Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Ricoh GX200 Review – Part 1

If you are looking to purchase a camera that offers you full manual functions, a wide angle zoom lens starting at 24mm, RAW, offers the option to use a removable EVF and allows you to use AAA batteries in emergency situations you will have only two options, the Ricoh GX100 and GX200.
This review will look in-depth at the GX200, it is split in 8 parts and will cover the following:

Part 1 - Introduction, Build, Controls and Accessories
Part 2 - Operation and Picture Quality
Part 3 - Image Comparison GX200 vs. GX100, GX and R10
Part 4 - Image Comparison GX200 vs. GX100, GRD I and GRD II
Part 5 - Image Comparison GX200 vs. GX100, GRD II and Panasonic LC1
Part 6 - High Iso Comparison
Part 7 - Long Exposure Comparison
Part 8 - Conclusion & Samples


When you're looking to purchase a compact camera which allows you to do more than simply point and shoot you will be looking at the enthusiast models or serious compacts out there. What exactly is a serious compact you might wonder and what makes a serious compact different from a camera like the R10 I've reviewed here? For this you might want to start by having a look at the SeriousCompacts website. But let me also explain it here. A serious compact camera is a camera that offers you full manual controls, RAW, a hot-shoe, manual focus and usually high quality build.
There are only a few manufacturers that produce serious compacts, these are Ricoh, Panasonic, Canon and Sigma, you could also add Nikon to the list but their efforts are in my opinion a bit half hearted and trailing behind the competition. While you might not have heard of Ricoh while looking for a dSLR or for a cheap point and shoot camera you will hear about Ricoh when looking for any serious compact. Ricoh was and still is one of the major players in this market and has been producing high quality compact cameras for a while now. They were also one of the first companies to release cameras with wide-angle lenses and are still ahead of the competition when it comes to the lens quality and especially when looking at the handling and controls.

RicohGX200 with LC-1 lens cap

This review will focus on the latest serious compact camera released by Ricoh, the GX200. Same as in my R10 review I will not focus much on test charts or explaining every single entry in the menu. Again, you can find this in other reviews and in the manual available here.

From left to right: Ricoh GX, GX100 and GX200

Let's have a quick look how the GX series evolved and how the GX200 compares against the GX100 and the first GX. The GX cameras, like the GR series, are for enthusiasts. The cameras all offer full manual controls, TIFF and since the GX100 RAW support, high quality lenses and bigger CCDs than the more consumer oriented R series. This is all similar to the GR series but where the GR series has a fixed lens, the GX series offers a high quality 3x zoom lens.
The GX and GX8 both had a zoom range from 28-85mm, this has been changed with the GX100 and GX200 to 24-72mm. The GX200 now sports a 1/1.7" 12MP sensor, this has unfortunately been increased from the 10 MP of the GX100 or the 1/1.8" 8MP sensor from the GX8, the extra resolution however is a welcome improvement from the 1/1.8" 5MP sensor found in the GX. Unlike the GX and GX8, the GX100 and GX200 offer now sensor based image stabilisation, this works very well and is especially useful at the long end of the zoom and in low light.
The LCD has also been constantly improved and got bigger (from 1.8" to 2.7"), brighter, has a faster refresh rate and higher resolution. Looking back at previous GX models one can see how the series evolved and constantly improved over time.
One nice touch is that Ricoh finally dropped the 'Caplio' name from the GX and the R series, this never made much sense, especially when the 'Caplio' name was written bigger than the Ricoh brand on the cameras.
The build and controls in particular have also undergone considerable changes and are a lot more refined now. The biggest downside now is that the GX100 and GX200 have a lens cap instead of the self closing blades the GX and GX8 had, the lens cap is a bit annoying and pretty inconvenient if you ask me so not a good change. There is help for this however as you will see in the Accessories section.

Build and Controls

Looking at the GX200 you will see immediately that this is a serious compact camera and is not aimed at people looking to buy a simple point&shoot camera. It is right in there with the Ricoh GRD II, Canon G10, Panasonic LX3 and the Sigma DP1. The build quality is excellent and the camera feels very solid and well built. While it is not quite as solidly built as the GRD series or the Canon G10, it is better than the Panasonic LX3, Sigma DP1 or the Nikon P6000.
One thing however people are concerned about when using the camera is the slightly wobbly lens assembly. The lens does indeed wobble a bit but having spoken to Ricoh about this, it is not a problem but a design choice necessary for the zoom lens to ensure a smoother and quieter zoom operation. The lens is a lot more solid than it looks and although I have accidentally dropped it on concrete, with the lens extended, all it had were some minor scratches. Having said that, the lens assembly is in no way as solid built as the Ricoh R10 or the Canon G10.
The hand grip is great and due to the bigger size, when compared with the R10, Panasonic LX3 or Nikon P600, it is a lot more comfortable and stable to hold.
Nothing on the camera feels flimsy or cheap, everything feels well made and solid, even the tripod mount is made out of metal. This is a camera made for the enthusiast or professional looking for a compact camera and this is clear to see.

