The digital compact camera market is more fiercely competitive than ever, but Ricoh had carved out a nice little niche for itself with models aimed primarily at enthusiasts and pros. Report by Paul Burrows.
Back in late 1996 Ricoh couldn’t possibly have foreseen what it was about to start with the launch of its GR1 35mm compact camera. But the GR1 was a very different sort of compact camera; the first aimed at the more savvy shooter that wasn’t either a retro-type design or made its users do everything manually. Ricoh combined high-quality optics with SLR-level control systems – while still allowing for full manual control – in a very slim-line package… and it was an instant hit.
Based on the earlier R1, but very much better featured and built, the GR1 subsequently spawned a series of 35mm derivatives, culminating in the awesome GR21 with its remarkable 21mm f3.5 ultra wide lens. Then digital imaging took off and Ricoh was one of the early pioneers of digital compact cameras (in fact, it was the first to officially announce it was ending the production of film cameras). Nevertheless, the GR legend lived on and eventually, towards the end of 2005, Ricoh was convinced to revive the concept in a digital version. The GR Digital was a case of history repeating and quickly gained a loyal following, including among professionals who found – as with the original GR1 – the capabilities and performance were good enough for commercial applications. Ricoh has
since built on this with the GR Digital II and other higher-end models such as the GX200 and the CMOS equipped CX1/CX2. Indeed, some of the pioneering technologies introduced in the CX1 have found their way into the third-generation GR Digital along with a number of new features and upgrades of its own. The resulting combination will ensure the GR Digital III keeps the legend alive even if it is now priced above many entry-level D-SLRs.
Ten Is Enough
The styling remains very close to that of the GR1 with the same distinctively shaped handgrip and an all-metal bodyshell, although the digital models have all had a hotshoe which was never fitted to the 35mm cameras.
The GRD III has a new sensor, a new processor, a new lens, a new LCD monitor screen and a host of new features, including the addition of shutter priority auto exposure control to give the full ‘PASM’ set of modes.
With the lens retracted, it’s still very pocketable due to a body width of just 25.5 mm and weighs in at around 220 grams in an operational configuration (i.e. with battery, strap and memory card all fitted). Incidentally, the GR1 was just a millimetre thicker
which shows just how clever that design was given it had to accommodate a 35mm film cassette.
The aluminium bodyshell gives it a nice weighty feel and, while that shallow grip doesn’t look up to much, the GRD III retains its predecessor’s comfortable and secure handling. As with the CX1 and CX2 twins, Ricoh has bucked the trend towards ever higher pixel counts, keeping the GRD III at ten megapixels despite it having a slightly larger CCD sensor than the Mark II model. And this despite, according to Ricoh, it being possible to have given this device 17 megapixels of resolution. As a result of sticking with 10 MP, the pixels themselves are marginally bigger which has some benefit in terms of their signal-to-noise ratio, but Ricoh has also revised the sensor’s design both at the ‘front end’ – the light collection methodology – and the ‘back end’ – the signal switching accuracy and associated analog circuitry. Then, downstream, is a new image data processor called the ‘GR Engine III’ with an additional noise reduction circuit which operates prior to bit compression. Additionally, suppression of colour noise is performed using correlations with the surrounding pixels which means it’s applied much more selectively and accurately in relation to the saturation levels (a process introduced with the CX1’s ‘Smooth Imaging Engine IV’). As a result of all this, Ricoh says the GRD III’s imaging performance at ISO 200 now matches that of the GRD II at ISO 100. The minimum sensitivity setting is now equivalent to ISO 64, down from ISO 80. And it’s possible to keep shooting at these lower ISOs for longer thanks the GRD III’s new super-fast f1.9 lens. This is the fastest lens currently fitted to a compact, just pipping the Panasonic Lumix LX3 – with its f2.0-2.8 speed zoom – at the post. The Ricoh, of course, has a fixed focal length lens which is equivalent to 28mm in the 35mm format, but it can be fitted with an optional converter which creates the equivalent of 21mm.