Like all non-reflex cameras the GXR is a pure 'live view' camera - there's no optical viewfinder, and framing is done using the LCD screen (or the optional VF-2 viewfinder). The disadvantages associated with this are well documented; in very bright light the glare from the screen reflection can make it hard to see and in very low light the preview image can get a little noisy, and traditionally there's been a serious trade off in focus speed when using the sensor for AF.
But there are some advantages too; you get a lot more information overlaid on the preview image than any optical viewfinder can offer, and using the sensor for composition means that things like white balance, color effects and exposure can be assessed before you take the shot. The GXR (like most compacts) also allows you to control just about every aspect of its operation using on-screen controls, meaning it's a lot easier to keep an eye on what's happening in the frame even when changing settings.
Live view display modes
The GXR offers four basic display modes: preview only (no information displayed); detailed info; detailed info + histogram and grid view (three options).
|Preview image only (shutter speed and aperture information appears when the shutter is half-pressed)||Detailed information displayed (note that the leveling gauge at the bottom is optional)|
|Detailed information plus live histogram.||Grid type I|
|Grid type II||Grid type III|
|When switching between display modes hold down the DISP button to toggle the level gauge (which can also beep when level).||As with previous Ricohs the level gauge gives a simple visual indication of how near (or far) you are to horizontal.|
|An optional frame / border can be added to the preview image if you find it hard to see the icons.||As covered on the previous page pressing the DIRECT button brings up an interactive information display that will make most digital SLR owners feel right at home.|
In fitting with the highly customizable nature of the GXR's user interface there are myriad options for fine-tuning JPEG color, sharpness and contrast, ranging from a handful of pre-baked Image Settings (Standard, Natural, Black & White, Toning Effects) to advanced color controls and white balance fine-tuning.
|If you don't like the default output of the GXR's JPEGs there's an almost limitless range of color, contrast and sharpness controls for you to play with.|
Contrast Detect AF
Aside from the viewfinder, our biggest worry about the viability of all non-reflex interchangeable lens cameras is the reliance on sensor-based contrast detect autofocus. Unfortunately the GXR/A12 50mm F2.5 Macro is no exception. Its contrast detect AF works reasonably well in good light but, as soon as light and/or contrast levels fall, the focus speed decreases, the AF can start hunting, and occasionally it even reports 'focus locked' when this is not the case. You can find some additional test information on the AF system on the performance page of this review.
The GXR offers five focus modes: Multi AF, Spot AF (center of frame), Manual Focus, Snap and Infinity. Additionally you can select a specific AF (and AE if you wish) target on the screen.
|The GXR offers several useful additions to the usual 'auto or manual' focus options, including a customizable 'Snap AF' (preset focus distance) and Infinity focus.||One of the menus invoked by pressing the ADJ button allows you to define an AF target (with options to meter, focus or both from the same target).|
|You can now move the target around the screen using the arrow keys or control dials.||The manual focus system of the GXR works by turning the focus ring on the A12 50mm prime lens and and by holding down the macro button and spinning the front dial on the S10. Note the depth of field scale on the distance scale: a neat touch.|
Overall handling and operation comments
With the A12 50mm F2.5 Macro camera module mounted on the GXR body, the Ricoh is not really a 'compact' camera but it's still small enough to slip it into a coat pocket (although the pocket will bulge a fair bit) which gives it a portability advantage over most SLRs. It's also not too heavy to use with a mini-tripod which makes it an even more flexible photographic tool.
Despite the comparatively small dimensions the camera's excellent build quality is immediately obvious when you hold the camera in your hands for the first time. There's no flex at all in the solid metal housing, the buttons and dials give reassuring feedback and rubberized thumb- and finger rests ensure a tight grip. It might not be the prettiest camera around but the GXR looks and feels like a quality product.
The control interface is similar to the one found on Ricoh's GRD and GX series and matches the construction. It is also one of the most customizable user interfaces we have seen. Virtually every button can be reassigned to suit your needs or shooting style. Initially the larger number of controls and customization options can be a little intimidating and maybe even confusing, but if you take the time to set up the camera (and in the process occasionally have a look at the manual), you'll end up with a user interface that is as close to your requirements as it can get.
Having said that, there are still a few minor glitches in the interface, all of which could easily be fixed with a firmware update. Some of the settings (for example drive mode or white balance) are being discarded when the cameras goes into sleep mode. In that case it's also not possible to 'wake the camera up' with a half-press of the shutter button. You'll have to switch the camera off and then on again. It's also slightly annoying that the Direct menu does not disappear after a half-press or even an exposure. You'll need to press the Direct button again to get it off the screen.
Another point worth keeping in mind is that, due to the location of the tripod mount, it's impossible to change memory cards while the camera is mounted on a tripod. For most photographers this is a non-issue but if you usually spend some adjusting your tripod before shooting it's worth knowing.
Finally we weren't too keen on the manual focus ring. It's focus-by-wire and while it's significantly better than any of the dial/button solutions we've seen on compact cameras, it cannot match the feel of a mechanical focus ring.
These quibbles aside, the GXR comes with a body that feels remarkably good in the hand, and controls that are very well laid out and flexible. All in all from an operations and handling point of view the Ricoh wins hands down over its current competitors in the mirrorless large-sensor bracket of the market, and quite a few DSLRs as well. Let's hope that Ricoh will sort the minor problems we found with a firmware update.