The Ricoh GR, “If Carlsberg Did Cameras…”

In this article I discuss why I am such a big fan of the Ricoh GR cameras and explain why I believe that “If Carlsberg did cameras, they’d do the Ricoh GR.

 “If Carlsberg Did…” was a highly successful advertising campaign for the well-known beer brand. In February 2015 the Global Marketing Director for Carlsberg, Allan Solomon, stated in a Marketing Week article “’If Carlsberg did this’ is short hand for being the best.” The success of the slogan is that it has become a meme used in conversation on and offline to describe something which is best amongst its peers.

I think of my Ricoh GR cameras as ‘the best’ all round cameras I have owned because of my experience with them over the last seven year. I bought the Ricoh GR in 2013 and then upgraded to the Ricoh GRIII in April 2019 when it was launched. Whether photographing landscape, street life, architecture, portraits, animals, trains or still life the GR has always been capable of creating beautifully detailed photographs. Some of my favourite photographs in my library of 50,000+ images (began when I went digital in 2005) are from the Ricoh GR.

In the same time period I have been through Leica, Nikon, Sony, Sigma and Panasonic camera systems and I am currently using Fuji cameras in addition to the Ricoh GRIII. While my experience with interchangeable lens system cameras has been variable, the GR and now the GRIII have been a constant in an otherwise turbulent life of camera ownership.

I initially planned to call this article ‘My top ten Ricoh GR images of all time.’ As I developed the idea I found it almost impossible to select just ten images. I have 3,500 images in my library taken with the original Ricoh GR and the current GRIII. I decided to bow to the inevitable and expand the idea to be my top 100 photographs. This is too many for the body of an article so I have placed them in a Smugmug gallery for you to look at (follow the link at the end).

But before you dash off and look at the photographs here are five reasons why I think that the Ricoh GR is probably the best camera in the world.

THE RICOH (PENTAX) GR

(Left) the original Ricoh GR introduced in 2013 and (right) the current model, the GRIII introduced in April 2019; after 6 years of regular use the camera on the left was still in good condition and worked perfectly - I eventually sold it as I feel the GRIII is a great replacement and do not need both cameras.
 

The Ricoh GR was introduced in April 2013 and was the first large sensor compact camera in the long history of Ricoh’s involvement with imaging. The GR benefited from Ricoh’s recent acquisition of the Pentax camera company. The GR sports a 16mpx sensor taken from the Pentax DSLR bodies and an 18mm f2.8 fixed (but retractable) lens based on a Pentax lens design. In full-frame terms this gives the Ricoh GR and GRIII a 28mm field of view. This is a mild wide angle but with 16mpx and the current 24mpx of the GRIII it is also possible to crop and still get usable images if you want to create a feeling of a narrower field of view.

At the beginning the GR was compared to the cheaper ‘point and shoot’ cameras which wallowed at the lower end of the market and were aimed at consumers who today are using their smartphones instead. This categorisation entirely missed the point: the Ricoh GR is intended to be used by ‘prosumers’ – consumers who aim to create professional results and not amateurs looking for a cheap and cheerful way to photograph their family and friends.

In 2013, all this did not come cheap. Compared to other compact sized cameras the Ricoh was several hundred pounds more expensive and still is today. In the UK the GRIII has a list price of GBP 799. I’ll talk about the price and why I think it is justified, below.

IMAGE QUALITY

One of my favourite photographs of all time, "Seoul Crosswalk", (2017) Ricoh GR plus wide angle adaptor, converted to monochrome in post.
 

For those impatient for my conclusion: the image quality of the sensor and lens combination in any of the GR series cameras from 2013 onwards is excellent. Images are sharp, detailed, colourful and what I call ‘malleable’ (I’ll explain below). The output of any GR meets and exceeds all but the most demanding requirements of publishers be it in print or online. It could easily do a Vogue cover if a picture editor was brave enough to allow it.

I was drawn to the Ricoh GR after seeing some excellent images posted at my favourite camera bulletin board, GetDPI. I kept seeing remarkable images of a wide variety of subjects including landscape and street photography and I really liked the look of the images.

