Shooting Experience

Originally published April 21, 2019

'The best camera is the one you have with you'. I think Gandhi said that. It's not true, of course - the best camera is the Pentax MX and unlike Gandhi I'll fight anyone who says different.

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What is true – and what the author of that aphorism meant – is that the best camera in the world is of no use whatever if you leave it at home. Like many photo obsessives, I carry a camera with me at almost all times, even if it's just the 12MP camera on my phone. The cameras I tend to reach for when I leave the house now are a far cry from the gear I used to shoot with professionally. Gone are the days of carrying two Nikon D3S bodies and a brace of F2.8 zooms on my back, and my back is happier for it.

I'm much more likely to throw a Fujifilm X100F or Leica M10 into my bag these days, despite the inconvenience of fixed focal length lenses. More recently I've been enjoying the versatility of the Nikon Z7 with its 24-70mm F4 kit zoom. But none of the cameras I just mentioned are really, truly, pocketable. That's where the Ricoh GR series comes in.

This is a composite image created from several Raw files from the GR II. I'll often shoot sequences like this on hikes, to simulate the effect of a much wider field of view. I downsized this shot for upload - the original is enormous.

Incidentally, this is the fire lookout hut where Gary Snyder wrote one of his most famous (and one of my favorite) poems. 'Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout'.

Ricoh GR II - stitched image from multiple frames.

I owned a Ricoh GR II for quite a while, and I loved it. The breast pocket of my favorite jacket still has a GR II-shaped shape crease in it, which I suspect is permanent at this point. While 28mm isn't my first choice of focal length, it's great for casual shots of friends, street scenes and general outdoor photography. The GR-series have always been fantastic cameras for hiking and cycling with thanks to their solid build quality and small size, and 28mm is perfect for quick trailside landscapes.

Fitting the GR II's relatively small 16MP files into my workflow ended up being awkward

The only reason I sold my old GR II (to one of my DPReview colleagues, in fact) was that I found myself working on projects that really needed the 24MP+ resolution available in contemporary DSLRs and mirrorless cameras. Fitting the GR II's relatively small 16MP files into my workflow - pin sharp as they undoubtedly were - ended up just being awkward, so off it went to a new home.

Had I known how long it would be until we saw a Mark III, I might have kept hold of it. But when the GR III was finally announced, it seemed to solve three of my main frustrations with the GR / II.

While I don't naturally gravitate to the 28mm focal length, it's a great focal length for scenes like this. And the GR III is so small that I can dangle it over a balcony without fear.

Out-of-camera JPEG | ISO 500 | 1/40 sec | F5.6

Firstly there's the resolution boost. 16-24MP isn't a massive leap, but it's enough to make a difference, and enough to make modest cropping an option. I tend to prefer 35mm to 28mm, and in 35mm crop mode the GR III outputs 15MP files – effectively the same resolution as the Mark II at 28mm. I don't shoot in crop modes often, but it is nice to have the option of cropping later and being left with a usable amount of pixels.

Secondly, autofocus has been updated to on-sensor phase-detection. This promises faster and less hesitant AF than the notoriously hunting-prone GR II.

Finally, the sensor in the GR III is stabilized. There's some debate about this point – why do you need stabilization to shoot at 28mm? Well, if you're shooting on a DSLR or most ILCs, you probably don't. Large, heavy cameras absorb moderate handshake pretty well. But with a camera as light as the GR II / III, designed to be used one-handed for grab-shooting, the (figurative) helping hand is actually very useful. I've found that I can safely hand-hold images down to around 1/10sec with stabilization turned on, which is turns out to be very valuable when it comes to things like capturing flowing water, or just keeping ISO low in darker conditions.

An APS-C camera with a stabilized, modern sensor that fits into a shirt pocket? Yes please.

