Ricoh GRD III Review – Part 8

After looking at the features and the image comparisons it is time to move on to the final part of this review, the image quality and the conclusion.

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Ricoh GRD III Review – Part 7

This part will briefly compare the RD1s with the 28mm GR L-mount lens with the GRDs.
It was planned to be published before Christmas but got delayed. I got the chance to try out the new Ricoh GXR with 50mm lens so put this review on hold for a bit in order to have enough time to try the GXR and see if it could be included in this review for comparison.
After having tried the GXR for a while now and only have the 50mm APS lens module, I felt it did not make sense to include it here and it would have taken too much time to go out and reshoot all pictures for comparison. There will be a review of the GXR coming up.

Lets move on now and see how the cameras and lenses compare. This comparison is more out of curiosity and is not meant to determine which camera is better since the GRDs are completely different from the RD1s.

Continue reading “Ricoh GRD III Review – Part 7”

Ricoh GRD III Review – Part 6

In the last part we had a look at the low ISO b&w pictures from the 3 GRDs and as with the low ISO color comparison there was not that much difference between them.

Now it’s time to see how they compare at ISO 400, 800 and 1600. This should be more interesting and also more revealing since it will be more obvious how much luminance noise the cameras have.

Continue reading “Ricoh GRD III Review – Part 6”

Ricoh GRD III Review – Part 5

When the GRD I came out most people only ever used it in b&w mode and still a lot of people are using the GRDs mostly for b&w. Thus it’s important to look at how the different cameras perform in b&w mode.

This part will look at the low ISO b&w mode and compare the cameras at ISO 64/80 and 200.

Continue reading “Ricoh GRD III Review – Part 5”

Ricoh GRD III Review – Part 4

While the low ISO comparisons revealed some interesting things about the GRDs, the image quality differences were only minor between them.
In this part I will look at how the image quality compares at ISO 400, 800 and 1600. This should be more demanding for the cameras and especially the JPG engines which have to deal with more noise. Therefore we should see bigger differences between the cameras.

Part 4 – Image Comparison GRDs – Part 2 (Color: ISO 400, 800 and 1600)

As before this test is not scientific and is meant to show how these cameras perform when used in normal situations. All cameras have been set to A-mode, EV -0.3, ISO 400, 800 and 1600 respectively, Normal image parameters* with NR off (GRD II and III) and Auto WB. The JPGs are unprocessed and the RAW files were batch processed with RAW Therapee 2.4 using the default profile.
The pictures have all been taken without a tripod.

* Please note that because the GRD I does not shoot RAW at ISO 1600, I have used 2 JPG profiles. The JPG1 in the filename is the JPG with normal parameters, the JPG2 signifies that the following parameters have been used: Contrast +2, Sharpness + 1 and Color Depth -2. This greatly improves the JPGs at high ISO for the GRD I and is a fairer comparison against the RAW files from the GRD II and III. No noise reduction has been applied.

Ok, let’s start with the first picture and get straight to ISO 1600 using JPG, I will use two crops from the same image to illustrate this better.



Well, none of the cameras does a truly fantastic job here and you can see why ISO 1600 on a small sensor camera is not a good idea. The GRD I performs best because it has no aggressive noise reduction smearing away details. It is the only picture which can actually be further processed, both the GRD II and GRD III have too aggressive noise reduction going on even when it’s set to off. The GRD II is worst in my opinion and you would not want to use its JPGs at ISO 1600.

Let’s see now how the RAW files compare with the 2nd JPG profile from the GRD I and also GRD III for comparison.



Looking at the RAW files shows a very significant improvement in both the files from the GRD II and GRD III, while the GRD II file is very noisy it manages to hold enough details. Surprising enough, neither camera shows a significant enough advantage over the GRD I with the 2nd JPG profile and at 50% view the GRD I actually looks better and more crisp. It is a shame that the GRD I does not support RAW at ISO 1600 because I believe this would then be a clear win for the GRD I. Due to the high contrast of the GRD I JPG it has burnt some highlights, something which both the GRD II and GRD III easily recovered in their RAW files.

