Ricoh’s GXR P10
Ricoh’s unique modular compact system is one of the more adventurous cameras to come to market in recent years, including a range of interchangeable units, each containing a lens and sensor that can be swapped in and out. The latest addition to the system is a unit sporting a 28-300mm optic and 10-megapixel resolution chip.
When the Ricoh GXR modular camera system was launched, Ireviewed it at length [BJP, 03 February] and concluded that, "As it stands, it offers no real advantage, for a considerable £1500" - a statement that needed to be read with my observations concerning the versatility of the existing Micro Four Thirds cameras with which Ricoh hopes to compete.
Both products are very different except for their common attribute of relative compactness. Micro Four Thirds offers extensive lens interchangeability with old and new glass, a facility not yet found on Ricoh's new hybrid flagship. That considerable advantage aside, however, I had nonetheless missed the GXR's simple approach to ergonomics and innovative imaging power since handing back the review sample.
So when it came back recently with the new P10 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6 VC camera module, handling the unit felt like an old friend had returned to the fold. The transition from using a Ricoh GRD II almost daily was seamless and, as described in the first article, although the GXR body is somewhat larger, it maintains a very similar styling to its smaller sibling, enhanced by minor modifications to buttons and the joystick pad.
But the problem of how much and on what to spend it remains.
The GRD admirably fits the remit of being compact and versatile, but can't match the sumptuous clarity of larger formats. Still, the smaller sensor can easily match the kind of technical image quality obtained from 35mm film up to A4 print size. The aesthetic may be different, but the detail is there.
Upping the sensor size from the small 1/1.7-inch CCD of the short 24-72mm (equivalent 35mm format) GXR's S10 unit to the APS-C CMOS unit of the fixed focal length GR 33mm (50mm equivalent) enables more creative control of out-of-focus planes, yet close inspection of upscaled images of the same object revealed little in the ability of either sensor to obtain significantly more detail or greater sharpness to micro detail. In some independent observations, there was a feeling the smaller sensor actually produced a higher level of apparent detail - a result perhaps of its greater depth-of-field.
Either way, images from both sensor sizes produced by Ricoh's in-camera processing enabled detailed prints to be made up to 27 inch wide at 300 ppi. Beyond this, print resolution can be dropped in correlation to an increased viewing distance.
What's apparent then is that there is absolutely no question remaining about the suitability of images obtained - in this case from the largest fine JPEG files - for mechanical reproduction in print media. Indeed, results obtained on the hoof from the short zoom, and later post-processed to black-and-white from RGB, both exceeded my expectations of sensor capability, and equalled or bettered many 10x12-inch prints made from Tri-X or T-Max shot on a Leica - film grain factors aside.
However, both cameras work very differently, and if a comparison were to be made at the most elementary level, one aspect of all Ricoh models in this compact class shows that users must be far more precise in their handling of the digital tool. Autofocus detection for all the camera lens units reviewed to date is comparatively slow, so using it on the street for fast-moving scenes, for example, will likely result in missing the shot.
The "snap" focus feature of the camera units enables a specific distance to be set and, when combined with a full depression of the shutter release, success rates may be increased. Your chances of obtaining the shot in this mode with the equivalent sharply-defined outlines manifest by a Leica (film or digital) M camera, however, are not the same. On the Ricoh GXR, the shutter release has to be depressed firmly and sharply to get the snap focus feature to work, and this action increases the risk of camera shake, enhanced in low light situations where a Leica performs so smoothly in the hands of users familiar with its sublime mechanical shutter release function. So while the feature on the GXR kind of works for some motifs, it isn't perfect, and is one area where Ricoh needs to go back to the drawing board to get the electro-mechanical function right.
The new P10 camera unit adds further optical versatility to Ricoh's modular concept, with a useful wide-to-tele focal length reach combined with yet another different sensor size and type, and replicating to some degree what the company achieved with its consumer CX3 model launched at the end of last year.
