Ricoh GR II Review

The Ricoh GR II –– I’ve been using and loving this camera for years and it’s about time I write about it. I’ll try to avoid the usual review format –– the specifications are everywhere in the web anyway, this is a 3 years old camera after all. I’ll be focusing instead on my direct experience as a photographer.

I was introduced to this camera like many others — admiring the work of Japanese photographer Daido Moriyama, who created an impressive opus of work using prevalently the GR, in both its film and digital version.

Bergman, is it you?

This is indeed a camera with roots that go back to 1996 when the first film GR was released. It transitioned from film to digital while keeping its original concept and design: a practical & compact 28mm f2.8 camera with high class optics. This heritage and commitment to a good idea is also part of what makes it so dear to many, in an era where camera makers keep chasing new trends and updating models every 6 months.

This book somewhat lead to my discovery of the GR. The first photo with the GR had to to be this then!
The Ricoh GR is a wonderful camera for capturing spontaneous moments.

Moriyama is both a blessing and a limit for the GR. While it’s true his work popularised the camera, it’s also true it induced many to just try and copy what he did — super contrasted black and white photography, with a prevalent attention to street photography.

The little marvel Inna is using is the Pentax Q-S1. The next review for the blog?

I think this approach to the GR is limiting, but I understand it. There’s no denying his work touches some primal notes in the mind of a photographer, and that’s why he is considered a master after all.

I have always been a fan of very hi-contrast B&W.

I remember watching a video with someone talking about the Ricoh. He said –– joking –– that he bought the Ricoh and started running around taking photos as if he was Daido Moriyama, the wild street dog etc, and that all of his photos turned out to be terrible. I felt this joke was spot on. It made me realize the danger of turning into a stereotype. Just like people buying a Leica and thinking they will magically turn into Cartier-Bresson.

Finding an empty beach in August is not easy.

To say it all, Leica built its modern fortune on this myth. A couple of very important photographers used it in the past, and thousands of irrelevant photographers are buying a Leica today because they think this will make them and their random snapshots special.

I love this portrait. Crazy rain happened right after shooting. Too bad the GR is not weather sealed!

I understood I had to use the Ricoh in my own way and try to accomplish my artistic vision. Moriyama is unique and he depends on his own culture. You can’t be Moriyama in Italy. You can’t be Moriyama in 2019. Unless you are Moriyama, and even then, it is not easy. 

Some macro-ish detal..

The Ricoh GR is much more than a Moriyama cosplay accessory. It is a marvelous versatile camera with superb optics. It is compact and yet it features an APS-C sensor. Its ergonomics and user interface are unmatched.

..and one more.

The whole camera is usable with just one hand, all the controls are in the right spot, you can configure it the way that better fits your shooting style.

Another legendary compact camera I love.

I always had a soft spot for compact cameras with good glass on them. The first camera I started bringing with me always was the Olympus Mju-2 in 1998 –– how much I loved that camera! I still use it from time to time.

Then I discovered the Soviet rangefinders –– Kiev 4, Zorki 4 & Fed 2 were my favorite though I ended up collecting tens of them –– but in meantime another jewel from the Soviet era ended up being my everyday camera, taking the spot from the Olympus: the classic Lomo LC-A, of course.

The Olympus had a 35mm, the LC-A had a 32mm.. I didn’t know but I was already slowly moving toward the 28mm!

There is much in common between these three cameras: they are compact, with very good optics, wonderfully built. They propose a definite shooting philosophy and became cult items.

Instagram is filled with self proclaimed influencers and honest young lovers of film shooting with the Mju2 even today, while the LC-A was the genesis of Lomography movement & company, which is what brought us the filters hype and everything that came with it, Instagram included.

Most people don’t fully realise the way we experience and share photography today has a lot to do with these little cameras, especially the LC-A. The arrival of smartphones applied its influence on a path that started with cameras like these.

I don’t use the Olympus nor the LC-A so often anymore. Digital changed the way I work for clients and I like its advantages even for my personal photography. I love film but I don’t think it is purer than digital nor better.

From an objective point of view, digital reached a point where it surpassed 35mm film photography in terms of quality –– and yet we often want to mimic the imperfect look of film. It is clear there is something unique and beautiful in film: this could be the topic for another post.

A portrait on location. High ISO is not where the GR shines, but this ISO 1600 was still managed decently. A Leica M9 would do quite worse.
More architecture, same villa as before.
I love the Positive Film effect. Most of the times it requires no editing at all.
Living room in the same villa. The GR is an amazing tool for pre-visualising.

Some will find the fixed 28mm equivalent a limitation. Not me, since this happen to be my favorite focal length.

