One of the common observations regarding the Ricoh GR is that the whole concept of a compact camera seems obsolete — or at least redundant — in an era where we already carry a camera phone in our pockets. The dubt grows as we consider modern smartphones feature good quality cameras, thanks mostly to their software and processing power.
Physics tells us that bigger sensors and better optics will resolve more data and make good use of more light, but it seems we got to a point where this became just part of the topic. That’s because smartphones can only equip sensors and optics that fit into their cramped limited spaces, and their software has to manage making the images coming out good enough.
To some degree we can say the task of using software for compensating miniaturisation was successful. Starting with Nokia Lumia phones and continuing with modern iPhones, image quality became acceptable and in some cases even pretty good. Modern phones offer advanced and automatic HDR, multiple shooting modes, the chance of saving in RAW, a plethora of apps for doing sophisticated shooting and editing on the go and, of course, extreme ease of sharing. So, what is the role of compact cameras today?
This post will be focusing on two major actors of this confrontation: the iPhone and the Ricoh GR II. One is the most popular camera smartphone, the other one is the most acclaimed digital pocket camera today, together with the Sony RX100 line. I think most of the considerations will also be valid for other phones and cameras bands and models.
I will try to answer the question I mentioned before: does a compact camera make sense today, if we already carry a good camera phone in our pockets?
As usual with my articles, I will try to stick to my use experience and to practical applications of the objects I am writing about, instead of producing abstract reference material.
Some of the photos in this post were shot trying to compare the two cameras, but I will also drop in some random shots that are not part of a direct comparison.
Comparing photos from the two devices proved to be quite hard to deal with, and that’s because while writing this comparison I gradually realized how different these devices are. Comparing a Nikon Z6 and a Fuji XT4, for instance, is quite easy. The same goes for every digital camera out there.
Smartphones though are different beasts. I will get into this later with more details, but for now let’s say that even deciding the terms of the comparisons was difficult.
I will make an example: the aperture on the phone is not variable: so, which aperture should I use on the Ricoh GR? One that gives me the same DOF as the phone? That would be crazy, because I would end up shooting the Ricoh always on the verge of diffraction and having to compensate for a very dark exposure by raising the ISO until the image is ruined. So, should I use the widest aperture on the GR, like the phone does? That’s better but the difference in DOF is so massive that it becomes hard comparing details apart from the in focus areas. Or maybe I should use the optimal aperture for the Ricoh (f4)? That also seems fair, but then I have to increase the ISO where I would normally keep it 1 stop lower (I mostly shoot the GR at f2.8). And so on.
In the end I tried shooting the GR the way I usually shoot it, that is, mostly at f2.8 and sometimes at f4, following the principle that this is not a scientific lab test but more like a report based on direct experience.
Such issues pervade the whole comparison, so I ask you to kindly focus on the bigger picture and don’t enter the inviting labyrinth of method details!
Photos shot with the iPhone often look wonderful — if we don’t zoom too much. Apple and the other smartphone makers are calibrating their software for offering the best rendering perception on small screens, because that is where most of the photos shot with the phones will live on. Social networks, instant messaging, mobile friendly websites. These photos are intended to look fine full screen and in a portion of that small screen. The moment you zoom in, compromises become evident: compression artifacts, HDR compositing artifacts, over-sharpening. What looked like an impressive quality from a distance becomes a mediocre rendition once zoomed in. Sometimes, even a small zoom will do.
And we are not talking of being pixel peepers: an iPhone screen is smaller than a 15*10cm photo print, that is as small as you would probably print. So you must zoom in or watch it enlarged if you want to enjoy the photo at the same magnification level of a small printed photo.
This becomes more evident if you print bigger, let’s say A4, or if you watch these photos on a bigger screen, like a tablet or a desktop computer. I am still often impressed by the different perception of quality I experience if watching an iPhone photo on the iPhone and then on the iPad and Mac.
Of course there are ways for improving the quality of iPhone shots so that they can work better in bigger screens and print sizes, but this usually requires shooting in RAW and doing some specific post processing, trying to balance noise reduction and local sharpening. It’s important to note that when you enter RAW territory you lose most of the native camera optimizations, and this is another very important topic of this post.
Starting with the 13 Pro, iPhone Pro line offers a new “cooked RAW” format called ProRAW, which should include the native camera optimization and still give you more data. The noise reduction is still baked in the RAW, but it is possible to change the sharpening and other parameters. From our point of view, there is not much of a change: for avoiding all software artefacts you must use a pure RAW format.
By shooting RAW with a phone we lose what makes smartphone photos appear good — all the software magic. We are left with a photo we must manually edit for finding a compromise.
For this reason, in this article I am focusing on jpg photos, because shooting only RAW would stop the comparison here: the RAW files coming out of the APS-C sensor in the GR are orders of magnitude better than the ones coming out of the iPhone small sensor and lens, and with proper post processing we can make them crush whatever the iPhone can hope to produce in RAW without its software wizardry.
