Post By Amin Sabet
December 14th, 2008, 08:23 AM
Ricoh GR Digital II Review
PART ONE: FORM AND FUNCTION
If it were not for Ricoh, the Serious Compacts blog would probably not exist. In a time when Canon, Nikon, Sony, and Fuji had dropped RAW from advanced compacts, only Ricoh and Panasonic continued to innovate in this market. Ricoh, in particular, seemed to understand that some of us were looking for compact cameras for serious photography. This was evident in the design of both the original GR Digital (GRD) as well as that of the Caplio GX100, which have now been replaced by the GR Digital II and GX200, respectively.
Main St. Classic. Old Ellicott City, MD.
It has been said that the GX is the Swiss Army knife, and the GRD is the razor. This statement is true in more than one way. First, the GRD has a single blade, in this case a sharp, fixed 5.9mm (28mm equivalent) f/2.4 lens. Second, when one takes out the GRD, it is ready for use. There is no lens cap to remove. No zoom to set. Finally, like a razor, the GRD packs great ability into an extremely compact and unassuming form.
Two important determinants of camera size are lens speed and sensor size. The sensor size of the GRD II (1/1.75") is similar to that of the other advanced compacts which offer RAW, and its lens speed exceeds that of all except one, the Panasonic LX3 (and Leica counterpart, D-LUX 4). Yet by designing for a single focal length, Ricoh managed this relatively large sensor and fast lens in an impressively compact package. Much more than any other compact which offers RAW, the GRD is a camera that begs to be taken everywhere. Some size comparisons with peers below.
First the Sigma DP1:
Next the Leica D-LUX4:
Finally the Canon G10:
The most comfortable for me to hold are the GRD II and the G10, both of which feature nicely contoured grips. The GRD is so light that, in between shots, I actually hold it with the grip pinched between my fingers, just as I would hold a razor.
Throughout this review, I will be drawing comparisons between the GRD II (which I'll refer to as the GRD) and the Sigma DP1. These are the only two currently produced compacts on the market with 28mm equivalent prime lenses, and both are intended to serve as tools for "serious" photography.
This review is not intended to be comprehensive. It is written from the perspective of a Raw format shooter and is unlikely to be of much value to someone who plans to shoot only in camera JPEG. There are numerous GRD reviews online which provide some of the specifications and functions not covered here.
The review unit has been kindly provided by Ricoh Japan and will be returned following this review.
Design and build quality
The GRD II looks absolutely plain and has attracted little attention in the time that I have used it. The shutter is essentially silent.
Smoke break. Ellicott City, MD.
Overall build quality is outstanding. The GRD is constructed from magnesium with a plastic shell. Aside from questionable flash sturdiness, the everything is solid without any creaking or wobbling. The tripod bush is metal, and the battery/card door is appropriately secure.
All buttons provide good tactile feedback, and dials and levers have a solid feel. This is in contrast to the more expensive D-LUX 4, which by comparison has cheap feeling controls.
As shown below, the mode selection dial has a lock which must be depressed to switch modes. The index finger intuitively falls to this lock when the thumb turns the dial. The "MY1" and "MY2" modes on the dial can store any and all presets. For example, I have "MY1" set to aperture priority mode, -0.3EV exposure compensation and "Snap" focus, which sets the focus manually to a distance of approximately 8 feet.
Also pictured above is an adjustment wheel in front of the shutter release. A second adjustment dial (actually more of a lever/button as it doesn't rotate fully and can be depressed in the center) is found at the top right of the rear panel, as pictured below.
Once again, the index finger naturally falls to the top panel adjustment wheel, while the thumb falls to the rear adjustment dial/lever/button. In manual mode, the top and rear dials control aperture and shutter speed respectively. In use, I found this to be more intuitive than the corresponding controls on my Canon, Nikon, or Olympus DSLRs. The rear dial can be customized to bring up a quick control of user selected parameters. One push in the center, and I have instant access to a histogram, exposure compensation, white balance, and ISO.
The upper right rear rocker button is configurable. I have it customized to change exposure compensation rather than functioning as a "digital zoom". The remainder of the rear controls are fairly typical. There is a dedicated "Play" button for image review and a "Display" button which offers a choice of LCD off, histogram, and grid overlay. I turn the LCD off to save battery power when using an optical viewfinder with the GRD. If one is reviewing images or sorting through the menu, a half press of the shutter release will instantly bring the camera back to record mode.
The integrated lens cover is very convenient, and most people tend to prefer this type of lens protection. However, a removable lens cap such as the one on the DP1, while not as convenient, will provide greater protection. The leaflets protecting the GRD (or Canon G10) lens are displaced with the slightest pressure, which has the potential for lens injury if, for example, the camera were to occupy a pocket along with other objects.
