Ricoh GR II Conclusion
Ricoh GR II Conclusion
by Mike Tomkins
In mid-2013, I was fortunate to review two very interesting cameras aimed at street shooters who wanted the pairing of excellent image quality and a compact, unassuming camera body. The Ricoh GR and Nikon Coolpix A had many similarities, as well as their own individual strengths and weaknesses. At the end of both reviews, though, I found it really hard to call one measurably better than the other, and both cameras scored Dave's Picks.
A follow-up camera with few if any direct rivals
Two years later, the Ricoh GR II replaces one of the pair, while the other has exited stage left. Nikon's entry was discontinued about a year ago, and the company has yet to field a successor model. Until very recently, that left the Ricoh GR II with this particular niche to itself, at least among the mainstream brands. The nearest rivals -- Sigma's dp Merrill and Quattro-series -- were much bigger, heavier cameras.
Recently, the Fuji X70 hit the market, and this represents a rather closer challenger, although it's almost a quarter thicker and a whopping 40% heavier. We've yet to review that camera, however, so can't make a real-world comparison between the two for the time being. But given the significant advantage for the Ricoh GR II in terms of weight and pocketability, it's perhaps still in a class of its own as of this writing anyway.
A relatively modest update over the original GR
The lack of direct rivals for the Ricoh GR II is probably a good thing for the company, because this followup model is realistically a fairly modest update. That's not necessarily a bad thing: As noted, the original Ricoh GR earned itself a Dave's Pick award, and in many ways it really impressed us, especially with the image quality it derived from its superb triplet of lens, sensor and processor. The Ricoh GR II retains all three unchanged, and still impresses us with its image quality all this time later. Still, with stronger competition Ricoh would have needed to field a more significant update than it was able to do this time around.
So what's new? Far and away the biggest change is the inclusion of in-camera Wi-Fi and NFC wireless networking connectivity. The GR II also adds support for Pentax's wireless flash system -- Pentax being a Ricoh brand these days, if you didn't already know -- and inherits the Color Temperature Enhancement white balance mode from Pentax cameras to boot. There's also a deeper buffer for raw burst shooting, and autofocus / exposure compensation during movie capture, as well as myriad smaller tweaks.
Still a very compact -- if somewhat cramped -- body
Like its predecessor, which it is only fractionally taller and heavier than, the Ricoh GR II is impressively compact for an APS-C camera with fixed lens, and pretty light too. Its generous selection of dedicated controls are perhaps a bit cramped, but that's not really too surprising (and is fairly easy to overlook) given its compact size and unassuming nature.
It's a shame that the GR II lacks true twin dials, though, with the rear "dial" actually being what rival Sony would refer to as a "jog dial" -- essentially a clickable rocker control. I'd also have liked to see a lens ring to make manual focus operation easier and more intuitive. And curiously, although it is actually crafted from magnesium alloy, the GR II feels more like it is made of plastic.
It makes up for these shortcomings by being a very customizable camera indeed, though. You can really hone its operation to your own tastes, and over time using it will become second nature.
A truly great optic for fans of prime lenses
But if there's one feature which makes me want to overlook the Ricoh GR II's occasional flaws, it is the lens. It's a truly great optic, with very low distortion even in uncorrected raw files, and -- save for some easily-corrected vignetting that's seldom troubling in the real world -- good image quality even in the corners, especially if stopped down.
Certainly, shooting with a fixed prime lens takes some getting used to. As I noted in my earlier Ricoh GR and Nikon Coolpix A reviews, though, it also makes you think outside of the box. When your feet are your only zoom control, you have to get creative in looking for interesting framing, and time and again I found myself coming up with pleasing photos that I'd never have considered, had there been the option to rely on the compositional crutch provided by a zoom lens.
Pretty good performance with one curious exception
It also helps that performance is, by and large, pretty good. The Ricoh GR II focuses very quickly, and while its burst performance isn't as fast as some interchangeable-lens or smaller-sensored cameras these days, it's certainly plenty fast enough for the kinds of subjects you're going to be shooting with this camera. (A fixed, relatively wide prime lens doesn't exactly lend itself to sports shooting.)
There's one proviso, here, though, and it's one which I find very curious. I'm used to bemoaning the fact that cameras sometimes shoot more slowly in raw format, but the Ricoh GR II flips that on its head. For a change, this is a camera which won't leave raw shooters feeling slighted, because it's actually in JPEG mode that burst capture performance is reduced. (And by quite some margin, too: Although raw or raw+JPEG shooting allows 6.1 frames per second, in JPEG-only mode you're limited to just four fps, fully one-third slower.)
I can't come up with any good theory as to why this would be the case, given that raw+JPEG capture doesn't similarly reduce performance. Clearly, the camera's JPEG engine is up to the task, and it's not a matter of throughput either if the camera actually performs better when flinging even more data towards the flash card. But the fact that raw+JPEG mode is faster than JPEG alone does give you a workaround, albeit a slightly clumsy one. If you're a JPEG-only shooter and need more speed, add raws and then discard them after the fact.
Excellent image quality for its class
With the good raw shooting performance and its newly-enlarged buffer, I found shooting with the Ricoh GR II to be a quite pleasant experience overall. And I was very pleased with its images, as well. They're packed with detail, and although moiré can occasionally rear its head thanks to the lack of an optical low-pass filter, that's true of most large-sensor cameras these days, so I'm not going to hold it against Ricoh.
