Photo packs have come a long way in the past decade, especially those that are targeted toward outdoor and adventure photographers. Alaska-based adventure photographer Dan Bailey takes a closer look...
With quick reflexes ideally suited to the snapshooter, the Ricoh GR Digital IV (10MP, 1/1.7 inch CCD, 28/1.9 fixed lens) is a genuine classic that feels like it was designed by and for serious, enthusiastic photographers. With a user-friendly interface and sensible external controls, it’s also well suited to beginners. Special features feel like the influence of an innovative “Can do” team rather than a too-conservative “Can’t do” committee. The White Edition is frosting on an already delicious cake.
10MP 1/1.7" CCD sensor
Fixed lens equivalent to a 28mm f1.9 lens in 35mm full frame terms
Sensor shift image stabilization
3" 1.23 million dot LCD
Fast Hybrid AF system
Available in black or white finish
Build quality, fit and finish show excellent attention to detail. Note the return of a feature missing since the original GRD – the oblong window top center, just above the lens. That’s the phase detect external autofocus window so prized by fans of the original GRD, missing from the GRD II and III. It’s back and it works very well for some scenarios, particularly when following moving subjects at fairly close range such as in a room, even in dim light. It doesn’t work so well for true macro (due to parallax error) or for long distance use. It can be disabled internally to conserve battery power.
Ricoh GR Digital IV White Edition with included white metal lens cap. The ring at lower left is the protective ring that mates with the bayonet type accessory collar around the lens. It’s normally left on the camera unless the lens cap is used. Two gold plated spring loaded contacts on the lens cap mesh with contacts on the bayonet type accessory mount around the lens – this disables the power and prevents unintentionally extending the lens while the cap is mounted. (Extra cost options to fit the bayonet mount include wide angle conversion lenses, lens shades and adapters to accommodate 43mm filters.)
The Ricoh GR Digital IV may be the hippest digital camera around at any price. It’s the camera equivalent to The Most Interesting Man In The World, confident enough to be the same as he ever was without bending to the whim of fashion, gregarious enough to offer a sincere invitation to join his table, insouciant enough to be unconcerned and take no offense if you decline. He’ll be too busy mingling with a diverse group of celebrities, journalists, hipsters, street photographers and vaguely disreputable friends to notice. And he looks damned good in a tropical white suit.
Very good to excellent. If you have sausage fingers you’ll probably find the power on/off switch difficult and the oblong shutter release button less than ideal. Otherwise the layout is well designed, sensible with good feel. The palm swell grip and rubbery thumb rest on the back make it easy to carry securely and discretely in the hand. The standard black nylon wrist strap is lightweight and won’t interfere with any operation when attached to the bottom right corner. The top lugs are best reserved for the two-point neck strap.
Generally good. Sensible and intuitive if you’ve owned almost any digital camera before. Most of the important stuff is easy to find. Some features in the three major sub-menus seem arbitrarily placed. Others aren’t intuitive, such as the option to copy photos stored in the camera’s own memory to an inserted SD card. The Scene Mode menus will probably require the most study.
Rear LCD screen:
The Ricoh GR Digital IV was reportedly the first to use the Sony manufactured 3" 1.2M dot WhiteMagic LCD display (http://www.sony.net/SonyInfo/News/Press/201108/11-086E/index.html). Large, crisp and bright enough for daylight use, it still may be difficult to see from some angles, particularly when I was shooting into the low angle sun or with the sun directly at my back glaring onto the screen. With polarizing sunglasses, the screen cannot be viewed in vertical orientation. (Andrew Kochanowski mentioned this problem with the Pentax K-01 in his review for The Online Photographer.) Easy to clean, seems resistant to scuffs and scratches. Photographers accustomed to LCD-only composing will probably be pleased. Those of us who prefer optical finders will still consider it a compromise.
Lack of built in optical viewfinder:
A common bit of advice says: “Why not just learn to shoot with the LCD instead of worrying about a viewfinder?”
