A different way of going mirrorless
What is it?
An oddball in the "mirrorless" sweepstakes is the Ricoh GXR. I include it in the mirrorless end of things, because, well, it's mirrorless and it has interchangeable lensors (more on that term in a moment). Ricoh has long been a small, tightly focused camera shop that's better known in Japan than anywhere else. Their semi-popular GR series of compact cameras have been highly regarded, and all of their offerings have had very photographer-friendly designs. The lenses on Ricoh cameras have been especially liked.
The GXR is an oddball, though. It comes from a lineup that started with the excellent but not-well-known GX100 and ended with the GX200. Essentially, the GXR is the GX300. You can see that in the controls and basic user interface, but boy is the GXR a big step from the 100/200 models. And that big step is mostly this: modularity.
The GXR camera body is just that, a body. The body has all the controls, the LCD, the battery, the card slot, the tripod socket, basically everything except an imaging sensor and a lens. By itself the body clocks in at a svelte US$349, which is actually quite reasonable for the build quality and specifications, including a very nice 3", 920k dot LCD. It's the missing sensor and lens that starts bumping the price, although if you're buying this as a compact camera replacement, you can get a very usable 10mp 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6 complete system for US$469, which isn't all that much more than some equivalent compact cameras.
Let's discuss that sensor and lens thing a bit. The term I use for the module is lensor. That's because one module contains both a sealed sensor mounted on the back of a lens. Ricoh has four such lensors available at the moment: a 10mp 1/1.7" sensor with 24-72mm f/2.5-4.4 equivalent lens, a 10mp 1/2.3" sensor with 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6 equivalent lens, a 12mp APS sensor with equivalent 28mm f/2.5 lens, and a 12mp APS sensor with equivalent 50mm f/2.5 macro lens. That's two compact camera type lensors, and two DSLR (APS) type lensors. Two additional lensors have been announced, a 12mp 24-70mm APS zoom lensor, and a 12mp Leica M-mount sensor (mountser?).
The lensors are ruggedly built and slide into the camera body via metal rails. The connector used between lensor and body is rugged and built for the purpose. The question is: was putting the sensor and lens into the same module the right idea?
I mentioned the not outlandish price of the most basic body+lensor combo, but what about the other lensors? Consider this:
- Body: US$360
- P10 28-300mm module: US$300
- S10 24-72mm module: US$365
- A12 28mm module: US$700
- A12 50mm module: US$675
- A12 Leica M-mount module: US$650
Left to right: P10, A12 28mm, A12 50mm
So let's say you wanted just the three APS modules and body: best case scenario, including a kit discount for the first lens, puts you at US$2300 or so. For a two-lens system plus the ability to add other lenses. Figure that the eventual 24-70mm APS lensor will probably set you back another US$1000 or more, and you could have bought an awful lot of m4/3 or even DSLR equipment for the money. And then there's the big looming problem: if Ricoh decides to come out with a higher-specification APS module at some date in the future, you'll be buying new lenses, too.
When Ricoh announced this system, I was quite critical of the lensor module idea. It pairs the two costliest parts of an interchangeable lens system together and forces you to duplicate sensors and maybe even lenses in the future. Ricoh's canned response to the criticism was a marketing claim: that the only way to design a quality package was to exactly mate lens with sensor. The implication was that only by tying the two together could you create a high performance product. We all know that to be untrue on the face of it, otherwise DSLRs, m4/3 cameras, and even film SLRs couldn't have existed and performed well, could they? And here we are a bit more than a year later and Ricoh has introduced a lens mount on a sensor, effectively negating their own original marketing message.
No doubt that putting a very short back focus mount on a large sensor (e.g. the Leica M9, the NEX-5, and the Ricoh M-mountser) is not a simple proposition. Lenses that aren't delivering light at near perpendicular angles to the sensor certainly vignette, for instance. But that problem was (is) solvable and it didn't require glueing the sensor to the lens. Indeed, if you disassemble a GXR lensor, you'll find that the many of Ricoh's claims probably fail right at the get go: in particular Ricoh made a big deal about the low pass filter alignment, but when I took a lensor apart, I found that the precision of the lens/filter/sensor alignment was less than perfect. I find nothing internally that is more precise than a well made lens mount would achieve, especially given the rigid metal outer casings used. I call BS on Ricoh's marketing claims for needed lensor modules and avoiding a lens mount.
In essence, prior to the M-module appearing, the Ricoh modularity was less desirable than a DSLR's modularity (or m4/3 or NEX or NX): it just adds cost without gaining much, especially since it looks like Ricoh is going to use the same 12mp APS sensor for awhile. I'll have more to say about this in the section on handling.