And the truth is in the end that most people will shoot with the native phone camera in a lossy format like JPG or HEIC, embracing all the software enhancements, applying a preset and posting on social media. If that’s the use case, can the Ricoh GR compete and does it make sense to keep one in our pockets?
One thing I noticed is that as light goes down, the iPhone software trickery helps — a lot. Shooting at night with the GR II means expecting lots of noise as we raise the ISO. The GR III with its IBIS allows for slower shutter speeds, if there is no major movement in the scene. But the iPhone can take care of movement to some degree, and its advanced image software pipeline can sometimes produce decently clean and usable photos where the GR fails miserably.
This is something to consider. With extreme low light, the only way to shoot the GR is in RAW and using some software like DXO PureRaw for improving the quality before editing. And results could still be disappointing.
That is if we don’t consider using artificial light, though: the GR has a built in flash (the GR III has not …) and can mount external flashes, so it offers an extensive set of choices for integrating and subverting the available light.
The iPhone flash is a toy if compared to the one on the GR, and especially if compared to external flashes like the LightPix FlashQ or another speedlight.
Elements of versatility like that are also what separates a real camera from a device that can also take photos. I won’t go deeper into this, but it is evident that if we bring the flash into the equation, the comparison between iPhone and GR (or any smartphone and decent compact camera) ends right now, with a victory for the compact camera.
But what if we have enough light? Well, then things are also quite different. In this post I am including many photos, and even if they are resized they can still illustrate the reality behind this comparison. When necessary I am posting full size details.
In good or decent light, the GR produces more pleasant images, with more real detail, more true dynamic range, a more pleasant focus plane separation.
At this point we can already give some answers to our question.
Using a Ricoh GR instead of an iPhone makes lots of sense if we are interested in having higher image quality and if we want to be able of zooming in the photo, cropping it or simply printing it big.
All the software optimization in the iPhone is intended to offer the perception of a better image when consuming it on small screens. But at the same time, these optimizations make it possible to get decent photos in low light situations where the GR would suffer. I use the term “decent” because that is all you will get, and again, zooming a bit is enough for understanding all the compromises being made for reaching that “decent” status, even with the latest Night Modes.
Finally, if we want to use flashes, then the GR is the only real choice, especially if we want to use external ones.
Let’s go on.
Another important element to consider are the ergonomics. This is a very subjective topic, so I have no illusion of giving you any final word about it — still, I will present you with my own experience.
Shooting with the iPhone and the GR seems on paper quite a similar experience: we are using a big screen for framing, we have autofocus, we can shoot a photo with one hand. But this is not telling us the whole story.
The Ricoh GR is a camera with dedicated physical controls, developed with one hand usage in mind. It is possible to operate the camera with just one hand, reaching all the essential controls, holding it with a safe and comfortable grip. There are buttons and dials for instantly changing all the parameters you need to change, using just one hand, and it’s all customizable.
The iPhone on the contrary requires us to mostly use two hands for holding and operating the touch screen, and there are no useful physical controls. We can set the volume key as shutter but it has no half way state and using it can create camera shake that is not present if using the onscreen shutter. The old Lumias did much better, with their real two states dedicated shutter button.
The autofocus on the iPhone is much better than the one in the GR. It sticks to objects, it recognises subjects like people, animals, faces. The autofocus on the GR II is slower and it offers basic face recognition only when we shoot in full auto. I only shoot my GR in center focus, so I do focus and recompose.
One thing to keep in mind when talking of autofocus is that the small sensor on the iPhone has a huge depth of field, while the large APS-C sensor of the GR has much less. This means that the autofocus on the iPhone has a much larger tolerance for missed focus, and this (together with the lower resolution output) contributes to the feeling of dealing with a magic autofocus that never misses a shot.
This is not very relevant for the final user, until we ponder upon the other side of this coin: having such a huge depth of field, the iPhone can’t do subject separation unless using (again) some software trickery. Now, if the auto HDR reached a usable status, the same can’t be said for DOF simulation. The iPhone has state of the art algorithms for this, and it still fails to properly mask hair, small elements, enclosed areas etc, so the final “portrait shots” are often comical and sometimes horrific. Unless, again, you watch the photo without zooming, in a portion of a mobile screen.
A solution for this is to use a dedicated app like Focos for shooting portraits with the iPhone, since it lets us simulate lens properties, improve the masking, etc. I like Focos very much and I consider it to be one of the must have apps for iPhone photography. But this process can easily become overkill and it can all be done much faster and better with Photoshop, if we don’t absolutely need to do everything on the phone.
On the GR we have better focus planes separation, even if you should not expect too much: in the end we are talking of an APS-C sensor mounting a 18mm lens f2.8 (equivalent to 28mm on Full Frame). But it still much, much better than the iPhone.