It’s interesting to see what is happening in the world when it comes to focal lengths. For quite long the 50mm has been considered a lens that lacked personality. I still hear this nonsense from time to time –– as if the personality of photograph could be dictated solely from the focal length used.

Maybe it is because of my film days, when most of my rangefinders had a 50mm on them, but I do like shooting 50mm, it makes me happy. My favorite lens on the Nikon D850 right now is the Tamron 45mm 1.8 SP VC –– wonderful lens, I will review it sooner or later. I may occasionally shoot 85mm for some portraits, if necessary. I always found 35mm quite boring and probably too close to 50mm. I use much wider lenses for most of my architectural works. But when it comes to the focal I love — that’s 28mm.

The GR has excellent macro capabilities. Positive Film, straight out of camera.
One more macro. Positive Film, straight out of camera.

For this reason the Ricoh GR is a sort of dream came true. It has everything I could ever want in a camera. My favorite focal length, superb optics, great image quality, perfect ergonomics and interface, it fits in my pocket, it sends the photos to my mobile devices and it lets me compose with a big bright LCD.

I don’t like viewfinders anymore. They do have a use, but most of the time I prefer shooting with a screen. It reminds me of shooting with my 6×6 film pit cameras. I don’t want to separate myself from the reality I’m into. And I find it much funnier to compose when using a nice screen, even better if with a preview of exposure and tones.

I just can’t get myself to appreciate EVF. I can’t forget for a single moment I am keeping a tiny screen 1cm from my eye. Why should I do that when I can use a much bigger screen and have it at a more comfortable distance from my face?

Positive Film, straight out of camera.
Positive Film, straight out of camera.
Positive Film, straight out of camera.

This brings us to another great feature of the GR: its film simulations. They are simply wonderful. My favorite ones are the Moriyama like filter (called “Hi-Contrast B&W”), the slide simulation (called “Positive Film”) and the classic Black & White. There are also other usual suspects like Cross Process, Bleach Bypass, Retro, High Key, HDR Tone, and more exotic ones like Miniaturize or Shift Crop. They are all customisable with a bunch of parameters and they are useful and inspiring.

Positive Film, straight out of camera.

My GR is always set in Hi-Contrast B&W, Black & White or Positive Film and I shoot DNG + JPG for this reason. The filter allows me to study the scene with the tones and contrasts I have in mind. Most of the time I love the jpeg result and I do few to no edits, but I still have the DNG raw file if I need.

A great sunset I witnessed during some model shooting.
I am not a fan of landscape photography, I confess.
I love my island, there are countless magic places like this one. Positive Film, straight out of camera.

The Ricoh is also a very nice landscape camera, being the 28mm a focal that works quite fine with this subject. Putting the 21mm converter on it makes it even better. The quantity and quality of details is amazing, especially if you keep ISO low and put the camera on a nice tripod.

Long exposure at night.

I won’t go too deep into the options the GR offers you. I will just say that it offers plenty and you can customise it and shoot it pretty much in any way you like. It has an integrated ND filter (2 stops) if you want to use it. You can bracket everything you can think of, from exposure to filters to white balance to contrast and more. You can sync the flash to every shutter speed thanks to its leaf shutter. I love leaf shutters.

Positive Film, straight out of camera.

I experimented with various shooting modes and I am feeling more comfortable with Manual mode and occasionally with the TAv mode: when in TAv I just spot meter and change aperture and shutter speed if needed. The camera sets the ISO for me, using the Hi-Auto value ranging from 100 to a maximum ISO of 3200.

Positive Film, straight out of camera.

The Ricoh is at its best sharpness from f4 to f8, so that is where I prefer to keep it. The minimum shutter speed I like to consider is 1/60, even if you can successfully shoot sharp static scenes at 1/30. So I usually set the camera at f4 and 1/60 or 1/125 and let the TAv set the ISO depending on where I did meter. Sometimes I need to bring down the aperture to f2.8 which is the largest it gets –– and just to be clear, at 2.8 the sharpness is already excellent. High ISO is fine in BW but it is better to stay under 1600 for color photography. 

Of course I could shoot faster if thinking with a film mindset –– setting the ISO to let’s say 800 and never changing it, ignoring exposure compensation and only changing aperture and shutter speed to get as close as possible to the optimal exposure. Maybe even use zone focus instead of autofocus. This would be faster indeed but it would not allow me to maximise the quality.

If I could manage to shoot a photo at 100 or 200 ISO why do I have to stay on 800? It is not only about noise, it is about dynamic range. High ISO means lower dynamic range. I don’t want to sacrifice details and dynamic range for the luxury of shooting slightly faster. That’s why I find Eric Kim advice of setting the camera at ISO 1600 or 3200 and shooting in aperture priority not a very wise one.