So let's meet our contender. First up, some key specifications:
- ISO range 200-3200 200-3200 100-3200 100-3200
- LCD, Viewfinder 3", 920k dot; optional EVF
- Shutter speeds 15s or 30s to 1/3200 for stills, 1/30 to 1/2000 for videos on modules that support it
- Formats JPEG, DNG, 720P/24 JPEG, DNG, 720P/24 JPEG, DNG, VGA/30 JPEG, DNG, 720P/24
- Weight 235 to 423g (body+lensor)
Significant Other Features: the compact lensors have image stabilization; they body has built-in flash, two command dials, two function buttons, locking mode dial, HDMI and mini USB out; some small variability on flash output, exposure compensation, bracketing, metering methodology, noise reduction, and white balance settings between lensor modules, but all very flexible and complete.
Overall, the GXR is an interesting take on the modern small, adaptable camera. It's not without it's pluses, as you'll see. But the penalty is cost.
How's it Handle?
If you haven't tried a Ricoh compact camera before, you're in for a shock: they're well designed. Photographers were involved in designing these cameras, which means that photographers will find them very attractive.
You won't find a lot of gimmicks in the GXR user interface or design. You've got a very rigid metal shelled body with a very nice 3" color LCD on it. There's a lockable mode dial on top of the camera that's not overloaded with gimmics: PASM, three custom setting positions, the ubiquitious all-auto, and a Scene mode position. Of the nine positions on the mode dial, seven of them are attractive to serious shooters. That's what a mode dial should be like on a serious camera (plus it locks so you don't get that random mode problem every time you pull the camera out of the bag).
The GXR has my preference: a nice solid Off/On switch that's hard to confuse with any other control. The shutter release is large and prominent. There's a vertically-aligned front control wheel (ala Canon) and a pressable rear contol quasi-wheel (ala Panasonic; it's not really a wheel, but acts much like one). Only five buttons adorn the back, along with the usual Direction pad, and everything is clearly labeled and straightforward. Two of the Direction pad buttons are assignable function keys (again ala Panasonic).
The menu system is very straight forward, with tabs for shooting, Direction pad assignments, and camera setup. While the menus use small print that puts 10 items onto each display page, it is quite readable, with a well-chosen font. It would have been nice to have one more level of hierarchy in the menus, which would have reduced the scrolling considerably, but I can live with what Ricoh supplies because you don't drop down into the menus much. That's because we've got a Panasonic-like Quick Menu function and assignable function buttons. If you can't get most of what you need to change into the top level interface of this camera where it can be directly manipulated, you've got some pretty wild needs.
Oh, and the menu system? Relatively clear wording, clear choices. You won't be scrambling to the manual to try to figure out what "LVF DISP.STYLE" means (hear that Panasonic?).
Basically, the user interface is no nonsense, easily understood and controlled. Many DSLRs don't do it this well.
We've got multiple aspect ratios (16:9, 4:3, 3:2, and 1:1). We've got snap and instant infinity focus abilities. We've got the full set of exposure metering, bracketing, and compensation facilities. The flash does second curtain sync and has adjustable compensation. The system can do automatic distortion correction. Like some DSLRs you can have the self timer take multiple pictures at user-defined intervals (and this is actually more flexible than some DSLRs). There's built-in interval shooting, auto ISO capability, and even white balance CIE shifting. There's a hot shoe with optional accessory electronics, which currently drives the optional 920k dot VF-2 EVF viewfinder. That viewfinder has a very large diopter correction ability and tilts up for look-down shooting. The camera shoots JPEG or raw (DNG) or both.
Yes, you're reading the spec list of a small, mirrorless camera, not a DSLR. Other than perhaps GPS support, I can't really see anything I'd ever use that isn't there.
The modular mount is sturdy and has a large, locking lever on the front of the camera.
All in all, the feature set and the organization of it is very good, and most serious shooters will just pick up this camera and start shooting.
If you haven't figured it out yet, the GXR is a photographer's camera, and that means it handles well in almost every respect. I really can't fault it for anything major, yet there are many small touches that make it a delight to use.
For instance, turn off the artificial shutter sound and all you're left with is a whisper quiet leaf shutter sound while taking pictures with the A12 modules. Too bad the lensors aren't a little faster, as this would be an awesome indoor event shooting camera with f/2 or faster APS lensors. Of course, you may be able to fix that with the right lens on the M-mount module.
The screen uses very small icons, which means that you don't get the overlay clutter that you do on the Panasonic cameras, and of course you can switch to just grid or no icons at all if you want. But there's one function available on the icon screen that rocks: the GXR has about the best virtual horizon display I've seen, and it's simple, unobtrusive, yet easy to see and use. Bravo.
Histograms are better thought out than on most small cameras, too, as you can clearly see when you've hit edges. Someone got the display stuff mostly right, which may be a first for the Japanese companies. You really appreciate that when using the EVF. The EVF itself is decent enough to be usable (that's saying a lot considering the current state of detachable EVFs).