Let’s move on to the 2nd picture of this comparison and see how a more modest ISO setting of 400 looks when using JPG.


This picture shows clearly how bad the GRD II JPG engine really is and how much noise reduction is going on even with the NR setting to OFF. The whole image lacks detail and looks smudgy, especially the shadow areas. The GRD I and GRD III show a similar level of detail, with the GRD III clearly having less noise although you can see some small noise reduction artefacts.

Now it’s time to see how the RAW files compare.


The result is maybe not quite unexpected. The GRD II shows the highest amount of noise, even when compared with the GRD I, yet can’t show any significant advantage over the GRD I. The RAW file from the GRD III is again a big improvement over the JPG and beats the other GRDs.

The next picture is again at ISO 400 and JPG.


This picture shows more than the previous one how much impact the noise reduction of the GRD II and GRD III has on the details and especially look of the picture. While both the GRD II and GRD III JPGs look smudgy and more like watercolor paintings, the GRD I shows a good level of detail and a crisp image. Yes, there is noise in the GRD I JPG but this is easy to remove and much better than the smudgy files from the GRD II and GRD III.

Now lets see if the RAW files change the situation.


Like on the previous picture, the RAW file is a huge improvement over the JPG from the GRD III. Also the GRD II shows the most noise and yet again does not manage to do better than the GRD I. The GRD III RAW comes out on top once more, although it is by a small margin only.

Let’s move on and see how ISO 800 looks when using JPG.


This time the GRD I shows a lot of noise but can’t manage to show any significant details more than the really smudgy GRD II JPG, the GRD III shows the most details and least noise here.

The RAW file should hopefully be an improvement so let’s have a look at how it compares.


This time the GRD I and GRD II look almost identical, neither can really show more details and both have similar amount of noise. The GRD III RAW file is again a massive improvement over the smudgy JPG and easily beats the other GRDs.

For the last comparison picture let’s see how this scene looks at ISO 1600, in JPG first.


Not surprising it is the same as on the first picture, neither camera performs very well but the GRD I looks most pleasing and less like the watercolor paintings produced by the GRD II and GRD III.
There is however one worrying observation this time in the GRD III picture as you can see below.


The GRD III shows quite heavy banding in shadow areas at ISO 1600 and unfortunately it is not an isolated case as it happens in every picture taken at ISO 1600 and sometimes even at ISO 800 in both JPG and RAW. This is a massive problem and as nice as the image quality might be, it renders ISO 1600 unusable on the GRD III until Ricoh fix this problem.

Now after discovering the banding issue I should probably disqualify the GRD III from any further tests at ISO 1600 but let’s see how the RAW files look.


Unsurprising the GRD II shows the most noise, the GRD I holds up very well with the 2nd JPG profile and the GRD III could win easily in RAW if it weren’t for the banding issue in the shadow areas.

Now, this time it’s more difficult to give a recommendation for any of the GRDs but looking at this test it is clear that the GRD II offers absolutely no advantage over the GRD I when it comes to high ISO shooting. The GRD III on the other hand offers excellent performance in RAW at ISO 400 and 800 and it would be easy to fully recommend for low light shooting were it not for the massive banding issue at ISO 1600.
As it stands the 4 year old GRD I is overall the best and most consistent performer especially if you use ISO 400 and ISO 1600 with the 2nd JPG profile or use RAW at ISO 400 and ISO 800.

Ricoh really needs to fix the banding issue on the GRD III, as it stands right now it is serious enough for me not to recommend using the GRD III at ISO 1600.

You can however work around the banding issue by always underexposing your picture by using EV -1 or raising the black levels when processing the RAW files. This is not ideal though and should not be necessary for a camera in the class (and price range) of the GRD III.

If you want to evaluate the pictures used here for yourself, you can download them here.

Next is part 5, which will look at the b&w image quality. Part 5…

Ricoh GRD III Review – Part 1

After some delay due to various reasons and some travels in between I have finished my GRD III review.
With the GXR announcement a lot of emphasis is put on the new camera system but the GRD III is still an appealing choice for some and will remain Ricoh’s flagship camera.

My review aims to give an overview of the GRD III and will also compare it with the predecessors and even briefly with the Epson RD1s equiped with the famous GR L-mount lens.

