A single camera review will deliver more eyeballs to a photography blog than every other article type combined. So for someone who writes a photography blog, I have a particularly self-destructive character anomaly — I tend to avoid writing camera reviews.
Many will point to my recent discussions of the Lomography Spinner 360, Widelux F7, Rollei 35T, Leica M6 TTL and Yashica-Mat TLR as “evidence” that my avoidance skills aren’t particularly well honed, but I offer the following defense: all of those are film cameras. And with the exception of the Spinner 360, each is long out of production. So maybe I should rephrase the nature of my self-destructive tendency: I tend to avoid writing reviews of current digital cameras.
Long time readers and data archeologists will likely unearth that I have, indeed, discussed digital cameras — but it’s been two and a half years since I’ve done so. It’s not that I don’t like digital cameras (I do). It’s not that I don’t shoot with them (75% of this year’s shots are digital). It’s just that the world is drowning in digital camera blogs. Everybody blogs about the latest digital cameras. Everybody’s uncle, niece, cousin, brother-in-law, best-friend, co-worker and ex-boyfriend also blogs about the latest digital cameras. Every month, some manufacturer releases some new flavor of digital camera and a blogosphere feeding frenzy ensues. A million sycophantic camera bloggers log on to WordPress and begin to regurgitate product brochures and spec sheets while quoting, aggregating and plagiarizing each other in a never-ending quest for a handful of Amazon.com referrals — enough, perhaps, to buy them a (small) cup of coffee. It’s a merry-go-round of manic mediocrity that benefits no one.
Which is why I chose to skip that ride…
Even though I once wrote my impressions of the Panasonic DMC-G1, I never bothered to discuss the model with which I replaced it — the DMC-GH2. That’s because my “review” of the G1 was not so much a review of the specific camera, but an examination of the form factor and the reasons for choosing micro four thirds. Once I reviewed the form factor, there really wasn’t much reason to dwell on model refinements.
Similarly, I once wrote about the Leica M8 but never bothered to discuss the model with which I replaced it — the Leica M9. Again, the M8 “review” was mostly an examination of form factor. Any one of a million camera blogs will tell you why the M9 is an improvement on the M8. But as far as I’m concerned, once I made the critical choice (choosing a rangefinder instead of an SLR for the bulk of my photographic work), model numbers just weren’t as important. That’s why, instead of writing a review of the Leica M9, I chose to write a detailed but generic review of rangefinder cameras.
Honestly, I just don’t see why I should add to the digital camera din. Canon or Nikon? Does it really matter all that much? They’re both SLRs. If an SLR is right for your photography, then you can’t go wrong with either brand — choose the one you bond with, not the one some blogging fanboy waxes ecstatic over. Olympus or Panasonic? They’re both micro four thirds format. Read the spec sheets and figure out which best fits your needs and budget. Try one out and buy the one you like. You don’t need ULTRAsomething to tell you what to think. If you did, more of you would be clicking that DONATE link at the bottom of every post…
This is why, when I do discuss cameras, I tend to gravitate toward those that provide photographers with a real alternative, and not some artificial marketing differentiator. The Spinner 360? Come on, the camera rotates and captures a 360 degree field of view! Try buying another camera that does that. The Widelux F7? It features a rotating lens of excellent quality that quietly and discreetly records a 120 degree field of view without bowing vertical lines. Surely that’s a more compelling alternative to the Olympus E-PL2 than a new E-PL3?! The Rollei 35T? Well, it has the most ergonomically perfect manual exposure settings of any camera I’ve ever used. The more people who are aware of its unique form factor, the greater the chance of enticing modern digital camera designers to copy it. The Leica M6? I keep reading of people who want to own a rangefinder but “can’t afford one.” Just because you can’t afford an M9 doesn’t mean you’re stuck shooting a dSLR or one of the new “mirrorless” systems. I suspect at least 90% of my all-time favorite photographs were shot with some variant of Leica M rangefinder film camera. Maybe more photographers should consider film as an M9 alternative, rather than choosing an entirely different format of camera! Yashica TLR? There’s a reason TLRs were once extremely popular, and maybe my article will entice some of the more soulful photographers to try one out — particularly since the ratio of image quality to camera cost is off the charts in the photographer’s favor!
So why now, after this overly lengthy preamble, am I going to do the unthinkable and use the remainder of this article to discuss the Ricoh GXR — a current digital camera? Because the Ricoh is every bit as unique, liberating and useful as all those other cameras I’ve just discussed.
The Ricoh GXR
This article is not, in any way, a “review” of the Ricoh GXR. Should you wish to read a thorough, detailed and objective review of the Ricoh GXR, I suggest either Luminous Landscape or Reid Reviews (a pay site that’s worth well more than its subscription fee for any Leica-curious photographer). Me? I write impressions. Subjective impressions. Impressions that are probably only of value to candid, “street” or documentary style photographers. And, truth be told, when Ricoh released the GXR in late 2009, my impression was one of disinterest. Although I found the idea intriguing (a user replaceable sensor), I didn’t much care for the execution — I simply had no need for any of the camera’s available lens modules.
