Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Ricoh GX200 Review – Part 2

Operation and Image Quality

In Part 1 I have looked at the build and controls and found both to be excellent. This is very good indeed but what about the actual picture taking operation. Having great controls is not enough if the camera does not perform otherwise and is slow to respond. So how does the GX200 perform when you're out taking pictures?

Operation and Image Quality

The first thing you notice is that it is very fast to power up, extend the lens and be ready to take the first picture. This is of course if you have the lens cap removed or use the LC-1 lens cap. This is good news and should ensure that you get the shot you want. As mentioned before, due to the fantastic controls and the ability to save your settings it will be easy to power it on with the settings you want so you don't have to first change things in the menu.

The colors are very natural and the WB is accurate

The lens is very good and shows very little distortion considering the 24mm lens, you will rarely have any problems with flare and chromatic aberrations are very well controlled. Aside from the prime lens equipped GRD II and DP1 this is the best lens you will find in a compact camera. The LX3 is more like a fish-eye lens with very strong distortion and fringing that is luckily corrected by the JPG processing and the G10 and P6000 also have more distortion and in the case of the G10 quite strong fringing problems. One downside is that while the lens is very bright at the wide end at f2.5, it gets quite slow towards the tele end and is at f4.4 too slow for low light shooting even with the image stabilizer. The Panasonic LX3 is despite the problems with the lens very popular because it has a very bright f2.0-f2.4 lens and this makes it much better in low light.
The image stabilizer works very well in my experience and it allows you to use relatively slow shutter speeds, especially at the wide end. As mentioned before, at the tele end the lens is too slow for low light shooting.

The detail in macro mode and the magnification possible are great.

Where the lens really shines is when you want to take pictures in macro mode, very few cameras allow you to get that close to your subject. While it is not unusual to have a minimum focus distance of 1cm at the wide end, it is not very common to be able to get as close as 3cm at the tele end. This means you can take fantastic macro pictures with the GX200 and with the EVF it's possible to be very near the ground.

Now you might have noticed from the pictures of the 3 GX cameras that the GX200 misses the phase detection AF found on the older models. This is not only a problem with the appearance of the camera but a big problem with the speed when focusing. Where the GX100 was very fast to focus, the GX200 is not as reliable and exhibits the same issue like the R10 and GRD II with the screen freeze. This means every time you half press the shutter button the screen (and EVF) will freeze while the camera tries to focus. This was a major problem and the biggest issue I had with the R10 and is an even bigger issue here considering that this is a camera aimed at enthusiasts. Same as the GRD II and R10, not only will the screen freeze but the camera won't take the picture till it has focus confirmation or failed completely to focus. Again this is a major problem for me and something that needs to be fixed if possible with a firmware update.

Shots like these can be a problem with the LCD freeze

Let me put this in perspective, you stand by a road and want to take a picture of a passing car. You see the car coming towards you, half press the shutter to focus on it, the screen freezes for a moment and when you see again if the camera has locked the focus, the car is already out of your frame. This has caused me a lot of headache and was very annoying at times although I already knew about it from the GRD II, which does not get used much exactly because of this behaviour. It is not excusable for a serious compact to exhibit this problem, not even if other cameras like the Sigma DP1 and Panasonic LX3 show the same problem when focusing. As I mentioned in my R10 review, it looks to me like it is a problem with the contrast detection AF which utilizes the sensor to focus. So not only is the GX200 slower to focus than the GX100, which has the phase detection AF, it also freezes your screen long enough for you to miss the decisive moment. The focus priority instead of shutter priority does not help either and so using AF will be a consideration for non moving objects very soon. Another problem with the AF that I noticed while doing the comparison is that if you focus on the sky, the GRD I, GX and GX100 with phase detection manage to focus on infinity where the GX200 and the other cameras without phase detection can't and fail to focus. The strange thing is that the Panasonic LC1 and Nikon D70 have exactly the same problem to achieve focus and both use phase detection.

Portraits are very easy to do with the 72mm lens and the details even at ISO 200 are really good.