One minor quibble: the lensor connector comes with an easily lost rubber cap, and I just can't seem to get in the habit of putting it back on and taking it off when changing modules. That's strange, because I have no problem with rear lens caps. But something about a small thin rubber cap just makes me not put it back on, plus it's easy to lose. That's probably going to come back to haunt me some day, as the connector is recessed and dirt and gunk can get in there. It would have been nice to have a self-closing door over the connector instead of a manual cap. Not a big thing, but the GXR comes so close to being a nice clean, practical design, this seems like a small overlook.
The flash is wimpy and doesn't get much rise about the lens. But since we've got a hot shoe, if you really need flash, you have alternatives.
The P10 module is a little slow to activate and move the lens into position. The spreading-petal lens cap is a nice touch, though. No lens cap to remove and put in a pocket somewhere, no flimsy cap blades to jam and need repair. One small nit: you really do need to turn the camera off when switching lensors. If you don't, the camera often goes into a coma-like state until you turn it off and back on. Lensors are not hot-swap modules.
The mode dial uses a very nice reflective paint. Pity the rest of the labels aren't done with the same paint.
My big complaint is that the hot shoe isn't aligned with the center of the lens, nor is the tripod socket. Indeed, since the tripod socket is wrapped around the battery compartment door, it will take a very special Arca-style plate, of which none exists that I know of that will work without having to take the plate off the change the battery. That's a pity, really.
Finally, 28mm and 50mm isn't enough. The M-mount gives you more flexibility lens-wise, albeit manual focus only (which is easily managed on the GXR). We really need that upcoming 24-70mm APS option, too. Dropping down to the small sensor lensors produces compact camera results on a camera body that should be executing far above that level, IMHO.
How's it Perform?
With few exceptions, the GXR's APS performance is just what you'd expect, and quite good. The smaller compact camera sensor lensor modules perform like a good, but not great, compact camera.
The most disappointing performance aspect of the GXR is the battery. The 6.2Wh battery is small and that spec seems okay on the face of it (the much bigger NEX-5 battery is 7.7Wh by comparison), but in practice I find it a bit wimpy. Ricoh says 320 shots with the APS modules, somewhat more with the compact sensor modules, but I never quite achieved their levels. Worse, put the optional EVF on and you'll chew through batteries quite quickly. Admittedly, I do use the camera set for things that tend to consume more juice (pre-AF, stabilization, EVF, etc.), but for me this is a four-battery-a-day camera. Be forewarned: you'll want extra batteries.
As you might expect, the 28mm APS lensor does quite well in focus performance; it doesn't have a lot of lens to move for one thing. The 50mm APS and the 28-300mm P10 module I tested were another story. At wider angles the P10 was actually quite fast in good light and pre-AF enabled, much like the 28mm APS module. At the 300mm equivalent end, though, the story is different. Almost every focus event generates a bu-buhh-bu focus hiccup before things get settled, and sometimes you get an additional slow step focus run-up after that. The 50mm APS module was similar. Neither the 50mm APS nor the long-end of the 28-300mm P10 module is an action module, in my book.
Focus in low light can also be an issue. It's interesting and informative to watch the 50mm module run close focus in low light. It appears that Ricoh will go past the focus point, then snap back in many situations. This tends to increase the focus time, but one thing I rarely saw it do (and never in good light) was miss a focus. If you get the green feedback box on the screen indicating focus, the camera is always dead on. Even when it can't focus because the light is so low and gives you the red box, more often than not it's very close to being "in focus." Of course, with the macro lens at close range in very low light it can sometimes take four or five seconds before you know what the camera is going to do, even with pre-AF enabled, which will turn some people off. Personally, I don't see the Ricoh as a low-light action, immediate response camera, so I'm not put off by its focus behavior, but some people will find it slow in low light.
About that pre-AF: this means that the camera is attempting to find focus even as you compose and does so continuously. That has a battery impact, for sure. I noticed that when I had this enabled I was getting fewer shots per charge than without. But sometimes it is a god-send. If you're in brighter light with it enabled, sometimes the focus is eerily fast.
One really nice touch is the snap focus distance. As a landscape shooter I keep mine set on infinity most of the time. Being able to hit a button and lock focus there instantly is nice, and it makes you wonder why more cameras can't do that. Judicious use of snap focus coupled with autofocus can make focus very snappy indeed. That's another thing I like about the GXR and makes me say that it was designed by photographers: the more you learn about the camera and get into the advanced features, the more you discover things that get you to what you need faster, not tie you down or restrict you.
Conclusion: Think decent compact camera for most autofocus operation and you'll be in the right ball park. Pre-AF sometimes makes the camera perform better than that. Snap focus coupled with the others can make the camera a strong performer in the right hands.