RicohGX200 with LC-1 lens cap and EVF

If you are familiar with the other Ricoh cameras you will feel right at home with the controls and menu, everything is in the same place as it was on the GX100 and the GRDs. If you are not familiar however let me say that these are the best controls you can get in any compact camera today. Everything is placed logically and can easily be accessed. The control wheel at the front, the adjust rocker switch at the back together with 2 customizable Fn buttons and the 3 My Settings on the mode dial allow you to change every setting you would need very fast and without the need to go into the menu. While reviewing the camera I only used the menu once at the beginning to set everything up and then again to activate the interval mode. There is no doubt to why Ricoh is considered to be the best manufacturer when it comes to the handling and controls in compact cameras. Their cameras look and feel like they have been designed by photographers for photographers and not by engineers for people who like to press buttons. I will go as far as to say that you won't find better controls in any digital camera, only the Panasonic LC1, Epson RD1 and the Leica M8 come close and neither is really compact.

It is difficult to explain just how well the controls work and how good the handling really is so if you have the chance go to a shop and see for yourself. I have spent less than 5 minutes with this camera to explain to beginners in photography how to take photos in full manual mode and what effects shutter speed and aperture have on a picture, it is so easy.
Let me explain a bit, with the front wheel you change the aperture when in A or M-mode but it does not stop there, go in the menu and use it to go up and down or use it in playback mode to zoom in and out of the picture.
Use the Adj. rocker switch to change the shutter speed in M mode, use it in any menu to go left and right or go to the next and previous picture in playback mode. Press it and you get to the 'Adjust' menu where you can adjust 4 customizable shooting options (like the ISO, Image Settings, Focus and White Balance or Image size) plus a 5th option where you can freely move the focus and/or AE point on the screen, this as you might have guessed can also be moved by the front wheel and the Adj. rocker switch.
If you want to easily set the AE lock, switch between RAW and JPG shooting, Color or B&W, AF or Snap focus mode, EV Compensation, Flash compensation or any other feature you can think of, you can assign it to one of the two Fn buttons.
The camera also remembers every important setting even during power off and you have 3 customizable My Settings where you can save different settings for everything, including the zoom position (when using step zoom) and even the value for auto-high ISO. You can even save a scene mode on one of the My Settings for quick access.
As you can see this is the most customizable camera you can find and you can set it up exactly the way you want to be able to take pictures without having to press buttons and navigate through endless pages in the menu.
The controls are now way more refined and a huge step forward from the GX to which other manufacturers still haven't managed to catch up, instead they force you to go through the menu to make even simple changes to the ISO or White Balance.

Overall I would say the GX200 is one of the best built compact cameras although not quite as solid and robust as the GRDs, the G10 or even the R10. This is something where Ricoh needs to improve considering this is their professional camera line. Especially the lens assembly needs to be improved.


RicohGX200 with EVF and GW-1 19mm adapter lens

There are several accessories available for the GX200 and the GX100. The most innovative and unique one is the removable electronic viewfinder, the Ricoh GX100 was the first compact camera to feature a removable EVF. The removable EVF is very nice and helps making the camera more pocketable when not attached and is a huge improvement from the tiny hole that was the OVF in the GX and GX8 or the horrible and dark OVF on the Canon G10 and Nikon P6000 that is obstructed by the lens. The quality is very good with fast refresh rates, no lag and it does not get grainy in low light unlike the EVF in the Panasonic LC1. The resolution is pretty high and you can easily see everything although it can't compare with the truly fantastic EVF in the Panasonic G1, now this is an EVF that is beats an OVF for clarity, usefulness and brightness. The Ricoh EVF however can be tilted 90° and allows very discreet shooting or taking ground level macro shots without having to crawl on the floor for this. It shows the full shooting information and is particularly useful for street photography where you can set it to b&w and focus only on the exposure, due to the live histogram, and the right moment without being distracted by colors around you.

Other accessories include the lens adapter and hood, the 19mm wide angle lens, a 135mm tele lens and a cable release. I could only test the lens adapter and the 19mm lens and can only recommend it. It does add more distortion to your images but this is to be expected at 19mm. The nice thing however is that you can zoom when the lens is attached so you get a 19-52mm lens instead of 24-72mm. The 135mm tele lens however won't let you use the zoom when attached without getting vignetting problems. If you have the adapter lenses and EVF attached the GX200 will look and feel like a mini dSLR.

The best accessory and a must buy with the GX200 is the LC-1 self-closing lens cap, not only does it replace the original lens cap with a much better self closing one, it looks so cool when you open it that you might end up powering the camera on and off just for fun after you get this. This lens cap is fantastic and shows that Ricoh is at the moment, together with Panasonic, the most innovative camera manufacturer.

This was Part 1 of the review, click here to continue to Part 2 where I will look at the Operation and Picture Quality.

Continue to Part 2...

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