Ricoh CX4 Review
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The Ricoh CX4 is a new 10 megapixel point-and-shoot compact camera featuring a 10.7x, 28-300mm zoom lens. Successor to the 6-month old CX3 model, the Ricoh CX4 now includes a range of new creative filters, a newly developed subject-tracking AF system, enhanced image stabilisation system, and a night landscape multi-shot mode. The CX4’s body design has also been altered and now features moulded curves that make it easier to slip the camera into your pocket. The Ricoh CX4’s key features otherwise remain the same as its predecessor, namely a incorporates a 10 megapixel back-illuminated sensor which promises to improve image quality when shooting in low-light scenes, 3 inch HVGA LCD screen with 920K dots, Smooth Imaging Engine IV image processing engine, and 720p HD video recording. There’s also a Scene Auto shooting mode for beginners, face recognition, 1cm macro mode, Dynamic Range mode which takes two photos at different exposures and combines them to create a single image with expanded dynamic range (up to 12 EV), and an electronic level to help ensure straight horizons. The CX4 is £40 cheaper than the CX3 was on launch, retailing for £259.99 in the UK.
Ease of Use
The design of the Ricoh CX4 is virtually identical to the previous CX3 model, so a lot of comments that we made about that camera will be repeated here. It weighs and measures exactly the same at 184g and 101.5mm (W) x 58.6mm (H) x 29.4mm respectively. The CX4 is available in either silver, pink or a more serious black - Ricoh provided the latter for our review.
This is a compact digital camera that easily fits in the palm of your hand, and you certainly won't notice carrying it in a trouser/shirt pocket or a handbag. As soon as you pick it up, the Ricoh CX4 feels as solidly made, refined and purposeful as its predecessors. The bottom of the lens mounting area is cut off in line with the bottom of the camera, which still looks rather strange. One noticeable difference between the CX4 and CX3 is the removal of the textured plastic handgrip area on the front. Instead there's a much less useful smooth curved area, with just a thin vertical raised strip to aid grip - a backwards step in our opinion.
The Ricoh CX4's 10.7x zoom lens offers a 28-300mm focal range which places the CX4 in the popular "travel zoom" category of cameras, although several rivals offer 12x and even 15x lenses in a similarly sized body. When the lens is fully extended, the camera measures over 8cm in depth, but thankfully it retracts fully back into the body when it is turned off. The 28-300mm range is very versatile, covering everything from wide-angle landscapes to close-up action photos. The maximum apertures are respectable enough at f/3.5 at wide-angle and f/5.6 at telephoto. Helpfully the zoom mechanism becomes quicker as you progress through the range, a neat feature that really cuts down on waiting for the camera to do your bidding.
The Ricoh CX4 features a completely reworked anti-shake system called Camera Shake Correction - turn it on in the Main menu and the Ricoh CX4 automatically compensates for camera shake by the equivalent of about 3.7 shutter-speed stops, three times faster than the CX3. You don't notice that the camera is actually doing anything different when anti-shake is turned on, just that you can use slower shutter speeds than normal and still take sharp photos. Ricoh seem to have realised the importance of this system, as it is turned on by default, and thankfully leaving the anti-shake system on didn't negatively affect the battery-life, with the camera managing over 300 shots before the battery needed to be recharged.
The Ricoh CX4 only has 10 external controls in total, leaving plenty of room for the large 3 inch LCD screen that dominates the back of the camera. The CX4's screen has a commendably high resolution of 920K dots, and it certainly shows, being noticeably sharper and brighter than cameras with standard 230K dot screens. Both text and images really come alive on a breath-taking display that's one of the best of any camera that we've ever reviewed.
There's a DSLR-like mode dial on top of the CX4 which lets you select from the Camera, new Creative Shooting, Continuous, Scene, S-Auto and Movie options, plus two settings called MY1 and MY2 which allow you to configure the CX4 for different uses and provide quick access to each configuration (the camera remembers the settings when it's turned off).
The S-Auto mode is aimed firmly at beginners. Much like similar systems on rival cameras, when the CX4 is set to S-Auto it automatically identifies the type of scene being photographed and selects the appropriate scene mode (portrait, sports, night portrait, landscape, nightscape, macro mode), useful if you're not sure which mode to pick yourself. Like most automatic systems, it's not infallible, but does reliably pick one of the above scenes most of the time.
