Ricoh GXR Review
It's not every day that a brand new photographic system is unveiled, but that's exactly what Ricoh have delivered in the form of the new GXR camera. The Ricoh GXR is the World's first "interchangeable unit camera system". Digital SLR's allow you to change the lens on the front of the camera - the GXR allows you to change the lens and the image sensor, which are combined into a single interchangeable unit. There are two such units available on launch - the S10, which features a 24-72mm zoom lens and 10 megapixel 1/1.7-inch CCD sensor, and the A12, which combines a 50mm macro lens and a 12.3 megapixel APS-C CMOS sensor. Each unit simply slides into and out of the front of the GXR, with virtually all of the features of the camera body available for either unit. Ricoh are claiming that this new approach allows them to offer the best combinations of image quality and portability - one of the GXR's key selling points is its diminutive size, being much smaller than a traditional DSLR and even tinier than the Panasonic GF1 and Olympus E-P1/E-P2 Micro Four Thirds cameras. Compared to Ricoh's popular range of compacts, the GXR is bigger and heavier, but not by too much. The innovative Ricoh GXR does carry a rather substantial price premium, costing £419/€459/$550 for the body, £600/€670/$550 for the A12/50mm unit, and £330/€370/$440 for the S10/24-72mm unit.
Ease of Use
The Ricoh GXR is launching with two interchangeable camera units, the S10 / 24-72mm / 10 megapixel unit and the A12 / 50mm / 12 megapixel unit, both of which were supplied to us by Ricoh UK, along with the VF-2 external viewfinder and the clever LC-2 self-retaining lenscap (which only fits the S10 unit). We did briefly consider splitting this review into two separate articles, one for each camera unit, as the combined nature of the lens and image sensor makes the GXR seem like a different camera when each one is fitted, if not from a handling point-of-view then certainly from a image quality perspective. But there's enough common ground when either is fitted to merit a combined review.
The GXR will feel instantly familiar to anyone who has used a recent Ricoh compact before, as it inherits the design approach and many of the features from the GR and GX series cameras. For everyone else, the GXR is simply a joy to use for any photographer that wants full control over their camera, with proven handling and a seemingly infinite level of customisation.
The Ricoh GXR is a wide and fairly slim camera that is a little big bigger than the palm of my average sized hands, measuring 113.9 mm (W) x 70.2 mm (H) x 77.1 mm (D) with the S10 unit fitted, and weighing around 263g without a unit fitted and 423g with the S10 (although still not including the the battery or memory card). The GXR is bigger and heavier than the GR Digital III, but not by as much as you'd first imagine, and it's a little smaller and lighter than the Panasonic GF1, the previous holder of the "World's smallest and lightest interchangeable lens camera" title.
Utilising a magnesium alloy body, the GXR is an extremely well-built camera, continuing the long-established Ricoh tradition of producing serious photographic tools. It has an under-stated, all-black appearance which lends it a professional feel. There's a large rubberized handgrip on the front that allows you to get a good grip and a small area of the same material acting as a thumb rest on the rear of the body. The all-metal tripod mount is the final give-away sign that this is intended to be a serious product, although the design of the interchangeable unit camera system means that it's not in-line either with the lens or the centre of the body.
As mentioned above, there are only two camera unit options available when the GXR launches towards the end of this month (with more promised by Ricoh for 2010), and we'll briefly consider each one here. You can also judge their image quality for yourself on Page 2 and see full-size samples (RAW and JPG) from each one on Page 3.
The S10 incorporates a 10 megapixel 1/1.7-inch image sensor and a 24-72mm, 3x zoom lens. This combination is strikingly similar to the now discontinued Ricoh GX100 compact, which had the same size sensor and the same zoom range, with the latest GX200 model increasing the megapixel count to 12. Even the maximum aperture range - f/2.5-4.4 - is identical! Disregarding any differences in image quality, it seems to us that the S10 is almost exactly replicating one of Ricoh's existing compacts in the GXR format, albeit in a larger size and perhaps more importantly with a much bigger price-tag.
More interesting is the A12 unit, which has a 12.3 APS-C image sensor and a 50mm f/2.5 fixed-focal macro lens. This is a unique offering in the Ricoh range, and is notably the first ever Ricoh camera to feature the same-sized sensor that the majority of DSLRs use. When the GXR is fitted with this unit, it's automatically in the same league as a DSLR or the other compact cameras that have an APS-C sensor, the Sigma DP1 and DP2. The Panasonic GF1 and Olympus E-P1 / E-P2 cameras all use the smaller Four Thirds sensor size, so in theory the GXR with the A12 unit should deliver better image quality. The choice of the 50mm macro lens is also interesting, in that a focal length of 50mm is useful for street photography as well as close-ups of flowers, providing an angle of view roughly equivalent to human vision, and the fast maximum aperture of f/2.5 is a real benefit for low-light shooting and creating that out-of-focus bokeh look.
In all this discussion about the benefits of particular lens and sensor combinations, it quickly becomes apparent that Ricoh are playing something of a guessing game with their camera unit offerings, hoping that they've hit upon the best solutions for the majority of photographers. That ultimately means that some photographers are going to be left out, as Ricoh obviously can't make every combination available. With a conventional DSLR, it's inherently much easier to change the lens and retain the same sensor - with the GXR system, at least on launch, you have to accept the change of both lens and sensor, and the particular combinations on offer.
