The Ricoh GXR Digital Camera Review with the 28mm and 50mm Camera/Lens Modules
By Steve Huff
Many months ago, Ricoh, a company loved by many photographers for designing and releasing cameras that are actually made for Photographers released something new and unique in the camera world. The GXR is a camera, that for the first time in the world of digital cameras (besides medium format) allows us to not only change lenses, but also change the sensor of the camera. Unfortunately, you can not change them separately and individually, but the magic of this system seems to be that the sensor and lens module are perfectly paired together for optimum results. No dust, no muss, no fuss. No funky light rays, no odd distortions…just a great sensor and great lens paired together as one. Pretty cool.
ABOVE: Ricoh GXR with the 28mm at 2.5 – ISO 3200 – Click for larger and better version
I have been hearing about this camera for many months and a friend of mine would always send me over images of his from the GRX, and yea they looked very good but I thought “why do I need another camera that takes good quality images”? I already have a couple cameras here that do pretty damn well so what is the draw to a camera that costs $369 for the body and $700 for each *good* lens and sensor module? For a few months I saw how great the images looked but with my limited funds I could not buy one just to try it out, especially considering the only lens module out for it that was really fantastic was a 50mm macro that focused dog slow. So I waited..I was patient. I wanted to see if there would be anything good coming out in the way of lenses/modules and to see if this system would be dead in the water or if it would pick up some steam…
So here we are near the end of 2010 and Ricoh has released a new module that tipped me over the edge to finally try out this camera system! The Ricoh A12 28mm f/2.5 GR Lens contains a nice sized APS-C sensor with 12.3 Megapixels and Ricohs GR ENGINE III. Hmmm. This is where it gets interesting. See, Ricoh did not release a typical camera body and lens set. We now have a body that is *almost* future proof. What I mean by that is the body, as long as it continues to work, will always be current due to the sensor being in with the lens itself. I say ALMOST because who knows if Ricoh will release a new body down the road with a swivel lcd or built in EVF, etc.
New lens and sensors may come and go but seriously, we are at a point now where what I am getting out of these two modules is as good as I could ever want from a digital camera of this size and cost. The 28 and 50mm modules have the capability of jaw dropping quality (I’ve seen it from others) so yea, in 5 years it will also provide this same quality.
The big question is….with this hobby of ours, we all have upgrade-itis and even if the sensor and lens combo takes great images in 5 years time, will those of us that are gear heads and camera junkies be satisfied with it when there will be new fancy ISO 200,000 sensors available by then?
If this body and two lens/module set was still working for me in 10 years, and I still owned it (unlikely for me) it would still be taking fantastic images, no question. So to those who want a system to keep for the long haul, and a system to master, the GXR may be what you are looking for. Using this camera has made me a fan of Ricoh and makes me want to try out their smaller and more compact GRDIII.
BTW, the GXR does have an external EVF available but I did not have one on hand when trying out the camera.
In this REAL WORLD review…yes, I said REAL WORLD because that is how I used this camera, meaning I did not do a bunch of lab testing with it. Just real photos like many of you would take on a daily basis. After all, most of my readers photograph their families, friends, and every day life. So this review will tell you what you can expect from this camera in these situations. It is small enough to take anywhere, so I have been taking it with me EVERYWHERE! I also have been writing this review for the past week, a little at a time so it is thorough, has plenty of samples and also has all of my thoughts on this system.
In this review I am going to tell you why I think Ricoh is really on to something here. I know that this system has not taken off incredibly well sales wise, but also know it has been picking up steam lately, and I am happy for that. When shooting with the GXR it feels like a “REAL” camera. It does not feel like an electronic gadget or gizmo. It feels very well built, and is. It feels solid and comfortable in my hands. It gives me confidence that when I fire the shutter I will get a nice looking file that is contrasty, colorful, sharp and also smooth.
There are one or two things I wish they did incorporate in to the body. A swivel LCD ala the Sony NEX-5 or even a built in EVF would have been just about perfect. While I wish the body had these two things, not having them is by no means a deal breaker because let me tell you…this camera is really the first semi-compact camera that I have seen that is capable of Leica like quality (besides the X1 of course) in regards to crisp but smooth and sharp results. The color is also very good (if not a little on the bold side) and the files are highly tweak-able, even giving more dynamic range than a Canon 5DMKII file.
