Thursday, 3 December 2009

Ricoh GRD III Review – Part 2

With the GRD III Ricoh has introduced a lot of new features requested by previous GRD users.
There are to many features to mention all of them but I have created a summary of the most important below.

Multi-Pattern Auto White Balance

The GRD III offers a ‘Multi-Pattern Auto White Balance’. Unlike a normal Auto WB setting which uses only one reading to make the decision this will read different points in the image and select the best WB setting for each. A normal Auto WB reading will have problems with mixed light sources and struggle especially when taking flash pictures in the shade.
The Multi-Pattern Auto White Balance has been very accurate throughout and is a great tool as it allows one to focus on other aspects of photography without having to worry about setting the correct white balance or using grey cards.
When using RAW setting a correct white balance is not very important since it can be fixed in post processing but having the correct white balance already set means there is less room for error when setting the white balance. This comes in handy if like me you would like to use the JPGs out of the camera without always have to process every picture.

Snap Focus and AF improvements

Like all other Ricoh cameras the GRD III has the great Snap focus mode. The snap focus takes advantage of the big depth of field the small sensors have and pre-sets the focus to 2.5m. This means one can get a sharp picture from 2.5m to almost infinity. This method also helps to eliminate any focus lag and works very well in practice, as long as one does not require the focus to be closer than 2.5m. It is possible to assign it to the 'Fn' button for fast switching between normal AF and Snap focus.
Having the Snap focus set at 2.5m to eliminate any focus lag works great in practice and especially for street photography it is great. However, it is not very flexible and when the subject is closer or in low light when using low apertures it will not be accurate enough and the subject could end up out of focus. This has now been solved by allowing the user to select a different Snap focus distance and by pressing the 'up-arrow' one can set the focus distance to 1m, 2.5m, 5m or infinity (with the latest firmware you can also chose 1.5m). This is great and works excellent in practice, it almost makes the auto focus mode less important for street photography but also for landscapes since it's so easy to select infinity focus now.

This is already a great improvement but the GRD III does not stop here, the AF speed has been further improved and is now more accurate and faster in low light. To this Ricoh has now added a 'Pre-AF' option in the menu, here the camera always tries to focus even before the shutter is half-pressed. This will drain the batteries faster though and depending on where the camera is pointed can actually be slower if the camera has to shift between close and far distances.

The most important AF improvement for me however is that the dreaded LCD screen freeze from the GRD II and GX200 has been fixed and now you won't miss any shots because you can't see what is going on.

RAW Shooting

The RAW Buffer has been improved and the camera can now take up to 5 RAW images in the continuous mode. Together with a larger buffer the card write speed has also been improved and is now at under 3 seconds per RAW image. This brings the GRD on par with the GX200 and is a welcome addition seeing as the GRDs were always lagging behind the GX cameras when it camera to RAW writing.

While this sounds great on paper, in reality it's not quite as exciting since the write time to the card is still quite slow and the buffer only holds 5 pictures so you have to wait afterwards till files are written to the card. Using the new buffer for bracketing shots sounds good but the bracketing modes are still fairly limited and the EV bracketing mode is still as useless as ever and allows only the choice between EV +/- 0.3 and 0.5 (so no more than what a RAW file already gives you).

So while the new RAW buffer is great for a compact camera and it helps the GRD III being on top with the best serious compacts when it comes to RAW, have no illusions that it comes anywhere near what a dSLR will offer.

S-Priority Mode

Most photographers use either a full manual mode or more often they use the camera in aperture priority mode and leave the camera to select the appropriate shutter speed. There are times however when choosing the shutter speed and letting the camera select the correct aperture is desired. When taking sports or action pictures it is important to have a fast shutter speed in order to freeze the motion or to get the opposite effect by blurring the motion and create a different effect.
With the GRD III, Ricoh has finally added a shutter priority mode to the aperture priority and program shift modes. This has been a feature requested by users for quite a while and it is good to see Ricoh finally implementing it. Having a S-priority mode combined with the general high depth of field, even at wide apertures, of small sensors means this mode is very useful for street and people photography where things can happen fast and freezing the moment is important. At the same time being able to control the shutter speed also makes it possible to create a feel of motion by selecting a slow shutter speed.

Improved Macro Performance

Ricoh cameras have always been excellent for taking macro pictures and the GRD III has been further improved and now it can focus as close as 1cm. Not only the close focus distance but also the magnification achieved is higher on Ricoh cameras than with the competition, together with the very sharp lenses it is possible to capture even the smallest details. The GRD III now uses a floating mechanism for macro shooting to prevent the field curvature which can be a problem with retro-focus wide-angle lenses.

The AF point in macro mode is also freely movable which eliminates the need to re-frame the shot after focusing, due to the precise focus needed in macro mode having to re-frame the shot could already mean that the critical focus point is lost.

The macro mode still remains one of the strongest points in Ricoh cameras.

Colour Settings

Most of the time the only choice one has over the colour output when shooting JPG is between 'Normal' and 'Saturated'. For the GRD III Ricoh does not only allow to change the vividness, contrast and sharpening but also added the option to customize the Hue and Saturation for each colour (orange, green, sky blue, red, and magenta). This can be set in five levels so there is enough room to customize the look.
This means one has a lot of freedom when it comes to the colours and look of the pictures. This can be saved in the image settings so it is easy to re-call the specific settings and apply them.

This is a very nice feature although it probably won't be used regularly it can allow for some nice color effects in your pictures. Since it only applies to JPG files, you can always go back to the RAW file if you prefer to have normal colors.

DR Mode/Double Exposure Mode

Small sensors have two major shortcomings when compared with larger sensors found in dSLRs. The first is the noise, which can be dealt with by in-camera processing, the second is the limited dynamic range, which is more difficult to hide or fix in-camera.
One method to get around the limited dynamic range of small sensors is to use HDR, take two or more pictures with different exposures and merge them together. Until now this had to be done on a computer but with cameras becoming more powerful, Ricoh has implemented this feature in-camera.

The DR mode in the GRD III works by taking two pictures in a row, one exposed for the highlights and one for the shadows. It then merges these together and creates a picture with higher dynamic range. Taking two pictures and merging them together means there will be a delay between the two pictures so this mode will be of no use for shots with any movement and in order to get the best results one has to use a tripod.
The DR mode works ok but since the delay between the two pictures is quite long, the output is limited to JPG only and it is actually possible to get the very same result from processing a single RAW file it is more for people who do not want to spend time processing their files on a computer and rather get the picture right in-camera. I personally find the DR mode on the GRD III pretty much useless and nowhere near as good as on the CX1.

I found myself using the DR mode more as a double exposure mode and got some very nice effects. This is actually more fun and I hope Ricoh can add an option in firmware to allow for a customizable delay in taking the 2nd shot to get a proper double exposure mode.

Grid Lines

In addition to the 3 x 3 grid, a 4 x 4 grid with diagonal lines and 2 x 2 grid with a central visual field have been added. This makes it easy to get the right composition and I found them actually very helpful for architecture shots.

These are the main features of the GRD III, continue to the image tests. Continue to Part 3 ...

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