The review will be split in 8 parts and will be partly based on the structure of my book ‘GRD III – A Serious Compact‘.

Part 1 – Introduction, Lens, Build and Controls
Part 2 – Features
Part 3 – Image Comparison GRDs – Part 1 (Color: ISO 64, 100 and 200)
Part 4 – Image Comparison GRDs – Part 2 (Color: ISO 400, 800 and 1600)
Part 5 – Image Comparison GRDs – Part 3 (b&w: ISO 64 and 200)
Part 6 – Image Comparison GRDs – Part 4 (b&w: ISO 400, 800 and 1600)
Part 7 – Image Comparison GRDs & RD1
Part 8 – Image Quality, Conclusion and Samples

Read on for the first part of my review…

Continue reading “Ricoh GRD III Review – Part 1”

Ricoh GRD III Review – Part 2

With the GRD III Ricoh has introduced a lot of new features requested by previous GRD users.
There are to many features to mention all of them but I have created a summary of the most important below.

Multi-Pattern Auto White Balance

The GRD III offers a ‘Multi-Pattern Auto White Balance’. Unlike a normal Auto WB setting which uses only one reading to make the decision this will read different points in the image and select the best WB setting for each. A normal Auto WB reading will have problems with mixed light sources and struggle especially when taking flash pictures in the shade.
The Multi-Pattern Auto White Balance has been very accurate throughout and is a great tool as it allows one to focus on other aspects of photography without having to worry about setting the correct white balance or using grey cards.

When using RAW setting a correct white balance is not very important since it can be fixed in post processing but having the correct white balance already set means there is less room for error when setting the white balance. This comes in handy if like me you would like to use the JPGs out of the camera without always have to process every picture.

Snap Focus and AF improvements

Like all other Ricoh cameras the GRD III has the great Snap focus mode. The snap focus takes advantage of the big depth of field the small sensors have and pre-sets the focus to 2.5m. This means one can get a sharp picture from 2.5m to almost infinity. This method also helps to eliminate any focus lag and works very well in practice, as long as one does not require the focus to be closer than 2.5m. It is possible to assign it to the ‘Fn’ button for fast switching between normal AF and Snap focus.
Having the Snap focus set at 2.5m to eliminate any focus lag works great in practice and especially for street photography it is great. However, it is not very flexible and when the subject is closer or in low light when using low apertures it will not be accurate enough and the subject could end up out of focus. This has now been solved by allowing the user to select a different Snap focus distance and by pressing the ‘up-arrow’ one can set the focus distance to 1m, 2.5m, 5m or infinity (with the latest firmware you can also chose 1.5m). This is great and works excellent in practice, it almost makes the auto focus mode less important for street photography but also for landscapes since it’s so easy to select infinity focus now.

This is already a great improvement but the GRD III does not stop here, the AF speed has been further improved and is now more accurate and faster in low light. To this Ricoh has now added a ‘Pre-AF’ option in the menu, here the camera always tries to focus even before the shutter is half-pressed. This will drain the batteries faster though and depending on where the camera is pointed can actually be slower if the camera has to shift between close and far distances.

The most important AF improvement for me however is that the dreaded LCD screen freeze from the GRD II and GX200 has been fixed and now you won’t miss any shots because you can’t see what is going on.

RAW Shooting

The RAW Buffer has been improved and the camera can now take up to 5 RAW images in the continuous mode. Together with a larger buffer the card write speed has also been improved and is now at under 3 seconds per RAW image. This brings the GRD on par with the GX200 and is a welcome addition seeing as the GRDs were always lagging behind the GX cameras when it camera to RAW writing.

While this sounds great on paper, in reality it’s not quite as exciting since the write time to the card is still quite slow and the buffer only holds 5 pictures so you have to wait afterwards till files are written to the card. Using the new buffer for bracketing shots sounds good but the bracketing modes are still fairly limited and the EV bracketing mode is still as useless as ever and allows only the choice between EV +/- 0.3 and 0.5 (so no more than what a RAW file already gives you).