The Dynamic Range double shot mode, now available as one of the new Creative Shooting options, is one of the Ricoh CX4's star attractions, taking advantage of the CMOS sensor to record images with much greater dynamic range than most compacts. When the Ricoh CX4 is in DR mode it takes two images with different exposures, and then records a single image that combines the properly exposed parts of each one. There are four DR strengths - Very Weak, Weak, Medium and Strong - plus an Auto setting if you're unsure which is the best setting. You can also choose to take a DR and Normal image at the same time (both are saved to the memory card), useful for quickly comparing the effect. There's also the option to select a Priority Range for each DR strength, with Off, Highlights and Shadows your choices - this allows the more advanced user to tip the balance in favour of the shadow or highlight areas.
In practice the Dynamic Range mode works really well, resulting in images that have noticeably more dynamic range that those shot in the Normal mode, and far surpassing most other compact cameras. If you want to shoot images that retain detail in both the highlight and shadow areas, then the Ricoh CX4 is a great choice. You can see the results of using the the different modes for yourself on the Image Quality page, with a side-by side comparison of the Normal and four different DR modes. There is one main drawback though; the DR images have noticeably less saturated colours than the Normal version, which more accurately matches the scene.
Ricoh have added a range of creative filters to the CX4 that also sit under the Creative Shooting mode, including Miniaturize, High Contrast B&W (both were available as scene modes on the CX3), Soft Focus, Cross Process and Toy Camera. While these are fun to play with initially, they're nowhere near as useful as the Dynamic Range mode.
The CX4 offers exactly the HD video recording capabilities as the CX3, with three movie sizes available - 1280x720, 640x480 and 320x240 pixels - all at 30 frames per second. and all saved in the AVI file format, which unfortunately does result in some rather large file sizes. Sound recording is mono only, and there are no advanced features like Windcut or Pause / Restart as seen on other cameras, so Ricoh still have some work to do in this area.
There are three scene modes of particular interest. The Discreet mode turns off the flash, AF Assist lamp and all operational sounds, very convenient when shooting in museums or anywhere that you don't want to draw attention to yourself. The Pets mode turns off the flash, AF auxiliary light and sounds to avoid startling your loved one, although it can only detect and focus on cat's faces (canine owners need to look elsewhere). The new Night Landscape Multi-shot mode takes up to 4 shots and combines them to help prevent blur and reduce noise. This mode can also be used hand-held without a tripod.
Multi-target Auto Focusing is another intriguing feature, although it doesn't quite live up to expectations. The CX4 takes 7 consecutive images at different focal distances and allows you to choose the best one. It's quite useful for macro work when it's tricky to judge the exact focus point, although the combination of the CX4's high-res screen and manual focus mode already makes this much easier than on most other compact cameras. You can potentially also use the Multi-target Auto Focusing mode to shoot the 7 images, then combine them together in Photoshop or a similar application to create a single image with wider focus than a single image allows. In practice, however, the CX4 tends to always focus on a particular part of the scene and doesn't differentiate enough between the 7 shots to really make this technique effective.
The new Subject Tracking AF mode automatically tracks moving subjects and ensures that they're in focus and also well-exposed when you decide to take the picture, making capturing unpredictable subjects like small children or animals much easier. In practice the CX4 performed very well in this mode, quickly locking onto the main subject and reliably following it around the frame, although the loud noise of the AF system as it does so is rather off-putting.
Multi-pattern auto white balance is useful for scenes with mixed lighting - daylight and flash, or fluorescent and daylight, for example. Instead of just taking an average reading from the whole scene, which inevitably gets the white balance wrong for the secondary light source, the CX4 breaks the image down into small areas and analyzes and sets the white balance for each one. In practice it produces a subtle but noticeable effect that is particularly useful for capturing more natural portraits when using flash.
By default the Adjust four-way joystick on the rear of the CX4 allows you to quickly adjust 5 different settings that are commonly used. Press it to alter Exposure Compensation, White Balance, ISO Speed, Quality and the AF/AE Target Selection mode. Even better, the Adj. menu is customisable - you can choose what the first four settings do, allowing you to control exactly what you want quick access to. The Adjust button also doubles up as the OK button to select options and it sets the Macro and Flash options by pressing left and right - there's another button underneath to access the Main menu system. Ricoh have also included a customisable Function (Fn) button, which can be optionally used to control one of 7 settings - AE Lock is a good choice. In theory it all sounds like a convoluted recipe for disaster, but in practice it works well, allowing quick access to most of the major functions of the camera without having to scroll through the menu system.