When Ricoh released a 28mm (equivalent) lens module for the GXR series nearly a year later, I was surprised to hear the system still existed. Modern “wisdom” suggests year-old digital cameras are “outdated” and destined for the landfill. Yet Ricoh was again bucking the trend by adding to their camera system and its capabilities, rather than obsoleting it. I was intrigued, but still didn’t bite…
In actuality, my interest wasn’t fully aroused until a second year passed and Ricoh released yet another new module for the GXR — one with a new sensor designed specifically to take advantage of M-mount lenses. For the past three years, I’ve been backing up my M-series cameras with micro four thirds (µFT), but I was anxious for an alternative. I was never happy with the edge performance of M lenses when adapted to µFT, and I’d grown disillusioned by the direction µFT camera bodies had taken. My needs and the product choices made by developers had diverged to the point that divorce was the only inevitable outcome.
It was finally time to check out the Ricoh GXR. So I jumped in the car, and a mere six hours later I stood before my nearest Ricoh dealer. As soon as he handed me the GXR, I felt that wave of temptation. The body is small but ergonomic; heavy for its size but comfortable in the hand. It’s solid, metal, rugged and utilitarian — a camera designed more for the perils facing a photojournalist than for those facing a parent photographing their child’s birthday party. The camera meant business.
I unboxed the dealer’s brand new M-mount A12 module, pulled a Leica 28mm Summicron lens from my bag, snapped it on the A12 module and affixed the whole contraption to the GXR. The camera recognized the new sensor and automatically updated its internal firmware. Cool. Without even connecting to the internet, I had updated the dealer’s GXR camera.
I scanned through the updated menu options and enabled Ricoh’s new “MODE 1” focus assist feature, which turns on “focus peaking.” This is a concept borrowed from the video world, in which the camera adds a colored outline around in-focus objects, giving them a ‘shimmering’ effect. I opened the Summicron to f/2, pointed the camera at the nearest hapless customer and rotated the lens’ focus ring. Various objects in the display “shimmered” as I rotated the ring. When the poor customer’s eye shimmered, I snapped the shutter and reviewed the image. Beautiful! Focus was right on the eye — right where it should be. I turned the GXR toward a wall of cameras, rotated the focus ring until they all started shimmering, then snapped off a shot. Outstanding! Again, the focus was precise and the image was sharp from edge-to-edge and from corner-to-corner. In an instant, I knew my relationship with µFT had come to an end.
I’ve now been shooting with this camera for only about two weeks, but can already draw some bold conclusions. Excluding Leica’s digital M’s (the M8 and M9), the Ricoh GXR just might be my favorite digital camera ever — and I’ve had dozens, including such illustrious models as the original 5D and the 5DII, the GH2 and many other once (or still) desirable bodies. I am, of course, biased toward small cameras that can deliver high quality prints. The Ricoh is certainly small — particularly when compared to, say, a dSLR. Print quality? Not only is its custom-crafted M-mount sensor happily free of anti-aliasing filters, but it’s fitted with micro lenses to help gather and focus all those pristine light rays blowing through that expensive Leica glass.
I can also see why, at least in North America, the camera isn’t anywhere close to being as popular as other “mirrorless interchangeable lens” cameras like the Sony NEX system or the Panasonic/Olympus µFT system — and that’s because the GXR was designed for photographers, not consumers. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not denigrating people who fail to suffer from obsessive photographic tendencies or who shop for cameras at big box appliance stores. I’m just saying that their requirements are often more varied and less incontrovertible than a photographer with a specific vision and exacting requirements. I guess that’s why I had to drive six hours to a real camera store in order to try one out.
Although I bought the system to perform primarily as a digital backup to my M9, I always like my backup cameras to give me a little something “extra” — something I discussed in-depth in my article, Don’t Feed the Ostrich. In the case of the Ricoh, that something “extra” comes mostly from the 28mm A12 module, which I also acquired. This module converts the GXR into a solid, auto-focus point-and shoot camera that’s small enough to tuck into a jacket pocket, yet delivers impressive image quality commensurate with the best semi-pro cropped-sensor dSLRs. Essentially, this configuration gives me the digital equivalent of a Ricoh GR1 — a camera I’ve desired for over a decade and continue to desire even today. It even borrows the GR1’s clever Snap Mode feature, which is ideal for us photographers who like to scale focus. Snap Mode allows you to bypass the camera’s auto-focus mechanism and take a photo at a preset distance. On the streets, I often pre-focus my Leicas to either 1.5 or 2 meters, then look for photo opportunities within that distance. Snap Mode on the Ricoh lets me work exactly this way. I can autofocus normally, but if I see something 1.5 or 2m away from me, I can plunge the shutter (without stopping half-way to focus), and the camera will respond instantly — automatically setting the focus to my selected “snap mode” distance.
A Few Foibles
As much as I like the Ricoh GXR, it shares a problem that’s common to every camera ever made — it isn’t perfect. Specifically:
- I’d like to see a weather-sealed body and a weather-sealed lens module or two. That way, I could head out with the Ricoh M-mount module and a couple of Leica lenses, but if the weather turned bad, I could pop on one of Ricoh’s weather-sealed modules and continue to shoot.