The Auto White balance of the GXR may be the best I have ever seen on a digital camera, or at least one of the best. The GXR is really good in mixed lighting. I have yet to find a situation where it has failed me or given me yellowish funky colors. It’s amazing, and I am now wondering why the big expensive $3-7000 cameras do not have this kind of AWB technology. I will get into all of that and much more as this review goes on. I am also including a TON of images because I found that almost every image I took with the GXR looked pretty good and that is due to the superb quality of the files. The only other time that has happened was with the Leica M8, M9 and the little powerhouse X1 :)
First Up…my Video intro…
Just a quick look at the GXR body and 28mm lens module and a brief rundown on the camera..
The GXR Body and System - The Lens Module Explained
The Ricoh GXR is a camera SYSTEM. Many people seem to be either confused or turned off by the fact that the lenses are actually MODULES that have a perfectly matched sensor behind it. The 28 and 50 prime lenses are FANTASTIC in their own right but what makes this unique and somewhat special is that each lens has a sensor that has been mated to it for optimum results in image quality, color and ISO noise.
The other cool thing is that there is NO CHANCE for dust to ever get on your sensor because it is never exposed. Also, I have found that the lens modules are VERY tough. No need to baby them. They are well built, solid, and very easy to slide on and off (as you can see in the video above).
To those who are in the camp that HATE the idea of a lens “module” ask yourself why. Here is the reason usually given: “I just do not like the idea of having to replace the lens when a better sensor is out. I don’t like modules”.
My take: You wouldn’t have to replace anything! The sensors in the 28 and 50mm module are FANTASTIC APS-C sensors. They provide wonderful IQ and their own unique look with their color signature, sharpness, and file quality. They can provide a super file that is capable of large prints if desired. There would be no need to upgrade the lens or sensor as they are already doing what they do best. Today or in 5 years. The body will always stay (though they should have put in a swivel LCD!) and there would never be a need to re-learn a new body or have costly repairs if you scratch your sensor during cleaning. Todays sensors are very good and personally, I like the “look” the GXR produces.Deep, rich, and sharp but smooth.
It’s kind of like film stock…some will like the look of a Sony NEX, some a Leica X1 and some from a Ricoh GXR. They are all unique in their signature and it’s all personal preference. But to those worried about having a sensor mated with the lens, I understand because there are also cons to this…
For example. Maybe the GXR will not sell well and Ricoh will stop production. Then what? Worst case is you have a GXR and a couple of modules that take fantastic images. Best case, Ricoh releases more modules like an HD cinema module, the rumored Leica M-mount module, and the rumored fast 85 portrait lens module. Buying a module is not much different than buying a lens. It is meant to be used with the Ricoh GXR System and they work well with this system. It is a LENS, but with a sensor that has been perfectly mated with said lens!
With all of that said…the Ricoh GXR is not a perfect “system” (does that even exist?) but I do applaud Ricoh for doing something different. I like it, and can’t argue with the results. If you are not into buying a “system” camera then the GXR may not be for you but then again, buying a Nikon D7000 is also buying into a System as is buying a Canon 5D MKII.
The 50 f/2.5 Lens Module/Camera Unit
The 50 f/2.5 Macro lens, as many of you already know from the reviews elsewhere is astounding. It is a semi fast 50 with a matching 12 megapixel sensor that can be used as a portrait lens or a macro lens. I also enjoy the B&W from this camera and lens combo quite a bit. It’s true what I have heard. Ricoh cameras seem to give you a rich, film like B&W experience. I have always admired street images I have seen that were taken with a small Ricoh compact. They always looked gritty, true to life, and dramatic. When I would see Ricoh images I would ask the photographer who shot the images what he did to the them during processing. He would say “Nothing, these are straight from the camera”. That always intrigued me about Ricoh. If they were so good and made for the mind of a photographer, why were they not more popular? Maybe it’s due to the fact that not many dealers sell Ricoh and therefore they are not really well known. The GRX may be the one camera for them that can change that because the GXR camera with this 50mm lens module is amazingly good.