I describe the sensor of the GR series as being ‘malleable.’ The ‘malleability’ refers to the way the RAW images respond to adjustment in post processing. I am an expert user of Lightroom which is a major part of my workflow. I always shoot in RAW and then try to recreate what I recall from a particular view in post. Out of the camera the RAWs are very good but once I begin to process them using my recipes the sensor often gives up so much more in terms of dynamic range that I end up with sparkling skies, authentic looking textures and excellent shadow detail. 


"Kentish Town Lock #3", a good example of detail, colours and textures that can be produced in post processing from a Ricoh GR raw file.
 

I have a number of recipes I use in NIK Colour Effex Pro and when I apply them straight to RAW files from the GR, more than any other camera I use, the images almost pop out my screen in terms of detail and colour.

The sensor is no slouch for pure black and white. I rarely shoot in monochrome as I feel my work interpreting the world in colour is much better. However, the sensor does convert to monochrome very easily. As shown above my favourite capture of all time with the GR, a grab shot taken on a pedestrian crossing in Seoul, looks fantastic converted to monochrome.

Be warned; more than once I’ve exclaimed to my wife just how wonderful are the images from the GR only to receive the obvious response, “So, why do you need all those other cameras!”

SHOOTING EXPERIENCE

By 2013 I was already having my work reproduced in books and in newspapers. As my (albeit small!) career developed I had to be careful I was using equipment that produced results that would be acceptable to the publishers of content.

However, I was also constrained by size and weight of equipment. A lot of my content comes from ‘walking around’ London and weight considerations are important. Another consideration in the urban environment is discretion – whipping out a large camera will often cause people to scatter or look on you with distrust. A small pocketable camera helps you to hide in plain sight.

All of this combines to make the shooting experience with the GR very low stress. Another factor which reduces stress is that you can forget about lens selection: there is only one! Constraining yourself to a single field of view is an excellent way to slow down and really think about composition. (Having said that, I also use the excellent wide angle adapter that increases the fov to about 21mm in full frame terms, with almost no perceptible loss of image quality).

You can also forget about speed and aperture settings. The Ricoh GR inherited from the Pentax DNA the Tav setting found on their cameras. On this setting the speed of the shutter and the aperture of the lens can be fixed and the iso (the sensitivity to light) floats to correctly expose the image. I almost always shoot on Tav – with my speed set to 1/160 and my aperture set to f5.6. The front and rear dials allow me to adjust the speed and aperture if required. Ricoh decided to remove the Tav setting from the mode dial of the GRIII but it is possible to recreate it as a custom mode which emulates it and I have done so (using U1).

Using TAV mode on the Rioch GR or a custom version on the GRIII allows me concentrate on the moment and not the camera settings, which helped me capture this passing classic British sports car.
 
Although using Tav may seem lazy, it is another stress reducer that allows me to concentrate on capturing the moment. I know that when I use my DSLRs I am always tempted to fiddle with the lens and speed dials and all the other myriad of settings. With the GR, I am not. In that way it takes me back to the minimalist experience of using my long gone Leica M8 digital rangefinder, or before that the lovely Olympus XA film camera.

Finally, I was impressed from day one with the layout of the GR and even more so now with the slightly smaller GRIII. The GR is still available and to some extent is more than enough but there are additional features on the GRIII which I feel make it an even better shooting experience.

FEATURES AND BENEFITS

I believe I have covered the two main benefits already; image quality and shooting experience. The current model, the GRIII has some significant improvements over the earlier GR and GRII cameras.

Although the GRIII LDC screen is larger, for some reason the resolution is lower, dropping from 1.23M-dot to 1.03M-dot. I honestly can’t tell the difference. However, the big difference is that the GRIII screen is touch sensitive.

In general I am not a fan of touch sensitive screens. On my X-T3 I find it downright annoying. But for some reason, which I really can’t fathom, it just works perfectly with the GRIII. It could be that because the body is so small you can adjust focus points and select menu options with your thumb, rather like a smartphone. If you want to revert to moving the focus point or selecting menu options using buttons, you can.

