Ricoh GXR system Modular hybrid camera at a glance:
- New GXR system
- 10-million-pixel camera unit
- 12.3-million-pixel camera unit
- Street price around £750 with S10 24-72mm camera unit
It is human nature to overcome obstacles, to expand our knowledge, and to improve and evolve the objects around us. This is as true of photography as it is of anything else.
We have moved from the camera obscura to wet plates, to film and now digital photography. Along the way camera design has adapted as technology has advanced, leaving us with the current process whereby a lens focuses light onto a digital camera sensor.
Ricoh’s GXR camera system doesn’t provide any new technological breakthroughs; the system is still based around a lens, a light-sealed box and an imaging sensor. What it does do, though, is combine the sensor, light-sealed box and lens into a single camera unit.
However, this unit alone cannot take any images – think of it as being like a Box Brownie, except with no shutter-release button and no way to remove the film. To actually capture an image the camera unit must first be attached to a body unit. When the camera and body units combine, the GXR becomes a fully functional camera.
To put it simply, you don’t just change the lens on a Ricoh GXR, you also change the sensor at the same time. Ricoh claims the advantage of this is that the sensor and lens can be designed specifically to complement each other, whereas other sensors have to work with a variety of different lenses.
In theory this is a great idea. Since digital photography became popular, photographers have wondered whether it would be possible to have a camera with a sensor that could be upgraded, similar to the digital backs of medium-format film cameras.
However, connecting the sensor directly to the lens creates its own problems, which are largely related to having the two most expensive components of a camera attached to one another.
Currently, the GXR system body unit costs around £450 – that is, without a camera unit. Combining the body unit with a Ricoh S10 24-72mm f/2.5-4.4 VC ten-million-pixel camera unit will set you back £750.
This may sound reasonable, but remember that you could buy a number of entry-level DSLRs for a lot less. Also, this camera unit only features a ten-million-pixel compact camera sensor, putting it on a par with the Canon PowerShot G11, which costs around £250 less.
Now, should you already have the body unit and wish to buy the A12 50mm f/2.8 Macro 12.3-million-pixel APS-S sensor camera unit, this will cost nearly £600 more. To put this in perspective, the Nikkor 50mm f/1.8D lens currently costs £129.99.
There are two GXR camera units available at the launch of the system. The first is the S10, which has a compact camera-sized, 1/1.7in ten-million-pixel CCD sensor. We have been given hints that this is the same sensor as found in the Canon PowerShot G11. The second camera unit is the GR A12, which houses an APS-C-size 12.3-million-pixel CMOS sensor.
Another benefit of housing the sensor and lens in the same unit is that dust and dirt are prevented from reaching the sensor or rear lens element. However, it may still be possible for dust to enter, particularly through the movement of the zoom lens, in the same way that some people have a problem with dust on a compact camera sensor. However, the chances of this happening are significantly reduced.
Of course, the differently sized sensors in each camera unit affect the image file size, as well as the continuous shooting rate. When shooting at below ISO 800 with noise reduction turned off, the A12 fires at a continuous rate of 4fps compared to the 5fps of the lower-resolution S10 camera unit.
Images can be saved as either JPEGs or raw files, with the raw files saved in Adobe DNG format. There are also five different image aspect ratios that can be used: 16:9, 4:3, 3:2 and 1:1 square. These should cover the requirements of most photographers.
The two cameras also have slightly different sensitivities, with the A12 having an ISO range of 200-3200, and the S10 a slightly wider range of ISO 100-3200.
Both camera units are capable of capturing video footage, although again at different resolutions. The A12 unit can record in high definition, but I’ll report more on this later.
So far, the hybrid cameras we have reviewed have all been based on the Micro Four Thirds format, although we are eagerly awaiting the new Samsung NX-format camera. The GXR is similar in some ways to the Panasonic Lumix DMC-GF1 and the Olympus Pen E-P1. Like these two cameras the GXR lacks a reflex action, meaning it is reliant on using the 3in, 920,000-pixel screen or the optional VF2 electronic viewfinder for framing images.
It has to be said that there aren’t a lot of bells and whistles on the GXR. Unlike some cameras we have seen recently, the GXR lacks in-camera HDR image creation or any sort of dynamic-range optimiser, or indeed any exciting pop art picture styles.