I had held out a vain hope that the GR III might feature some kind of built-in EVF, perhaps of a similar kind to that offered by the Sony Cyber-shot RX100 VI and its ilk. Realistically though, the minute that Ricoh told us that the GR III would feature IBIS, and would actually be smaller in form factor than the II, I knew there wouldn't be room for an EVF. It turns out there wasn't room for a flash, either. Oh well. I know a lot of photographers who were heartbroken by the loss of the latter, but it doesn't really bother me.

I was nervous to learn that Ricoh had redesigned the GR III's lens, but looking through my images I'm reassured to see that images from the GR III are at least as sharp as I'd expect from previous models. Bokeh isn't amazing, but opportunities for blurring backgrounds on a 28mm F2.8 lens are pretty slim unless you're shooting in the macro range.

Great bokeh? Not exactly. But considering the physics of a 28mm equivalent F2.8 lens, I don't care. The GR III's lens is impressively sharp at all apertures and focus distances, which is much more important to me in a camera of this type.

Out-of-camera JPEG | ISO 200 | 1/125 sec | F2.8

I'm getting ahead of myself. Picking up the GR III after using a GR II for so long I felt like I immediately knew the camera. Comparing them directly, it's obvious that Ricoh has tidied up the user interface quite a lot, as well as dispensing with some of the GR II's physical buttons, but none of the changes have really got in my way. For quick pictures I use the GR III in almost exactly the same way as I used to enjoy shooting with the GR II: in aperture priority mode, usually between F4-8, using auto-area autofocus.

The rear screen is now touch-sensitive, and partly as a consequence it is covered in a layer of highly reflective glass. This makes it almost impossible to accurately preview composition on a bright day, so I've taken to mounting an old 28mm optical viewfinder I had lying in a drawer, which gets me close enough. the downside is that with a finder added, the GR III is no longer quite so pocketable.

Perhaps the GR III's major achilles heel is
battery life

Another option for outdoor use is to increase the screen brightness (I have the movie button set to provide quick access to this setting) but there is a cost. Perhaps the GR III's major achilles heel is battery life. While you can eke out a few hundred shots per charge in a single session with minimal image review, if you're shooting at slower shutter speeds (where the IBIS kicks in) or working with boosted screen brightness, you're taking a risk without at least one spare battery in your pocket. It's not quite Sony Cyber-shot RX1R II-level bad, but it's bad. And like many small battery cameras, the GR III's battery indicator goes from the cheerful-looking full bars icon to the unhappy no bars red blinky icon with very little warning.

This shot demonstrates one of the major shortcomings of the GR III - it's virtually impossible to discern what's on the screen in bright light. I shot several versions of this scene at different exposure settings, and used an external finder for framing.

Processed in Adobe Camera Raw | ISO 100 | 1/1250 sec | F7.1

Fortunately, the GR III is equipped with in-camera charging, via the (more or less) standard USB-C interface used by a lot of cameras and mobile devices these days. The GR II used a fiddly connector which looked like standard USB mini but wasn't. I have three of them, because twice I thought I'd lost my last spare. A full charge takes a couple of hours, but I've found even ten minutes plugged into an external battery pack is enough to get me out of trouble.

Unfortunately there's no workaround for the GR III's autofocus system, which – sadly – is still pretty hopeless in low light. In bright conditions it's definitely improved over the GR II. I don't think there's any doubt about that. Autofocus is acquired faster and with less hunting, and the overall impression in decent lighting is that the GR III focuses about as quickly as a Fujfilm X100T/F. But take the thing indoors or – heaven forbid – start trying to shoot after dark, and it falls apart quickly. The obnoxious green AF light provides enough light for the camera to (eventually, usually) lock on, but it can take several seconds. No kidding.

Firmware 1.10 appears to improve matters slightly. General low-light AF responsiveness is better, but the GR III is still slow to lock on to low-contrast targets (like human faces) even with FW 1.10.

Ultimately though, I'm prepared to forgive the GR III most of its foibles. The fact is that it's a fast, responsive (usually) camera with a great sensor, effective in-body stabilization and a sharp lens which fits into my shirt pocket. I started this article with a quote and I'll end with another - 'shut up and take my money'.