Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Ricoh GXR Review - GXR System, Body & Controls

How do you review a system camera that is not one camera but many or no camera at all? And more important how do you explain the system to other people if even the manufacturer did not do a very good job at explaining it?

These and other reasons (main other one being time) were what kept me from writing my Ricoh GXR review sooner.

Since this is more than a simple camera review I decided to approach it slightly different but without making it any less extensive than my other reviews.
So to start off I tought the best would be to look at what the GXR system is and try to explain it first before moving on to the body and modules.
There will be no comparisons done for the GXR review, instead each unit will stand on it's own. Don't worry though, I will post comparisons between the GXR modules and and other cameras but these will be done separate.

So without further ado let's go to the first part and look at what the GXR system is and at the build and controls.

Ricoh GXR System

Ricoh announced the GXR system on the 10th November 2009 and it took a lot of people by surprise since nobody expected it to be, what Ricoh calls, a ‘Interchangeable Unit Camera System’. Instead people (myself included) thought it would be more like the other mirrorless interchangeable lens systems but with Ricoh's superb handling and their own excellent lenses.
Now, this has left a lot of people confused and Ricoh's usual minimalistic marketing did nothing to show people what the GXR actually is or more important what it could be. Sure, Ricoh has shown mockups of diferent modules as you can see below but has done this mostly in Japan and even these did not really explain what the GXR system is.

The GXR system is not a camera system but more a digital modular system that does not need to have anything at all to do with cameras as such. The system is simply the ability to connect a control module to a system module and being able to swap these system modules in order to get the best one for the task at hand. The GXR system can be anything Ricoh desires it to be by simply building the body and system modules required for a specific task.

In other words the GXR system is not the body nor the currently available camera modules but simply the mechanism and protocol connecting these together.
Understanding this makes it easy to see the potential of the GXR system.

This means that not only could Ricoh release the modules pictures above like a hard drive module, a projector module, printer module or even wireless camera module but also release different camera modules with different size sensors (as pictured below) in each and also release a new body to fit either of these modules best all while mantaining the ability to mix and mach modules and bodies.

Another possibility is to release lens mount modules, like the newly announced Leica M-mount module pictured below, but with the possibility of releasing different sensors for these modules like a full frame sesor, a infrared sensor or (my favorite) a b&w sensor or with different lens mounts which would all be fully compatible with the lenses and protocols. My personal wish would be a Contax G module with full AF capabilities.
Any of these mount modules will make the GXR the first digital system where you separate the body, the lens and the sensor. This is a massive advantage considering how fast digital sensors improve these days but also offers more possibilities as I will try to explain further down.

As you can see there are quite a lot of possibilities of what Ricoh can do with the GXR system.

Since I am speculating of what Ricoh can do with the GXR system let me say what I would want to see being done with the system to make it stand above all other systems. All other interchgangeable lens systems force you to choose a lens format and also a sensor size. The biggest problem here is that the lenses and bodies get bigger and heavier the bigger the sensor behind gets and the longer the reach of the lens is.
Now imagine you would buy a 50mm lens for a FF module that you could also use on a APS-C module to make it effective a 75mm lens due to the 1.5x sensor crop, the very same lens would become a 100mm lens on a m4/3 module and a 200mm lens on a 1" module or a 400mm lens on an even smaller sensor. Sure, it will not be exactly what a real FF lens is on a FF system but then it will be much smaller at these focal length without sacrificing too much other than the DOF control.
What this would mean is that Ricoh would only need to design only a handfull of high quality lenses for this system which could cover almost all focal lengths with the right sensor modules behind.

Now that we looked at what the GXR system is and what possibilities it provides let's look at what is currently avalable for the system.

(top: LH-1 lens hood for A12 28mm, HA-3 lens hood and adapter for S10, DW-6 wideangle for S10, TC-1 telephoto converter for S10 and GF-1 flash
bottom: GXR with GV-2 EVF and A12 50mm, A12 28mm, S10 24-72mm with LC-2 lenscap and P10 module
For all other available accessories click here)

As you can see currently there are only sealed camera modules available and this is the main reason the GXR system has not taken off despite the promisse it has and what it could be if Ricoh decided to go that way.

While there are advatages to be able to simply change a sealed unit and swap between a large sensor camera fixed lens to a small sensor superzoom camera in an instant, all while retaining the same controls and interface, it is a problem if you have to buy two APS modules in order to get two different prime lenses for the same sensor. Certainly the modules make sense if you see each as a fixed lens camera in it's own right. So while I agree about the small sensor modules (especially the P10 module), I don't see the point doing this for the two APS modules, especially if you essentially get the same sensor in both modules.

Before you continue to read the rest of my review and my reviews of the individual camera modules make sure you can live with fixed lens cameras first, if not you need to look at m4/3 cameras or similar (for now).

So right now the GXR system is a bit of an odd compromise and Ricoh has not done enough to make it live up to it's full potential, looking at the M-mount module however it looks like things are changing.
If you are still reading it means you understand what the GXR system has offer at the moment and are intersted to find out more. Let's move on then and look at the build and controls.