So while the new RAW buffer is great for a compact camera and it helps the GRD III being on top with the best serious compacts when it comes to RAW, have no illusions that it comes anywhere near what a dSLR will offer.

S-Priority Mode

Most photographers use either a full manual mode or more often they use the camera in aperture priority mode and leave the camera to select the appropriate shutter speed. There are times however when choosing the shutter speed and letting the camera select the correct aperture is desired. When taking sports or action pictures it is important to have a fast shutter speed in order to freeze the motion or to get the opposite effect by blurring the motion and create a different effect.
With the GRD III, Ricoh has finally added a shutter priority mode to the aperture priority and program shift modes. This has been a feature requested by users for quite a while and it is good to see Ricoh finally implementing it. Having a S-priority mode combined with the general high depth of field, even at wide apertures, of small sensors means this mode is very useful for street and people photography where things can happen fast and freezing the moment is important. At the same time being able to control the shutter speed also makes it possible to create a feel of motion by selecting a slow shutter speed.

Improved Macro Performance

Ricoh cameras have always been excellent for taking macro pictures and the GRD III has been further improved and now it can focus as close as 1cm. Not only the close focus distance but also the magnification achieved is higher on Ricoh cameras than with the competition, together with the very sharp lenses it is possible to capture even the smallest details. The GRD III now uses a floating mechanism for macro shooting to prevent the field curvature which can be a problem with retro-focus wide-angle lenses.

The AF point in macro mode is also freely movable which eliminates the need to re-frame the shot after focusing, due to the precise focus needed in macro mode having to re-frame the shot could already mean that the critical focus point is lost.

The macro mode still remains one of the strongest points in Ricoh cameras.

Colour Settings

Most of the time the only choice one has over the colour output when shooting JPG is between ‘Normal’ and ‘Saturated’. For the GRD III Ricoh does not only allow to change the vividness, contrast and sharpening but also added the option to customize the Hue and Saturation for each colour (orange, green, sky blue, red, and magenta). This can be set in five levels so there is enough room to customize the look.
This means one has a lot of freedom when it comes to the colours and look of the pictures. This can be saved in the image settings so it is easy to re-call the specific settings and apply them.

This is a very nice feature although it probably won’t be used regularly it can allow for some nice color effects in your pictures. Since it only applies to JPG files, you can always go back to the RAW file if you prefer to have normal colors.

DR Mode/Double Exposure Mode

Small sensors have two major shortcomings when compared with larger sensors found in dSLRs. The first is the noise, which can be dealt with by in-camera processing, the second is the limited dynamic range, which is more difficult to hide or fix in-camera.
One method to get around the limited dynamic range of small sensors is to use HDR, take two or more pictures with different exposures and merge them together. Until now this had to be done on a computer but with cameras becoming more powerful, Ricoh has implemented this feature in-camera.

The DR mode in the GRD III works by taking two pictures in a row, one exposed for the highlights and one for the shadows. It then merges these together and creates a picture with higher dynamic range. Taking two pictures and merging them together means there will be a delay between the two pictures so this mode will be of no use for shots with any movement and in order to get the best results one has to use a tripod.
The DR mode works ok but since the delay between the two pictures is quite long, the output is limited to JPG only and it is actually possible to get the very same result from processing a single RAW file it is more for people who do not want to spend time processing their files on a computer and rather get the picture right in-camera. I personally find the DR mode on the GRD III pretty much useless and nowhere near as good as on the CX1.

I found myself using the DR mode more as a double exposure mode and got some very nice effects. This is actually more fun and I hope Ricoh can add an option in firmware to allow for a customizable delay in taking the 2nd shot to get a proper double exposure mode.

Grid Lines

In addition to the 3 x 3 grid, a 4 x 4 grid with diagonal lines and 2 x 2 grid with a central visual field have been added. This makes it easy to get the right composition and I found them actually very helpful for architecture shots.

These are the main features of the GRD III, continue to the image tests. Continue to Part 3 …

Ricoh GRD III Review – Part 1

After some delay due to various reasons and some travels in between I have finished my GRD III review.
With the GXR announcement a lot of emphasis is put on the new camera system but the GRD III is still an appealing choice for some and will remain Ricoh’s flagship camera.

