There are currently four modules available for the GXR System with the A12 28mm f2.5 being the latest module. This part of my ongoing GXR review focuses only on this module so if you want to know more about the GXR system, the controls and the build quality read the first part of my review here.
Now lets see how the A12 28mm f2.5 module works as a photographic tool.
The module itself is small and light, it slides without problems into the GXR body and once attached the whole unit feels as one extremely well built camera.The GXR body with attached A12 28mm module is very compact, thanks in part to the retracting lens, and easily slips into a jacket pocket, although the solid build of both the module and body means you will notice the weight.
The A12 28mm module does not have a macro mode so the close-up capabilities are not very good.
Turning the camera on takes around 2-3 seconds until it's fully initialized and you can take a picture, the lens extends quite fast but is not silent and makes a fairly loud mechanical noise (in this respect it's a real GR lens ;) ).
Speaking of the lens, it is a GR labeled lens so a high quality lens with low distortion, sharp even wide open, does not suffer much from flare but does exhibit a bit of CA in high contrast situations. This is really a great lens that does not rely on software correction, it retains the GR character found in all previous GR lenses.
Flare is very well controlled and never really causes a problem despite the wideangle lens.
Once you turn the camera on however it is fairly responsive for a compact camera but can't really hold up to the Panasonic m4/3 cameras or entry level dSLRs. Shot to shot times are not very impressive at 0.5-1 second so you can't take another picture immediately. In continuous mode the camera can take up to 5 pictures in quick succession but will then lock up for a few seconds to finish writing, this happens also if you only take 1 picture when in continuous mode.So overall the speed of operation is not anything to write home about and especially after using the GF1 it feels pretty sluggish in comparison. It is however the most responsive Ricoh camera after the GXR with P10 module or the CX series.
Action shots are no problem thanks to the excellent Snap AF mode.
Now, what about the AF you might wonder, after all the A12 50mm module has been widely criticised to be extremely slow when it came out (it is now much faster thanks to the latest firmware updates).The good news is that the 28mm module is much better in this respect and in most cases it's as fast as any other compact mirrorless camera. Even in low light it focuses quite fast and accurate, thankfully it also gives up pretty quick if it can't find focus so you can either switch to the Snap AF, MF modes or just full-press the shutter and use the full-press AF setting.
You can also enable the Pre-AF setting but in all my use with the GXR, I have not found this feature to be of any use at all other than it draining the battery even faster than normal.
Speaking of which, the battery life is not very good with the A12 modules as is and hardly get's you through a day of light shooting with turning the camera off after each shot. Getting a spare battery is a must.
Colors are very natural.
With the latest firmware update Ricoh has added a AF-tracking mode to both A12 modules as well as to the GRD III. I have delayed this review a bit so I can test this mode and while it works great on the GRD III, I found it a lot less impressive on the A12 modules. The AF-tracking usually struggles to track what you wanted and even if it does manage to track the subject, it still needs to focus on it when half pressing the shutter so you are better off just using the Spot AF mode instead. Even with enabled Pre-AF setting this does not seem to make any difference in focusing speed.
There is one problem though that affects both A12 modules. In some high contrast or backlit situations the AF will show that it locked focus but when you examine the pictures on your computer nothing will be in focus, despite you having taken the picture at f9 where something at least should be in focus irrespective the distance the camera focused at. This is why it does not appear to be a problem with the camera simply misfocusing, especially since the display will show the scene in focus. I will have to speak with Ricoh again and see if they can track down what is causing this. So I would recommend you always take a few pictures in these circumstances to make sure you do get at least a few usable ones.
Landscapes are no problem and have a lot of detail and high dynamic range if you use RAW.
Despite this problem the A12 28mm module is excellent for landscape photography but more important (for me anyway) it's the best camera you can get for street and documentary photography. This is due to the almost silent shutter but also thanks to the fantastic Ricoh controls that allow for a lot of customization and for fast switching between different settings.
The silent shutter is one of the big advantages and makes candid photography very easy.
In particular the ability to use the Fn1 button to switch between AF and Snap AF mode coupled with the quick setting of the Snap AF distance by just pressing the macro button and rotating the top dial means you can seamlessly switch between AF and a MF lens set at a desired distance (you can set it to 1m, 1.5m, 2m, 2.5m, 3m, 3.5m, 5m and infinity). Once you get used to working like this, it becomes the fastest way of working and you will hardly miss any shots because you have the benefit of both AF and MF systems at your fingertips. Another benefit of using both the AF and Snap AF in combination is that you can easily control everything with one hand and also without even looking at the camera so shooting from the hip has never been easier than here.
The AF struggles at times in situations like this and with very high contrast (for example at a beach).
Ok, let me start by saying that I hate focus-by-wire systems and refuse to use this unless it's absolutely necessary. I wish manufacturers would either use a proper MF ring around the lens with distance markings or refrain from allowing manual focus at all instead of using this silly ring that turns infinitely without any real feel or start/stop point.
Now that my rant is over, I have to say that as far as silly focus-by-wire systems and implementations go Ricoh has done a very good job thanks to using a distance scale with DOF markings. Unfortunately Ricoh still has not implemented a way to auto magnify the screen when turning the MF ring and even if you magnify the view by holding the OK button (which is very cumbersome) the view is very pixelated and hardly usable for precise focus.
So overall, I find the MF to be pretty much useless and thanks to the excellent way of working with the Snap AF mode there is no real reason for me to ever use MF with this module.
Thanks to the low distortion of the lens it is very good for architecture photography.
There is not much to say really, the image quality is excellent. It offers a good dynamic range and thanks to the excellent Multi-Pattern White Balance you always get natural looking and accurate colors. At low ISO you will not notice any noise at all, at high ISO you do start to get some noise but it is never really problematic and you do retain lots of details, this is if you use RAW though.
ISO 3200 is thanks to the APS sensor no problem and if you use RAW provides lots of detail with manageable noise.
If you have read my other reviews or have been following my blog you have no doubt noticed me complaining about the Ricoh JPG engine and it's no different here. You don't really want to use the JPGs other than for quick review, they are smudgy and lack details thanks to the NR you still can't turn off.
The miniaturize mode is just for fun but nice to have at times.
In the last firmware Ricoh has also added some new and fun scene modes (high contrast b&w, miniaturize mode, toy camera mode and so on). These are certainly fun but more suited for the P10 module and unfortunately you can't shoot a RAW file next to them, the camera also takes quite long to process them.
Speaking of scene modes, there is also a very basic 720p HD video mode but as usual it's more an afterthought without any manual controls or the ability to compress the video stream.
Without a loud shutter the A12 28mm module is very good for street photography.
While I have and still remain a bit skeptical about the GXR as a mirrorless camera system, when looking at the A12 28mm module as a large sensor camera with a fixed lens then you can't get much better than this.
The build is excellent, the controls are better and more customizable than most other cameras, the image quality is very good, the lens deserves it's GR designation, these together with Ricoh's continued firmware support really make this stand out above the competition.
There are a few problems with the AF, the battery life is not very good and it's also not the fastest or most responsive camera you will find, especially when compared with the Panasonic m4/3 cameras it feels very slow and sluggish, but even with these problems you get the best camera for street and documentary photography thanks to a silent shutter and more important thanks to the extremely customizable controls and Snap AF mode.
Overall it will depend what you are looking for, if you want a system camera then the GXR is not much of a system (yet) and there are better alternatives out there with the m4/3 offerings but if you are looking for a high quality compact camera with large sensor for street, landscape and architecture photography the GXR with A12 28mm module is one of (if not THE) the best camera out there.