The digital compact grows up

Sorry if I don’t get too gushy over new camera developments. Being around this business all these years starts to make one think one has seen it all (oh no, what has the marketing department made the engineers build now?).
Still, I’m a little excited about a new class of compact cameras that are finally making an impact on things these last few months. Fuji really got the ball rolling in 2010 with their X100 – a compact model with a proper-sized APS-C sensor and a sharp prime lens. The latest one to come my way is the Ricoh GR, also with an APS-C sized sensor behind a sharp 18mm lens, and in a much smaller package.
I had a Ricoh compact, way back when. That came about after a guided bus trip around Europe. I toted a pair of SLRs and lenses almost everywhere. But one evening when I left the kit behind at the hotel to go out on the town, I couldn’t help but notice some of the girls pulling their compact 35mms out of their purses, and taking fun pictures that I wasn’t. I realized there was a place in my life for a small camera, and my choice ended up being a little Ricoh with a 35mm f3.5 lens, and a built in flash. It worked great, and over the next few years it saw a lot of use. Flash pictures were especially good.
But being a camera geek, I lusted after a bit more control and sharpness than the little program-only Ricoh could offer. I then got an Olympus XA, which was truly terrific, both in the lens department, and the fact it was a true 35mm rangefinder with aperture priority control. Over the years, I found its pitfalls. The add-on flash was dismal, and trying to set wide apertures with higher shutter speeds resulted in bad light fall-off in the corners. Still, it easily stuffed in a coat pocket, and got me amazing results time and again when the SLRs stayed safe in their bag.


Then my eye caught the Nikon 35Ti, and I had to have one. It was part of the mid-‘90s trend to build ultra-luxury 35mm compacts. Leica had their Minilux. Contax had the T3. Ricoh had the GR-1, and there were others.
Still, the Nikon has an awesome cool factor that still gets stares today. In addition to a small LCD on top, there is what looks like an analog chronograph wristwatch face with needles to read out focus distance, shooting aperture, exposure compensation, and frame counter. While you can use it all automatic, those needles make it simple to set manual focus and aperture easy. Flash can be overriden with a couple of pushbuttons. LCD framelines in the finder glow red in the dark. If it were a bit quieter in use, it would be perfect. The 35mm 2.8 lens is super sharp. A companion model in black had a 28mm lens, but I’ve never tried one.
It’s a camera for the SLR owner who has to leave the big bag behind every now and then, but still wants top-notch results. I still love to use it time and again, especially with a roll of black and white film inside. The only downside is that isn’t as rough-and-tumble a camera as the XA, and I do baby it.
In this digital SLR age, it has been hard to come up with compact cameras that fill the same bill. Many have tried, but just about all have been hampered by a teeny compact camera sensor that can boast big megapixels and zoom range, but fall short in overall image quality.
But as I said at the start, we’re now seeing cameras that stuff SLR size sensors into a compact body. Get rid of the distortion-prone zoom, and go with a small sharp prime lens, and you really have something.
The Ricoh GR you see in the photos here is such a beast, and it’s a very fine camera. It’s cosmetics, like all predecessors in the series (starting with that original GR-1) are understated. There’s no chrome trim, carbon-fibre inlay, or bright colour options. It’s matte black on matte black metal. Batman might want something like this.
Of course, it’s not cheap – currently selling at $799. Adding on the cool accessories like the lens hood and optical finder add to the bill, and maybe compromise its pocketability, but this is a luxury product with a real purpose.
I know many will look at the lack of zoom, and no image stabilization and cross it off their list – but they don’t get it and never will. And no, there’s no “image” modes either – no “landscape”, “portrait”, “party” or “food”. Controls are basic and sensible, as they should be.
The 18.3mm lens is equivalent to a 28mm on a full-frame camera. It has a proper aperture with lots of blades.
This is a true street camera, whether that’s the streets of Paris, New York, Cancun, or where where you live, where subject matter is found up close and personal and perfect for that sharp, wide lens. And that big sensor can be run up into high ISOs without having your photos turn out like Roman mosaics.
The few sample shots I’ve taken with one have impressed me, especially the DNG-format raw files. I’m particularly struck by the colour rendition. There’s more than a few cameras out there, including SLRs, that boast nice specs, but somehow look “wrong” to me, colour-wise.
The GR will no doubt be compared to a growing list of competitors, but then again, it’s great to finally see the compact camera “grow up” and take its rightful place in a serious photographers pocket.

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~ by windsorphotooutfitters on June 29, 2013.

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