Another major improvement is the inclusion of a setting control wheel around the 4-position d-pad at the back, rather like Canon DSLR bodies. I use the wheel to control exposure compensation. On the older GR, the exposure compensation was a dedicated rocker switch on the leading edge of the body and I was always finding I had changed compensation by accident. A real pain on the older GR body but no longer an issue with the GRIII.

At the end of a photoshoot in the historic boardroom of the Lloyds Register building in London, I had packed away my equipment when I realised I did not have a close-up of the beautiful relief over the old fireplace. Using the IBIS in the GRIII I was able to shoot with a small aperture (f5.6) to capture detail while keeping to a low sensitivity to reduce sensor noise (iso400) by reducing the shutter speed to 1/30. Handholding the camera with IBIS on I captured a sharp frame and the 24mpx sensor creates a file large enough for print or online reproduction to a large size.

The GRIII also includes 3-axis in-body stabilisation. Now, I am a big fan of IBIS. A couple of times while working on my latest project being able to capture an image which is sharp at 1/30 or even 1/15 with the GRIII has been very helpful. I have set up the Fn button to switch IBIS on an off (I keep it off to conserve battery when I am shooting at speeds which don’t need IBIS).

The smaller size of GRIII over its earlier models has attracted some negative comment. Firstly, the smaller size necessitated a smaller, weaker battery (which is counter intuitive to a larger sensor and features and features like IBIS, WiFi and Bluetooth). Secondly, the smaller body also meant that the in-built flash of the GR has been removed.

I can understand why this may have caused angst with some users but all it means is that in addition to the one in the body I tend to carry two more batteries with me when I use the camera. These tiny batteries are hardly an impediment and honestly, I’ve never yet been caught out having to change batteries. Likewise, I never used the flash on the GR so whether the camera has one in-built or I need to use an external one is of very little concern to me. I appreciate that these may be changes over the original GR which some users will find disappointing. I can only offer my own practical experience.

Size for me is a winning feature with the GRIII. The fact that I now have a 24mpx powerhouse which even more easily fits into the pocket of a jacket is fantastic. When I go out to photograph be it for professional purposes or just for my own enjoyment I slip the camera easily into my pocket and hardly notice it is there.

Finally, an important feature is the level of customisation that is possible with all the GR cameras. Ricoh have an extremely well thought out menu system. It is very easy to navigate and there are many customisable settings. It is far richer in my experience than some of the other camera systems I have owned.

I realise that I have left off many, many features including focus modes, drive modes, macro mode (which works very well indeed), electronic level (which I use a lot), live histogram, WiFi, Bluetooth, smartphone connectivity, snap focus, touch snap focus, the internal ND filter and dust removal , to name a few. Do not be fooled by the size of this camera, many of its firmware features are the same as top-end DSLR and mirrorless bodies.

VALUE FOR MONEY

The long list of features which go way beyond that of a normal compact camera should indicate why the GRs have defied the normal prices levels for a ‘compact camera’. In fact, I would argue that the Ricoh GR invented the ‘compact professional camera’ which is now a feature of offerings from, amongst others, Sony (RX1R), Fuji (x100v) and Leica (Q2), all of which are considerably more expensive.


My GR alongside the Leica Q I owned for a short time in 2017. In the end I found the convenience and shooting experience of the GR was more to my liking and sold the Q.
 

As a personal aside, I have owned both the RX1 and the Leica Q. I do regret to some extent disposing of the RX1. But it was actually too large for a pocket and the 35mm lens was just a shade too narrow for me. The Q was interesting but I can honestly state the most boring camera I have ever owned. It never inspired me to go out and photograph with it (unlike the GR/GRIII) and one reason may be that it was even larger and heavier than the weight of the RX1 and GR combined. In the end I sold the Leica Q and kept the GR.

Value for money is in the end a personal and highly subjective issue. After all, is Carlsberg itself good value for money? There are similar, cheaper beers on the market. Why do some people insist on drinking a Carlsberg?

