It’s always curious to watch different technologies battle for supremacy in the market, and it’s not always about which is the best solution. Sometimes, it’s about which product has been marketed the most strategically.
I always think back to the old videotape days, with the battle between VHS and Betamax. VHS became the standard in a lot of countries, but Betamax was still very high quality. In many regards the Ricoh GXR fits into this battlefield.
Released back in 2009, the Ricoh GXR was a unique take on the mirrorless format. A camera aimed at the enthusiast market, which has interchangeable units and houses a combination of a sensor, lens and image processor.
That leaves the camera body being just an interface for the rest of the camera workings. A strange proposition in the landscape of today’s digital cameras, so let’s dig in and see what this camera is all about.
One of the main advantages of such a design is each lens/sensor combo is a sealed unit, so there’s no chance of any dust or nasties getting into the sensor. Ricoh offers a bunch of lens choices that simply slide into the camera body and should be maintenance-free. Two of these tested out are 28 and 50mm equivalents with the rest of the lineup also being primes.
Each unit has a 12.3 MP CMOS APS-C sensor and when fitted into the camera body, makes for quite an overall compact camera. The whole camera body feels rock-solid, built from a magnesium alloy and is reminiscent of a rangefinder camera feel. Small and quite portable.
As for external features, the top plate has a simple shutter button, mode dial, hot shoe, and small jog wheel for accessing a variety of options. The rear of the camera has a 3-inch LCD screen for accessing all functionality and a simple array of buttons for accessing things like menu items and custom functions.
For other general user specs, each unit has a maximum ISO of 3200, a good bunch of image settings, which include Vivid, Standard, Natural, Black & White, and the facility to increase the contrast and sharpness in each image.
There’s a unique M-continuous plus function which can record up to 30 frames per second, while the shutter release button is pressed. There’s also a good deal of other functionality packed into the box, all accessible through the in-depth menu system.
If you like customizing your camera setup to the nth degree, then the Ricoh GXR could be a good choice. There are simply loads of ways you can configure each of the dials and buttons, which can be initially overwhelming, but once done, you can set and forget.
A lot of potential in this little camera. So, armed with a few units, it’s now off to test how it shoots in reality.
The Ricoh GXR in Use
First off, we have to remember that this is a camera design from 2009. Compact mirrorless cameras have come a long way since then, but in this time period, makers were still finding their way to the best solutions.
One area where this initially stands out is a blackout after each shot. When shooting RAW images, there are a few seconds of blackout, which can be massively irritating for shooting at speed. In all other regards, the camera performs as quickly as expected.
Using the 28mm f/2.5 GR module, the camera has a nifty feature of Snap Focus, which allows you to set a focus distance, which snaps into place when needed. This facility can be changed by either pressing the macro button or a full press of the shutter button. Very handy if you are using manual focusing.
The 28mm f/2.5 GR module has a very large depth of field, with f/8 being the point where everything is in focus. The 28mm focal length gives a happy medium view, a slightly wider view of the world than a regular 35mm or 50mm. It may be a little too wide for some, but on the plus side, it gives a generous framing that can be cropped down in post-processing.
In general, the module produces very good images, with a good degree of sharpness and contrast and when using the black-and-white conversion, produces a rich depth to the look.
If you just happen to have a bunch of Leica M lenses laying around, then the added bonus is the Leica M-Mount Module. This module has a 12.3 MP Sensor with a no low-pass (anti-aliasing) filter.
Being mounted to a APS-C sensor means that there is a 1.5x crop factor, so all your lenses will be slightly more telephoto. A possible deciding factor when your prized 50mm lens now becomes 75mm.
But, this module opens up the door for any M-mount compatible lens, which will be a great feature if you own a bunch of old manual lenses like M42’s, Canon FD, Nikon F, or Olympus OM’s, for instance.
Having not just interchangeable lenses, but also different sensors and workings in each module means the ability to use completely different functionality. An electronic shutter is fitted to the Leica module, which allows almost silent shooting.
There’s also Auto ISO when using shutter speed priority mode, which allows you to change the ISO rather than the aperture to nail the exposure. Exposure compensation with + or – three stops is also included, allowing a good range of tweaking for all exposure settings.
As the module, pardon the pun, is primed for manual lenses, it incorporates magnified view, focus peaking, and inverted focus peaking, to help nail the focus. In reality, these are a great way to work with manual lenses, being quick and efficient. The overall image quality of this module is on a par with the other, with the lens choice being the deciding factor.
How Does It Compare?
Comparisons to the Ricoh GXR are not so straightforward, thus the omission of the usual comparison table. The Ricoh marks an interim technology and as a walk around camera solution, most people will be eyeing up the latest crop of compact cameras. There are lots of choices in this sector, with higher pixel counts and a lot more functionality crammed into the box, as you would expect of a modern camera.
However, the Ricoh has some unique features and would especially appeal to those who have a bunch of old manual lenses.
Although the Ricoh GXR seems like a quirky take on the digital format, there’s a lot to like about the camera. It produces very good images and the ability to use old manual lenses, especially Leica lenses could be a great benefit to some.
The platform obviously didn’t take off, as DSLRs, compacts and even smartphones got all the headlines of the time. But, that doesn’t mean the Ricoh doesn’t have plenty to offer.
The modular platform is an interesting proposition, but it came out at the time when the mirrorless format in total was ironing out its inherent bugs, so it was just too left field on its release. A shame in some ways, as a modular system would allow such a wide variety of sensor and lens choices and almost future proofing the platform.
Overall, the Ricoh GXR is a fun little camera to use, which produces very good image quality. In today’s environment, a good solution for making use of your old manual lenses and simply a different way of doing things. Either way, the Ricoh GXR shouldn’t be a technology we simply forget about, but rather an interesting steppingstone, which can still produce great results in the right circumstances.