My review aims to give an overview of the GRD III and will also compare it with the predecessors and even briefly with the Epson RD1s equiped with the famous GR L-mount lens.

The review will be split in 8 parts and will be partly based on the structure of my book ‘GRD III – A Serious Compact‘.

Part 1 – Introduction, Lens, Build and Controls
Part 2 – Features
Part 3 – Image Comparison GRDs – Part 1 (Color: ISO 64, 100 and 200)
Part 4 – Image Comparison GRDs – Part 2 (Color: ISO 400, 800 and 1600)
Part 5 – Image Comparison GRDs – Part 3 (b&w: ISO 64 and 200)
Part 6 – Image Comparison GRDs – Part 4 (b&w: ISO 400, 800 and 1600)
Part 7 – Image Comparison GRDs & RD1
Part 8 – Image Quality, Conclusion and Samples

Read on for the first part of my review…

Introduction

The first time I was introduced to Ricoh and their cameras was with the GRD I in 2006 while looking to replace the simple digital point & shoot camera I had at the time. I was looking for something which would give me more control over the final image by offering full manual controls, RAW and a wide angle lens without losing the pocketability. I have been using the GRD I and GRD II cameras almost on a daily basis in the last 3 years. Having a serious compact camera with me at all times has allowed me to capture moments which would not have been possible with a bigger camera or a simple point & shoot compact camera.

Most manufacturers now produce more or less well executed serious compact cameras to offer the full range of controls found in professional dSLRs without sacrificing the image quality. Ricoh however has been one of the first manufacturers to offer serious compacts with high quality wide angle lenses and the full features usually found in dSLRs.

Their GR line in particular has been very successful since it was released in 1996 as a film camera. The GR line of film cameras was designed to offer the same quality one would get from a SLR while at the same time being compact enough to be carried at all times and fit in a pocket. The excellent reputation of the GR1 was in no small part due to it’s excellent GR lens.
The GR1 lens was constructed of 7 aperture blades with a wide angle of 28mm and bright f2.8 aperture, it’s high performance surpassed that of SLR cameras and offered very sharp and crisp image quality throughout the frame while being very compact. This lens was so popular that Ricoh went on to produce a limited edition version for the Leica M-mount which was smaller than comparable lenses without sacrificing the quality or handling.

In 2005 Ricoh released the much anticipated digital version of their GR1 film cameras in form of the GR Digital (GRD from now on). The GRD followed the same tradition from the GR1 and offered features usually found only in dSLRs like full manual controls, RAW+JPG capture, high quality build and a flash hotshoe. Ricoh has also improved on the GR lens and was able to offer a brighter f2.4 aperture while maintaining the very high GR lens quality. The GRD was a great success for Ricoh and appealed in particular to b&w and street photographers. While reviewers did not understand the camera and complained about a lack of zoom, features and the image noise, actual users loved the camera, the great controls and especially the noise which gave images a different and very film-like character. The GRD shows that looking at noise graphs and other charts inside a studio does not really tell much about a camera as it has been proven by users around he world with their excellent pictures taken with the GRD.

In 2007, Ricoh followed with the GRD II, which was further improved by taking in feedback from GR1 and GRD users and offered faster RAW shooting, 1:1 square shooting mode and as a first in compact cameras an electronic leveler. The GRD II was even more successful but got mixed reviews by fans of the original GRD due to the somewhat sub-par image processing engine and some focus problems due to the removal of the phase-detection AF systems.

Now in 2009, Ricoh released the GRD III offering the brightest GR lens so far with an f1.9 aperture. This is not everything though, Ricoh has listened to comments and requests from users and has further improved the RAW shooting speed, made changes to the Snap AF mode, implemented a full-press AF mode, added a shutter priority mode, improved high ISO, added a closer macro focusing distance, ability to fine tune the colour settings and improved white balance by adding a Multi-Pattern AWB setting.

Below I will look at the main GRD features, it’s excellent lens and the superb handling and controls.

