It’s strange that I should be inspired to write a review about the Ricoh GXR; a digital camera. I made film my primary medium several years ago. In this time I’ve acquired a slew of beautiful, rare, and interesting film cameras, all worthy of a 35mmc write-up. So why dedicate my time to writing about some obscure digital compact the world already seems to have forgotten? More than any other reason, I have an affinity for unique cameras. The Ricoh GXR is certainly a unique camera, but is it a good camera?
What is It?
The Ricoh GXR is an enthusiast compact camera introduced in late 2009. Unlike any other consumer camera (that I know of), it features an interchangeable sensor. How exactly is a sensor interchangeable? The GXR utilizes interchangeable “units”, each housing a purpose-built ‘lens / sensor / image processor’ combination. These small, dust-sealed units slide in and out of a camera body shell. The camera body itself is nothing more than a user interface with lots of buttons, an LCD screen, and a tiny pop-up flash.
Ricoh offered six modules over the course of the GXR’s lifespan. Two of these are autofocusing prime lens units (28 and 50mm equivalent) that utilize a 12.3 MP CMOS APS-C sensor. These, in my opinion, are the ones to get if you find the focal length agreeable. Three zoom lenses were made available that I won’t bother listing (zooms are terrible, am I right?). Finally, and perhaps most interestingly, a Leica M mount module was also offered.
In terms of build quality, each component is manufactured to an exceptionally high standard. There is absolutely no flexing or creaking and the overall fit and finish of the Ricoh GXR is top notch. When a lens module is attached to the body, the combination feels like an incredibly robust singular unit. I was honestly surprised to find a “Made in China” label on each component, expecting something this well made to come from Japan. It’s a testament to the capabilities of modern Chinese manufacturing.
The overall size is not much different than a modern GR. In the hand, it feels about 10% bigger in each dimension. The slightly larger size actually pushes it just outside the truly pocketable category (or perhaps my jeans are too tight). It’s perfectly happy to be stuffed into a jacket pocket. Here it is next to a few various bodies for a comparison in size.
What’s It Like to Shoot?
I’ve owned the Ricoh GXR system for two years, and while it may not be my primary shooter, I’ve used it enough to confidently state what feels right and wrong with it.
The menu system is rather complex, and whether or not this is a bad thing depends on how technical you are. Realizing the full capability of this camera required a few hours of my time, most of which was spent cross-referencing the manual for each menu option and then experimenting.
It’s plainly evident to me that the Ricoh GXR is for photographers that enjoy a high degree of customizability. The number of assignable buttons and functions is simply staggering for a body this compact. I will say that the menu does a good job of getting out of the way once it’s been properly setup. That is, one need no longer enter the menu system to change frequently adjusted settings as almost every shooting option can be assigned to a button. Dedicate a little time to the setup, recognize which customization options are most worthwhile, and you will be rewarded with a camera that offers quick and intuitive adjustments.
The 28mm f/2.5 GR Module
The 28mm GR module was introduced in late 2010. To say that the point & shoot market has matured in the last 7 years is a bit of an understatement. Manufacturers such as Fujifilm, Sony and even Ricoh are now producing incredibly capable cameras in very small form factors. They’ve also sorted out the biggest issues and drawbacks that kept professionals from using them as serious tools.
One of the big issues with early digital point and shoots was speed. With the Ricoh GXR, this problem appears in the form of data write speed. When shooting RAW, a 2 to 3 second blackout occurs after every shot. This may or may not drive a person bat-shit crazy. A spray and pray shooter (god help them) will find this to be a nuisance of the highest degree. A slow and methodical photographer will likely fail to notice the shortcoming. I find myself somewhere in between. The blackout doesn’t usually get in the way of my process; however, the camera just can’t manage to match my shooting pace in all scenarios. Thankfully, every other operational speed is perfectly acceptable. Start-up, AF acquisition, menu-navigation, and image playback speeds are all snappy, even by today’s standards.
Snap Focus: It’s a snap
Perhaps the most powerful tool this module offers is Snap Focus. It’s been a long-standing feature in GR cameras and for good reason: it’s one of (if not) the best implementations of manual focus on an autofocusing camera. Snap Focus allows you to set a predetermined focus distance that the camera “snaps” to when required. I’ll go into a bit more detail on the of this feature because I believe it sets the Ricoh GXR (and GR) apart from the other cameras aimed at documentary and street photographers.