The detail created by the GR is real detail, while the one in the iPhone is coming from a software pipeline that is applying massive noise reduction and then intense sharpening, trying to bring back the detail was was lost during the denoising. What you get in the end is a photo that is not actually a memory of a moment, but more like an interpretation of that memory. How faithful is that interpretation being? Well, it depends, and we have no say in that. Many modern smartphones are applying software cleaning to faces, and we can’t turn that off. The iPhone is also having some mild “beauty” filter baked in. For me, this is the biggest downside of smartphone photography and the biggest argument in favor of digital compact cameras.
Smartphone photography has its own goals: to use software for overcoming miniaturization; to produce images that are pleasing when seen on mobile screens; to please the users with images that offer vivid colors, contrasty tones, automatic HDR. The faithful capture of reality was not and is not something that smartphone makers are preoccupied with. They want people to capture photos fast, easily and with results that are looking great – even better than reality – when seen on a small screen and shared on social media. That’s all.
The GR on the contrary is a real camera, meaning that it tries to capture visible reality according to its own limitations. It is a proper tool for capturing light and there is no advanced software interfering and altering reality. Yes you can use filters but that is optional and something else entirely, it is a matter of stylistic choices, something that can also be applied with iPhone. I can shoot Positive Film with the GR or I can apply some RNI filter to the iPhone photo after I shot it, and that is just a possibility.
The photos coming out from iPhone and GR each have a distinct identity.
iPhone creates photos that are usually brighter than reality, sometimes with a definite HDR look.
The GR I & II produce photos that have almost a film look, very detailed and yet not over sharpened, with real DOF plane separation, and of course we can use its signature effects like Positive Film and Hi-Contrast B&W, producing unique photos without the need of applyig filters with apps – a step that is common with iPhone shots, because they often look flat and boring out of the camera. Or should I say, out of the software pipeline.
My opinion is that both tools make sense.
There are times when we just want to capture a fast photo and we don’t care about how faithful it is to reality. Times when we want that easy auto everything. In such situations, shooting with iPhone is a pleasure.
There are also times when we want to capture reality as it is. When we want to have a much higher image quality. When we want to shoot with a comfortable one hand grip. When we want to use flashes. When we want to capture important moments and make sure they will look great in bigger screens, or printed, and so on. In these situations, the GR makes much more sense.
I think it is possible to create interesting photography with both tools and I am not bashing the iPhone. On the contrary, I know well that spending some time in Lightroom CC Mobile, RNI Films, Focos, Lens Distortions etc can take an iPhone shot and make it less artificial and even pleasing. As long as it stays on a mobile screen. Watching it on the iPad is often already making it clear it is a “phone photo”. There are exceptions of course, but what I learned after years of iPhone shooting is that no matter how cool they look when seen on the phone, they will look like “phone photos” when seen on bigger screens or zoomed it.
The photos shot with the GR are looking like photos. The “phone” part is gone. Is this important for you? For your clients? That is up to the situation.
A note must be made about the jpg files produced by the Ricoh GR: their compression is quite high and this introduces artifacts that can sometimes degrade the quality. It seems crazy they didn’t include an option for saving as tiff or as jpg with low compression. To get the absolute most out of image quality you must use dng, though this doesn’t mean the jpg files look bad. While on iPhone the use of raw is actually taking something away from you (the automatic software enhancements), the use of raw with the GR is allowing for a higher image quality, because it bypasses the jpg compression.
If I am shooting something important, something I care about, I tend to prefer using the GR. The iPhone is fun, fast and so on, but it is usually not what I want to use for recording something I really care for, or a shooting I planned, etc. And I just love the GR II’s Positive Film look so much!
So yes, I think compact cameras make sense in an era when we all have a phone camera in our pockets – because they are not the same thing at all, and it becomes evident if we look carefully at what they are and what they do. They may seem “small cameras you can take with you in a pocket” but the way they capture reality is very different.
Smartphones approach to photography depends on their makers and how they see photography. Right now they see it as a way for feeding social media and giving instant gratification to users. There is no care for photography as a way for preserving real memories.
Will this change? Hard to say. Software will always be necessary for overcoming miniaturization, and even if it will be tuned to being more respectful of reality, it will still be a software interpretation nonetheless.
The advent of AI will bring even more arbitrary interpretation into the way smartphones will capture reality. Skin texture will be guessed and enhanced or reduced. Eyes will be improved to approach hyperrealism. Clothing will be enhanced, and so will haircuts, food, makeup, who knows what else. In the end, we won’t be capturing reality, but creating photorealistic illustrations depicting an idealized version of what we experienced.
Since the small sensors and optics will not be enough, AI will step in and fix the issues by creating data that is simply not existing or with an unacceptable signal to noise ratio. I am not particularly enthusiastic about this future.
Some are thinking that cameras will survive only if they embrace AI and software, but I think it is the opposite: cameras can only stay meaningful and relevant if they offer a practical and high quality way for capturing reality as it is, in the most faithful way, without poisoning the images with artificial data and software interpretation.
Cameras are already doing their best for capturing reality as it is, so if this is important for you, they still are a better choice than a smartphone. No matter how old or limited a compact digital camera is, it will still tell you more truth than a smartphone.
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