GXR Body & Controls

The (current) GXR body, in the most simple terms, is nothing more than a shell containing a few buttons and dials, a 3″ LCD screen with 920,000 pixels, a tiny pop-up flash, the battery and card reader.

The body might look flimsy from the pictures, especially if you see it without a module inserted but it's extremely solid and once you attach a module it feels like a single unit without any play or flex. The phrase 'built like a tank' comes into mind and is certainly one of the best built cameras you will find.

The only thing you need to protect is the LCD screen or more acurate the anti reflective coating on it. Unless you want it to look like mine (pictured below) you should put a screen protector on it as soon as you get it (the same applies to the GRD III screen by the way!). Here I hope Ricoh will add a screen protector for the next GXR body revision to avoid this problem.

It is not easy to see but what happened is that the anti-reflective coating has come off in places during use so now the screen is almost impossible to see in daylight. A simple screen protector will take care of this however.
(This picture is not very good so I will replace it soon.)

The GXR body has the same excellent Ricoh controls but is now slightly bigger to accomodate the modules and the handgrip is now more square with hard edges instead of the nice, smooth and rounded handgrip found on the GRDs and previous GX cameras (which I much prefer btw.).

Ricoh has further refined the controls and has implemented a different round shutter button, a different power switch and have added a 'Direct' control panel. I am  however not a huge fan of the round shutter button and find the power switch too hard to move but at least it won't turn the camera accidentaly on as could happen with previous Ricoh cameras.

Like other Ricoh cameras the GXR also provides easy access to the main functions using the control wheel on the front, the rocker switch on the back which gives access to the Adjust menu and allows easy and quick changes to the user defined functions, the usual 2 user cusomizable Fn buttons, easy access to change the EV compensation and the 3 My Settings found on the mode select dial where now you can store up to 6 settings. All of these things can be done with only one hand but if this is not enough you an also access the main settings using the Direct control panel, although the button placement means you need to use your 2nd hand for this.

Like the GRD III before this is one of the most customizable cameras you can find and you can literally spend hour customizing it and tailor everything to your taste if you so like or you can just spend 2 minutes setting up the Adjust menu and start shooting without ever seeing the camera menu again.

One advantage of the interchangeable camera modules is that you can store your settings on either the body or camera module so you can decide to use the same settings for all modules or custom settings for each module. It also means that as soon as you buy a new module the firmware will update the body firmware to give you access to all the new features that might come with a new camera module.

As you can see the GXR body is not only extremely well built but also has some excellent and well thought out controls, it is better than you will find in any compact camera and also most dSLRs.
Unfortunately without a module attached the body is nothing more than a paperweight or if you so desire a cumbersome and limited picture viewer since it can read (some) JPG files from SD cards. Here it's a shame that Ricoh did not include the ability to at least use it as a voice recorder as was possible with the GRD I.

In the future I hope to see different GXR bodies, hopefully one styled like the Fuji X100 and maybe a very minimalistic one which is barely bigger than the modules to keep it really compact.

In my next part I will be looking at one of the camera modules available for the GXR and see how it performs when attached to the body.


  1. Great, looking forward to part 2

  2. Thanks, glad you liked it.

    Part 2 will be coming soon and looking on the poll it will be the A12 28mm module.

  3. Hello Cristi,

    Nice introduction of the GXR systeem. I'm very interesting in the speed of the AF from the A 12 28 mm. I see a lot of negative comments that the AF is very slow in low lights. Thanks!

    1. The AF speed is indeed very slow in low light.

      Just make sure to avoid Spot AF at any cost, Multi AF is more reliable.

      A deal breaker for me really, as Spot AF is the way I'm used to shoot.

    2. Dan, you are right that Multi AF is faster but this is due to it focusing on whatever is easiest to focus on rather than what you want it to focus on.
      This is why I never use Multi-AF on my cameras, the better option is to use Snap AF or engage the Full-Press AF instead since this willbe more accurate if you set your distance.

      Overall the GXR A12 modules are as fast or slow to AF in low light (with the latest firmware) as any other fixed lens APS camera but not as fast as the mirrorless cameras.

  4. Thanks for all your Ricoh detailed reviews! I am looking forward to the comprehensive review of the modules, especially the A 12 28 mm. As the earlier post, the weak point for the speed of autofocus in low light conditions. I wonder what the qualitative differences in the GRD III. I look forward to it. Thanks in advance.


  5. Thanks for your comments and for reading the review.
    The A12 28mm will be reviewed next and I will make sure the Af speed gets covered. Right now I am looking at possibly also doing a comparison with the GRD III while I am at it.

  6. Any idea when a Mark 2 body will be coming out? Is it likely that they would change the grip - wouldn't this make the camera longer and therefore larger? Not that I like a camera of NEX proportions. :)


  7. Mark, I have no official information on this but I would guess taht any new body for the GXR would be released with the new m-mount module since it would make most sense.

  8. Contax G module witth full AF fullframe=dream, I second that

  9. Let's hope we will get a Contax G adapter with full AF, it would be niche but then the GXR is the perfect system to cater to these things since it's so flexible.

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