thing. Other cameras may be bigger and have more buttons and dials, but are often placed in all the wrong places. Other cameras may be able to change lenses or have a built in zoom, but none of those lenses can keep up optically with the GR's super sharp prime lens, nor keep it as compact or light at the same price point.
In terms of sensor size, the APS-C format (24mm x 16mm) has become the equivalent to what the 35mm format was back in the film days. 35mm was the most common and accessible camera format back then, and today it is the APS-C sensor for the majority of DSLRs and mirrorless camera systems. To have a sensor this big in a camera this small makes the Ricoh GR quite unique in the market place. Yes the Nikon Coolpix A was very similar in size with almost identical specs, but it was priced too high and the ergonomics was a bit awkward. This camera was not popular and was soon discontinued. The latest and greatest Fujifilm X70 (check out my first impressions here and here) is also very very similar to the Ricoh GR, but it is slightly bigger and also much heavier. Yes the X70 has a full articulating screen, but the controls are cramped in the back and the camera is still two-handed operation. The GR is light, small, powerful and highly customizable. Street photographers are drawn to this camera and it appears there is very little competition at this time.
|Ricoh GR II: 1/500th f/4.0 @ ISO 400
We can analyze and compare specs and functions all day, but in the end the most important thing is the shooting experience and the final images. Can the GR take great pictures? If you take the time to learn how to shoot with it, the answer is yes. Vacation photography can be like taking a final exam. There's a lot of pressure to take great pictures within a limited amount of time. You and your camera have to perform. To make the most of a camera, you must know how to use it properly and practice with it daily. A fixed focal length camera is great training for the eye, learning to see the world through a single focal length. Once you learn how to shoot with a specific camera at a single focal length, your images start developing a certain style or look. This takes time. The GR can be a very powerful tool, but it takes longer than a week to figure it out. Some cameras you can instantly take great pictures right away, while others having a longer learning curve. The GR has a longer learning curve (like many Leica cameras), but once you've mastered it, you will be ready to go on vacation and take epic images. Just remember to spend the time to study, practice and prepare for your final exam!
|Ricoh GR II: 1/800th sec f/4.0 @ ISO 320. Fill-flash with Fujifilm EF-X20 at 1/16th power
My favourite combo with the Ricoh GR is shooting with a flash for daylight fill. My current favourite is the Fujifilm EF-X20 flash. No it's not perfect (like the GR), but it's compact and it has a manual power output control dial on top. No need for TTL, no need to scroll through a menu screen. It's fast and efficient. Because the GR has a leaf shutter (meaning the shutter is built into the lens and not over the sensor), you can flash sync right up to the maximum shutter speed of 1/4000th allowing for low powered flash output for daylight fill for great street photography images. I've indicated in the captions which images contain fill flash, but you can probably pick out the images. The subjects are well lit with very little facial shadows and a 3D look to the image as the fill flash separates the subject from the background in a subtle manner. These are my favourite type of street shots and the GR and EF-X20 combo does a great job. Because the whole kit is super compact and light (almost toy-like) most don't realize you're a serious photographer and ignore you. Even if you decide not to shoot discretely and use it to shoot portraits or group shots, the compact form factor helps to put people at ease. I've done a complete family portrait series using just the GR and the EF-X20 flash with DSLR level results.
|Ricoh GR II: 1/125th sec f/4.0 @ ISO 400
Many ask about the lack of a viewfinder on the GR, if it hinders the ability to take serious images. Yes and no. It's a different way to capture images, but so is the shooting-style difference between a rangefinder, an SLR, or viewing through a piece of ground glass with a loupe on a large format camera. With each format a good photographer learns to adapt his or her shooting style. In general I prefer to shoot with a viewfinder, but I've learned to adapt when shooting with the GR. You do lose stability and clear framing when you don't use a viewfinder, and in bright daylight, it's hard to see what's going on through the back LCD. If you can't live without an viewfinder, this camera is not for you.