Positive Film, straight out of camera.

The camera has a decent autofocus and a customisable zone focus system that is also usable together with the AF, thanks to something Ricoh calls “snap focus”. It’s simple and effective: if you focus by half pressing the shutter button, the camera uses AF. If you press the shutter fast without half step, the camera uses the zone focus you selected. Perfect for street shooters in a hurry, though I rarely use it.

Talking about street shooters: is this a camera made only for street photography? It would seem so, watching the countless reviews on YouTube. They all say the same stuff over and over again. You watch one, you saw them all. Street photography, snap focus, Moriyama. I believe this is not respectful for what this camera can do. While it’s certainly correct to say the GR is perfect for street photography, it’s also correct to note how it can be used for every kind of photography you can deal with in 28mm — which is most of the photography, in my opinion.

The GR has a leaf shutter so you can plug it to any flash system and enjoy syncing at every shutter speed.
Using an external flash can make the GR lens shine. Black and White effect, straight out of camera.

I use the GR for architecture, for portraits on location, for studio portraits, for abstract photography, for events. It is an excellent camera and its image quality is among the best. Yes it looks like a compact point and shoot, and it also could work as a point and shoot — but it is much more.

It’s revealing to see the face of clients when I momentarily put aside the Nikon D850 and pick up the Ricoh GR. They think it is a toy. Proving them wrong is a great conversation topic. I shot many photos with Ricoh and sold them to satisfied costumers –– no client ever complained.

I briefly mentioned before that there is a 21mm converter: it is called GW-3 and it is a 0.75x converter. Mount it on the GR and it indeed becomes my third favorite focal length, 21mm (the second is 50mm as you may have guessed).

The 0.75x focal length converter GW-3

The quality of the GW-3 is impressive, both as construction and as optical features. It is a heavy piece of glass and metal. I am not a fan of focal length converters but this is an exception. It makes the GR even better for landscape and architecture or for experimental portraits, without reducing the native image quality and famous lens sharpness.

The GH-3 filter mount with an HOYA Pro1-Digital UV filter on it, plus the optional hood.

What about the dust? If you know anything about this camera, you heard about the fact that it could have issues with dust entering and going on the sensor. This depends on the fact that the lens is collapsible and it sucks dust when closing down. There are a couple of strategies for managing this:

  • be very careful when retracting the lens (aka turning off the camera)! This is the basic advice. I suggest you to turn off the GR with the lens pointing down, to get some help from gravity in keeping dust away. A very weak help considering the situation, but still a help!
  • avoid extending the lens if not necessary: for watching the photos you shot you can turn the GR on by keeping pressed for a moment the PLAY button, and turn the camera off pressing PLAY once more –– awesome feature!
  • avoid putting the camera in pockets or bags that are not clean, because dust will get on the camera, ready to be sucked in..
  • use the GH-3 filter mount plus a very good quality UV filter. This way you are separating the lens from the outside, so when it sucks back air, it can’t gather dust. Of course this is also valid if you mounted the GW-3 focal converter. My GR mounts the GH-3 or GW-3 most of the time, I guess that’s why I never had dust issues in 2 years or so.

My advice is to just be reasonably careful and shoot and enjoy the camera. Dust is generally removable with a singe click in Photoshop or Lightroom anyway. A bit of dust is not an issue. The issue is when there is a LOT of dust! In that case you should send the camera to get cleaned in some tech lab that offers the service, or if you are brave (crazy?) enough you can try to open the GR and clean it yourself. There are videos on YouTube showing how to do it.

The lens of the GR is a work of art. It is one of the sharpest and more pleasing 28mm lenses existing. We are in Leica Summilux territory, and I am quite familiar with Leica glass. This 28mm is just amazing and it shows what you can do when you build a very cohesive and well thought camera.

The kind of batteries I use. Original on right, compatible on left.

What about the battery life? It depends on your usage but I found it to be decent. Just buy a bunch of batteries and you are good to go for long photo sessions. I have both original and third parties batteries and they both behave fine. They are charged inside the camera, plugging it to the electricity with a wall charger.

It’s interesting we complain if we have to change battery every 300 shots, when not so long ago we had to change the 120 film every 12 shots or the 135 film every 24 or 36! And changing roll was not as fast as changing a battery, anyway.

Shooting architecture in very High ISO B&W.

