Macro photography with the Ricoh GR

I’ve been waiting for ages for a compact digital camera with a big sensor that will give me similar quality to a DSLR but one I can slip into a pocket. In this time, I have tried, among others, the Leica X1, a great camera but not pocketable, the Fuji X100, also great quality but a bit unwieldy, and the Fuji X10, good idea but not pocketable and a smaller sensor.

Now the London bus syndrome has struck and two compacts have turned up, both with APS-C-sized sensors similar to the ones used in most DSLRs. The Nikon Coolpix A and the Ricoh GR both cram great sensors and sharp, fast(ish) f2.8 lenses into very stylish camera bodies that can be pocketed without any problems.

Looking at the initial specs, I was leaning towards the Nikon super compact but after a bit more thought I decided to buy a Ricoh GR.

Ricoh may be a relatively little known name in the mass photographic market but they have a great reputation going back a long way. I still have one of their Ricoh GR film cameras which were renowned for a sharp 28mm optic in a compact and which have become collectable items nowadays.

Since those times, Ricoh have produced a succession of digital cameras but the GR is the first really worthy successor to that film classic. Ricoh took over Pentax a couple of years ago and their digital cameras now seem to come under the Pentax line but retain the Ricoh name and distinctive styling.

The new camera retails at around £600 ($800), which might seem expensive for a compact but I believe it represents something of a bargain, considering the quality offered in such a portable package. It undercuts the Nikon Coolpix A price point, with the Nikon at over £900 in the UK and around $900-$1,000 in the USA. The Ricoh model is a lovely looking camera that feels great in the hand and can be slipped into most pockets, even a shirt if it’s got a fairly strong pocket.

The GR’s fixed lens is equivalent to a 28mm and has a nine-bladed diaphragm which Ricoh says helps to produce natural bokeh, which is the out-of-focus areas of a photograph when a picture is taken at larger apertures. It was this facility I was particularly seeking as I like to take flower pictures with a lot of bokeh and the GR V offers a macro function which enables you to take pictures at just 4 inches (10cm) away from the subject. This is a proper macro distance and comparable with dedicated macro lenses used on DSLRs.

The back of the GR is a lesson in design to all camera engineers as everything is well laid out and the important functions are easily found. You can set ISO with one press, macro function can be toggled on or off with another press and the aperture can be set quickly. That roughly sums up much of my photographic needs but with many cameras it can be wearing to change these parameters.

The function dial on the top of the camera has a lock, so you can, for instance, set it to Aperture mode and not worry about the dial moving when you put it into your pocket, unlike most compacts where you have to check the dials and generally reset them. The GR also keeps the last used settings, so you can start up again where you left off. The only slight criticism here is the exposure compensation rocker on the back of the camera. This is a very useful switch which is far better than most of the compensation buttons on compact cameras but the GR’s rocker can be pressed inadvertently in a pocket or camera pouch so you need to make sure compensation hasn’t been set when you take it out again.

This review is mainly about using the GR as a macro camera, so what I’ve done in the pictures here is to shoot wide open at more or less the closest possible distance, which is f2.8 and 4 inches. I’ve set the GR on Aperture Mode, so the camera calculates the shutter speed, with the ISO set to 100 in good daylight. I’ve tried to keep it very simple but it is a tough test and one that most compact cameras would fail. How do I think the GR V coped?

I’m delighted with the pictures and the fact that I could take them with such a portable camera. I shot all the pictures on the Large jpeg setting, I didn’t shoot any Raw pics at all as I didn’t want to confuse the issue by getting into the ins and out of processing the Raw format, which is DNG in the case of the GR.

Close focusing speed in good light was excellent, with the focus hunting only when I was too close to the subject, and in-camera processing speed was also excellent. Sharpness of the area in focus is exceptionally good.

The original files are superb quality as this is a 16Mp sensor and it can produce a big file, up to 64Mb for a Tiff saved from a shot Jpeg.

The colours out of the camera were excellent and processing was minimal.

The bokeh, which was one of the major points for me in buying the GR V, is on a par with and perhaps even better than many DSLRs using macro lenses. I think it’s a brilliant camera at a great price for its capability.

I’ve also written a review on using the Nikon Coolpix A super compact for macro photography.