However, I've heard people say that a real photographer never uses the LCD screen. I think that's a very ignorant and narrow view (get it?). Yes using a viewfinder often makes you 'look' more serious, and there are many many advantages of shooting with a viewfinder, but using a rear LCD screen doesn't make a person 'unprofessional'. In fact, there is one major advantage shooting with the rear LCD screen that even a professional can learn to use to their advantage. During the film era many professional wedding and studio photographers used a similar technique, but in a different way. Once we framed the shot via the viewfinder, we would cover the finder and with our heads up we would look directly at our subjects with direct eye contact. How does this apply to digital photography?
When using the back LCD screen for framing, you gain your visual field-of-view. With both eyes looking forward and your head up, you see 180 degrees in front of you, with 100% forward peripheral view. Once you learn what the angle of view of the lens is without having to look at the screen, you can pretty much shoot blind on the street. The majority of my fill flash images were taken this way: zone focusing (2.5-3 meters), f/4.0 to allow for better flash exposure, and shooting without looking at the screen at all. 100% of my attention was on the people walking towards me and coming in from the sides as well. No object entered into my frame without me knowing about it far in advance. This helps my 'chaotic' street images look more planned and organized. Even now when I shoot portraits or group shots, once I frame the image via a viewfinder or the LCD screen, I always look up and make visual contact with my subjects. The connection I have with my subjects is very important, and the reverse is true as well. A kind smile and an enthusiastic demeanour goes a long way to relax and engage your subject.
|Ricoh GR II: 1/750th f/4.0 @ ISO 320. Fill flash with Fujifilm EF-X20 at 1/16th power
Many ask about my shooting specs when I take pictures, so I've added my shooting information so you can have a basic idea of how I captured my images. I like shooting ISO 320 and above, helping me with higher shutter speeds as well as the ability to bring out details in the shadows in post processing. I shoot in aperture priority on the streets (especially when using fill flash) with a medium wide angle lens to get the right amount of background separation; and I shoot at f/4-5.6 to allow for the small fill flash output to be effective. If I stopped down to f/8.0 for greater depth of field, then I would have to increase my flash output to 1:1 (on the EF-X20 the guide number is 20 meters) with negative results. It would drain my battery quicker, much slower flash refresh rate, it would make the use of flash more obvious by completely washing out the ambient light hitting the subjects, and it would make it more obvious I was using flash with my subjects. By shooting at f/4, I can shoot at ISO 400-800 in good daylight and use only 1/16th flash output, giving a really nice balance between ambient and fill flash.
|Ricoh GR II: 1/90th sec f/2.8 @ ISO 800
The danger of shooting at f/4.0 with an APS-C sensored camera is that the DOF is not that deep, and with the GR having average autofocus speeds, there is a high chance of blurry and out-of-focus images. The Ricoh GR is just average when it comes to good light AF, but in low light the GR is almost unusable for moving subjects. For many this is the 'make or break' feature. As modern photographers we have come to rely heavily on autofocus to take great pictures, but remember that autofocus did not become mainstream until 1985 when Minolta came out with the Dynax/Maxxum 5000. Before that, every great image was manually focused, weather it was sports, photojournalism or fast moving children. How did we do it back then? Skill and practice. And remember in the film era, we couldn't see the results of our images for hours or days. I'm not excusing the bad AF on the GR, but I rarely rely 100% on any camera's AF system.
One main trick is to separate the AF trigger from the shutter button to the rear AF-L button, and this is possible with most full featured digital cameras. On the Ricoh GR, set the camera in manual focus mode and make sure to be in C-AF mode (you can also use the AEF/AFL mode but make sure the lock feature is off). When you press the rear C-AF button the GR automatically autofocuses for you and remains at that focus distance. Decide ahead of time where you want the subject to be in your frame and pre-focus (zone focus) to that distance by picking any non-moving subject and focus on it. Visually remember that distance and practice to shoot at that distance. I use to practice by using a tape measure in front of me to remember what 2.5-3 meters looked like. For street photography it's easier that you don't move and instead allow the subject to walk into your frame and to your preset distance. Yes this technique is easier when your subject is moving across your frame (like a car or bicycle) but becomes more difficult when your subject is moving towards you. However, over time you will get better at shooting like this. Another great feature on every GR ever made is 'Snap Focus'. You decide on a pre-determined focus distance (1-5m or infinity), and no matter what focus mode you are in, when you press the shutter button all the way down without a half-press, the GR will bypass focus and go directly to your set snap focus distance. This is great if you constantly shoot at a specified distance. There's no need to autofocus, but you do need to have a good sense of your preferred distance to your subject. This is how the pros did it for decades before autofocus and it's a very consistent way to get sharp images with absolutely no focus lag!