I’ve tried that many times. It just doesn’t work well for some techniques. I do a lot of snapshots – literally, lift camera and snap, taking very little time to compose. Lacking an optical finder for framing, the only technique that works for me is to look over the top of the camera. With a little practice it was remarkably easy to get the desired composition, although tilted horizons were more common than I’d get with an optical finder. I also tried a plastic peep-sight type finder I already had, but compositions were consistently off center because the GRD4’s hotshoe/accessory shoe is off center.
The devoted candid photographer who demands both speed and accurate framing and level horizons will prefer an accessory shoe optical finder.
1/1.7" CCD, 7.6mm x 5.7mm, 9.5mm diagonal, 43.3mm area, 4.55x crop factor. (Compare with “CX” 13.2mm x 8.8mm “one-inch” sensor in Nikon 1 J1 and V1 and upcoming Sony RX100. 15.86mm diagonal, 116mm area, 2.72x crop factor.) Combined with the wide angle lens it’s well suited to techniques that rely on deep depth of field – zone focused snapshots, wide vista scenics, tight interiors. But it’s not ideal for photographers who prefer shallow DOF to isolate subjects from busy surroundings, or for traditional frame-filling tight head and shoulders portraiture.
I almost feel guilty for nitpicking this otherwise excellent lens. The 28mm (equivalent – actually 6mm) f/1.9 Ricoh lens is excellent – sharp, well corrected, with moderate barrel distortion. Some edge softness persists even stopped down, but falloff/vignetting clears up by f/2.8. But I’d rather have a 35mm (equivalent) f/1.4. Maybe I’m just comfortable with the 35mm framing. It’s what I like about the 35-105mm f/1.8-2.6 Zuiko on my Olympus C-3040Z, and the 35-70/2.8D AF Nikkor on my film Nikons. It’s close to the 40mm focal length so common on those non-interchangeable lens rangefinders of the 1960s-‘80s. It just feels right. The 28mm takes me out of my comfort zone. I find myself favoring the Ricoh’s 1:1 square aspect ratio built-in crop because it seems to approximate the way I see things.
But the 28mm prime became the lens of the 1990s Golden Age of sophisticated compact 35mm film cameras and it does offer advantages for the all-around photographer who enjoys landscapes, scenics, tight urban cityscapes and indoor venues.
“Fast camera? You’ve never heard of the GRD4? It’s the camera that snapped the Kessel Run in 12 parsecs. It’s fast enough for you, old man.” —Lex Solo
This isn’t a sports camera for rapid fire continuous high frame rates, although it can do that at a limited resolution. But its reflexes for single, quick, autofocused or pre-focused (zone focused) shots nearly matches my D2H, which was bred as a photojournalist’s tool. Only a slightly too-stiff and mushy second stage shutter release feel hindered an otherwise satisfactory sensation of catlike response – and Ricoh offers a custom service to adjust the shutter release to the owner’s preferences. I’d prefer a second stage takeup and release equal to the fairly light first stage feel, and a more distinctly palpable “snick” to confirm the shutter release.
Limited to five consecutive maximum resolution shots in raw/JPEG, approximately 20 in JPEG only. Screen essentially useless after first raw/JPEG shot until buffer clears, so the next four shots are spray and pray unless you use an optical finder or practice the look-over-the-top technique.AF tracks remarkably well in continuous shooting, due to the Pre-AF external phase detect window which provides continuous autofocus.
Pre-AF helps ensure reasonably quick autofocus acquisition in typical indoor lighting in this 8-second, 15-shot sequence, shifting the camera between nearby and moderate distances
Unfortunately auto-exposure does not fare so well in continuous shooting – AE fails to detect and adjust even to significant changes in lighting, so in extreme lighting conditions you’ll have a number of over/underexposed frames. The only option appears to be to lift pressure from the shutter release button and re-engage.