When the GXR was announced, this was THE lens to get with the camera. I mean, forget about the crappidy crap zoom lenses with the GRX. Yea, I said it. CRAP. The Zoom lenses like the P10 module have small sensors so you get more noise, the color suffers, and the overall images just lack any kind of magic. The 50 Macro was the hot lens at release so I think that everyone who bought the GXR, bought this lens.
The main problem with the 50 though was that it was DOG SLOW to auto focus! Aim, compose, half press of the shutter – err, err, acck, err, acck…it seemed like the camera was having some kind of digestive problems. Thank the heavens that Ricoh released a firmware update and I am happy to say the AF speed is now MUCH better (though still slow in Macro mode).
I won’t lie. I love the 50mm focal length. I love fast lenses. While this lens is no Leica 50 Summilux ASPH 1.4, it is semi fast at 2.5 and can be used as a portrait lens or macro lens. When not in macro mode (you engage it by pressing the macro button on the back) the lens focuses quite fast. It also gives us some nice background blur (shallow depth of field) and the bokeh quality is quite nice (quality of background blur) :)
Below are a few of the very 1st images I snapped with the 50 sitting in front of my Imac at night, and in my bathroom. Nothing fancy but may give an idea of the qualities of the lens. To see better quality, click on the images for a larger view otherwise you are not seeing the better quality file.
As always, you can click on any image in this review to see a larger and better version :) The next set of images were all shot in macro mode with the 50, wide open. Many at ISO 1600.
As I already mentioned, the 50mm f/2.5 Lens/Sensor module was the first REAL module that was released with the GXR and it’s also the most well reviewed. When my camera arrived (and I bought mine from Amazon HERE and and HERE with amazing one day service) I slid the 50 module on to the body and I was so upset! The AF was so slow (slower than the Leica X1) it was borderline unusable. I kept in mind that A: This was a MACRO lens, and MACRO lenses are notorious for slow AF, and B: Oh yea! There is a new firmware for this lens module!! I already mentioned above how this vastly improved the AF speed. Yea, it is now much faster, but in low light it does hunt a bit. But again, it is a macro lens. When out of macro mode (just a quick button press) it is pretty fast.
The camera is not pocketable with this lens unless you have very large coat pockets. I started to wonder why I would use this over a Sony NEX-5, a Leica X1 or even a Leica M9…what void would this fill for me? That..I still had to find out, but I did know I was enjoying it and when I was messing around with it just snapping silly test shots, I realized how QUIET this camera is. The reason for that is the lens modules all have leaf shutters (read about leaf shutters here) and it is just as quiet as the Leica X1 when snapping a frame.
Having leaf shutters in the lenses is good in many ways but also limits this camera a little bit. When I took the GRX outside in the AZ sun I had the ISO set to its base of 200. I had the aperture at 2.5 and wanted to get some cool shallow depth of field images :) When I went to shoot I noticed the camera would not set a shutter speed faster than 1/1000s. SO I went online and read that when shooting wide open you can not go faster than 1/1000s. This is due to the leaf shutter.
Leaf shutters are not designed to have fast shutter speeds. But the benefits are there..
It is SILENT. If this camera had a loud and clunky shutter it would have been a drawback to many. The NEX-5 has a pretty loud shutter, the GRX is silent. Just a faint click. Because there is no big shutter clank, you can also handhold the camera at slower shutter speeds in low light. This is a plus. Finally, using a leaf shutter, you do not have any flash synchro limitations though I wouldn’t use a flash with this camera anyway. I would suggest to Ricoh to give owners another firmware update that will add ISO 50 or 100 to the options, therefore allowing a wider aperture before we hit that 1/1000s limitation.
ILL ASK THEM HERE: Ricoh…give us a firmware update that adds ISO 50 or at least ISO 100 to the ISO menu!
The color is BOLD but NICE. Very RICH IMO.