The APS lensors (28mm, 50mm) are very sharp. Even wide open there is only modest blur at the edges. The biggest issue I found on both is a bit disappointing chromatic aberration in high contrast scenes, but it was well within what I'm used to dealing with in post processing. Longitudinal chromatic aberration is minimal, though, which is nice, especially on the 50mm macro.
- 28mm: Good to great sharpness overall, modest barrel distortion, modest chromatic aberration, little vignetting.
- 50mm: Good to great sharpness overall, excellent macro, small pincushion distortion, modest chromatic aberration, little vignetting.
- P10: Wide angle to normal was good in sharpness, long telephoto a bit soft with clear closs of acuity. Visible barrel distortion at 28mm, modest pin cushion at 300mm. Modest chromatic aberration, some vignetting wide open.
Overall: I can live with these lenses, especially the APS ones, which border on matching some high-end primes of equivalent focal lengths (18 and 33mm in actuality).
Low ISO Image Quality
My basic philosophy with compacts is to shoot them at the base ISO whenever possible, shoot raw, and learn how to tweak every last ounce of image quality out of every pixel. In this section, I'm talking about what happened when I did just that, even though I'll show JPEGs out of the camera.
P10 module: the way I'd put it is like this: the lens will more than likely be the gating element for your shots at low ISO values. There's a small amount of noise visible, but at base ISO it's mostly ignorable and easily fixable if it does bother you. But at 300mm, for example, the lens is limiting the acuity you can get in the image, not the sensor. Here's what that looks like on a completely challenging situation:
A bit of "noise grain" overall, a bit too much in the way of JPEG and sharpening artifacts, but still pretty much on par with what you expect out of the other 10mp small sensor compacts. In some ways, slightly better, as the lens quite well at moderate focal lengths (it's at 300mm here).
APS modules: As you'd expect from the 12mp Sony sensor, base ISO image (200) quality is superb. There's really nothing to complain about. Let's push it up to 400 at dinner and see what happens:
Pretty darn clean (the image, not the lettuce). There's a small amount of luminance noise, but perfectly acceptable given the underexposure and the fact we're looking at a shadow area (brightest area in bottom right is still not quite at mid-tone level).
- P10 module: you really can't drive it past ISO 400 without getting noise that you'll want to deal with. Ricoh's own noise reduction starts removing detail at high ISO values, which just makes for that washed out, painterly effect (and there's still noise present). I'd say the P10 module is an ISO 100-400 module only, especially if you shoot JPEG.
- APS modules: clean performance from ISO 200-800, very good performance at ISO 1600, and it's only at ISO 3200 that I start to see a degradation that some might object to. In many respects, it's very similar to the D90 performance, which it should be as it's basically the same sensor.
I actually like the GXR. It's not quite a pocket camera with the APS modules (though it may be with the P10 module if you've got largish shirt pockets). But it's definitely a jacket pocket camera, and a very rugged one, at that. The three APS modules perform extremely well in terms of image quality, on par with most 12mp DSLRs. I find that I actually strongly prefer the GXR with the APS modules to carrying a D3100 with the Voigtlander 20mm and Nikon 35mm f/1.8G lens (the closest I can match to the Ricoh's focal lengths), but I also wish that I had other focal length choices with autofocus. The 28mm isn't wide enough for me, and neither lens is particularly fast. The 50mm (33mm actual) is a bit short for the kind of macro work I like to do, but usable. This all calls into question the choice of making lensors in the first place: Ricoh hasn't produced enough of them to serve every need, so not everyone will be that interested in the camera in the first place.
The P10 lensor is another story. It's nice to have handy, especially in bright light, as the 28-300mm range does give you a lot of flexibility. But even a Coolpix 8100 will outshoot the P10 slightly, so if you're thinking of buying the GXR solely as a compact camera, I think you can do better. As a supplement to APS modules, the P10 is useful though.
In the end, we're still waiting. The 24-70mm module promises to make the GXR a much more interesting beast, though I'm getting a little tired of buying the same sensor over and over. Especially considering how the 12mp Sony sensor is now a generation behind the times. Still, 12mp is good enough for my carry-all-the-time camera, so future APS modules may be just what the doctor ordered.
The M-mount module is interesting, and will appeal to those that have some Leica lenses laying around, but ultimately didn't excite me as much as I thought it would. Some of that has to do with manual focusing: you really don't want to two-hand the camera in front of you while focusing, and the EVF just isn't as good as it needs to be to make manual focusing as fast and as enjoyable as it should be.
Overall, I think you have to think of the GXR as an odd little DSLR substitute, especially if you use the EVF. As I noted, I like it better than carrying a D3100 around with a few prime lenses.
Body Value (I almost dropped to two stars here)