Ricoh GXR review

If you want professional-looking photographs, a digital SLR (DSLR) plus subject-dedicated lens is best, but this isn’t a set-up that will fit in your pocket. So the race is currently on to deliver a compact camera boasting DSLR quality that will. To date, and as far as interchangeable lens models go, Olympus and Panasonic have come closest with the E-P1 and E-P2 Pen cameras, and Lumix GF1 respectively. Smaller than all three, though, is the revolutionary new ‘interchangeable unit camera system’ from Ricoh: the GXR.

The basic GXR set-up comprises camera body, with a high-resolution 3in LCD screen for picture composition and review, attendant controls, pop-up flash, and padded handgrip. What’s missing is a lens and, crucially, a sensor.

This is what makes Ricoh’s device so different. Lens, chip and image processor come as a separate, combined, slide-on unit, clicking easily into place to outwardly resemble any other rugged, enthusiast-targeted compact. Because there’s no sensor in the camera body, the potential for system expansion is theoretically endless... if the convention-defying idea takes off.

There are currently two lens and sensor combos for the GXR: a 50mm macro (close-up) lens married to an APS-C sized sensor, as found in full-sized DSLRs – ideal for taking portraits with attractively defocused backgrounds; and a 24-72mm (3x) zoom wedded to a 1/1.7in CCD sensor, as found in Ricoh’s range-topping GRD III compact. The second option is the ‘everyday’ one, but, for us, the first makes the most of its compact-come-DSLR potential. The two units also offer different resolutions: 12.3 effective megapixels from the 12.9-megapixel CMOS chip with the 50mm, and 10 effective megapixels from the 10.4-megapixel CCD with the zoom.

Further optional accessories include an angle-adjustable electronic viewfinder (EVF) and flashgun that clip onto the camera’s hotshoe for greater creative flexibility. So obviously both cannot be used at the same time.

Swapping features

Not just the kind of images created but access to on-board features inevitably changes when attaching the different units. For example, attach the zoom combo and the user has access to 640 x 480 pixels video; swap this for the 50mm and clip resolution is boosted to a maximum high-definition 1,280 x 768 pixels at 24 frames per second (fps).

The camera powers up ready for the first shot in three seconds, which is a little slower than a DSLR. Unlike a DSLR there are no dedicated buttons for quickly adjusting light sensitivity (up to ISO3200), so you have to wade through three menu screens of small, dense type to select this setting manually.

For those who want to occasionally just take a few snaps, an automatic mode is provided, along with the standard creative modes of Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual, plus a Scene Mode setting. The last is where video capture ‘lives’, along with pre-optimised portrait, landscape, sports, night scene and, more unusually, a perspective-altering skew correct stills setting. There are three further custom mode settings found on the same dial, to which users can attribute preferred settings for speedier access.

Providing a quick icon-led overview of whichever settings are currently in play is an aptly named Direct button top-left of the LCD. Users can tab through and adjust the selected options with a twist of the DSLR-like command dial at the top of the handgrip and four-way arrow pad at the rear. So, despite the apparent complexity of the concept, with a little familiarity GXR operation quickly becomes intuitive.

With the 50mm lens and 12-megapixel sensor unit attached the GXR comes into its own for producing stunning portraits and detail-rich close-ups. However, we found low light and busy scenes confused the auto focus, prompting us to use the manual focus ring, while auto white balance performance proved variable when shooting under artificial tungsten light. This is a camera set-up that benefits from the user getting hands-on and tweaking settings; merely pointing and shooting with the GXR would be like buying a Ferrari and just using it for grocery shopping. The camera didn’t shine quite as much in comparison with the zoom lens and 10-megapixel sensor attached, but then this is the jack-of-all-trades option adaptable to shooting a wide range of subjects.

OUR VERDICT

While the GXR sounds like good news for photographers looking for a high-quality shoot-from-the-hip camera for street and travel photography, getting set up doesn’t come cheap. The basic body is a suggested £419, to which must be added the 50mm lens and sensor unit at a further £599 and/or the 24-72mm zoom unit at £329. So even the cheapest combination costs £750 all-in, the kind of money that would otherwise buy a mid-range, semi-pro DSLR. Ultimately, the GXR is probably going to be bought by someone who already owns a competent DSLR and wants a more portable alternative that looks and feels the part while offering picture quality that’s just as good, or very near it.

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