After more and more shooting and even a quick comparison with the Sony NEX-5 I came to realize that the GXR was capable of some very high quality imagery, especially with the 50 Macro. With this lens you can get some shallow depth of field going on as well as use it for portraits, or of course, macro. The 50 can be slow to focus still, even after the update, but if you are not in macro mode it is much quicker. Still, I wouldn’t want to use it for any kind of action. But if you look at the images above you can see a certain quality that is very pleasant with the GRX and the 50 2.5 Macro. Can’t get this look with the NEX-5 unless you slap a fast 35mm on it, and still, it won’t be macro. This 50 is what was making me fall in love with this system…but there was still the 28 f/2.5 that I had to check out as well :)
HOW SHARP IS THE 50mm MACRO LENS? 100% CROPS
The results I was seeing from the 50 were spectacular..especially considering that this camera system is MUCH MUCH smaller than any bulky fat DSLR. It has the same size sensor as those bulky DSLR’s as well as the Leica X1, which you all know I adore for its size, style and quality but the GXR is also very small compared to the big DSLRs. The GXR is not as sleek or stylish as the X1 nor as small but it is more versatile because you can use different sensors and lenses and one of those is this macro lens that is sooooo good! How good is it? Here are some images with full 100% crops..CLICK ON THE IMAGES TO SEE THE LARGE SIZE WITH 100% CROPS
BELOW: SHOT WITH THE 50mm at f/5.6 – CLICK IMAGE FOR LARGE VIEW TO SEE THE TRUE 100% crop…
BELOW: HOw about wide open at 2.5? Click image below for a large view with true 100% crop…
You can see…the 50mm module is pretty damn good! It’s sharp, it gives superb color and detail, and at the same time it gives you that smooth look that I see quite a bit in Leica files. This lens is a great portrait lens as well as a great macro lens. Plus, you are getting a real 50mm equivalent because the lens is actually a 33mm so with the crop you get a 50mm. So how does it compare to a Leica M9 with 50 Summicron…I do not have a 50 Cron on hand but if I had to guess it would be close in many ways. The whole shooting experience is wayyyy different because the Ricoh is not a rangefinder camera but as far as image quality goes, its not really too far behind. Imagine if Ricoh does release the rumored Leica M module with a sensor matched to shooting M lenses? Hmmmmmm. Now we can start to see the benefit of the module system…
FULL SIZE FILE FROM THE 50 – CLICK THE IMAGE BELOW TO DOWNLOAD
Below is a full size out of camera file from the GRX and 50 Macro. The shot was taken at f/2.5 and ISO 200, handheld…
HIGH ISO WITH THE 50 f/2.5
High ISO on the GRX with the 50 is good, actually very good. While it only goes up to ISO 3200, it is usable at 3200, especially in black & white where your images will take on an almost filmic look. I like the in camera black & white setting with the contrast boosted up a few notches. The result is very nice quality out of camera B&W images. Color is also usable. Below are a couple of silly straight from camera JPEG images shot at high ISO (1600 & 3200). When shooting between 200-800 noise is a non issue in my opinion.
This Is Not A Fast Action Lens Module!
The Ricoh GXR with the 50 attached is not a camera for recording fast action or sporting events. The lens even after the firmware update will not give you BLAZING AF speed though it is much speedier. This is a lens built for people and macro. Even some street work could be done with this lens module. This is a stellar lens but it’s not built for speed.
The 28mm f/2.5 Lens Module/Camera Unit
The 28mm f/2.5 Lens Module/Camera Unit is highly sought after right now for those that own the GRX system. This is a 18.3mm lens with a 12MP APS-C sensor inside that delivers VERY good performance for a wide angle lens. The images from the 28 seem to have the same color signature as the 50 module and having a semi-fast 28 is a godsend. Once I attached this to the GXR body I knew I was going to like it. The image below is a straight from camera B&W, taken at night in my kitchen. My son was wearing an old gas mask he bought so I had to grab a shot :)
The images from the 28 are smooth but detailed at the same time. Very smooth tones and the color is also nice. The image above was an out of camera JPEG and the one below has had some tweaks via Photoshop.