The GRD uses my favorite type of battery charger, one that plugs directly into the wall without a cable. This is in contrast to the DP1 charger. It's not a big deal, but it's just one example of how the Ricoh product has been thought out carefully.
Ricoh has created a system around the GRD. A wide converter is available to provide a 21mm field of view, and a teleconverter can be used for a 40mm field of view. An optional hood and adapter are available and required for use of accessory lenses.
A Ricoh external optical viewfinder can be mounted on the hot shoe, and reasonably priced alternative 28mm viewfinders are manufactured by Sigma and Voigtlander. In contrast to the alternatives, which show 3:2 aspect ratio framelines, the Ricoh GV-2 finder shows 4:3 aspect ratio framelines to match the native aspect ratio of the GRD sensor.
Centennial Lake. Ellicott City, MD.
I haven't tested the lens adapter/hood, wide converter, or teleconverter. I regard the compact size of the GRD as one of its core strengths, so I was not interested in any bulky add-ons. In my experience, the GRD lens is quite resistant to flare, so the hood is not necessary on that basis.
I tried the GRD with both the Sigma DP1 viewfinder and the 28/35 Voigtlander mini-finder, finding that both of them to work reasonably well with the 3:2 aspect ratio output of the GRD. Both viewfinders have some barrel distortion, and neither one matches the framelines exactly, so I used the LCD whenever exact framing was required. Like the Sigma DP1, the GRD has an LED conveniently located near the hot shoe so that one can get peripheral vision autofocus confirmation without removing one's eye from the attached viewfinder.
After powering on, the lens is extended and ready for use in just over two seconds. There is a dedicated switch to open the flash, and the flash will not open unless this switch is engaged.
In contrast to the Sigma DP1, which has a 4-5 second shot to shot time (with a fast SD card), the GRD II has a RAW buffer so that a second capture can occur within roughly two seconds.
Like the DP1, the GRD has virtually no shutter lag when pre-focused or manually focused.
Although GRD II autofocus (which uses contrast detection) is reasonably quick (about average amongst current digital compacts), it isn't as fast in good light as that of the original GRD and GX100 (which use phase detection). However, the GRD II autofocus is superior to those cameras in low light and in any light it is faster and quieter than the DP1 autofocus.
The GRD LCD is larger, crisper, brighter, and more accurate in color than the DP1 LCD. The following pictures show the GRD and the DP1 LCDs side by side at their low (first) and high (second) brightness settings. The GRD is on the left and the DP1 on the right.
One minor disappointment is that the post capture image review cannot be configured to include a histogram. As mentioned earlier, one can view a live histogram at the time of image capture, and one can also consult a histogram during image playback.
GRD battery life is above average and subjectively better than that of the DP1. In typical use, I find that I get less than 300 images on a a full charge with the DP1, whereas I get well above that number with the GRD.
PART TWO: IMAGE QUALITY
As one would expect with a single focal length lens, the GRD has very little distortion. There is a hint of barrel as shown below, which becomes even more subtle with distance.
The same can be said for the DP1. as demonstrated below:
Virtually all compact digital cameras with wide angle zoom lenses will show more barrel distortion than these two. The degree of lens barrel distortion at 28mm equivalent ranges from mild in the case of the Canon G10 to marked in the case of the LX3/D-LUX 4. I will provide examples of those two cameras in a separate shootout between the G10 and D-LUX 4.
Light falloff was not a significant factor in GRD use at any aperture.
Fells Point. Baltimore, MD.
Resolution, color fringing, and lens contrast
To compare the overall detail capture of the GRD to that of the DP1, I first set out to determine the optimal settings for each camera. Multiple shots were taken at each third of an f-stop, with the camera refocused each for each shot, and the sharpest photo was used for the comparison. The DP1 has a nearly constant performance from f/4 to f/8, improving only slightly in the corners when stopping down. In contrast, the GRD showed very good center sharpness even wide open, but peripheral field performance was mediocre and extreme corner performance quite poor at this setting. At f/5, center sharpness was minimally decreased due to diffraction, but overall detail throughout the frame was optimized. I therefore compared the DP1 performance at f/5.6 to that of the GRD at f/5.
Both DP1 and GRD files were processed from RAW using Lightroom 2.1. This is the only third party RAW processor that supports both cameras. Sharpening settings in Lightroom were at default, as were noise reduction (NR) settings. Lightroom set both luminance and color NR to zero for the DP1 file but defaulted to a color NR setting of "25" for the GRD. As would be expected with a small sensor camera, the GRD shows both color and luminance noise, even at base ISO. The default Lightroom color NR eliminated the color noise without noticeably impacting the level of detail.
Since the DP1 native file size is 4.65 megapixels, I upsized the DP1 image to 10MP using Genuine Fractals 5. The DP1 and GRD files were then sharpened using Photoshop CS3 Smart Sharpen radius 0.3 until they had a similar subjective level of sharpening. To achieve this, the GRD Smart Sharpen amount was "100" and the DP1 amount was "50".