Compared with my Nikon D2H, this swaps one characteristic for another. In continuous shooting the D2H adjusts rapidly to exposure conditions but not to focus range. With the D2H it was always necessary to stop shooting momentarily then re-engage AF via the AF-ON or shutter release button to reacquire focus.
Continuous shooting in situations with reasonably consistent lighting but rapidly shifting subject distances will be the GRD4’s forte. Think: Fairly well/evenly lit indoor parties; crowds at outdoor fairs and street scenes in daylight.
When shooting in Continuous Mode (Continuous or AF-Cont), if you lift your finger from the shutter release button before the buffer fills, the camera needs time to clear the buffer before you can resume shooting. At around four seconds per frame when shooting raw/JPEG simultaneously, or around three seconds per raw capture only, this can cause significant delays before the camera is ready to use again when shooting in maximum image quality settings. I found the GRD4 more responsive in Continuous and AF-Cont modes when shooting JPEG only, since the buffer clears in a couple of seconds when shooting bursts of a few frames at a time. The GRD4’s Continuous Mode is most responsive in JPEG-only Normal resolution. I counted over 50 continuous frames in JPEG-only Normal resolution without any buffer lag, and if I lifted my finger between shots the buffer cleared in less than a second before I could resume shooting. As an alternative to my heavy, bulky D2H, I’d consider this an acceptable compromise if I were shooting hectic events for output to web resolution only or for 4×6 snapshots.
Overall good two-stage feel. Take-up stage is fine; second stage is just slightly mushy for my taste. The oblong configuration of the shutter release button – a design signature of the entire GR series – didn’t quite suit my fingertips. I found it difficult to consistently press the shutter release button without also jiggling the camera. I’d prefer a rounded button comparable to the Olympus C-3040Z. However a slightly lighter second stage with crisper release would resolve my concerns about the overall shutter release feel. Ricoh offers service to adjust the shutter release to suit the user.
Outstanding! Accurate and consistent. Even strong backlighting barely ruffles the GRD4’s feathers. It fared well throughout informal tests while taking snapshots around downtown where late afternoon light is very contrasty and often peeks through buildings directly into the frame. And it handled a simple indoor test against a white wall with a lamp placed to one side of the frame. This test produced a 1/3 EV difference with the GRD4 in Multi Exposure Metering mode. (NOTE: The increased shutter speed from 1/48th to 1/68th can be attributed in part to the reflection of light from a nearby shelf holding a beige PC setup, and may not be an error at all but an accurate indication of the actual metered reflected light.) The same test produced a two-stop error with my Olympus C-3040Z ESP metering mode, and a stunning four-stop error with my D2H in Matrix metering mode. I’d never actually tested the D2H before but in casual real world use it usually didn’t produce such drastic underexposure with backlighting, and actually handled TTL flash very well outdoors with backlighting.
The Ricoh GR Digital IV metering isn’t easily fooled by strong point light directly in the frame, whether from sunlight or room lights. “Flash On” (compulsory auto flash) isn’t fooled either. This is remarkably accurate performance that rivals the excellent Nikon iTTL flash combination of my D2H and SB-800.
I’ve long been impressed with the Olympus C-3040Z ESP metering, enough so that I seldom used the spot or multi-spot-with-averaging options (a nifty holdover from the OM-4T). But the GRD4’s Multi exposure mode is in an entirely different class of sophistication and accuracy. This is a big deal if you want accurately exposed quick snaps under a variety of conditions, especially if you use an accessory shoe viewfinder or, like me, just use the no-look or peek-over methods.
The very few metering errors I experienced were traced to waking the camera from sleep and not giving it a split second to meter the scene. If you use a sleep mode setting to conserve battery power, give the shutter release a quick tap to wake the camera before a second half-way press to meter and focus.
A popular manual metering mode trick remains from the earlier GRD series: a quick press of the rocker switch zips to the appropriate shutter speed. Saves time over the slewing/jog type “Adj” thumbwheel.
