Ricoh GRD II

Please forgive that horrible photograph. It’s a product of two powerful competing impulses: On the one hand, it seems stupid to write about a product without picturing it, and on the other hand, I’m at a point in my life where I simply refuse to put effort into to stupid gear photos.

Needless to say, there are plenty of reviews online that provide very nice pictures of the camera, as well as (almost) all the technical information you could require.

So, as to the camera, why do I have it, and what do I have to say about it that isn’t just summarizing dpreview?

Well, for starters, I should explain why I bought a new (used) digital camera. As you may know, I started on digital, but switched to film almost completely. I’m a still a hardcore film convert (and as any student of religion knows, converts are the ones who are always most strident), and I have some very nice, very portable film cameras, including the semi-pocketable Olympus XA.

But, a few different factors conspired to make me desire a compact digital camera:

* Sometimes I’m in social situations where a photograph is called for, but I don’t feel like expending precious film
* Sometimes I want a photograph of something for a blog post, but I don’t feel like expending precious film
* Sometimes I want a photograph of something to put online the same day (but don’t feel like busting out a big camera and polaroid back)

In the past, those factors never overcame my hatred for some of the ubiquitous features of digital compacts, like:

* Autofocus
* No usable MF option
* No scale focus option
* Often absurdly impossible UI
* Shitty image quality

In discussions about these problems, folks have often brought up Ricoh’s GR Digital cameras, which I previously ignored, because they’re so damnably expensive. However, I happened to take a look one day at both the focus and exposure options on the GR Digital II and it’s price on the used market, which is comparatively pretty reasonable.

So, after a bit more research and digging, I ordered one.

Now, I won’t go into what it looks like or its specifications, etc., because you can get that information in more detail elsewhere very easily. What I will address is the question that typically most interests me about digital compacts, the question which virtually no reviews of those compacts ever actually addresses:

Can the camera be used for LCD-free, scale focus street shooting, the way I would use a film compact?

Street photography isn’t the only or even necessarily the primary thing I want this camera for, but I strongly feel that this sort of scenario is one in which every small format camera should be able to offer at least acceptable usability. Obviously the camera market as a whole disagrees with me; but is Ricoh the exception?

Yes and no. Or, rather, yes, with some annoying caveats.

On the yes side:

* Yes, you can turn off the LCD and all noises
* Yes, there is what amounts to a hyperfocal setting
* Yes, there is an electronic DOF scale for effective manual prefocusing
* Yes, the camera can be made to record a photograph near-instantaneously
* Yes, it has aperture priority and manual exposure modes
* Yes, there are aperture and shutter speed controls under your finger and thumb where they should be
* Yes, the camera has a hot shoe and can reliably sync a corded flash at (so far as I can tell) speeds up to about 1/1000 or so

On the annoying caveat side:

* The camera does not appear to meter continuously in aperture priority mode; i.e., if you skip straight to a shutter release full press without a half-press first — which you should be able to do when working sans autofocus — you will often get seriously inaccurate exposures
* Also, the camera does not have enough dynamic range to allow you to be sloppy in your exposures
* This makes it impossible to abandon the LCD completely, because one cannot simply trust the camera to accurately expose for you
* While there is a mode which allows you to view settings on the LCD but skip the live view (good), that mode does not display the settings continuously; you have to twiddle a control to make the settings appear.
* It tends to crap out around ISO 400 in the “noise acceptability department.”
* Despite having a fixed lens, it does not have a built-in viewfinder, and while accessory finders are available, they are wickedly expensive. (As are many finders made for film cameras that cover a similar FOV, so I don’t mean to imply that Ricoh is trying to shaft the user on this front; wide angle finders simply aren’t cheap.)

Off Oxford St.

There are also some annoyances that aren’t really design complaints, but which frustrate me nonetheless. The delay in writing RAW files to the card, and the unnecessarily large size of those files, are particularly chafing. You would think that a camera with so many incredibly intelligent design choices targeted at an unusually sensible (in terms of photographic practices) market segment would favor less pixel density.

I’m also finding it difficult going, getting the hang of working with those files. So far, I’ve only managed to get results I like by going black and white, for example. However, hopefully that will improve as I get more practice with the camera.

But, at the end of the day, will I be using it?

Car Seats Facing Bing Wong

The answer is yes, or at least probably. There simply aren’t that many digital cameras that allow me to easily — by simply twitching a preset — go from ideal settings for daylight hyperfocal street shooting to ideal settings for shooting with a handheld flash. Not even my D40 — although that camera’s beautifully simple interface when paired with a non-metering lens remains the envy of most digital cameras, as far as I am concerned.

It’s too bad that I can’t use the GRDII like the digital equivalent of an XA — which, with its extremely reliable metering system and simple operation, is one of the most stress-free cameras imaginable in most situations.

But at the same time, I’m not exactly averse to busting out my handheld meter and getting old school. Doing so gets me the ability to more or less reliably pre-set exposure, and I have an adequate (although not perfect) eye for the 28mm-equivalent field of view. In other words, it’s a workable solution, even if it is not the ideal one.

Of course, if only someone would release a camera like a digital equivalent of the Rollei 35 — with external, top-viewable dials for exposure settings and a built-in VF — I would be a completely happy camper. But since that’s not going to happen, the GRD is probably going to be good enough…


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