The Ricoh CX4 is a point and shoot camera with no advanced exposure controls. Having said that, the CX4 does have a few notable tricks up its sleeve. The AF/AE Target Selection mode allows you to shift the target for both auto focus and automatic exposure without having to move the camera, useful for tripod-mounted macro subjects, but also available in any shooting mode. The [F1:1] Picture Size records your photos in square format (at 7 megapixels), similar to some medium format cameras, offering a new perspective on the world. The Fix Minimum Aperture function forces the camera to shoot at the smallest aperture available, which gives a greater depth of field in the resulting photograph.
The electronic leveler is an innovative feature borrowed from the GR Digital III and GX200 models. This helps to ensure level shots, both in landscape and portrait mode. You can view the horizontal indicator on the LCD monitor to ensure that shots are aligned horizontally. If you can't see the LCD screen in very bright sunlight, then the camera can also be set to make a sound to indicate a level horizon. It doesn't sound like a big deal in theory, but in practice it really helps to make the horizons in all your wide-angle shots perfectly level. Another very welcome feature is the ability to set the flash intensity, which can be adjusted in 1/3 EV steps across the -2.0EV to +2.0EV range, which gives you precise control over the flash output.
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The face recognition feature offered by the Ricoh CX4 recognises a maximum of 8 faces and locks focus quite quickly. Ricoh have chosen to make it a specific scene mode, rather than a general setting that applies to whichever shooting mode is currently selected, which rather limits its usefulness. The Pre-AF and Continuous AF functions are more useful, helping you to quickly and accurately focus on the subject. As its name suggests, Pre-AF sets the focus before you've even half-pressed the shutter button, while Continuous AF automatically adjusts the focus to match the subject movement, making the CX4 well suited to action photography.
The main menu system on the Ricoh CX4 is straight-forward to use and is accessed by pressing the Menu button on the rear of the camera. There are two main menus, Shooting and Setup. Quite a lot of the camera's main options, such as image size, sharpness, metering mode and continuous mode, are accessed here. Despite offering 10 onscreen choices at once, the sharp display ensures that the various options and icons are clear and legible. If you have never used a digital camera before, or you're upgrading from a more basic model, reading the comprehensive and easy-to-follow manual before you start is a must. Thankfully Ricoh have chosen to supply it in printed format, rather than as a PDF on a CD, so you can also carry it with you.
Ricoh have a long history of creating responsive cameras, and the CX4 certainly extends that tradition. The start-up time from turning the Ricoh CX4 on to being ready to take a photo is quick at around 1 second, and it only takes just over 1.5 seconds to zoom from the widest focal length to the longest, impressive given the focal range. Focusing is very quick in good light and the camera happily achieves focus most of the time indoors or in low-light situations, even at the tele-photo end of the lens. It takes about 0.5 second to store a JPEG image, allowing you to keep shooting as they are being recorded onto the memory card - there is no LCD blackout between each image. In the default Continuous mode the camera takes 5 frames per second at the highest JPEG image quality, which is excellent for this class of camera. In addition M-Continuous Plus (9M) takes 15 images at 5ps and M-Continuous Plus (2M) takes 30 images in one second, and you can also shoot at 30 frames/sec at 2 megapixels and an ultra-fast 120 frames/sec for 1 second or 60 frames/sec for 2 seconds at 640x480 pixels. In all these modes, the consecutively shot images are recorded as a single MPO file (a file format with multiple still images in a single file).
Once you have captured a photo, the Ricoh CX4 has an above average range of options when it comes to playing, reviewing and managing your images. You can instantly scroll through the images that you have taken, view thumbnails (81 onscreen at once!), zoom in and out up to 16x magnification, view slideshows with audio, set the print order, delete, trim, rotate, protect and resize an image. There's a Recover File option which will rescue deleted images, just so long as you don't turn the camera off first. Level Compensation allows you to correct the contrast and tone of an image after it has been taken, and White Balance Compensation the white balance. The Skew Correction function alters any photo that was taken at an angle so it appears as if it were taken directly in front of you.
You can "flag" an image, which essentially allows you to choose up to three files and then immediately display them by pressing the Fn button during playback, and images are automatically rotated during playback to fit the current orientation of the camera. The Display button toggles detailed settings information about each picture on and off, such as the ISO rating and aperture / shutter speed, and there is a small histogram available during both shooting and playback. The White Saturation display mode during image playback indicates over-exposed highlights by flashing those areas on and off. When taking a photo, pressing the Display button toggles between the detailed information, the histogram and gridlines to aid composition.