- I’d like to see the pointless pop-up flash go away, perhaps replaced by an actual sync port.
- I’d like a higher resolution EVF (particularly for critical focusing using the ‘peaking’ feature) and, while I’m at it, I’d consider putting the engineering team to work on some kind of optical/electronic hybrid viewfinder.
- I’d like the ability to custom-assign more than four parameters to the ADJ lever — there’s certainly plenty of space on the LCD for more than 4 instantly accessible parameters.
- I’d like Ricoh to expand the list of parameters that photographers can custom-assign to certain buttons. For example, the camera has three dedicated customizable shooting modes (which Ricoh calls MY1, MY2 and MY3). Normally, I just set a camera to manual exposure and ignore shooting modes. But on the GXR, these modes become tremendously useful. Because of the camera’s modular nature, you’ll likely configure it very differently depending on whether you’re using a Leica M-mount manual focus lens, a Ricoh auto-focus prime lens module, or a Ricoh auto-focus zoom lens module. The problem with using a MY shooting mode is that you then lose the ability to quickly switch between aperture priority, shutter priority, or manual exposure via the shooting mode dial. Ricoh compensated by adding a menu item that lets you switch between shooting modes in MY mode, but they do not offer photographers any way to assign this important function to a button. So if you’re shooting in one of the MY modes, twelve button presses are required in order to simply switch from Manual exposure to Aperture Priority:
- Press MENU/OK.
- Press Up Cursor seven times to highlight “Switch Shooting Mode.”
- Press Right Cursor to open the “Switch Shooting Mode” options.
- Press Up Cursor twice to select Aperture Priority Mode.
- Press MENU/OK to make the selection and close the menu.
- I’d like to see a new body that contains both better video and more video control. Although I’m not personally all that interested in video, I’d be much more likely to use this feature if Ricoh at least gave me some control over video settings. I can’t even set the shutter speed myself! The GXR relegates video to the Scene mode menu, where it has equal importance with such cheesy features as “sports” mode, “soft focus” mode and “Toy Camera” mode. In the next generation body, video needs its own dedicated spot on the mode dial.
- And finally, I’d really really like to be able to set shutter speed directly, without using the LCD. Unlike many of today’s more consumer-oriented offerings, the GXR is a “real” camera. As such, it needs a real shutter speed dial.
Ideally, were I to design this camera, I’d eliminate the flash and move the mode select dial over to where the flash is now; I’d nudge the hotshoe over so it sat directly above the lens (exactly where an optical/electronic hybrid viewfinder should sit), and I’d put a dedicated shutter speed dial where the current model’s mode switch sits. I know it sounds like I want an awful lot, but I really like the direction Ricoh has taken with their latest GXR concepts, and I genuinely hope they continue to improve the firmware and expand the product line to include not just lens modules, but bodies as well.
With Ricoh’s introduction of the M-Mount A12 module, they’ve essentially made the GXR a “must have” purchase for any serious photographer with a significant collection of M-mount lenses. Even for someone like me, who owns several M-mount rangefinders (both digital and analog), the GXR gives me something different — through-the-lens viewing and a uniquely different focus method. And, even though I could easily adapt M-lenses to my Micro Four Thirds (µFT) cameras to explore these same differences, µFT’s adapted lens optical quality isn’t anywhere close to that of the Ricoh. And isn’t optical quality one of the main reasons we own all those Leica M-mount lenses?
If you don’t already own a number of M-mount lenses, then the benefits of the Ricoh GXR are no longer so unequivocal. There are far fewer dedicated system lenses for the GXR than for Micro Four Thirds, and the GXR’s video capabilities are barely adequate. But if you do have a few M-mount lenses lying around, or if Ricoh’s current lens module offerings correspond with your own required focal lengths, then you really should go to the trouble of tracking down a GXR. You just might end up selling off your Micro Four Thirds system. I did.
©2011 grEGORy simpson
ABOUT THESE PHOTOS: In no way should these photos be considered indicative of any sort of Ricoh GXR “look.” They illustrate nothing. They argue nothing. They prove nothing. Heck, other than the first one, they don’t even prove I can take photos. They’re merely some shots I took during the last couple of weeks while I learned my way around the GXR and the various module/lens combinations. “Approaching Winter” was shot with a Ricoh GXR using the GXR Mount A12 module and a v5 Leica 50mm f/2 Summicron lens. “A Gathering of Gawkers” was shot with a Ricoh GXR using the Ricoh GR A12 28mm f/2.5 lens module. “Convergence Cliche” and “Love Letter” were shot with a Ricoh GXR using the GXR Mount A12 module and a v4 Leica 35mm f/2 Summicron lens. “False Creek Ferries” and “Big Yellow Taxi” (yes, the title is a riddle) were both shot with a Ricoh GXR using the GXR Mount A12 module and a Voigtlander 15mm Super Wide-Heliar f/4.5 lens.
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