|Ricoh GR II: 1/250th sec f/4.0 @ ISO 800. Fill flash with Fujifilm EF-X20 at 1/16th power
The biggest con of this camera is the manual focus feature. The Ricoh GR has horrible manual focus and I've rarely been able to use it effectively. Yes it's a quick single handed way to focus (press up on the 4 way controller on the back and spin the front dial) but the resolution is so low that it's not sharp enough to do critical focus. This is not acceptable since the GR has a very high resolution 1.23 million dot LCD screen. Even if you decide to focus by scale, the tiny, vertical, meters only scale is not accurate enough for critical focus. This is where an external EVF would come in handy. I've never found using the rear LCD to manually focus very effective on any camera, even with focus peaking. The GR has no effective manual focus aid except by zooming in, and even then it's one of the worst (equally as bad on the Leica T and X Vario). This is the biggest con on the Ricoh GR and I hope the next version will include focus peaking, a better focus distance scale with both meters and feet (similar to Fujifilm's), and an optional EVF for those who need to do critical focusing (the very cool Ricoh GXR has an optional external EVF). Faster low light AF would be nice, but better manual focusing would actually be a more effective feature. Please update this Ricoh.
|Ricoh GR II: 1/800th sec f/2.8 @ ISO 320
The Ricoh GR II (all digial GR's in fact) have a 3 point strap system that allows for different orientations and styles of carrying your camera. I prefer the standard around-the-neck style for a few reasons. I'm rarely in 100% shooting mode while on vacation so attaching a wrist strap just isn't practical nor functional for me. I want to be able to have both hands free at any time and having a camera around your neck is the best way to do so. I also find that when you're ready to shoot with a camera strapped to your wrist, the act of raising your arm attracts more attention as you look more serious versus having it around your neck like a tourist. Even when I'm not in tourist mode, because I review cameras and I usually have more than one with me, having a camera strapped to my wrists limits my ability to quickly switch between cameras, or in the case of an ILC, the ability to quickly switch lenses or accessories without having to stop and put everything down on a flat surface. Some like attaching a strap with the camera in the vertical position, but I've never found it very practical. If I was to use a wrist strap on the GR, there is the option of using the lower right connection, freeing up the top right corner where most of the controls are on the GR. Most cameras don't have this option. Thank you for options Ricoh.
|Ricoh GR II: 1/60th sec f/4 @ ISO 320
Newer cameras now brag about start-up time and this feature is important, but not in isolation. The GR isn't the fastest kid on the block (just under a second) but it's quick once it's ready to shoot. With your hand in the shooting position you can easily turn the GR on, off, go into play mode, adjust shooting modes, adjust all your settings and shoot without ever repositioning your right hand. This means you can shoot while holding an umbrella, a shopping bag, your loved one's hand, or while riding a bike. This is the major advantage of shooting with a point and shoot, but with the GR you still have the power and control of a full featured DSLR. There's also lots of thumb real estate (almost 2" across and 2.5" vertical), comfortable for all day shooting, something that is missing from many compact enthusiast cameras currently available (including the Sony RX100 and Fujifilm X70). The one control feature I dislike and feels completely out of place on the GR is the rear toggle dial aka 'ADJ Lever'. The lever itself is in the right position and has the right functions (direct ISO control, quick menu access, rear control dial), but feels cheap and should be the same as the full spinning front dial. I would also like the next GR to allow for full customization of the 4 way control dial buttons, currently with only the left button as Fn1 button (macro for top, flash control for right, WB for bottom).