GR Lens and GR Engine III

The GR lens has been completely redesigned for the GRD III and the brightness has been improved by one stop from the first GR lens and is now f1.9. The lens remains sharp and contrasty throughout the frame at all apertures without exhibiting any distortion. The GRD III has currently the brightest lens on any compact cameras and has one of the brightest wide angle lenses on any digital camera.

Having a brighter lens was one of the main requests from GRD users and was certainly very high on my wish list. Some of the most interesting things to photograph happen after it gets dark. Being able to use a fast shutter speed to capture the action even in low light makes the new GRD III very desirable for street or social photography.

Ricoh uses an improved and slightly bigger 1/1.7″ 10 MP CCD sensor in the GRD III. By not increasing the number of pixels but focusing on the image quality instead, Ricoh have managed to improve the dynamic range and doubled the sensitivity.

The new GR Engine III processing engine reduces noise while maintaining a high resolution and colour accuracy. It also helps reduce blown highlights and extends the dynamic range by up to +1 EV equivalent by interpolating each pixels image data.

How and if these changes have really paid off will be answered in the course of this review.

Build & Controls

One of the reasons for the continued success of the GR cameras is the truly fantastic build, handling and controls. This is what makes this camera so special, it does not feel like a toy, gadget or even a camera in your hand, it feels like an extension of you. Some people make fun of the plain looks of the GRD and call it a disposable camera or joke if it’s even digital but let them hold it and they will understand it.
This is not surprising if you read the design philosophy behind the GRDs (to be found here) where Ricoh says the following:
“Additionally, we also wanted to make a camera that brought a smile to one’s face, just by holding it.”

To really understand this you need to pick up a GRD, once you do you will understand why it is so highly regarded by photographers. I can only say that after picking the GRD up for the first time in a shop, I knew that I had to buy this camera.

The original GR camera is a joy to hold and use and the GRD I continued from there and even improved by offering a softer rubber handgrip. The shape of the camera makes it easy to slip in and out of a pocket while always having a secure grip on it. The GRDs are some of the best build and most solid compact cameras you can find and the GRD III has further improved on this. It is slightly bigger now and the lens sticks out a bit as is the flash hotshoe, this has become necessary due to the faster (and bigger) lens and slightly bigger sensor. The lens barrell however has also been improved and is more solid now, it also stops extending should you accidentally turn the camera on in your pocket.

The bigger 3″ LCD screen is absolutely fantastic and offers the highest resolution currently found on digital cameras with 920,000 pixels and a very high viewing angle. This has been improved from the previous GRDs and the screen also has a protective layer in front so it won’t get scratched easily.
This is great but the downside is that the buttons had to be moved further to the right and made smaller to accomodate the extra screen estate. This is not too big a problem in real use although the previous GRDs were a bit better to handle due to the buttons being bigger and easier to reach.

While the controls have been great in the original GRD with its dual control wheels, the easily accessible EV compensation buttons, the mode dial which locks into place and the Adjust menu for fast and easy changes of user defined features (ISO, WB, Focus, etc.), they have been further improved and fine tuned on the GRD III. Unfortunately the 2nd control wheel has been replaced by a more cumbersome rocker switch since the GRD II. This works ok but not as well or as fast as the wheel on the GRD I so changing the shutter speed can take longer.
Ricoh have however implemented a solution for this by allowing to swap the function of the control dials in the menu and also allow to use the up-zoom button to set the correct exposure based on the current selected aperture or shutter speed so you only need to fine tune the settings.

The GRD III has now 3 My Settings positions on the mode dial, this makes it easy to save and access some of the most used functions. The My Settings are fully customizable and the camera will remember every single setting and option which has been selected.
Up to 6 settings can be stored in the My Settings Box and easily assigned to the 3 My Settings modes on the dial. To make it easier to remember each setting it is possible to assign names to the settings or use the current date.

The GRD III also offers two fully customizable Fn buttons to make it even faster to access settings. This all means you will never have to go into the menu once you have set the camera up the way you want.

With all these customizable controls the GRD III can be set up exactly how you want and it will never get in your way, this means you can fully focus on capturing the moment without having to worry about where to find and change the settings.

Continue reading to find out more about the new features introduced with the GRD III. Part 2 …