Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Ricoh GRD III Review – Part 4

While the low ISO comparisons revealed some interesting things about the GRDs, the image quality differences were only minor between them.
In this part I will look at how the image quality compares at ISO 400, 800 and 1600. This should be more demanding for the cameras and especially the JPG engines which have to deal with more noise. Therefore we should see bigger differences between the cameras.

Part 4 – Image Comparison GRDs – Part 2 (Color: ISO 400, 800 and 1600)

As before this test is not scientific and is meant to show how these cameras perform when used in normal situations. All cameras have been set to A-mode, EV -0.3, ISO 400, 800 and 1600 respectively, Normal image parameters* with NR off (GRD II and III) and Auto WB. The JPGs are unprocessed and the RAW files were batch processed with RAW Therapee 2.4 using the default profile.
The pictures have all been taken without a tripod.

* Please note that because the GRD I does not shoot RAW at ISO 1600, I have used 2 JPG profiles. The JPG1 in the filename is the JPG with normal parameters, the JPG2 signifies that the following parameters have been used: Contrast +2, Sharpness + 1 and Color Depth -2. This greatly improves the JPGs at high ISO for the GRD I and is a fairer comparison against the RAW files from the GRD II and III. No noise reduction has been applied.

Ok, let's start with the first picture and get straight to ISO 1600 using JPG, I will use two crops from the same image to illustrate this better.

Well, none of the cameras does a truly fantastic job here and you can see why ISO 1600 on a small sensor camera is not a good idea. The GRD I performs best because it has no aggressive noise reduction smearing away details. It is the only picture which can actually be further processed, both the GRD II and GRD III have too aggressive noise reduction going on even when it's set to off. The GRD II is worst in my opinion and you would not want to use its JPGs at ISO 1600.

Let's see now how the RAW files compare with the 2nd JPG profile from the GRD I and also GRD III for comparison.

Looking at the RAW files shows a very significant improvement in both the files from the GRD II and GRD III, while the GRD II file is very noisy it manages to hold enough details. Surprising enough, neither camera shows a significant enough advantage over the GRD I with the 2nd JPG profile and at 50% view the GRD I actually looks better and more crisp. It is a shame that the GRD I does not support RAW at ISO 1600 because I believe this would then be a clear win for the GRD I. Due to the high contrast of the GRD I JPG it has burnt some highlights, something which both the GRD II and GRD III easily recovered in their RAW files.

Let's move on to the 2nd picture of this comparison and see how a more modest ISO setting of 400 looks when using JPG.

This picture shows clearly how bad the GRD II JPG engine really is and how much noise reduction is going on even with the NR setting to OFF. The whole image lacks detail and looks smudgy, especially the shadow areas. The GRD I and GRD III show a similar level of detail, with the GRD III clearly having less noise although you can see some small noise reduction artefacts.

Now it's time to see how the RAW files compare.

The result is maybe not quite unexpected. The GRD II shows the highest amount of noise, even when compared with the GRD I, yet can't show any significant advantage over the GRD I. The RAW file from the GRD III is again a big improvement over the JPG and beats the other GRDs.

The next picture is again at ISO 400 and JPG.

This picture shows more than the previous one how much impact the noise reduction of the GRD II and GRD III has on the details and especially look of the picture. While both the GRD II and GRD III JPGs look smudgy and more like watercolor paintings, the GRD I shows a good level of detail and a crisp image. Yes, there is noise in the GRD I JPG but this is easy to remove and much better than the smudgy files from the GRD II and GRD III.

Now lets see if the RAW files change the situation.

Like on the previous picture, the RAW file is a huge improvement over the JPG from the GRD III. Also the GRD II shows the most noise and yet again does not manage to do better than the GRD I. The GRD III RAW comes out on top once more, although it is by a small margin only.

Let's move on and see how ISO 800 looks when using JPG.

This time the GRD I shows a lot of noise but can't manage to show any significant details more than the really smudgy GRD II JPG, the GRD III shows the most details and least noise here.

The RAW file should hopefully be an improvement so let's have a look at how it compares.

This time the GRD I and GRD II look almost identical, neither can really show more details and both have similar amount of noise. The GRD III RAW file is again a massive improvement over the smudgy JPG and easily beats the other GRDs.

For the last comparison picture let's see how this scene looks at ISO 1600, in JPG first.

Not surprising it is the same as on the first picture, neither camera performs very well but the GRD I looks most pleasing and less like the watercolor paintings produced by the GRD II and GRD III.
There is however one worrying observation this time in the GRD III picture as you can see below.

The GRD III shows quite heavy banding in shadow areas at ISO 1600 and unfortunately it is not an isolated case as it happens in every picture taken at ISO 1600 and sometimes even at ISO 800 in both JPG and RAW. This is a massive problem and as nice as the image quality might be, it renders ISO 1600 unusable on the GRD III until Ricoh fix this problem.

Now after discovering the banding issue I should probably disqualify the GRD III from any further tests at ISO 1600 but let's see how the RAW files look.

Unsurprising the GRD II shows the most noise, the GRD I holds up very well with the 2nd JPG profile and the GRD III could win easily in RAW if it weren't for the banding issue in the shadow areas.

Now, this time it's more difficult to give a recommendation for any of the GRDs but looking at this test it is clear that the GRD II offers absolutely no advantage over the GRD I when it comes to high ISO shooting. The GRD III on the other hand offers excellent performance in RAW at ISO 400 and 800 and it would be easy to fully recommend for low light shooting were it not for the massive banding issue at ISO 1600.
As it stands the 4 year old GRD I is overall the best and most consistent performer especially if you use ISO 400 and ISO 1600 with the 2nd JPG profile or use RAW at ISO 400 and ISO 800.

Ricoh really needs to fix the banding issue on the GRD III, as it stands right now it is serious enough for me not to recommend using the GRD III at ISO 1600.

You can however work around the banding issue by always underexposing your picture by using EV -1 or raising the black levels when processing the RAW files. This is not ideal though and should not be necessary for a camera in the class (and price range) of the GRD III.

If you want to evaluate the pictures used here for yourself, you can download them here.

Next is part 5, which will look at the b&w image quality. Part 5...

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