The overall test scene is shown below. Focus was on the center of the far row of parked cars.
In each crop comparison, the DP1 is on the left and the GRD on the right.
Extreme upper left corner:
As you can see, the DP1 image is cleaner and more contrasty. Overall, the level of detail is similar with both cameras showing good resolution for the extreme corner. There is some red color fringing around the highlight in the DP1 crop, in contrast to the GRD crop which has none.
Left lower corner:
The GRD crop is clearly sharper here, reflecting the greater depth of field of the small sensor camera at f/5 as compared with the larger sensor DP1 at f/5.6.
Extreme right upper corner:
Once again the DP1 is cleaner and a bit more consistent going into the extreme corner. The DP1 is also again showing a touch of color fringing around highlights, but nothing severe.
Right side, further from edge:
Moving away from the edge, we're starting to see perhaps a subtle detail advantage with the GRD image compared to the DP1. Both cameras continue to show a lack of the color fringing which was evident with the Canon G9 and Leica D-LUX 3 in a previous shootout at this test scene.
Left of center:
Again, a bit more detail in the GRD crop.
Above and left of center:
Close to the top edge:
Overall, I think it is fair to say that the level of detail is similar. The luminance noise in GRD crops creates the impression of more detail than is actually present. However, even taking this into account, it seems that the GRD has slightly greater overall resolution, and the DP1 is slightly more consistent across the frame. Color fringing is well controlled, especially in the GRD image. The DP1 image is cleaner, especially in the shadows, and has somewhat higher overall contrast.
Click here to download the RAW files for the resolution comparison.
Low light performance
Given that it features an f/2.4 lens and a 1/1.75" sensor, I expected the GRD to perform well in low light. Overall it has met my expectations, although my impression from use is that the GRD sensor isn't quite in the same league as the Panasonic LX3 and Canon G10 sensors when it comes to noise performance at high ISO. The GRD also lacks image stabilization. There's just a bit of blur due to handshake in the photo below, which was taken at 1/30s.
Study time in the Sabet family household.
Like the GRD, the DP1 lacks image stabilization. Both cameras are generally easy to keep steady at slow shutter speeds, especially when compared to an SLR camera with its associated mirror slap. The DP1 has a much larger sensor than the GRD, and on that basis would be expected to offer superior high ISO performance. However, the DP1 has a slow lens and, as the examples below will demonstrate, has difficulty with color saturation and accuracy at high ISO in low light.
Because of the speed advantage of the GRD lens, I will be comparing GRD ISO 100 to DP1 ISO 200, GRD ISO 200 to DP1 ISO 400, and so forth. The GRD lens is actually more than one stop faster than the DP1 lens, so this comparison is more than fair to the DP1. In each set, the GRD image has been downsized to DP1 dimensions for comparison. Crops shown are at 100%. All files were processed from RAW in Lightroom with color and luminance noise reduction set to "0" except as specified.
At ISO 800, the DP1 noise remains tightly structured, and detail is intact, but blotchy patches of color are beginning to become more prominent. In addition, colors have become frankly desaturated and inaccurate. As previously demonstrated on the blog, the degree of desaturation and color shift at high ISO with the DP1 is dependent on both the quantity and spectrum of the light source. In this case, I was using a sunlight balanced fluorescent lamp with a shutter speed of 1/50s and f/4.
ISO 800 is the maximum native ISO for the DP1. For the next comparison set, the DP1 was underexposed by 1 stop at ISO 800 and pushed to an ISO 1600 equivalent exposure index.
Here's what the same crops look like when processed to black and white. In this case, I used the monochrome WB setting in SPP to process the ISO 1600 equivalent DP1 file:
Finally, here is the GRD at maximum ISO along with the corresponding DP1 file underexposed severely at ISO 800 and pushed two stops (ISO 3200 equivalent) in Lightroom:
Both of those look awful, but of the two, the GRD file has some potential to be salvaged for a small print. At ISO 3200 equivalent, direct conversion to black and white in RAW is the only usable option for the DP1.
Although I will not show the entire ISO series of in-camera JPEG files, here is a comparison between a resized ISO 800 GRD file processed from RAW with noise reduction on the left, and a resized ISO 800 GRD in-camera JPEG on the right:
Those who have used the original GRD or the GX100 will note that the GRD II applies significantly more in-camera noise reduction than either of those cameras. The noise reduction setting can be modified. However, it is unfortunately impossible to set the GRD II in-camera noise reduction such that detail and noise are preserved as they are with the GRD I, a compact which is well known for an attractive character of noise.
Centennial Park. Ellicott City, MD.
As a rule, small sensor digital cameras have limited dynamic range when compared with larger sensor digital cameras. To test the overall dynamic range of the GRD against that of the DP1, I chose a scene with deep shadows and bright highlights. Both cameras were manually set to ISO 100, f/4, and 1/250s.