This is the biggest problem with the GX200 but, like on the R10, it can be worked around with by using Snap focus or using Manual Focus. This is not always a good solution however but it at least kind of makes up for this shortcoming.
The snap focus is one of the best things about Ricoh cameras since it takes advantage of the big depth of field the sensors have and pre-sets the focus to 2.5m. This means you get a sharp picture from 2.5m to almost infinity. This method also helps to eliminate the auto focus lag and together with the none existent shutter lag makes this the preferred mode for street photography. It works very well in practice, as long as you don't require the focus to be much closer than 2m, and you can assign it to one of the Fn buttons for fast switching between normal AF and Snap.
The manual focus does work well enough in practice but it is not as good as it could and should be. While it does not have the great manual focus wheel found on the Sigma DP1, it also misses out on the DOF preview found on the GRD II or the Panasonic LX3. Also unlike the latter it does not allow you to select the focus point and zoom in a specific part of the image as you can see illustrated here on Erik's blog, it always zooms in the centre.
While I see that there was no space left for a manual focus wheel like the DP1 and maybe it was not possible to add the free focus point, there is no excuses for not adding the DOF preview found on the GRD II. This seems to be a simple firmware difference and Ricoh should add this to the GX200. They might want to differentiate the GRD II more from the GX200 but in my opinion the firmware should be identical between all Ricoh cameras and the differences not done in firmware but be based around hardware differences.
A few other firmware differences include the great 'Custom Self-timer' from the R10 and the ability to record dual size images, this should be easy enough to implement and have a consistent firmware for all current Ricoh cameras. Another wish for a firmware update would be a lower interval shooting from 1 second, a useful bracketing mode instead of the useless EV +/-0.5 and the ability to turn the noise reduction full off.

The dynamic range is much improved over the GX100.

Looking at the hardware as such you will see that the GX200 has a big RAW buffer for 5 shots, compared with only 2 on the GRD II or 3 on the LX3 and only 1 on the DP1, G10 and Nikon P6000. This is very good news indeed and means you never have to wait for the camera to finish writing to the card, it also never locks it up completely (like the DP1 and P6000 or the GX100) and lets you focus on taking pictures instead of waiting for the camera. This is very good for a compact camera and shows that Ricoh has been listening to the complaints about the slow write times of the GX100. For some this alone might be reason enough to update from the GX100 or consider the GX200. One great thing about RAW is that Ricoh always uses the open DNG format so you will get support in most major RAW converters and won't have to wait long (or at all) for the cameras to be supported.

This is how the electronic leveler is displayed on the screen.

Another feature that the Ricoh cameras have above the competition is the electronic leveler. Like on the R10 and GRD II this works very well in both landscape and portrait mode and helps to keep the horizon straight in situations when it would be difficult otherwise or when using the camera on a tripod. You can choose to display the leveler on the screen, have an audible beep or both. As mentioned in my R10 review, the only other camera to have this feature built in is the Nikon D3 but there is only works in landscape mode and of course the camera costs nearly 10x as much.

I mentioned the following about the video mode in the R10 review: "I will not even go into the movie mode since this is something where Ricoh is seriously lagging behind.". This can also be said about the GX200 (or any other Ricoh camera) but considering the people the GX200 is aimed at this won't be a big issue. Most people looking for a serious compact camera won't care too much about the video mode. The more I find Ricoh should have just removed the feature altogether and instead include the great voice recording option found on the GRD I. Now this was something really useful and it worked great.

So far the controls are fantastic, the features are very good and the operation is fine except for the problems with the AF and screen freeze. What about the image quality?

Landscapes are very detailed.

The image quality is a mixed bag, on the one hand it is fantastic at low ISO and very good for long exposures but if you ever go over ISO 400 the JPGs are smeared and the RAW files have a lot of noise. The higher the ISO the more careful you need to be with your exposure and over ISO 400 it's best to underexpose by almost 1 stop. ISO 1600 is pretty much useless and the JPGs are the worst of all Ricoh cameras and even the RAW files can only be really converted to b&w. The dynamic range however has been improved from the GX100 and is much better now without blowing the highlights as easy. Like all recent Ricoh cameras the JPGs suffer from too much noise reduction even at base ISO and if the Noise Reduction is set to 'off' in the menu, this means you have to use RAW most of the time for best results.

If you underexpose one stop you can get decent results by using ISO 800, this is a JPG.

If however you keep the ISO low, expose properly and process RAW files you will get a very good image quality that can be as good as on the GRD II or any other serious compact camera. The 12 MP sensor together with the excellent lens resolves fine details and very good colors, this is helped by the accurate white balance. If you shoot RAW you have to sharpen the images more than on the GRD II and add more contrast but if you do so you will not notice a big difference between both cameras.

Because I think it is better to show how the image quality is and not to talk about how it is you will find sample images on this page, all processed from RAW (unless stated otherwise) and the next parts will be all about the image quality and focus on real world pictures. Continue to find out how the GX200 compares against the GX, GX100, GRD I, GRD II, R10 and Panasonic LC1.

Continue to Part 3...

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