Personally speaking, I would have preferred to see the S10 use an APS-C sensor rather than the tiny 1/1.7-inch sensor - if I'm going to use a larger camera than Ricoh's existing compacts, then I'd prefer a bigger sensor with all the image quality benefits that it hopefully provides. With regards to the A12 unit, the 50mm lens is a little too limiting in its outlook - ultimately I'd like the 24-72mm lens with the APS-C sensor. As Ricoh release more units, this kind of dilemma may become less prevalent, but there's no disputing that this is an inherent limitation of their new system that DSLRs don't suffer from in quite the same way.
|S10 Camera Unit||A12 Camera Unit|
One other benefit of the interchangeable camera unit that Ricoh is promoting is the avoidance of dust on the sensor. With a traditional DSLR, changing the lens exposes the image sensor, with dust inevitably finding its way onto it. Most DSLRs now employ some kind of built-in dust reduction / shake system to try and automatically remove the dust from the sensor, although you invariably need to clean it using a third-party solution or have it cleaned periodically by the manufacturer. With the GXR, the closed nature of the system promises to keep the image sensor dust-free, and I we certainly couldn't detect any in the images that we shot. On the flip side, though, dust can also get in via the lens barrel, particularly of a zoom lens, so it will be interesting to see if long-term users report problems, especially as there's obviously no way to clean the sensor yourself, or any automatic dust-reduction system built into the GXR body.
Returning to the camera body, there are four external controls which form the creative heart of the GXR. Located on the top right of the camera (viewed from the rear) 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, shutter-priority and full manual, and to control the settings of the particular mode that you have picked.
For example, in Manual mode, by default 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 in to alter White Balance, ISO Speed, Quality, Image Settings 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.
A new addition to the GXR is the Direct button, positioned to the far left above the LCD screen. When pressed a graphical representation of most of the key settings is displayed on the LCD, very similar to the system that many DSLRs offer. You can use the navigation pad to move through the settings and change them, and the current shooting mode, aperture, shutter speed, flash setting, battery life and exposure compensation are also shown. This is a great feature the helps bridge the gap between compact and DSLR cameras.
Continuing the customisation theme, you can configure the GXR 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 GXR 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 GXR uses an up/down rocker switch on the back of the camera for operating the zoom when used with an applicable camera unit (and image magnification during playback), although disappointingly it can't be re-configured when used with the A12 / 50mm unit. The navigation pad on the rear offers Fn1 and Fn2 settings, both of which can be re-configured to (by default they change the focus type and the manual flash amount) and pressing up and down increases and decreases exposure compensation. The GXR is easily one of the most customisable compact cameras that we've ever reviewed.
The Ricoh GXR's 3 inch, 920K LCD screen is the same as the one used by the Ricoh CX1 and GR Digital III. 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. The high resolution LCD provides a wide viewing angle and high contrast., with a special fluorine coat and hard coating to help prevent scratches, and 100% sRGB coverage for more accurate color reproduction.
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 the completely removable optical viewfinder, the new VF-2. This slots into the hot-shoe on top of the camera, allowing you to hold the camera up to your eye and instantly giving the GXR the feel of a single-lens reflex camera. It's physically bigger and brighter than the VF-1 model supplied with Ricoh's compacts, making accurate manual focusing much easier to judge. Compared to the direct competition, it's better than the Panasonic GF1's viewfinder, but not quite as good as the Olympus E-P2's.
As the Ricoh GXR offers a full range of advanced exposure controls, it's quite complex in terms of its design. There are over 20 external controls, leaving just enough room for that gorgeous 3 inch LCD screen. Further appealing to the avid photographer in you, the Ricoh GXR 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.
The Full Press Snap option allows you to take 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 GXR'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 and spot metering.
Multi-pattern auto white balance is a useful setting 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 GXR 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.
|VF-2 Electronic Viewfinder||S10 and A12 Camera Units|
There's the usual choice of Fine and Normal JPEGs, but Ricoh have also wisely provided a RAW mode setting. Even better, the RAW format that they have chosen is not a proprietary one, but Adobe's DNG format, which means that the Ricoh GXR's files are instantly available in any RAW software that supports DNG (virtually every one). This is an excellent move by Ricoh, with no waiting required for third-party software vendors like Adobe, Phase One DxO to play catch-up.
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 main menu system on the Ricoh GXR 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 23 options spread over 3 screens, the Key Custom Options menu has 16 options, and the Setup menu has 34 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.
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 for easy reference in the field.
|Memory Card Slot||Battery Compartment|
Ricoh are well known for delivering responsive cameras, and the GXR certainly continues that tradition. The start-up time from turning the Ricoh GXR on to being ready to take a photo is responsive at around 1.5 seconds. Focusing with the 24-72mm camera unit is quick in good light, taking less than 0.5 seconds, and the camera happily achieves focus most of the time indoors or in low-light situations. The 50mm unit is a little slower, with a distinct pause as it physically moves in and out before locking onto the subject, and it often failed to focus at all on low-contrast subjects. This is perfectly acceptable for its main use as a dedicated macro lens, but makes it less suitable for street photographer where every second counts. Thankfully Ricoh have included a manual focusing ring on this camera unit, which speeds up operation if you're used to focusing in this way. You can also manually over-ride the auto-focus system by using this focus ring.
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 also very quick, with the GXR only taking around 1 second 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 3 frames per second with the 50mm unit but only 1.6 fps with the 24-72mm unit, both rates for an unlimited number of JPEG or RAW images, which doesn't compare particularly well to even entry-level DSLRs.
Once you have captured a photo, the GXR 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, trim 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. The new Flag Function Setting option allows you to choose up to 20 images that can then be quickly played back by selecting the Flag Function Display option, useful for showing off key images.
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 (by default 9.8x), 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 GXR is a remarkably intuitive and customisable camera, especially considering that it's a first-generation product in a completely new photographic system.