What a title. A better one would have probably been “Comparing the Ricoh GR II and the Pen-F mounting a Panasonic 14mm f2.5”, because that’s what this little post will be about — but that would have definitely been too long.
The idea for this post came to me when I remembered the Pen-F has an effect called Grainy Film that is somewhat similar to the Hi-Contrast B&W effect on the Ricoh Gr. This made me think –– how do these cameras compare, if I put on the Pen-F a 28mm equivalent and I shoot it in 3:2 format?
At first I wanted to create a proper test, with the various ISO comparisons, the same scene shot with different cameras, zooming to the center, to the peripheral areas — judging the sharpness and noise levels etc. I then realised the final results of these image quality tests could be expressed in a couple of sentences:
- The Ricoh lens resolves much more detail and is definitely better than the Panasonic 14mm
- The Pen-F sensor generally produces noise at all ISO levels, while the Ricoh stays quite clean up to 400 ISO
- The Pen-F has IBIS and that allows for slower shutter speed and thus lower ISO, making it possible to shoot cleaner and more detailed photos where the Ricoh would struggle
So, if you can take advantage of the IBIS, then the Pen-F probably gives better image quality. If you can stay under 400 ISO, the Ricoh GR gives better image quality. Done, that’s the tech comparison!
Joking aside, while I find tech comparisons to be sometimes extremely valuable, I didn’t create this blog for publishing that kind of content. Instead of such tests I decided to post lots of photos shot with both cameras — some are meant to be similar, so it’s easy to compare –– others are totally different.
What I would like to give you in the end is an overview of what the two cameras can produce, side by side, and how is it like to use them. For more detailed info about each camera you could read the reviews I wrote for the Ricoh GR II and for the Olympus Pen-F.
As I mentioned, I shot 3:2 on the Pen-F for helping keeping a similar composition: this means we lose some data, but it’s nothing that can really change the overall outcome, because the GR is 16mp and if we crop the 4:3 ratio 20mp image of the PenF down to 3:2 we get approx 18mp. Than being said, I am appreciating 4:3 format more and more and I actually came to prefer it to 3:2 over time.
As you may know, I like both cameras very much. I know them quite good and I don’t need to declare which one is better: I know each one has its strength. What I want to do is to understand if there is really a huge difference when using them in the same way, as compact cameras with a 28mm equivalent, shooting (mostly) black and white straight out of camera jpgs.
I’d like to start with a field of view comparison. I will use a Nikon Z6 + Nikkor 28mm f1.4 as reference shot for a 28mm shot and compare the GR and Pen-F to that. All cameras are set at base ISO and the photos are shot using a tripod.
The Pen-F isn’t actually showing the same field of view as a proper 28mm: it behaves more like a 30mm or something around that. To show it better, here is a comparison with the Ricoh and Pen-F frames aligned:
This behavior is quite consinstent with all my shooting using these two cameras, both landscapes and portraits: the Pen-F with the 14mm always shows a bit less of the scene.
I did set the Pen-F to f2.8, the Ricoh GR to f4, the Nikon to f5.6, so that we have kinda the same DOF –– because at the same aperture the Nikon has less Depth Of Field than the GR, and the GR has less than the Pen-F. How this fact influences our photography is up to us and what we need. I usually like to have more DOF, unless I am looking for some particular effect, and that’s one of the reasons why I like the m43 system.
It’s funny to read people arguing over the amount of DOF it is possible to easily reach with a system, as if it’s some universal truth, a paramount immutable value of life. As a rule of thumb, if the possibility of extremely thin DOF is important for you, then you should better go for Full Frame of Medium Format. If it’s not important, maybe an APS-C or m43 could be fine. And if having a lot of DOF is something you want, then the m43 becomes a very interesting option.
The maximum aperture is f2.8 for both lenses (the 14mm starts at f2.5 but the gain in terms of light gathering is marginal so for making things easier I treat both lenses as 2.8).
The optimal aperture I determined by shooting a lot with both lenses through the years is around f4 for both.
As I wrote before, the GR lens resolves more detail, but that’s only visible if we manage to keep the ISO low enough. I believe the unique and almost analog look of the Ricoh GR I and GR II comes from the combination of an old sensor with a very sharp lens: in this sense, you could really treat it like a film camera, and ignore high ISO unless you are in an emergency!
It’s interesting to note that the GR has a base ISO of 100, and shooting at 100 is one of the requisites for getting the most out of its old sensor. The best quality from the GR II comes in my opinion at ISO 100 and f4.
The Pen-F has a base ISO of 200. While it is possible to get noise free photos from the Ricoh GR (at 100 and 200 ISO), this is not possible with the Pen-F: even at 200, you still get some noise. Very few, but it is there.
So, let’s talk a bit about noise. When you venture into high ISO, the image quality degrades because of many reasons, but noise is just one of them. For instance, you also get reduced dynamic range. So, we tend to associate the presence of noise with worse image quality, and yet this is not necessarily true: I think noise impacts image quality only when it starts reducing detail. The Pen-F has noise at ISO 200 but it still produces excellent image quality, especially considering it has such an old and small sensor. The same goes for ISO 400 and with the right situation, even ISO 800.
I’d like to add that I keep noise reduction off on my Pen-F, because I much prefer having noise than noise reduction artifacts.