At GBP 799 for the GRIII you are in the range of an entry level crop sensor and even full frame DSLR or mirrorless cameras, with a kit lens, or two depending on what you go for. There is a greater versatility in ILCs that you do not get with the GRII. You cannot expand the GRIII as your knowledge of photography grows, for example.

I am regularly asked to recommend cameras to novices and despite my love for it, I do not have the GRIII on my list. I caused a lot of controversy at GetDPI when I once dropped into an online discussion that “If you are serious about photography, you owe it to yourself to own a GR!” This was met with the response that I was being a fan boy and I was wrong to impose my prejudices on other people.

Apart from the fact that I was a ‘boy’ at about the same time as Noah floated his ark (I am now mid-way through my seventh decade), I was trying to express my opinion that GR is a tool which inspires creativity in a way many cameras do not. An internet search about the history of Ricoh cameras will reveal that they have a cult status and inspire fierce loyalty amongst their owners.

So how do I justify the premium price of the GRIII compared to other compact or low-end DSLR/mirrorless cameras? I try to explain this by telling people that the GRIII is the ‘camera I carry with me when I don’t want to carry a camera!’

I had so much experience of the GR that stumping up the asking price for the GRIII was absolutely a no-brainer. I knew I could rely on it as a backup body at a photoshoot. I also knew that I could take contrasting and equally usable captures with it at any photoshoot (which I have done).  I knew I would never have to literally weigh up if I could take it with me as I pound the streets with my cameras shooting content. I knew I could be confident that images taken with the GRIII would sell in my stock library (as they did very shortly after I started to upload them). I knew I would just enjoy using the camera in many different situations as the previous model had.

If those points resonate with you, you’ve probably already justified the asking price for the GRIII.

LONGEVITY

Before owning the GR, the longest surviving body I owned was the Leica M8 which was the first rangefinder produced by Leica which used a digital sensor rather than film. I shot constantly with that camera for over 5 years and sold it in the end for about half what I paid for it.

The point here is that in this day and age, digital bodies do not have that kind of longevity. As I mentioned above I am embarrassed about the number of camera systems I have tried and disposed of over the years. However, in the last seven years I never stopped using my GR and my only desire for change was to upgrade to the GRIII which I confidently expect to last me for an equally long period.

Of course, one thing which contributes to longevity is that there is nothing else to really purchase for the camera once you buy it. I do own the external optical viewfinder but I use it very rarely. I have also put a screen protector on the LCD. At some point when I am feeling flush I will probably buy the wide angle adapter. But that is it! This is not a system where the manufacturer will constantly either promote new accessories, or replace the body next year (it took six years for Ricoh to replace the GR).

The build quality of the GR cameras is typically Japanese: minimalist design and perfectly engineered.  The magnesium alloy body is a pleasure to hold and feels about the same quality as my Leica bodies did when I owned them. This construction also contributes to longevity. The fit of all surfaces on the GR bodies is tight and the ergonomics well thought out, right down to the strap lugs. The shape is very pleasing and is so smooth it easily slips in and out of a pocket without snagging.

That’s not to say I have no complaints but the biggest is also possibly the smallest. One of the annoying things about the GRIII (which for all I know may be fixed in later production runs) is that the ring around the lens housing, which can be removed in order to attach the wide angle adapter, fits very loosely. I was alerted to this early on but only by complaints by other owners that it had fallen off and they had lost it. I found mine was coming off in my pocket and in the end I have secured it with a small piece of magic tape.  New rings can be purchased but that is not the point. In nearly seven years of using the GR the ring never once detached itself. I’m hoping new rings grip more tightly (in which case I may be tempted to purchase one).

MY TOP 100 RICOH GR PHOTOGRAPHS

The best way I can illustrate the power of the GR cameras I have owned is through a selection of some of the 3,500 images I have in my image library. I set myself the goal of choosing only 100 images and it was actually difficult to constrain myself to that number.

Please follow the link below to see just what the Ricoh GR camera is capable of producing.

Top 100 Ricoh GR Images

And I repeat my controversial assertion: if you are serious about photography, you owe it to yourself to own a Ricoh GR or GRIII.

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