However, the camera isn’t primarily aimed at an audience to whom these features would be of interest. Given its price, design and feature set, it seems to me that the GXR system is aimed at those who have in the past admired the quality and precision of 35mm Ricoh and Contax cameras, such as the GR1s and G2.
Build and handling
Both the body and camera units are made of magnesium alloy, and the result is a reassuringly solid camera. To look at, the GXR can best be described as having a minimalist military style, similar to that of the Ricoh GX200 and GR Digital II cameras.
With its gun-metal black finish, the GXR lacks the retro charm of the Olympus E-P1 and the sleek look of Panasonic’s GF1, but it still owes much to previous Japanese film cameras, particularly the Contax G2.
In terms of size, the GXR is a little smaller than its Micro Four Thirds-format competitors. In fact, excluding the lens protrusion, it is closer in size to the Canon PowerShot G11. With the S10 camera unit attached, the GXR is compact enough to fit in a coat pocket, although fitting the larger A12 unit will require the camera to be carried in a case or bag.
However, carrying the lens and body units separately means it is possible to carry all three easily in different pockets, and with the lenses being sealed in the camera unit, the possibility of dust affecting images shouldn’t be an issue.
Each of the camera units slide very easily into place on the body unit, where a loud click confirms that the electronic and mechanical connections have locked in place. Detaching a camera unit from the body is as straightforward as releasing a catch and sliding the unit off the body.
On the rear of the GXR body unit is a standard array of camera controls. Although they are all easy enough to use once you are familiar with the camera, I would have made a few changes to improve the GXR’s use. I feel that the zoom control on the rear of the camera is placed too far to the right. It would be better placed in the position currently occupied by the ADJ rocker switch so that it could be easily adjusted while using the camera.
The ADJ switch itself is something of an oddity. Rocking it from left to right does nothing, except change the shutter speed when in manual exposure mode. To use it fully, it must first be pressed in. This reveals a customisable settings menu, which, by default, allows you to change the white balance, ISO sensitivity, image quality, image style and AE/AF point. To switch between these settings, the left/right rocker switch or standard four-way control buttons can be used.
However, as the standard four-way control dial must then be used to adjust the individual settings, the left/right rocker switch becomes almost redundant. However, with the GXR system potentially having so many different directions, it is likely the ADJ button will play a large part in the use of future accessory units.
Most of the settings you regularly need to change can be found by pressing the Direct button, which is located above the LCD screen. This displays the current shooting and exposure settings, and includes most of the options that are found in the ADJ menu. All the other settings can be revealed by pressing the Menu/OK button.
It is worth noting that the body unit can be operated without a lens unit attached. At present this only really makes it useful for reviewing images, but it opens up the possibility that the GXR body could be attached to other units that would allow images to be displayed, printed, organised or even edited.
Like the Micro Four Thirds-format cameras, the absence of a reflex mechanism in the Ricoh GXR means that it is reliant on using a contrast-detection autofocus system. While this method isn’t as fast as phase-detection AF systems found in DSLRs, these days it is good enough for most types of photography.
With contrast-detection AF, it is unrealistic to expect to take images of fast-moving subjects with the GXR, although with only a standard zoom and a fixed 50mm equivalent lens available these types of images aren’t what Ricoh had in mind when it designed the camera. It is safe to say that the GXR is best suited to the landscape, documentary and travel photographer in much the same way as a rangefinder camera.
With this in mind, the Ricoh cameras have one particularly useful AF mode: Snap AF. This locks the focus point to a user-definable distance between one and five metres, or infinity. With the AF distance locked to a set point, it becomes far quicker to use the camera to point and shoot, making it ideal for candid street photography. It is obviously advisable to set a reasonably small aperture when in this mode to maximise depth of field.
Other focusing modes include the more general Multi-Point focusing and Spot focusing. The latter allows you to specify an AF point to use.
Sadly, though, this is not simply a case of holding a button down and using the directional control button on the rear of the camera. Instead, you must press the ADJ button select to change the focus point, then use the directional control to change the position of the point, before going back to the main shooting screen to take your image. Should you wish to move it to another position you must go through the process again. Anyone used to changing the AF point on an enthusiast DSLR will find the process quite tiresome.