The sensor on the GR is bigger but older: it has no noise at ISO 100 and 200, very low noise at 400, but it starts eroding detail from 800 on. In the end, an ISO 1600 photo shot with the Pen-F has more detail than the same photo shot with the Ricoh GR.
The dynamic range is quite similar, with a slight advantage for the Ricoh GR if you can stay under 400 ISO. The Pen-F has some issues recovering highlights and it introduces a sensible amount of noise in the lifted shadows, so it’s advised exposing as correctly as possible. The Ricoh GR at low ISO values gives us some more room for recovering.
Both cameras offer a very complete bracketing mode, so you can improve the scenes with a bit of compositing, even if you shoot jpg. Their bracketing also includes effects, so you can take a photo and have it saved at the same time as raw, as gritty contrasty monochrome, as soft monochrome, color, etc.
This post has been mostly about black and white, but it’s also interesting to talk about the colors. Keep in mind, I am talking of out of cameras jpg files: if you venture into raw, then you can adjust images to look pretty much the same no matter the starting point.
These photos show a typical situation: the slide simulation in the Pen-F (called Color Profile 2) gives more natural colors, while the Ricoh GR slide simulation (called Positive Film) gives a strong chromatic identity, with vivid reds and blues. Both shot with daylight white balance (which is what I often shoot with).
What do you prefer? This is entirely subjective, of course. There are times when the GR is just perfect, other times when I need to dial down the vividness of reds on people. What’s evident is how the color GR photo is really recognizable as a GR photo, while the Pen-F is more general looking. Over the years I did lots of investigations about this and Ricoh GR I & II colors are usually loved and preferred by people: I don’t think this depends on the vividness, but it is more connected to the analog and unique look of the photos.
This doesn’t mean I don’t like the jpg colors on the Pen-F: on the contrary, I love them. They are just different and less extreme than what the GR produces.
In the previous example we can again see the strong reds and blues coming out of the GR with Positive Film effect, while the Pen-F produced slightly more realistic colors. I say “slightly” because the GR is shifting toward magenta and the Pen-F toward green, so they are both wrong. Nevermind the DOF: I shot the GR at f2.8 and the Pen-F at f4 for mistake, I actually wanted to do the opposite!
If we take a look at the quality of the jpg files, we can see the GR compresses them more than the Pen-F, and this fact can sometimes eat detail, especially if you apply strong noise reduction and you shoot with high ISO.
In the end we can say that while it’s possible to create similar out of camera monochrome photos with these two cameras, things are more complicated with colors, and in that case you need to understand what you are going after.
The colors coming out of a Ricoh GR I or II set to Positive Film are unique, recognizable, and to my taste, stunning. I mostly shoot this camera in jpg and only do minor edits to the files, while with the Pen-F I tend to use the raw files more.
I never managed realiably simulating Ricoh’s Positive Film and Hi-Contrast B&W effects in Lightroom or Capture One: I guess Ricoh is also having issues with this, since with the GR III they radically changed the effects, in my opinion for the worse. I think the GR I & II effects are tuned for the sensor they had to work with.
As I wrote in the introduction, this post wasn’t meant for declaring a camera to be better than the other. It wasn’t even a detailed camera comparison, it’s more like a very relaxed camera/lens combo comparison. Stille, let’s try to put down some conclusion to my free rambling.
The Ricoh GR is a better choice if you want a pocketable camera that can be operated with one hand, if you shoot with good or controlled light (so you can keep ISO very low), if you like the unique look of its color photos.
The GR produces cleaner images at low ISO, but it has no stabilization so it can’t always compete with the Pen-F, which lets you keep ISO at base level and shoot with super slow times (if you’re not shooting moving subjects).
Finally, the Ricoh GR I & II are famous for their wonderful and unique in-camera effects, and as you know I love the Positive Film and High Contrast BW. But the Pen-F also has very beautiful effects and colors, as I hope I managed to show with my posts.
The Pen-F is a better choice if you can put its incredible stabilization into fruition and if you enjoy the chance of changing lens if needed. For instance, I could put a Panasonic Leica 12mm 1.4 on the Pen-F and do a huge jump in terms of image quality.
The Pen-F has a wonderful black & white Monochrome Profile complete with grain simulation and 3 variations (I only shoot the v2), it has black and white Grainy Film I & II art filters that are similar to Ricoh’s High Contrast BW, and it even has a Positive Film (“Color Profile”) with 3 different variations (again, I only shoot the v2). So it’s absolutely possible to shoot jpg with both cameras and get unique and beautiful results, but the Pen-F wins again when it comes to versatility.
I can summarise and bring this whole post down to two word: the Ricoh GR is unique, the Pen-F is versatile. I think this touches the heart of the matter.
I believe cameras and lenses in a similar price tag and with similar sensors capturing the photos tend to give similar image quality. Some lenses are sharper, some sensors give less noise, but it is never night and day — no matter what marketing departments and popular review sites tell you. To see a difference that is obvious to someone that is not a photographer obsessed with such topics, you need to jump to a much bigger sensor and / or much better and expensive lenses.
In the end, the point I would like to make with this post is that even if they are very different, you can use both cameras for shooting with a similar style and output, so what could make you opt for one instead of the other is the value you give to its intrinsic characteristics, like ergonomics, stabilization, color rendition, pocketability.
What matters the most is always what’s in front and behind the camera.