The 28mm is actually an 18.3 mm lens but with the APS-C sensor the lens behaves like a 28mm. For $699, the price is actually very good for a 28mm 2.5 with this kind of quality. Is the lens perfect? No…it does have some slight distortion and the corners are not bitingly sharp when wide open like a Leica 28mm but for $699 you get the lens and matching sensor. I can’t complain about the price for what it is, plus, the quality is fantastic. A 28mm, f2.5 with matching sensor – $699. Not bad at all. All of the images below were shot with the 28 wide open…
AF SPEED of the 28mm Module
WHen on the GXR, this lens module/camera unit can be compared to other cameras like the Leica X1, the Sony NEX-5, the Olympus E-P2, The Panasonic G2, etc. All somewhat small cameras that pack in really good IQ. As far as image quality goes, the GXR is up at the top of the heap with maybe the X1 beating it slightly, but the X1 is also a “system” cameras as you only have ONE lens, the 24 Elmarit (35mm equivalent) and it is the slowest of the bunch (though I still love the X1 for its strengths) in regards to AF.
The AF of the 28mm module is much faster than the 50mm and is equivalent to the micro 4/3 cameras and almost to the Sony NEX. One thing I have noticed though is that when this camera says something is in focus, it IS IN FOCUS. I have had quite a few misses with the NEX-5, none with the Ricoh. So this tells me Sony may be pulling some trickery to boost their AF speed. Maybe not, but maybe so.
It is what it is though and the main strength of this GXR system is it’s image quality, build quality, versatility and future possibilities. For example…maybe there will be a future lens module with lightning fast cintinuous AF for action..maybe there will be a dedicated HD Cinema module with a perfect lens and sensor combo and built in IS. The possibilities are endless.
The image of the dog below was shot at ISO 1600, f/2.5 and 1/13s. It was DARK but the lens made it look brighter than it was. Still, I could have used ISO 3200 like I did with the image of the dog at the top of this review. Shooting this lens module at 3200 is not a problem and it retains its sharpness, color and detail. One plus for mating a sensor to a lens. :)
HIGH ISO WITH THE 28 2.5
I went out for a late drive one night with the GXR and 28. I set the camera to ISO 3200 and wanted to see how it did IN LOW LIGHT. Any camera can do well at high ISO if there is light present but not many can hold up when the lights go down. Here is how it went…
ABOVE: ISO 3200 – 28mm at 2.5
HD Video Capabilities of the GXR
BIG FAIL! Sadly, there is one area where the GXR falls short. VIDEO recording. Actually, I am going to say its pretty pathetic and useless. You cant auto focus, you cant manual focus and you can not change or set the aperture. There is no IS so video is out of focus, jerky and doesn’t look all too good with either lens module though the 28 seems better than the 50. It can be done, but it is not even close to being ideal or user friendly. If you want a high quality vidoe capable camera then check out the Panasonic GH2 which would kill the GXR for HD Video.
One thing to think about though…it is possible that Ricoh may come out with some sort of “Cinema Module” for the GXR. Possibly a nice lens mated with an optimum sensor created just for HD video. I am not saying they are doing this, just saying it is possible because with the module system, ANYTHING is possible because they are not tied down to the specs of the body.
Battery LIfe with the GXR is decent. I think I was able to get about 300 images before the battery died. About average for a camera of this type.
You can also manually focus the lens you have on the GXR. The lens focus mechanism is smooth but nothing like focusing a Leica M lens. When in Manual mode you get a distance scale that pops up on the screen. Easy but with this camera I prefer the Auto Focus.
Built In Flash
The body has a built in flash but I admit I never use flash so I the only shot I took was the silly test shot below. Looks even and well exposed…cant complain!
PROS AND CONS OF THE RICOH GXR
- Great build and feel. Solid but not too heavy.
- The lens modules are perfectly mated to the included sensor, so makes for great quality every time.
- No chance of dust on the sensor.
- Beautiful file quality with the 28mm and 50mm lenses.
- Faster AF after the latest firmware update, no on par with other smaller cameras.
- The 50 Macro is FABULOUS as a double duty lens..macro or portrait and the bokeh quality is very nice.
- The future may bring some very cool modules like video modules, Leica M modules, etc. Anything is possible.
- High ISO quality up to 3200 is very good and usable. Especially with black and white.
- Very robust RAW files.
- Great Dynamic Range with the 28mm and 50mm modules.
- User interface is quick and easy to navigate.
- Highly customizable to your liking.
- Shutter is SILENT.
- Modules…some just don’t like them or fully understand the benefits and this is what is hurting sales of this otherwise great photographic tool.