There are basically two ways to use snap-focus. The first (and arguably simpler) method is to shoot the camera in the dedicated “snap focus” setting. The user selects a focus distance (1m, 1.5, 2, 2.5, 3, 3.5, 5 or infinity) and the lens will remain focused at that distance. When the shutter is fully pressed an image is taken with no discernable lag. There is also a very convenient button shortcut to change the snap focus distance. Simply hold down on the macro (flower) button and rotate the front dial to scroll through the snap focus distances.
The second method is to shoot the camera in “full press snap” mode. The camera autofocuses as it normally would with a half-press, however, if you quickly depress the shutter all the way (skipping the halfway point), the lens will jump to your snap focus distance and an image will be taken. This results in a bit of lag as the lens moves from its previously autofocused position to the “snap focus” position, and for this reason I prefer the first method.
The Lens: It’s Wide
The module features an 18.3mm (28mm equivalent) lens with a depth of field is so vast that at apertures of f/8 and greater everything is “in focus”. This is incredibly beneficial for those that zone-focus. I’ve tailored my shooting method around this attribute by dialing in a high ISO value (1600 or 3200) and operating the camera in shutter speed priority mode. By selecting a low (but manageable) shutter speed (around 1/30 for a still subject and 1/125 for moving), the aperture will typically remain above f/8 and everything in the frame is more or less “in focus”.
As a 35mm lover, the 28mm focal length feels a little “loose” to me. I find the perspective just a bit too wide and stretched to be used as an “everything” lens. It does, however, force me to see things in a different way and become a bit more intimate with the subject. So in a strange way, this little digital has become my “experimental” camera.
Images: B&W Done Well
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the 28mm module makes fantastic images. I’m particularly fond of the B&W raw conversions and even the in-camera B&W jpegs. The images can be quite easily manipulated to look like high quality film scans.
The Leica M Mount Module
The Ricoh GXR M-mount module really showcases the potential of a modular interchangeable sensor camera. It features a 12.3 MP APS-C CMOS sensor with no low-pass (anti-aliasing) filter and a microlens layout tailored specifically to Leica M lenses. The lack of a low-pass filter means sharp images, as one would expect. The mount-specific microlens layout does an impressive job of keeping peripheral color-shading and corner smearing to a minimum when using wide-angle lenses.
The APS-C sensor means a 1.5x crop factor. A 24mm full-frame lens becomes 35mm, a 50mm lens becomes 75mm and so on. It’s honestly not that big of a deal, unless you have an M-mount lens you absolutely adore on full-frame. It turns my beloved collection of 35mm M-mount lenses into 50mm lenses, a focal length I don’t care for very much. On the other hand, it turns my 50mm lenses into 75mm lenses, a focal length I quite like. So, make of it what you will. I should also mention that any lens that can be adapted to M-mount will work perfectly on this module. This opens the door to an absolutely astounding number of manual focus lenses: Leica TM, Leica R, M42, Nikon F, Canon FD, Olympus OM, Contax/Yashica, Minolta M, Pentax K, etc.
An electronic shutter option is unique to this module and permits silent shooting up to 1/8000 sec. I don’t often find use for this feature; however, it has been surprisingly helpful on more than on occasion. It permitted me to photograph the patrons of a very quiet church without annoying them or disrupting the mood. Not much else to say other than it’s nice to have when you need it.
One very convenient feature that took me only two years to discover is the use of Auto ISO in shutter speed priority mode. One would naturally assume that ‘aperture priority’ and ‘manual’ are the only modes applicable to lenses without coupled apertures. Ricoh did something rather clever and implemented a shutter-speed priority that shifts the ISO (rather than aperture) to obtain the correct exposure. Exposure compensation is also permitted in this mode, allowing a +3 to -3 stop adjustment to the scene. I find this shutter-priority mode to be a huge benefit in my method of picture taking. Rather than worry about selecting an aperture to give me a fast enough shutter speed, I select my shutter speed (and aperture of course) and let the camera sort out the rest. Sometimes technology is a good thing!
Focusing: Make it Work
One would hope that a camera module designed strictly for use with manual focus lenses would incorporate some proper focusing aids. Fortunately, it does and there are three to choose from: magnified view, focus peaking, and inverted focus peaking. The magnified view does as the name implies and enlarges a portion of the image by 2x, 4x, or 8x for critical focusing. The focus peaking aid overlays shimmering white dots on objects that are in the current focus plane. The inverted focus peaking displays the image in monochrome in an attempt to make the peaking more discernable.