There is an app for smartphones and tablets — a web app actually, called GR Remote — and it lets us move jpg or DNG to our devices, via Wi-Fi. The fact that it lets us move the raw file is quite unique. This means you can shoot and the edit raw on the go, without touching a computer and producing very high quality images. The GR + iOS + Lightroom CC combination is letting me enjoy photography on the go in a new, happier way.

Portrait on location.

Some people can’t just understand this camera. They complain because it lacks some technology they think is important — because the marketing department of some other camera brand told them so. They can’t understand the beauty of 28mm and are convinced it is a useless focal length — I wonder how could Jeanloup Sieff, Daido Moriyama, William Klein, Antonin Kratochvil, Bill Brandt and many more create such amazing photography then, using mostly 28mm.

Portrait on location.

Who says 28mm is useless only shows a lack of knowledge or appreciation for the fact that some of the most gifted and revolutionary photographers worked mostly with this focal length.

Portrait on location.

There is no universally better focal length of course, because we all need to find something that works for who we are and for what we have to shoot, but to say that 28mm is useless is just stupid. I don’t like 35mm and I find it has no place in my camera bag, but I would never assume it is useless. Ok, let’s get back to the GR.

Some find the GR to look comical with the GH-3 and lens hood mounted, but I think it looks quite sexy instead!
On the side we find the Effect button, that turns on the Wi-Fi is pressed and held down, plus the control for opening the flash.

The GR is made in metal for the most. It is light, small, very well built. It is not a super cheap camera as you would expect, and that’s fine. This is a professional quality camera with the form factor of a point and shoot. It eclipses any smartphone in terms of quality, but modern smartphones have much better software control of noise levels, thanks to computational photography. The GR is not a high iso monster. It is still not worse than a Leica M9, mind you!

Nowadays everyone has a smartphone in their pockets, and these smartphones are very often quite capable cameras, thanks to computational photography patching the issues of a very small sensor and low quality optics. The detractors of a pro compact like the GR are usually bringing to this argument against it.

My first reaction is: why should you build an argument against a product? I just can’t understand such people. You can just not buy something if you feel you don’t need or like it. What’s the point of spending time on the web trying to convince others they also don’t need something since you don’t? I believe 90% of the posts on photography forums would not exist if the original poster would have just thought rationally for a minute before posting.

It turns out a smartphone camera has its usage, a camera like the GR has, a dSLR has, and so on. The fact that both the smartphone and the GR are compact cameras isn’t describing the whole situation, it is just focusing on one parameter, portability.

A comparison in size between the Ricoh GR II and the iPhone 8.

In reality, the differences are enough to justify the existence of both cameras, just in different pockets! For starting, no smartphone has good optics, and their sensors are very small: the quality of their photos depends on software techniques, and software can (right now anyway) just go that far. Shoot a photo with any good smartphone today and then the same photo with the GR, you can’t deny the difference in terms of detail and tonal richness. The GR also has an ergonomic design based on physical controls, which can help greatly in many situations.

Where smartphones seem to be better is in the High ISO department, which is quite ironic if we think of sensor size etc. The GR has no software for improving the photos, while modern smartphones are adopting various techniques (mostly combining frames with different exposures and advanced noise reduction) for making a terrible photo seem nice on a small screen (or a distant billboard..). You could do the same with the GR, shooting multiple exposures with bracketing, joining them as HDR on a computer, using a software like DXO Prime for removing noise, etc. The smartphone does it all for you as you shoot, and the tradeoff for such convenience is the lower quality of the final shot.

I believe at some point computational photography will go inside bigger cameras too, transitioning from smartphones. Optics and sensor on smartphones will always be inferior to the ones on bigger cameras, it’s a matter of physics –– but software improvements can easily be ported.

Right now I happily carry around both iPhone and Ricoh GR: the iPhone is perfect for casual photography and as editing studio, while the GR is for more serious photography.

Portrait on location.

The next iteration of the GR, called GR III, introduced a new sensor and lens design that are supposedly helping with High ISO photography. It also has ibis, thanks to Pentax technology. I will get one and carefully test it as soon as possible, so you can expect a Ricoh GR III review very soon.

Portrait on location.

The web is full of “Ricoh GR III hands on” videos right now, done by people that didn’t test the camera in real scenarios –– filled with info we know since the announcement. I find this behaviour to be revealing of what photography became in the Internet –– a constant race for clicks and sponsors.

In the end, I know the Ricoh GR is not a camera for everyone, but I still would like you to consider it. Something in this little camera is just fascinating and precious.

I will expand this article adding more samples of photography made with the GR and some usage advices and resources. If you want to stay updated please subscribe to my mailing list, I use it only as a notification for blog posts and for sharing free photography knowledge and resources –– no spamming, no selling, no nonsense!

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