Faster and quieter than any compact digicam I’ve tried. Even in dim indoor lighting it’s nearly as quick as my D2H with a comparable wide angle lens, and even quieter than AFS Nikkors (other than subject tracking AF, which emits little clicking sounds). The subject tracking feature beats my D2H, no problem. It’s the type of tracking feature I wanted with Nikon’s then-top tier dSLR, but didn’t get it. (Reportedly the Nikon Series 1 J1/V1 also excels at subject tracking AF.) Subject tracking works best in relatively bright lighting â EV 7 or better â and can be fooled by fluorescent light flicker. AF performance overall is simply astonishing for this class. But it’s not quite perfect. Multi-AF is designed to lock onto the closest subject but in EV 5 or dimmer light it tends to lock onto the brightest area. The AF assist lamp may not turn on if a bright lamp is visible in frame in an otherwise dim room. So in tricky lighting Spot AF tends to be more reliable. Even without the AF assist lamp AF is very good in dim lighting. I rarely found it necessary to use the AF assist lamp, even in dim lighting, and normally shut it off to conserve the battery.
Of limited use, primarily for closeups where AF may be fooled. Magnified inset screen coarse and very low resolution. Manual focus adjustments fidgety. It’s primarily useful for presetting zone focus closer than 1 meter (the minimum snap focus distance) or between 5 meters-Infinity. Since there’s a preset for Infinity focus, this is quicker for avoiding AF hunting in impossible lighting situations such as photographing UFOs at night.
GRD fans had lamented the absence of the phase detect autofocus option via the external window just above and to the side of the lens. It’s back with the GRD4 and optionally available via the Pre-AF (continuous AF) menu selection. Handy at typical snapshot range but hinders some specific situations. Doesn’t work well with Subject Tracking (tends to wander off the desired target) and, due to parallax error, with macro. In EV 4 or dimmer lighting seemed to focus beyond intended subject, despite green brackets appearing to lock onto intended closer subjects. Parallax error and subject contrast may be factors here.
Snap mode has been a key feature of the GR series dating back to the original GR1 35mm film camera. It presets focus to the desired zone. Combined with an appropriate aperture for the desired depth of field or hyperfocal distance, snap mode helps ensure adequate focus and sharpness even in dim light and without any AF delay. The GRD4 offers several preset zones â 1 meter, 1.5m, 2.5m, 5m and infinity â and plenty of options to help the photographer quickly decide whether to use snap mode simply by pressing the shutter release. With Full Press Snap, a single quick full press defaults to the predetermined snap mode. A more deliberate half-press of the first stage of the shutter release button allows the camera to autofocus normally, with a follow through press to complete the exposure. It takes some practice to see how it works but it does work very well.
My initial impression, ultimately mistaken, was that while the various pre-focus settings are handy – 1m, 1.5m, 2.5m, etc. – they’re almost superfluous for a tiny sensor camera stopped down. Other than when focused on objects within a few feet with the lens wide open, everything should appear to be reasonably sharp depending on print size.
However, as I adjusted to no-look composing, just peering over the top of the camera, and experimented more with snap mode indoors, I found the 1m and 1.5m presets consistently delivered significant differences shooting wide open at f/1.9. At dinner table distances there’s a definite difference between the 1m and 1.5m snap settings with the fast f/1.9 lens wide open. So these user selectable settings are not redundant.
Outdoors in daylight or indoors in brighter light stopped down to f/2.5 or so, the hyperfocal distance made the snap mode setting less critical. I tended to switch between 1.5m and 2.5m depending on anticipated proximity to people when I was taking no-look snapshots.
Video is good but nothing special – 640×480 maximum avi/mpeg with small compression artifacts around edges but no distracting blocky compression artifacts. Overall resolution and low light sensitivity fair to good but you won’t want this as a serious all-purpose still/video camera.
Some diehard fans of niche cameras like this are quite assertive that they don’t even want video as an option – which makes little sense since the same technology needed to make some still photo options work better lends itself naturally to video. But that’s the market, right or wrong.
