Ricoh GR Digital III Review

4.5
August 20, 2009 | Mark Goldstein |

Introduction

The GR Digital III is the latest version of Ricoh's pocket camera for prosumer photographers. With a fixed 28mm wide-angle lens, high-sensitivity 10 megapixel sensor, 3 inch LCD screen and optional optical viewfinder, the Ricoh GR Digital III is certainly a serious camera. Mark Goldstein finds out if the GR Digital III can justify its equally serious price-tag of £529 / $699.

The Ricoh GR Digital III is a brand new compact camera aimed firmly at the serious photographer. Identical in design to the previous GR Digital II model, this latest version has undergone some serious internal upgrades, with a brand new lens, image processing engine and LCD screen. The 28mm fixed focal length lens now has a maximum aperture of f/1.9, the GR ENGINE III image processor promises enhanced image quality and speed, and the LCD screen is a high-resolution 3 inch model with 920,000 dots. At the heart of the GR Digital III is a new “high-sensitivity” 1/1.75-inch CCD sensor with 10 megapixels. The new DR shooting mode exploits this by taking two photos at different exposures and combining them to create a single image with expanded dynamic range. The new full-press snap function shoots at a preset distance with a one-push full-press of the shutter button. Images can be recorded either as JPEGs or in the Adobe DNG RAW format, there’s a pop-up flash and an external hotshoe which can accept a flashgun or the optional electronic viewfinder, and full creative control over exposure is available. Retailing for £529.99 / $699, the Ricoh GR Digital III is certainly a serious investment - carry on reading to find out it’s the ideal pocket camera for you…

Ease of Use

As the GR Digital III and GR Digital II are virtually identical in terms of their design, a lot of the comments that we made about the GR Digital II will be repeated here. The Ricoh GR Digital III is a wide and fairly slim compact digital camera that just about fits into the palm of my average sized hands, measuring 108.6 mm (W) x 59.8 mm (H) x 25.5 mm (D) and weighing around 188g without the battery or memory card fitted, very slightly bigger and heavier than the previous model.

Utilising an aluminium alloy body, it's an exceedingly well built camera - the GR Digital III is one of the most well-constructed Ricoh's that I've seen and certainly up there with the best that the other manufacturers have to offer. It has an under-stated, all-black appearance which lends the camera a professional feel. Despite its small dimensions, the Ricoh GR Digital III has a large rubberized handgrip that allows you to get a good grip, and there's a small area of the same material acting as a thumb rest on the rear of the body. The all-metal, central tripod mount is the final giveaway sign that this is intended to be a serious camera (most compacts have a plastic mount squeezed into one of the corners).

The GR Digital III features a 28mm, f1.9 wide-angle fixed-focus lens, which will immediately put a lot of people off this camera. Take a look at the Ricoh GX200 if that applies to you, as that camera has a more versatile 24-72mm zoom lens. The GR Digital III's 28mm lens is perfect for wide-angle shots, so if you're a fan of land and city scapes, or you're happy to get up close and personal, the combination of the GR Digital III's lens and every photographer's constant companion, their legs, proves to be more versatile than you might first think.

Street and landscape photographers will love the wide-angle setting, especially when they discover that Ricoh also offer the optional GW-1 wide conversion lens which provides an even wider 21mm focal length. The new improved maximum aperture of f1/9 is also a real highlight, making it possible to shoot at a faster shutter speed than could be used on previous models, or to shoot at the same shutter speed but at a lower setting for ISO sensitivity. It also makes it easier to throw the background out of focus, something that small-sensor cameras traditionally struggle with.

The GR Digital III features a new 10 megapixel "high-sensitivity" sensor which is different to the one used by the GR Digital II and supposedly improves low-light photos - you can judge for yourself on the Image Quality and Sample Images pages. There's the usual choice of Fine and Normal JPEGs, but Ricoh have stolen a march on their competition by providing a RAW mode setting, joining an exclusive club of compact cameras like the Canon Powershot G10, Panasonic DMC-LX3 and Sigma DP2. Even better, the RAW format that they have chosen it not a proprietary one, but Adobe's DNG format, which means that the Ricoh GR Digital III's files are instantly available in any RAW software that supports DNG (virtually every one). This is an excellent move by Ricoh.

Ricoh GR Digital III Ricoh GR Digital III
Front Rear

There are three external controls which form the creative heart of the GR Digital III. Located on the top right of the camera are the Mode dial and what Ricoh refer to as the Up-down dial, and on the back is the Adj. dial. These controls allow you to choose which shooting mode you want to use, with a choice of full auto, program shift, aperture-priority, new shutter-priority mode (strangely missing from the GR Digital II) and fully manual, and to control the settings of the particular mode that you have picked. For example, in Manual mode, the Up-down dial sets the aperture and the Adj. button sets the shutter speed, providing quick and intuitive access. Furthermore, pressing the Adj. dial 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 Target, which allows you to shift the target for AF or AE or both without having to move the camera. 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.

Continuing the customisation theme, you can configure the GR Digital III and save the current settings as one of three My Settings modes, which are accessible by setting the Mode dial to either the MY1, MY2 or MY3 option. This allows you to configure the GR Digital III for different uses and allows quick access to each configuration (the camera remembers the settings when it's turned off). The two Function (Fn) buttons on the rear of the camera can also be customised to suit your particular needs. Finally, the GR Digital III uses an up/down rocker switch on the back of the camera for operating the digital zoom (and image magnification during playback), but this too can changed to control either exposure compensation or white balance. The GR Digital III is one of the most customisable compact cameras that we've ever reviewed.