Manual focusing is also a feature of the Ricoh GXR. Once switched to this mode, the Macro button must be held down while the front control dial is then used to focus back and forth. Sadly, there is no option to show a magnified view on the rear screen, although the screen is of a high-enough resolution that accurate manual focusing is possible.
In our dynamic-range test, both the Ricoh A12 and S10 camera units were found to have a dynamic range of around 10.5EV. This is a little less than the Canon PowerShot G11, which has a dynamic range of around 11EV. It is also less than the Panasonic Lumix GF1, which has a range of nearly 12EV.
This slightly restrictive dynamic range is most noticeable in the highlight and shadow areas, where it becomes more difficult to define image details.
Image: Although I found that the GXR has a tendency to produce JPEG images that have light skies, there is enough detail in raw files to correct this
White balance and colour
Image: The Ricoh GXR’s in-camera flash produces well-exposed images, even at close distances. This image was taken with the camera’s black & white mode, which has a nice level of contrast
Besides having a range of presets, as well as the obligatory AWB setting, there is a Multi-Point white balance setting. This is found on the latest range of Ricoh cameras and it compensates for different colour temperatures across a scene.
For example, it can be used when taking a portrait by a window in a tungsten-lit room, to make sure that the daylight and tungsten light are both rendered neutrally. Although I found that the Multi-Point white balance works, it is quite subtle, making only a small difference compared to a general AWB setting.
One surprising omission is a flash white balance setting. You would expect that an automatic flash setting would be applied when the pop-up flash was being used.
I found that in many images taken with AWB mode selected, the pop-up flash created a slightly blue tint. Also in AWB mode and with the built-in flash set to slow sync, the white balance seems to be biased towards the ambient light rather than the flash. Again, this results in a blue tint in the flash-exposed areas.
In daylight there is a slight difference between using the AWB and daylight settings, with the AWB again being slightly blue.
However, I found that while the daylight setting produces acceptable results, the tungsten setting still looks a little too orange/yellow.
Rather than using the Kelvin scale to set a manual white balance, the GXR has a scale with a lightbulb symbol at the bottom and a sun and cloud symbol at the top. There are 17 different settings on this scale and I found that under 100W tungsten lighting, the second-to-bottom setting was my preferred choice.
As the effects of changing the white balance are previewed live on the rear screen, it is easy to find or check a suitable custom or manual white balance setting.
Overall, the colours produced by the GXR are good, although there is a tendency for blue skies to look a little cyan. However, as well as the usual selection of picture style effects, there are also two user-definable image styles.
These allow you to change the hue and saturation of individual colours, so you can adjust their appearance, including blue and cyan, to suit your own particular taste.
By increasing the contrast slightly and reducing the vividness of the orange, magenta and green, while increasing that of the blue and red colours, I was able to create a striking cross-processed effect.
Although generally the Ricoh GXR produces well-metered exposures in its evaluative metering mode, I find that it has a tendency to overexpose landscape images by around 0.3-1EV, seemingly compensating for what it perceives as a dark foreground against a bright sky. Using the GXR’s rear control, it is simple to adjust the EV compensation to account for this.
One area where the GXR produces pleasing results is when using the camera’s built-in flash. When taking portraits it correctly exposes the subject nearly every time. Slow sync flash mode exposures are equally good, although I did have a few issues with the white balance.
As well as evaluative metering, spot and centreweighted metering are also available. I found that the GXR’s spot metering measures exactly 128 (on a scale of 0-255), which means that the GXR meters exactly to a mid-grey – useful to know when using it to meter from highlight and shadow areas.
Resolution, noise and sensitivity
Looking at the images produced by the two units, the differences in the type of sensor become very clear. Images produced by the S10 camera unit look like those produced by high-end digital compact cameras. It manages to reach around 20 on our chart, which is respectable. However, due to the severity of the noise reduction in JPEG files, this number falls to around 14 by the time ISO 3200 is reached.
The severity of the noise becomes apparent when looking at the unedited DNG files produced by the S10. Colour noise is vivid, particularly in shadow areas, and is still present when the Colour Noise slider in Adobe Camera Raw is set to its maximum.
As you would expect, the A12 camera unit with its larger APS-C-size 12.3-million-pixel sensor produces less luminance and colour noise. It is also capable of reaching nearly 26 on our resolution chart, putting it on a par with most 12-million-pixel DSLRs. Noise is virtually indistinguishable at the minimum sensitivity of ISO 200.
