Thursday, 3 December 2009
After some delay due to various reasons and some travels in between I have finished my GRD III review.
With the GXR announcement a lot of emphasis is put on the new camera system but the GRD III is still an appealing choice for some and will remain Ricoh's flagship camera.
My review aims to give an overview of the GRD III and will also compare it with the predecessors and even briefly with the Epson RD1s equiped with the famous GR L-mount lens.
The review will be split in 8 parts and will be partly based on the structure of my book 'GRD III - A Serious Compact'.
Part 1 - Introduction, Lens, Build and Controls
Part 2 - Features
Part 3 - Image Comparison GRDs - Part 1 (Color: ISO 64, 100 and 200)
Part 4 - Image Comparison GRDs - Part 2 (Color: ISO 400, 800 and 1600)
Part 5 - Image Comparison GRDs - Part 3 (b&w: ISO 64 and 200)
Part 6 - Image Comparison GRDs - Part 4 (b&w: ISO 400, 800 and 1600)
Part 7 - Image Comparison GRDs & RD1
Part 8 - Image Quality, Conclusion and Samples
Read on for the first part of my review...
The first time I was introduced to Ricoh and their cameras was with the GRD I in 2006 while looking to replace the simple digital point & shoot camera I had at the time. I was looking for something which would give me more control over the final image by offering full manual controls, RAW and a wide angle lens without losing the pocketability. I have been using the GRD I and GRD II cameras almost on a daily basis in the last 3 years. Having a serious compact camera with me at all times has allowed me to capture moments which would not have been possible with a bigger camera or a simple point & shoot compact camera.
Most manufacturers now produce more or less well executed serious compact cameras to offer the full range of controls found in professional dSLRs without sacrificing the image quality. Ricoh however has been one of the first manufacturers to offer serious compacts with high quality wide angle lenses and the full features usually found in dSLRs.
Their GR line in particular has been very successful since it was released in 1996 as a film camera. The GR line of film cameras was designed to offer the same quality one would get from a SLR while at the same time being compact enough to be carried at all times and fit in a pocket. The excellent reputation of the GR1 was in no small part due to it's excellent GR lens.
The GR1 lens was constructed of 7 aperture blades with a wide angle of 28mm and bright f2.8 aperture, it's high performance surpassed that of SLR cameras and offered very sharp and crisp image quality throughout the frame while being very compact. This lens was so popular that Ricoh went on to produce a limited edition version for the Leica M-mount which was smaller than comparable lenses without sacrificing the quality or handling.
In 2005 Ricoh released the much anticipated digital version of their GR1 film cameras in form of the GR Digital (GRD from now on). The GRD followed the same tradition from the GR1 and offered features usually found only in dSLRs like full manual controls, RAW+JPG capture, high quality build and a flash hotshoe. Ricoh has also improved on the GR lens and was able to offer a brighter f2.4 aperture while maintaining the very high GR lens quality. The GRD was a great success for Ricoh and appealed in particular to b&w and street photographers. While reviewers did not understand the camera and complained about a lack of zoom, features and the image noise, actual users loved the camera, the great controls and especially the noise which gave images a different and very film-like character. The GRD shows that looking at noise graphs and other charts inside a studio does not really tell much about a camera as it has been proven by users around he world with their excellent pictures taken with the GRD.
In 2007, Ricoh followed with the GRD II, which was further improved by taking in feedback from GR1 and GRD users and offered faster RAW shooting, 1:1 square shooting mode and as a first in compact cameras an electronic leveler. The GRD II was even more successful but got mixed reviews by fans of the original GRD due to the somewhat sub-par image processing engine and some focus problems due to the removal of the phase-detection AF systems.
Now in 2009, Ricoh released the GRD III offering the brightest GR lens so far with an f1.9 aperture. This is not everything though, Ricoh has listened to comments and requests from users and has further improved the RAW shooting speed, made changes to the Snap AF mode, implemented a full-press AF mode, added a shutter priority mode, improved high ISO, added a closer macro focusing distance, ability to fine tune the colour settings and improved white balance by adding a Multi-Pattern AWB setting.
Below I will look at the main GRD features, it's excellent lens and the superb handling and controls.