|Ricoh GR II: 1/640th sec f/4 @ ISO 320. Fill flash with Fujifilm EF-X20 at 1/16th power
|Ricoh GR II: 1/60th sec f/4 @ ISO 800
Many have asked me how I set up my Ricoh GR for the street, so I will go over how I shot it in Hong Kong. Before I do that, let me talk about the most powerful custom set-up feature on the Ricoh GR, the 'My' settings on the main dial. It is so powerful that almost every menu function can be specified in your custom My setting. For instance, when I go into My1, I label it 'Street B&W'. Here is my main custom settings:
- Manual focus mode set at exactly 3 meters when I'm ready to shoot
- Aperture Priority set at exactly f/5.6
- Picture Format RAW+ JPEG in 3:2 aspect ratio
- Jpeg effect: Hi-Contrast B&W with custom setting (-2 contrast, +2 sharpness)
- Jpeg custom setting 1: (-1 vivid, -2 contrast, 0 sharpness, weak vignetting)
- Crop: 28mm
- Function Button 1: crop mode (28,35,47mm); Function Button 2: Jpeg and RAW+
- Snap focus set to 2.5M
- ISO in full stops
- Flash Mode: force flash
- Display Mode: setting 2
There are a total of 41 major custom settings you can set, and you can save up to an additional 6 settings that you can custom label and access quickly. The previous GR-D IV allowed for up to 12 banked settings and even more if you wanted to store the information on your SD card, great for transferring the data to another GR. But even the current GR II allows you to set things like the exact focus distance, custom white balance, jpeg effect, jpeg adjustment, SNAP focus distance, ND filter on or off, 1/3 or full stops on ISO. This is very powerful. Imagine you have a very specific setting for shooting cars, or people, or even shooting under very specific mixed lighting situations. You can create your own complete custom profile that changes the way the camera shoots, as well as the way the images will look like and store it for future use. While in Hong Kong I created a special one just for street photography, different from the one I use in Vancouver. So here is my Hong Kong street set-up:
- Manual focus mode set at 3 meters with rear C-AF button set to focus priority
- Aperture priority set to f/4.0
- Picture format RAW+ and JPEG
- JPEG effect was normal with custom settings 1 at -1 vivid, -1 contrast, +1 sharpness, weak vignetting
- Fn1: 28/35/47 crop
- Fn2: RAW/JPEG
- Snap focus: 2.5 M
- ISO in full stops
- Force flash
- Effect button: ND filter
Many of the effects are only applied to the JPEG, and in the end I didn't keep any of my JPEGs for this review, but it's still nice to have just in case. This powerful custom setting feature is great, easy to create, store and switch around, as well as custom naming each profile setting. Most brand's custom settings are pretty superficial, usually only applying to the look of the jpegs, but not applying to the actual shooting functions or major settings, and most don't give you the ability to name each setting. My current ones are labeled: Street Zone Focus, Street Manual ISO 80, B&W ISO400. This is much clearer and more functional than other cameras that force you to remember your custom settings as setting one, two and three. How uninspiring and confusing. Thank you Ricoh.
|Ricoh GR II: 1/180th sec f/4.0 @ ISO 400
|Ricoh GR II: 1/30 sec f/4.0 @ ISO 400
|Ricoh GR II: 1/500th sec f/4.0 @ ISO 400
|Ricoh GR II: 1/180th sec f/4 @ ISO 400
|Ricoh GR II: 1/640th sec f/4 @ ISO 400.
Moreover, the Ricoh GR II is a great camera for those who know how to make the most out of it. It's not an easy camera to shoot with if you do not understand the fundamentals of photography or if you do not want to spend some time in post working with the RAW files. There is no image stabilization, no optical zoom, average looking JPEGs (except for B&W), mediocre wifi capabilities, no electronic viewfinder, below average low light AF and horrible manual focus. This doesn't sound very promising if you're only looking at features or specs. However, many great photographers of the past and present swear by the Ricoh GR because of the great lens (one of the sharpest APS-C 18mm lenses, including stand alone ILC lenses), great shooting ergonomics, and a very powerful sensor in a compact form factor. If I was to go on vacation again, of all the cameras I would take with me that would guarantee me the greatest images, I would definitely choose the Ricoh GR II as one of my choices. Please check out my YouTube video review of the Ricoh GR II while I was in Hong Kong, including seeing me actually shooting with it on the streets. Thank you Ricoh Imaging Canada for loaning me the camera for a few months.
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