The in-camera noise reduction does an excellent job of producing printable JPEG files even at ISO 3200, although there is a slight softness at this maximum sensitivity.
Looking at an ISO 3200 DNG image from the A12 shows very little colour or luminance noise. Both of these are easily controlled in Adobe Camera Raw, with little reduction in detail resolution.
With the noise being so well controlled in the A12 unit, I wonder why Ricoh hasn’t tried to push the sensor further? I feel it could be capable of being pushed to ISO 6400 and still produce images that would be comparable to those found in the extended settings of some DSLRs.
Oddly, despite numerous attempts, our image analysis system has been unable to generate meaningful noise figures for the S10 camera unit, so only the A12 is included here. We will continue to investigate what is causing this unusual anomaly.
These images show 72ppi (100% on a computer screen) sections of images of a resolution chart and still-life scene. We show the section of the resolution chart where the camera starts to fail to reproduce the lines separately. The higher the number visible in these images, the better the camera’s detail resolution is at the specified sensitivity setting. The section of the still-life image contains the emblem on a standard-sized matchbox.
LCD, Live View and video
Like other 3in, 920,000-dot screens we have seen, the LCD of the GXR is bright, clear and of a high-enough resolution to check even fine details.
Should you prefer to use a viewfinder, the VF-2 electronic viewfinder is available separately, although it costs around £200. This looks like, and attaches to the GXR in the same way as, the curiously identically named, E-P2-compatible Olympus VF-2 electronic viewfinder. The Ricoh VF-2 slides into the GXR’s hotshoe and plugs into an electronic connection just below.
With a 920,000-dot resolution, the EVF is as sharp and clear as the rear LCD screen. Better still, it is hinged, so it can also be used as an angle finder. It also has an adjustable dioptre. However, even though it offers a 100% field of view, it doesn’t look or feel as natural as using an optical viewfinder. That said, EVFs have come a long way in recent years and they now offer a genuinely usable alternative to traditional viewfinders.
In the same way that image resolution changes depending on which camera unit is being used, so does the video resolution. At its best quality, the A12 camera unit with its 12-million-pixel APS-C-size sensor can record at a moderately high-definition resolution of 1280×720 pixels at a rate of 24fps.
The S10 camera unit produces lower-resolution 640×480-pixel videos at a frame rate of 30fps. I would imagine that if Ricoh aims to compete with the Micro Four Thirds range of cameras, then a 10x superzoom lens capable of shooting at least 1280×720 pixels will be required.
As much as it is an interesting concept, the Ricoh GXR system is something of an oddity. Although I appreciate the idea of being able to take out a compact-style camera or a high-quality fixed-lens camera, I feel that Ricoh has created a solution to a problem that in real terms doesn’t actually exist, in much the same way as a Segway solves the problem of walking. A Segway costs thousands of pounds when you could either walk or spend a lot less and get a very good bicycle.
The two benefits that it does offer are lenses that are specifically designed for the sensor being used, and that it should be far more difficult for any dust to settle on the sensor.
As much as these are definitely positives, I cannot see huge numbers of photographers feeling that these advantages warrant the expense of an entirely new system. They may consider that they would be better off with a high-end compact camera (around £400) and a Panasonic Lumix GF1 and 14-42mm lens (around £650), which would offer more flexibility and cost around £200 less than the GXR body and A12 camera unit.
It will be extremely interesting to see how Ricoh develops the GXR system. It is definitely an exciting prospect, especially as both camera units provide excellent image quality in their fields. Once more units are released later this year, we will have a better idea of the true potential of the GXR. Hopefully, a GR-series wideangle lens and a S-series HD video superzoom unit will be released, along with some accessories to link with the GXR body. Ricoh may have been better waiting until more of the system had been developed to give photographers more of an idea of exactly what the system is capable of.
Ricoh GXR system key features
This springs into action once the Open/Flash button is pressed. The rest of the time it is closed flush to the camera body
This is the main control for navigating the various menus of the camera. When shooting, the user-definable Fn1 and Fn2 buttons each offer direct access to a choice of functions
The hotshoe (shown here with protective cover) allows the use of an external flashgun. Full TTL flash exposure compatibility is offered via the Ricoh GF-1 flash