Here is the overall scene as captured by the GRD and resized:
As you can see, the capture contains blown highlights and blocked up shadows within the same frame. Here are the GRD highlights before and after a -2EV adjustment in Lightroom:
Here are the DP1 highlights before and after the -2EV adjustment in Lightroom:
As you can see, the DP1 highlights were not as badly clipped to begin with, and in contrast to the GRD, were fully recovered in RAW. One may look at this result and conclude that the GRD image was simply overexposed relative to the DP1 despite the same exposure settings on both cameras. However, let's now look at the same files for shadow recovery.
Here are the GRD shadows, before and after a +2EV adjustment in Lightroom:
Now the DP1 shadows before and after +2EV adjustment:
Given that a single DP1 exposure shows both better shadow and highlight recovery than a single, matched GRD exposure, it is safe to say that the DP1 has greater dynamic range for all practical purposes.
Click here to download the RAW files for the dynamic range comparison.
The Ricoh GRD stores RAW files in the Adobe DNG format. For most photographers, DNG is the preferred RAW format given that it ensures that a new camera will quickly be supported by the major applications such as Adobe Camera Raw/Lightroom and Aperture. In contrast, the DP1 only recently gained ACR/Lightroom support. Other than that, only Sigma Photo Pro supports DP1 RAW files, which are in X3F format.
Fells Point. Baltimore, MD.
PART THREE: CONCLUSION
The GR Digital II is currently the flagship Ricoh compact and occupies a unique position in the "serious compact" market. It isn't the right compact for most people, even amongst those who appreciate advanced compacts. For starters, it doesn't zoom, lacks image stabilization, and sells for $500 at the time of this review (down from a $700 street price at introduction). That said, nearly every photographer I know who has tried this compact for as little as one week has been taken with it.
The GRD II is compact enough to go everywhere, discreet enough to use anywhere, and is truly a pleasure to use. It is plain to see that Ricoh has taken pride in the creation of the GRD II and that photographers have played a prominent part in its design.
Prospective GRD buyers will frequently also consider the DP1. The two cameras share some obvious similarities: 1) Sharp, well corrected, 28mm equivalent, fixed focal length lens; 2) High price; 3) Discreet appearance; 4) Raw mode; 5) Hot shoe for accesory viewfinder; 6) "System" compact approach with availability of add-ons/accessories. Yet, beyond these characteristics, the two cameras couldn't be more different. The DP1 is really a "bare bones" camera. One can control all the basics which determine the capture, but there are essentially no additional controls or features. The autofocus is slow, LCD lousy, and shot to shot time is quite long compared to its peers. The GRD is operationally superior in nearly every way.
Given that is marketed as a 14MP camera, it is ironic that resolution is the one objective aspect of image quality with respect to which the DP1 is bettered by several other compacts. However, from my perspective, having reviewed a number of prints from both cameras, the DP1 image quality is overall superior to that of the GRD and all other compact cameras. Here I am referring to measurable characteristics which dominate what I am looking for in a print, including wide dynamic range, colors, and tonal range. These qualities bring a realism to low ISO DP1 prints that I do not see in small sensor compact prints. I also prefer the black and white conversions from the DP1 to those of the GRD due to better highlight retention and more open shadows with the former. However, some will prefer the imaging characteristics of small sensor cameras in general and the GRD in particular.
Specific criticisms for the GRD II are that autofocus speed has been reduced from that of the original GRD and GX100, and that excessive in-camera noise reduction has exchanged the charming and unique character of the original GRD high ISO JPEG for a look more typical of current generation compacts. Conventional wisdom, espoused by Ricoh experts Pavel Kudrys and Cristian Sorega amongst others, is that the original GRD is a better JPEG camera and the GRD II a better RAW camera. I completely agree with this.
The GRD has a fast, sharp, distortion free, and flare resistant wide angle lens. Colors are accurate, dynamic range better than average, and sensor signal to noise improved from that of the original GRD. For those who like to stay at 28mm, shoot RAW, and who either enjoy the small sensor look or dislike the operational limitations of the DP1, the GRD is an outstanding choice.
Some feel that the GX200 offers all that the GRD II does and more, supplanting the latter camera as the Ricoh flagship, but I cannot agree with this. The GRD lens is significantly more resistant to veiling flare, and lower in barrel distortion when compared to that of the GX. It also has more overall lens contrast, which some users may prefer. The more compact size and singular purpose of the GRD make it the razor of the Ricoh lineup. I look forward to seeing what Ricoh has in store for the next generation GR Digital.
More information about the GR Digital II and where to purchase:
Official site: Products & Solutions / Digital Cameras | Ricoh Global
Authorized US dealers: Products & Solutions / Contact & Address (North America) | Ricoh Global
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