The Ricoh GXR is an entirely new concept camera with interchangeable all-in-one lens-and-sensor units. What Digital Camera reviews the 50mm f/2.5 macro lens unit...
Ricoh GXR camera concept:
First came Micro System Cameras, such as Olympus and Panasonic’s Micro Four Thirds system or Samsung’s new NX range – cameras with DSLR-like quality, but minus the mirrorbox and optical viewfinder, therefore being much smaller. Ricoh’s take is also an interchangeable system camera, but with a difference – each ‘lens’ is a self-contained ‘lens and sensor’ housed into one detachable unit. By tailoring each sensor to match with its lens, the idea is to squeeze the utmost quality from an ideal pairing between optics, sensor size, resolution and processing. But does this solution over-exaggerate the very need for such a resolution, or is it an unforeseen ingenious idea?
The Ricoh GXR concept makes sense from some angles – dust isn’t a problem when changing lens units. On the other hand, it’s an unorthodox approach that poses new issues by its very conception: as sensor technologies advance there’s no possibility of upgrading a single camera body to maintain use of all lenses in hand and, importantly, the cost implication of £400 for the body only is considerable; with each new lens unit carrying the approximate or greater cost of buying yet another new camera. Also, should a sensor ever happen to need repair then the whole unit is out of action, with no quick option to retain the lens for use on another body like DSLR users can often benefit from. Although the GXR isn’t trying to be a DSLR, the comparison is worthy on a cost basis alone – the body with electronic viewfinder and both available lens units will total some £1,525, the same as a Nikon D90 or Canon 50D with more than one lens.
The GXR camera itself is a straightforward design, with a good build quality. A front and rear thumbwheel offer DSLR-like control at times, which makes it simple to cycle through options. The d-pad on the rear offers quick-access function buttons and a plus/minus adjustment to various options within the menu. Further quick-access buttons allow for playback, macro, self-timer and display options. The zoom-toggle on the back of the camera isn’t ideally placed though, especially as neither current lens unit has a manual zoom ring.
The 3in LCD screen on the back is excellent upon playback, fluid in use and images are dashingly detailed. Should you want to add an electronic viewfinder (EVF), Ricoh offers the VF-2, a high-resolution multi-angle option for around £220 separately or less when purchased as part of a camera kit.
In-camera options have nine settings allowing for ‘natural’ shooting, black and white, ‘vivid’ and similar options including a highly user-definable setting including vividness, contrast, sharpness and individual five-channel hue and vividness colour adjustment. There’s also the usual excellent Ricoh staple of a ‘horizon level’ feature, which even has an optional beep to indicate the camera is level as well as showing up on screen via a yellow bar.
50mm f/2.5 macro lens unit
The 33mm macro lens – an equivalent 50mm in 35mm terms – has a large APS-C sized sensor and is ideal for close-up shooting or high-quality peripheral field of view shots. It’s quite a specialist bit of kit and as such carries a fairly hefty £600 price tag to boot.
The lens isn’t as top-class as would be expected, though. When shooting in macro mode the front element extends forward for up to 1:2 magnification (not true 1:1 macro). With autofocus it then continues to move the lens forward and back as focusing isn’t internal – a frustration for macro work. Furthermore, with a minimum focus distance of 7cm it doesn’t feel as though the capability is there to get as close to the action as desired. The autofocus is slow and frequently fails to attain a focal point, even when well within the limits of the lens’ potential. Multi and Spot AF options display the slow speed that is often associated with contrast-detect AF systems, though other manufacturers such as Pansonic’s G-series system have partially resolved this speed issue. Not the case here – it’s far from snappy, even with the slight improvement offered by pre-focus AF. Unless, that is, you employ the ‘Snap’ mode, which has a pre-fixed focal distance defined between 1-5m or infinity which is certainly handy.
Flick to manual focus and pin-point accuracy does become available, but the focusing ring is so under-sensitive it needs to be rotated fully and multiple times before attaining close-up focus. This is accompanied by an unnerving ‘grinding’ sound. Neither of these manual focus issues are isolated, as both a pre-production and second 50mm unit responded the same way.
When things are in the right place, though, image quality is premium and truly DSLR-like. The benefit of the large APS-C sensor and wide f/2.5 aperture is a key benefit to behold. While the quality box may be ticked, the performance falls far short of the mark to what should be expected from a macro lens.
Ricoh GXR 50mm f/2.5 macro – Image Quality
That APS-C sized sensor does provide glorious shallow depth of field and images are sharp and detailed. The quality here unquestionably matches that of a DSLR. ISO pushes into the high sensitivity of 3200 and, while a tad grainy, the overall quality is more film-like than disruptive to quality. In fact, black and white images lend themselves rather well to this. Up the noise-reduction option in camera and some greater softness does occur, leading to a preference of keeping the feature turned off and doing any work in post production. For those who like to shoot Raw, the GXR offers Adobe’s native DNG format for immediate use with Camera Raw (ACR) and Photoshop. Ricoh software is also provided in the box should you not be a user of these, however.
Auto white balance, for the most part, did slightly lean towards warmer magenta tones, but was otherwise good. Raw file adjustment can correct for this, though it’s an area that could be improved upon.
All in all, very impressive optical quality from the lens and detail rendered from the sensor that would easily match up against a decent quality DSLR when compared side by side.
The modular camera concept isn’t new. All forms of cameras have optioned different lenses, film backs and so forth for many years, so Ricoh’s GXR system is perhaps not as unusual as it may initially seem. Although having a sensor optimised for the lens is useful, having a great lens means it isn’t a huge real-world problem in the first place. People just want to take decent-quality pictures – but the getting there is just as important as the end result. Fundamentally the performance (not quality) of the two individual lenses here undermines the foundations of the concept. Not forgetting the significant financial implication and, realistically, risk of investing. New, varied and ultra-high-quality lens units need to arrive sooner rather than later to tempt prospective buyers. To really win, Ricoh needs to put in a lot of time to improve overall performance, and then this could be a winner. But for now, it’s not.