Audio is quite good: monaural .wav, 512 KBPS, 32 KHz sample rate. Despite proximity to finger grip, microphone is reasonably resistant to handling noise and sounds to rear of camera. If video could be disabled to save storage space it would make a good mono audio recorder for interviews.
Four short sample video clips can be found here – note the audio quality in response to impact noises at the construction site and reverberations inside the “Vortex” sculpture at the Modern Art Museum. The monaural audio is surprisingly good:
The full range of ISO 80 to 3200 is user accessible in 1 full EV and 1/3 EV increments, but not in all modes. Some options, such as Dynamic Range Compensation, will limit the upper and lower ISO range. Auto-Hi ISO settings will influence the automatically selected ISO in conjunction with the user-specified preferred lower shutter speed limit. I usually set it at 1/60th second minimum since this is the slowest I can reliably hold in quick snapshots. Photographers with steadier hands may choose a slower shutter speed limit which will bias the auto-exposure toward a lower, less noisy ISO whenever possible. Overall I found the Auto-Hi ISO option consistently chose an appropriate compromise between shutter speeds fast enough to minimize motion blur and ISO’s low enough to minimize noise. It tended to default to the f/1.9 maximum aperture until scene lighting was fairly bright, around EV 8 or so, at which point the intelligently designed autoexposure system would choose smaller apertures. This is type of exposure bias is sensible for a tiny sensor digital camera for which f/2.8 is adequate for the hyperfocal setting.
As several GRD4 owners have mentioned online, the “Auto” ISO setting offers a very limited range between ISO 80-154. This should be used only in bright light or with a tripod or other support when the photographer wants some ISO flexibility while also minimizing noise. In actual practice, I found no use for this ISO option and used “Auto-HI” ISO almost exclusively, since it offers an excellent compromise between minimizing the risk of motion blur and high ISO noise.
Optional Noise Reduction:
The three optional noise reduction choices are generally too strong for JPEGs below ISO 800. The default NR already eliminates chrominance noise and imposes a little too much luminance NR up to ISO 1600. Unfortunately there appears to be no way to completely disable this default NR for JPEGs, which is not needed below ISO 200. While Ricoh may have felt stung by harsh criticism of noise in the original GR Digital, it should consider easing up off the luminance NR below 200. At high ISOs the optional additional NR can reduce maze artifacts, or create smoother textures or a painterly effect, which might be an asset for low light photos of people, or as a special effect to deliberately smooth out fine details. The default NR for 1600-3200 resembles a combination of excessive luminance smoothing and detail boosting, resulting in some odd squarish or cross-shaped maze artifacts and elongated black specks. Adding a little optional extra NR helps smooth out these artifacts and specks.
Overall Image Quality:
What I came to appreciate more gradually was how good the in-camera JPEGs looked. (http://photo.net/photodb/folder?folder_id=1032829) Even when I’d shoot raw and JPEGs simultaneously, I often preferred the look of the Ricoh JPEGs over my own post processing. Yes, the in-camera JPEGs came at the cost of some fine detail – a slight smearing of subtle textures, grass and foliage, hair and fur in portraits of people and pets – no different from most small sensor high megapixel in-camera JPEGs. But overall the in-camera JPEGs looked great in 8.5″×11″ prints using my Epson Stylus Photo R200 printer. If you’re using the GRD4 for traditional scenics or plan larger prints, just shoot raw and do your own post processing with minimal JPEG compression to retain full detail in grass, foliage, hair and other tricky scenarios that tend to fool most in-camera JPEG settings.
IQ is entirely subjective and my opinions will be no different. The GRD4 is like two cameras in one, so my impressions will touch on each. Over decades in film photography, mostly b&w, I’ve tended to vary between two stylistic extremes:
A fine art approach to landscapes, scenics and still lifes, using slow speed film, carefully exposed and processed for fine grain and high resolution. While I’m not quite a Zone System adherent, I approach this style with great respect for good technique in metering, exposure, processing and printing.