The lens used in the GXR camera unit looks the same as that in the CX3, a 28-300mm 10.7× zoom with an optical cell comprised of 11 elements in seven groups, including four aspherical elements with four surfaces. It features Ricoh's own vibration correction image stabilisation technology (VC). The difference between the two cameras is that the lens in the GXR is married to a 2.3-inch, 10-megapixel rear-illuminated CMOS sensor instead of a CCD unit, measuring approximately 8.8×6.6mm and covering a slightly larger area than the unit used for the shorter S10 zoom module.
Time taken for the lens to zoom from its widest angle to 300mm and lock on is approximately 1.5-2 seconds, depending on ambient light value and subject focus point contrast value; the higher this is, ie a high level of differentiation between light and dark areas within the focus area, the faster it gains accurate focus. At the long end of the zoom, the user needs to indulge a little patience as the lens tends to hunt throughout the focus range. At the wide 28mm position, there is only a short lag in refocusing.
Both the relatively small camera size and lightness can also work against the user when making use of the P10 zoom's maximum length. Using the high resolution 920,000 LCD screen for composition and focus adjustment clearly magnifies and illustrates the high frequency of image shake present when hand-holding the camera at arm's length. In normal daylight, shutter times can be racked up in the hope of overcoming the problem; in low light, selecting a higher ISO rating with usable shutter times risks a higher level of image noise above ISO 400, artifacting which is controllable to some degree using Ricoh's patented noise reduction system.
Turning the VC stabilisation feature on may also help, but this risks a different element of fine detail image destruction that is not visible when the feature is turned off. Using the EFV improves performance as the camera can be held in a more relaxed and secure way, but it still doesn't overcome the risk in low light, for example, of the user jarring the camera as the shutter is released in snap focus mode. One extra feature is available in auto-bracketing, which captures up to five consecutive frames while incrementally altering the lens focus position. This will work for some subjects, but as ever, a camera support such as a versatile monopod improves the rate of success.
Finally, when using the GXR's Dynamic Range double-shot mode, Ricoh warns users of possible camera shake as the camera takes time to record two images of the scene and overlays them to produce one image with enhanced tonal range. The feature works well, but the camera ideally needs to be tripod-mounted when this mode is selected.
In my original review article, I was somewhat sceptical of both Ricoh's intentions and the purpose of this camera. At the time, how useful the concept might become turned largely on the type and performance of future camera modules, but as predicted then, it would not be long before these began to roll out of Ricoh's Chinese factories.
The addition of the P10 unit significantly hikes the versatility aspect, but there is more to come. A GPS positioning and Wifi unit enabling, for example, the operation of an underwater camera unit, is on the cards, as are a projector, portable small format printer, image storage unit (hard drive or solid state), remote extension, copier and endoscopy module. Indeed, the possibilities for expansion seem endless, but without a lens mount module that permits the use of third party glass, I cannot see how the concept competes with DSLRs of any format.
To my mind, what the GXR offers is the facility and versatility of a tool that slots somewhere between the pocketable compact and larger DSLRs. Its physical size is perhaps its downfall in some respects. Yet what it obtains in the way of image quality is impressive, especially when considering the smaller sensor sizes. I'd have no hesitation about using the camera modules launched so far for editorial work, but as it stands, it is not a replacement for the more sophisticated features offered with a DSLR.
While the GXR comes with substantial magnesium alloy build quality and arguably the best handling in its class, its comparatively high cost warrants further modification. A degree of weather sealing ought to be standard at this technology and price level. While using the P10 in fine outdoor conditions, the occasional CPU hang-up was encountered when camera unit and body refused to hand-shake; a problem resolved only after several attempts to turn off the power, demount and remount the camera module. My suspicion is that moisture on the contact pins was the culprit.
Some function buttons could be larger without impairing the neatness or facility of ergonomic layout. A fully articulating LCD monitor is a must, a feature of the Panasonic G1 type as practically useful as its lens interchangeability. The GXR has great potential but it needs more work to get it right.
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