As the Ricoh GR Digital III offers a full range of advanced exposure controls, it's quite complex in terms of its design. There are 17 external controls in total, leaving just enough room for the new 3 inch LCD screen on the back of the camera. Further appealing to the avid photographer in you, the Ricoh GR Digital III has a range of focusing and metering modes that should cover most situations. On the focusing side, the multi AF system has 9 separate auto focus points, and there's also Spot AF, Manual focus, Snap mode (can be changed to focus at either 1m, 2.5m, 5m or Infinity) and Infinity.

New to the GR Digital III is the Full Press Snap option, which takes a photo at one of the Snap mode distances with a full press of the shutter button. This means that you can use both the camera's auto-focus system by half-pressing the shutter button, and over-ride it to instantly shoot at at a pre-determined distance without having to wait for the camera to focus. Completing the GR Digital III's extensive range of focusing options is Pre-AF. This accelerates the already snappy focusing time by following the subject's movement before the shutter release button is pressed half way (only works when the focus is set to Multi AF or Spot AF). In terms of metering, the multi metering mode is 256 segment, and there's also center weighted average metering and spot metering.

Ricoh GR Digital III Ricoh GR Digital III
Front Main Menu

The Ricoh GR Digital III's 3 inch, 920K LCD screen is the same as the one used by the Ricoh CX1. Both text and images really come alive on a simply breath-taking display that's the best of any camera that we've ever reviewed, including those with comparable 920K dot screens. If you don't like composing your photos by holding the camera at arms length and looking at the LCD screen, there's also another way of framing your shots. You can additionally buy an optional, completely removable optical viewfinder, which is smaller than the one supplied with the original GR Digital. Sold as part of the GR Digital III VF Kit, the OVF slots into the hot-shoe on top of the camera, allowing you to hold the camera up to your eye and instantly giving the GR Digital III the feel of a single-lens reflex camera. Unfortunately Ricoh UK didn't include this with the review sample that they sent us, so I can't comment on its usability.

Multi-pattern auto white balance is a new setting that 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 GR Digital III 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. Also very useful is the ability to change the power of the built-in flash which can be set at 12 levels from full flash to 1/64, enabling you to balance the intensity for both the subject and background.

The new Dynamic Range double shot mode is one of the Ricoh GR Digital III's star attractions, taking advantage of the new high-sensitivity CCD sensor to record images with much greater dynamic range than most compacts (a claimed maximum equivalent of 12EV). When the Ricoh GR Digital III 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 three DR strengths - Weak, Medium and Strong. You can also choose to take a DR and Normal image at the same time (both are saved to the memory card).

In practice this new 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 GR Digital III is a great choice. You can see the results of using the the different Dynamic Range modes for yourself on the Image Quality page. There is a side-by side comparison of the Normal and three different DR modes.

Ricoh GR Digital III Ricoh GR Digital III
Front Top

The electronic leveler is a neat feature that helps to ensure level shots while viewing through the LCD monitor, 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're using the external viewfinder, or 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 all those wide-angle shots perfectly level.

The Depth of field indicator is an equally useful function. If you set the GR Digital III to either Manual or Aperture priority mode, and the Focus mode to Snap, Manual or Infinity, a vertical scale on the left of the LCD screen indicates the depth-of-field at the current aperture, helping to ensure sharp focus when you're not relying on the camera's auto-focus system.

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 200+ page 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 for easy reference in the field.

The main menu system on the Ricoh GR Digital III is straight-forward to use and is accessed by pressing the Menu/OK button in the middle of the navigation pad. There are three main menus, Shooting, Key Custom Options and Setup. Quite a lot of the camera's main options, such as image size, sharpness, metering mode and continuous mode, are accessed here, so the Shooting Settings menu has 26 options spread over 3 screens, the Key Custom Options menu has 17 options, and the Setup menu has 31 options. Due to the high-resolution LCD screen and restricting the number of on-screen choices to 10, the various options and icons are clear and legible.

Ricoh GR Digital III Ricoh GR Digital III
Memory Card Slot Battery Compartment

Ricoh are well known for delivering responsive cameras, and the GR Digital III certainly continues in that tradition. The start-up time from turning the Ricoh GR Digital III on to being ready to take a photo is responsive at around 1 second. Focusing is very quick in good light and the camera happily achieves focus most of the time indoors or in low-light situations. 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, and there is virtually no LCD blackout between each image.

Shooting in RAW mode is thankfully much improved compared to the previous model, with the GR Digital III only taking around 3 seconds to store a RAW image, and you can also take another shot while it's being written to memory. In the fastest Continuous mode the camera takes 1.5 frames per second for an unlimited number of images at the highest JPEG image quality, which is very good for this class of camera. Even better news is that the GR Digital III can also shoot up to 5 RAW images at 1.5fps, although doing so locks the camera up for about 10 seconds whilst the camera writes to memory. Overall the Ricoh GR Digital III is very quick in terms of operational speed when shooting JPEGs, and much improved for RAW files.

Once you have captured a photo, the GR Digital III 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, protect and resize an image. 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.

Images are automatically rotated during playback to fit the current orientation of the camera. Pushing the Adjust dial instantly displays the image at a previously defined magnification, handy for quickly checking focus. 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.

In summary the Ricoh GR Digital III is one of the most well-designed and customisable cameras that we've ever reviewed; simply a real joy to use.

Entry Tags

3 inch LCD, wide-angle, 10 megapixel, ricoh, 28mm lens, Ricoh GR Digital III Review, gr digital 3

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