- Expensive. The body is cheap at $350 but the modules are $700 each, but the lenses in the modules seem worth it. For two modules and the body you are looking at $1800.
- The zoom modules use small sensors and basically have crap image quality. Avoid them.
- The HD video sucks. Don’t use this camera for video unless you HAVE TO.
- The future of the system? If this doesn’t sell then will Ricoh stop making Lens modules? Something to think about.
My Bottom Line Conclusion on the Ricoh GXR
The GXR is a different kind of camera and there are so many unique things about it that I have not even touched on yet in this now 5000 word review. There is Snap AF where you set a distance in the menu and anytime you go to fire the shot it is preset at that focus distance. You can also set it to infinity if you don’t want to mess with focusing. For example, you can set a distance for street shooting and not have to worry about AF or MF. It would be pre-set. Then there are other things like the detailed customization you can do with the color settings like change the hue of each color as well as the vibrancy.
There are so many things you can customize with the camera and the menu interface is quick and easy to understand. You can customize the buttons on the back and make the body your own. The one thing that makes this camera system stand apart from others though is the fact that it uses lenses already mated with a sensor. These are called “camera units” or as some call them “Lens Modules”.
With this comes the ability to mate a specific sensor to the Lens for perfect results. The lens module is almost like a camera system in itself. Each lens has a sensor perfectly matched for optimum results and each module will have different traits like ISO performance, color performance, etc. You also never have to worry about cleaning or damaging the sensor. It’s all enclosed safely in the metal housing. Just snap on the body and snap off when you want something different. It’s as easy as changing a lens and basically this is what you are doing. With the 28 and 50 Lens Modules you are basically paying $699 each for not only a kick ass semi fast lens, but also the sensor that will bring out the best of each lens.
Many say this camera is a gimmick or that they do not like the module idea. Personally, I think it is a great idea and see no downsides because with the GXR and the two good lens modules, the 28 and 50, you are buying into a “system” that will deliver beautiful and consistent results every time. The camera is small, built very well, feels good in the hand and has plenty of manual control. It may not be the sexiest looking camera out there and as a matter of fact, it is probably one of the LEAST Sexiest looking but the style is all Ricoh. It’s a photographers camera, not for those looking for flash or trickery.
The downsides of this camera is that it does not have a swivel LCD (which I have grown to love with the NEX-5) and the lenses use leaf shutters so we are limited to shooting outdoors in sunlight with smaller apertures. No shooting at f/2.5 in full sun because the max shutter speed is 1/1000s when set at f/2.5. So those two things I do not like so much about the GXR but those are the only things that bothered me a bit.
So…the big question…is it worth a buy?
Only if you are wanting a camera that delivers fantastic results as a “system”. If you want a 28mm lens that can shoot in low light at 2.5 and give super color, detail, tonality and high ISO performance and also happens to have fast AF and pleasant Bokeh with a sensor perfectly mated to it for optimum results then yea, this is a killer setup. I was thinking and the GXR with the 28 module is not only faster than a Leica X1 in the AF department but it also has a little bit of a faster lens, focuses closer, and has equal or better high ISO performance. It is also more customizable and comes in at half the price of an X1. How about the Sony NEX-5? There currently is no AF lens for the NEX that is a 28mm equivilant. How about the Micro 4/3s cameras? Panasonic has the 14 2.5 Lens coming out that will deliver a 28 2.5 on Micro 4/3 but I have not had the chance to try yet. I can say that the sensors are smaller with M4/3 so the GXR should have better IQ and Dynamic Range regardless. The Panasonic lens is $400 but you are stuck with the M4/3 sensor. Again, the “modules” are starting to make more sense the more and more that I think about it.
So all in all, the Ricoh seems like a misunderstood camera. Those who own one LOVE it. Those who don’t dismiss it because it is different. Me, I like it and I am having a blast shooting with it. The camera really is for those who put quality photos first. For $1000 or so the body and 28mm would make a great starter set. Adding the 50 makes it much more versatile.
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When it is all said and done the choice is yours, all I can tell you is the camera delivers the goods even though it does it with less flash and pizazz than its competitors. The GXR is a solid system. I hope to see it grow in the future and get into the hands of some great photographers.
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