Candid handheld photography in low light, often push processing film with little regard to grain and contrast – all that matters to me is capturing the moment, not mundane textbook rules. Pushing T-Max 400 to 6400? Yup, I’ve done it and would do it again to get a photograph that distills down to the essence of mood, light and gesture for a candid street, documentary or live performance photo.
With that in mind, I was pleased to see the GRD4 can satisfy both of the photographers inhabiting my brain. At ISO 80-200, results approach (but don’t quite meet) anything I could accomplish with favorite 35mm films like T-Max 100 and Fuji Reala for prints up to 8.5âx11â. The GRD’s raw/DNG files provide enough detail, healthy dynamic range and practically non-existent noise to satisfy any photographer who has realistic expectations of miniature format films or digital sensors. Ricoh’s straight-from-the-camera JPEGs in standard and vivid colors modes made for excellent prints at 8.5″×11″ (the largest I tried with my Epson R200). If I anticipated printing larger, especially from photos at or above ISO 200, raw/DNG would provide the best possible results.
This test photo was shot in raw/DNG and JPEG simultaneously, standard color in-camera JPEG processing
I was curious to compare the fine details in the utility wires, grass, building texture and subtle gradations in the clouds and blue sky. Surprisingly, using Lightroom 4 to process the DNG version, I found it difficult to beat the in-camera JPEG. I showed the prints from the in-camera JPEG and LR processed DNG to viewers without telling them which was which. They all chose the in-camera JPEG over the LR-processed DNG. While I could see some subtle loss of fine detail in the grass and building textures nobody else noticed or cared. And the in-camera JPEG actually resolved the fine individual strands of wire more naturally than my efforts with the DNG in Lightroom.
One caution regarding in-camera JPEGs, even at ISO 80: The GRD4 does very well at resolving fine details such as single hairs, distant power lines and fine tree branches or foliage. However I noticed a tendency for in-camera JPEGs to smoosh together hair, fur, grass blades and similar masses of adjacent fine strands into less well defined masses. To be fair, this is a problem with many small sensor digital camera JPEGs. This appears to be due to a combination of default JPEG compression and luminance noise reduction. For demanding applications where the photographer wants the best possible resolution of fine details in landscapes or portraiture, you’ll want to shoot raw/DNG and do your own JPEG conversion.
The GRD4 also satisfied my other inner photographer, the more spontaneous guy who’s less concerned about grain or noise but demands quick reflexes and quiet operation. The little Ricoh is very quick, silent and produces remarkably good quality low noise photos up to ISO 1600. I wouldn’t (and didn’t) hesitate to combine the Auto-Hi ISO option with program exposure mode, allowing the camera to automagically choose the most appropriate combination of shutter speed, aperture and ISO. Most of the time it chose well. In unpredictable lighting situations the camera freed me to react to the moment and not worry about exposure, motion blur or whether the higher ISO photos would make for good looking prints or online JPEGs.
And even after a few weeks with the GRD4, I felt I hadn’t quite matched my own reflexes to the capabilities of the camera for spontaneous photography. I found myself admiring the GRD4 photos taken by better street photographers and wishing not for a better camera, but for a better eye and reflexes. The GRD4 is an outstanding tool for the enthusiastic snapshooter.
IQ is entirely subjective and my opinions will be no different. The GRD4 is like two cameras in one, so my impressions will touch on each. Over decades in film photography, mostly b&w, Iâve tended to vary between two stylistic extremes:
A fine art approach to landscapes, scenics and still lifes, using slow speed film, carefully exposed and processed for fine grain and high resolution. While Iâm not quite a Zone System adherent, I approach this style with great respect for good technique in metering, exposure, processing and printing.
Candid handheld photography in low light, often push processing film with little regard to grain and contrast â all that matters to me is capturing the moment, not mundane textbook rules. Pushing T-Max 400 to 6400? Yup, Iâve done it and would do it again to get a photograph that distills down to the essence of mood, light and gesture for a candid street, documentary or live performance photo.