Monday, 8 August 2011
Ricoh GXR Review - A12 50mm
The A12 50mm f2.5 module was one of the two modules released with the GXR body at launch. When it was released it suffered from quite a few performance problems with the AF and screen freeze but thanks to Ricoh's great support all of the initial problems have been fixed in subsequent firmware updates. This is the 3rd part of my ongoing GXR review and will focus on how the A12 50mm module performs now with the latest firmware update.
This is the biggest and heaviest module for the GXR system to date, it's all metal aside from the rubber MF ring. It feels the most solid because the lens does not extend when powered on or in normal shootig mode.
When you go into macro mode the lens extends but even then it still feels very solid without.
The lens also has a very cool built in lens hood that you can pull out when needed. I found this very useful when shooting in rain or snow, in normal conditions the lens is actually good enough so that you won't really have a problem with flare with or without the lens hood.
Overall the build quality here is excellent and as soon as you slide the module in the camera it becomes one very solid but also heavy unit. Because the lens does not retract when powered down it makes this module quite big and more difficult to fit in a jacket pocket so you need rather large pockets to carry it.
Although the lens does not need to extend it still takes around 2 seconds for the camera to initialize, once it's done this it is fairly responsive. While it can't match some of the m4/3 cameras and the normal shot to shot time is 0.5-1 second, it is in line with what I have seen from other APS compact cameras like the Sony NEX-3 or the Fuji X100.
As was the case with the A12 28mm module, the operation does not feel very fast but this is only if you are used to the more responsive m4/3 cameras. I have not really used the continous mode here since it's not the way I work but it is capable of 5 pictures in succession before it locks up for a few seconds to write the files, this is not too bad and again in line with what I have seen from other APS compacts.
Compared to the speed of operation when it wad first released, it is very responsive now but if you want a fast and very responsive camera the m4/3 cameras are hard to beat.
The AF speed was a majopr issue when the module was first released but thanks to Ricoh listening to feedback and continued support the AF works very wel now in good and even in low light. It is not as fast as the A12 28mm module but for a macro lens the AF is pretty fast and accurate. There is only one caveat though and this is the issue with high contrast or backlit scenes I mentoned in my review of the A12 28mm module.
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.
Like on the other modules you can also use the Pre-AF setting on this module and the full-press AF but I have not found either option to work as well here as it does on the A12 28mm module. The full-press AF works well if the distance you last focused is not too different than your Snap AF distance but the lens is not always fast enough to move to the correct position if the distances are further apart. So for this module I would recommend turning the full-press AF off (thankfully you can easily use different settings for each module on the GXR).
Despite some of the AF problems the easy access to the Snap AF and MF modes by using the Fn buttons make the camera very fast to operate and get the desired focus. It is not as good for street photography as the A12 28mm module but it is still very usable especially if you make use of the fantastic Snap AF mode.
By pressing and holding the macro button and rotating the front wheel you can easily set the Snap AF distance to 1m, 1.5m, 2m, 2.5m, 3m, 3.5m, 5m or infinity. This works great but be sure to press and hold the macro button or you might accidentally engage the macro mode and this will take you two more presses of the macro button to disengage.
Speaking of the macro mode, the camera can focus as close as 7cm but has essentially two macro modes, if you press the macro button the first time the camera will only focus between 12-30cm, the 2nd press of the macro button engages the closer focusing mode from 7-14cm. This is very good since it makes the macro focusing very fast but the downside is that you have to togge through both modes till you can get out of the macro mode and back into the normal focus mode. When using the MF mode yoou can seamlessly cycle through the whole focus range without problem though.
Another nice thing, especially when using the Macro mode, is the ability to freely position the AF point on the screen and magnifiy the view exactly where the AF point is.
I will save your from my usual rant about why I dislike focus-by-wire lenses and just go to say that I wish Ricoh would have gone the route Olympus has gone with their 12mm f2.0 lens by providing a focus-by-wire ring that can be pulled back to become a more traditional MF ring with distance markings. This is something I want to see from now on in all lenses so it keeps all people happy and offers the best of both worlds.
Since this module like the A12 28mm module has only a normal focus-by-wire ring around the lens it suffers from all the same problems assosciated with this but at least Ricoh's implementation is as good as can be considering. You get a distance scale with DOF markings and you can speed the focus up by holding the macro button pressed when turning the ring. It would have been good to have this the other way round so the fast focusing by default and holding the macro button to go to the slower more accurate focusing.
Something Ricoh needs to improve though is the magnified view since it's too pixelated to accurately tell focus with it, the good news is that Ricoh seems to have improved this for their upcoming GXR Mount A12 module so I am sure these enhancements will soon appear on the other modules via a firmware update.
Like on the A12 28mm module the image quality is excellent, it's no surprise since both share the same 12 MP sensor. The dynamic range is very good and the noise is not really a problem even at high ISO when using RAW, pared with the excellent GR lens you get great looking pictures with character. Compared with the A12 28mm you get no fringing even in high contrast situations and there is no distortion to speak of.
The colors are natural without being over the top and Ricoh's multi-pattern WB works very well in all kind of light conditions to always produce accurate colors.
Like on all new Ricoh cameras, the JPGs are not very good so I would recommend to use RAW whenever possible for the best results.
There are also the usual scene modes available like Toy Camera, Miniaturize and High Contrast b&w plus the 720p HD video mode without any manual controls and in the outdated MJPEG format. The scene modes are fun and a nice addition, unfortunately you can not save a RAW image next to the JPGs or have any manaual exposure control when using them, here it would be good if Ricoh could at least allow for the use of RAW.
When this module was released it suffered from a lot of performance problems, most notably a very slow AF and screen freeze during fousing. It almost seemed a bit rushed and Ricoh seemed to have compromised the design too much by trying to make it a macro lens. Now after a few firmware updates, not only fixing all of the AF problems but also adding new features, this is a great module and in line with what you would expect from an APS mirrorless camera.
If you look at the A12 50mm module as a single fixed lens APS camera it is very good although a bit big when compared with other fixed lens cameras or even the other GXR modules. Still, 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 and together with Ricoh's continued firmware support really make this stand out above the competition when looking at the available APS mirrorless alternatives. Sure, it's not as fast or responsive as the m4/3 offerings but no other mirrorless camera really is, for most part however you will not really notice it.
Where it really shines however is in combination with the A12 28mm module (and/or the soon to be released GXR Mount A12 module) it makes a fantastic, small and lightweight travel camera kit. It is so easy to change modules, since you don't need to worry about rear lens caps or about getting dust or rain on the sensor means you can swap them anywhere. When travelling however bear in mind that the battery life is very poor so make sure you have at least 2 or 3 spares with you.
Overall, I can fully recommend this module, especialy when used together with the A12 28mm module. As a travel kit the combo works great and is probably the best kit you can currently get. If you are looking for an interchangeable lens camera I can still not fully recommend the GXR system despite the announcement of the GXR Mount A12 module because you can't use any AF lenses on it. The m4/3 system is currently still the best mirrorless interchangeable lens system out there thanks to the many avialble lenses for it and despite the poor Panasonic sensor used in the majority of the cameras.