I find it particularly distracting to have dots of any color littering the screen, and for that reason I’ve never been a fan of focus peaking. The Ricoh GXR isn’t very good at it either. Unless the scene is bright and high in contrast, the dots appear rather ambiguously, making identification of the true focus plane difficult. In summary, focus peaking on the GXR is a tedious and inaccurate method of focusing and you’re better off using the magnified view.
So, I’ve set up the Ricoh GXR to make the magnified view focusing as effortless a process as possible. I press the Function 1 button (which my thumb is always resting next to) to magnify the center of the image and focus on the subject. I then half-press the shutter to see the entire frame and decide on a proper composition. If I decide to focus on a different object, I simply release the shutter to re-enter magnified view. Finally, I take the picture and the camera returns automatically to the standard un-magnified view.
Despite being a fairly straightforward method, I do not find this process of picture taking to be a good match to my style of photography. Zooming in to focus (rather than having a small rangefinder patch in the center) does not allow me to concentrate on the moment. It feels as though I’m continuously jumping between two scenes with two entirely different objectives. So, next to a camera like the M9, the M-Mount module feels rather laborious and clumsy in use. To be fair though, shooting a true mechanical rangefinder makes manual focusing any digital feel clumsy. I find it both amusing and ironic that the AF 28mm GR module provides me with a better way to manually focus than the M-mount module.
Images: Weapon of Choice
The images from the M-Mount module are very similar to the ones from the GR module. To be more specific, the quality and flexibility of the files are more or less identical and that makes manipulating the images from either module a more or less identical process. Any discernable image variation between modules comes from the choice of lens. The 28mm GR features a very modern, sharp, and contrasty lens. The M-mount features virtually any type of lens you can get your grubby little hands on. I’m particularly fond of lower contrast Leitz lenses from 60’s and 70’s and would describe their rendering as delicate and classic. This makes achieving the “film” look even easier for me in post.
The Ricoh GXR – Final Thoughts
Is the Rioch GXR’s unique modular design a good thing? I’ve been contemplating this since first picking up the camera. Rather than weigh the pros and cons, I’ve come to a conclusion in a much less technical way. I really enjoy using the camera. It produces images that I find particularly pleasing. It’s fun, it’s different, and it really is unique. So, I am inclined to say that it is indeed a good thing.
Why, then, did the Ricoh GXR fail? To answer this question, I think we should define what a product failure really is. In the cut and dry business-sense, if a product doesn’t come close to meeting its sales goal, it’s a failure. In the innovative-sense, if a product does nothing to further the progress of a technology and brings nothing new to the table, it’s a failure.
The Ricoh GXR was undoubtedly a failure in the business-sense. I won’t pretend to know the sales figures, but the scarceness of GXR-related commentary on the entirety of the internet says a lot. I believe the biggest factor in all of this was the reputation digital point and shoots had gained up to the time of its release. Follow me on this. I think it would be fair to say that the Ricoh GXR is in many ways the digital equivalent of a luxury film point and shoot such as the Nikon 35Ti or Contax T3: well-constructed, compact, obscenely priced. The 35Ti and T3 were priced well out of reach for the average consumer, however, point and shoot film cameras were “hot” at the time of their release and many professionals and wealthy amateurs purchased the luxury models. Now, jump forward to 2009, the year the GXR was released. People that were “serious” about cameras and image quality were looking at full-frame DSLRs. The Ricoh GXR was likely dismissed by many as another gimmicky point and shoot in a long line of crappy offerings from the likes of Canon, Nikon, etc.
Was the Ricoh GXR a truly innovative product or have I been taken for a ride by the “cool-factor” that so often accompanies modular designs? That’s a tough question to answer because I do think it’s a cool design. To be completely honest, I was drawn to the camera because of the design. I might argue then, that it’s an innovative camera because it made the modular camera premise work to a degree many would not have expected. As stated in the review, it has a few quirks, however, none of these stem from the camera’s unique modular platform. They are issues that plagued virtually all mirrorless cameras of the era. So hats off to Ricoh for making an incredibly good camera on their first go. As far as failures go, the Ricoh GXR was a damn good one.
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