GR Lens and GR Engine III
The GR lens has been completely redesigned for the GRD III and the brightness has been improved by one stop from the first GR lens and is now f1.9. The lens remains sharp and contrasty throughout the frame at all apertures without exhibiting any distortion. The GRD III has currently the brightest lens on any compact cameras and has one of the brightest wide angle lenses on any digital camera.
Having a brighter lens was one of the main requests from GRD users and was certainly very high on my wish list. Some of the most interesting things to photograph happen after it gets dark. Being able to use a fast shutter speed to capture the action even in low light makes the new GRD III very desirable for street or social photography.
Ricoh uses an improved and slightly bigger 1/1.7" 10 MP CCD sensor in the GRD III. By not increasing the number of pixels but focusing on the image quality instead, Ricoh have managed to improve the dynamic range and doubled the sensitivity.
The new GR Engine III processing engine reduces noise while maintaining a high resolution and colour accuracy. It also helps reduce blown highlights and extends the dynamic range by up to +1 EV equivalent by interpolating each pixels image data.
How and if these changes have really paid off will be answered in the course of this review.
Build & Controls
One of the reasons for the continued success of the GR cameras is the truly fantastic build, handling and controls. This is what makes this camera so special, it does not feel like a toy, gadget or even a camera in your hand, it feels like an extension of you. Some people make fun of the plain looks of the GRD and call it a disposable camera or joke if it's even digital but let them hold it and they will understand it.
This is not surprising if you read the design philosophy behind the GRDs (to be found here) where Ricoh says the following:
"Additionally, we also wanted to make a camera that brought a smile to one's face, just by holding it."
To really understand this you need to pick up a GRD, once you do you will understand why it is so highly regarded by photographers. I can only say that after picking the GRD up for the first time in a shop, I knew that I had to buy this camera.
The original GR camera is a joy to hold and use and the GRD I continued from there and even improved by offering a softer rubber handgrip. The shape of the camera makes it easy to slip in and out of a pocket while always having a secure grip on it. The GRDs are some of the best build and most solid compact cameras you can find and the GRD III has further improved on this. It is slightly bigger now and the lens sticks out a bit as is the flash hotshoe, this has become necessary due to the faster (and bigger) lens and slightly bigger sensor. The lens barrell however has also been improved and is more solid now, it also stops extending should you accidentally turn the camera on in your pocket.
The bigger 3" LCD screen is absolutely fantastic and offers the highest resolution currently found on digital cameras with 920,000 pixels and a very high viewing angle. This has been improved from the previous GRDs and the screen also has a protective layer in front so it won't get scratched easily.
This is great but the downside is that the buttons had to be moved further to the right and made smaller to accomodate the extra screen estate. This is not too big a problem in real use although the previous GRDs were a bit better to handle due to the buttons being bigger and easier to reach.
While the controls have been great in the original GRD with its dual control wheels, the easily accessible EV compensation buttons, the mode dial which locks into place and the Adjust menu for fast and easy changes of user defined features (ISO, WB, Focus, etc.), they have been further improved and fine tuned on the GRD III. Unfortunately the 2nd control wheel has been replaced by a more cumbersome rocker switch since the GRD II. This works ok but not as well or as fast as the wheel on the GRD I so changing the shutter speed can take longer.
Ricoh have however implemented a solution for this by allowing to swap the function of the control dials in the menu and also allow to use the up-zoom button to set the correct exposure based on the current selected aperture or shutter speed so you only need to fine tune the settings.
The GRD III has now 3 My Settings positions on the mode dial, this makes it easy to save and access some of the most used functions. The My Settings are fully customizable and the camera will remember every single setting and option which has been selected.
Up to 6 settings can be stored in the My Settings Box and easily assigned to the 3 My Settings modes on the dial. To make it easier to remember each setting it is possible to assign names to the settings or use the current date.
The GRD III also offers two fully customizable Fn buttons to make it even faster to access settings. This all means you will never have to go into the menu once you have set the camera up the way you want.
With all these customizable controls the GRD III can be set up exactly how you want and it will never get in your way, this means you can fully focus on capturing the moment without having to worry about where to find and change the settings.
Continue reading to find out more about the new features introduced with the GRD III. Part 2 ...