And for a camera of its class, the Ricoh GR II offers very good high-sensitivity capabilities. If anything, it's just a touch better than its predecessor in this area, although not enough so to noticeably change the print sizes you can expect to manage. Personally, I found everything up to ISO 3200 offered sufficient image quality for regular usage, with the occasional ISO 6400 shot or perhaps even ISO 12,800 in a pinch. (The finer details do suffer a bit at these higher sensitivities, though.)
Color was largely accurate, just as in the earlier camera, but the default saturation has been pushed a little more for a punchier, more consumer-friendly look straight out of the box. Skin tones were pleasing, too. Perhaps the biggest issue in terms of image quality was a tendency towards rather warm white balance indoors, but that can easily be worked around with manual white balance control.
Good battery life, but get a second pack and charger
While it wouldn't compare to a DSLR in this area, the original Ricoh GR already offered pretty good battery life for such a small yet large-sensored camera. The Ricoh GR II builds on that with a further slight improvement, ensuring you should be able to get around 320 shots on a charge. Even a fairly vigorous shooter will likely get by just fine with an extra battery or two in their pocket or camera bag. You'll want to budget for an external charger, though, as by default batteries are charged in camera, meaning you can't be shooting and charging at the same time.
Wi-Fi is a mixed bag, but impressive for what it portends
As I said at the outset, the big news here relative to the original GR is the Ricoh GR II's new Wi-Fi and NFC wireless networking capability. Here, I feel that the GR II offers something of a mixed bag: The wireless connectivity is impressive in being essentially brand agnostic, but when controlling the camera through a web browser, it's a bit clumsy to get connected and suffers from a cluttered, complex user interface. Alternatively, you can use an Android / iOS app and pair very easily indeed, but the app itself has a totally unintuitive interface and doesn't allow remote control at all.
With all of that said, once you get used to it -- and particularly if you're just using it to transfer images rather than to control the camera remotely, as I'd imagine will typically be the case for most owners -- the Ricoh GR II's wireless networking capability has reasonable range, is fairly fast, and makes it pretty easy to get photos on your smartphone once you know what you're doing. And unlike almost every other camera out there, that's true even if you're using a less popular platform like a Blackberry, Windows Phone, Nokia's Symbian OS or most anything else which can offer up a fully-featured web browser.
In a world as polarized as ours, support for the little guy is quite refreshing to see. So on balance, even though I'd like to see the interface (and especially the Android / iOS app) improved significantly -- something which should be quite possible for Ricoh to achieve even now that the camera is already on the market -- I'd say that it's a worthwhile upgrade regardless. And it's doubly exciting because once those rough edges are smoothed out, it suggests we could see unusually capable, feature-rich Wi-Fi capabilities in future Pentax-branded cameras, too!
Not for everyone, but street shooters will love the Ricoh GR II
And so I come to the end of my review, and it's time to sum up. Clearly, with a fixed, wide prime lens, this was never going to be a camera for everyone. That's as true now as it was when the original Ricoh GR hit the market some years back, but the follow-up Ricoh GR II is certainly an even better camera than was its predecessor. And given that there's also no longer a direct rival for this camera, it stands alone in offering a truly pocket-friendly, portable and unassuming option for street shooters who want a really great fixed prime lens. Its predecessor earned a Dave's Pick, and with no close challenger to force a more significant overhaul of its design, so too does the Ricoh GR II!
Pros & Cons
- Pleasing image quality with brighter colors than predecessor
- Excellent hue accuracy when using Manual white balance
- Very good high ISO performance
- Excellent dynamic range in RAW files, improved over its processor at higher ISOs
- Very warm Auto white balance in tungsten lighting
- Aperture priority AE tended to overexpose in the lab
- Lack of AA filter means sharp photos, but can be susceptible to moiré and other aliasing artifacts
- Limited dynamic range in default JPEGs
- Default noise reduction too strong in the red channel even at base ISO (lowest NR setting helps)
- Fast autofocus
- Very low prefocused shutter lag
- Able to autofocus in very low light
- 6.1 fps burst mode for RAW and RAW+JPEG
- Improved RAW buffer depth (from 4 to 10 frames)
- Mediocre burst speed with JPEG (4 fps), but unlimited buffer with fast card
- Fairly good image quality in movie mode
- Allows full-time or single-servo autofocus during movie capture
- Gradual exposure compensation adjustment during movie capture gives a pleasing result
- No 4K or slow-motion capture
- Full-time autofocus adjustment can be rather slow to react
- Light and fairly comfortable body with a good grip
- Very customizable user interface
- Fixed prime lens forces you to reevaluate your shooting style and look for new photographic opportunities you might otherwise have missed
- Bright LCD monitor has fairly good daylight visibility
- Truly brand-agnostic Wi-Fi connectivity works with most any fully-featured web browser
- Wi-Fi pairing is easy with Android devices thanks to NFC connectivity
- Almost every feature of the camera can be controlled remotely, even the menu system, and on-camera controls also keep working
- Remote live view remains usable for most of the ~40-foot range
- Live view feed can potentially be huge on a laptop or tablet screen
- Image transfer is swift and easy
- Good battery life for its class, improved over predecessor
- Feels like plastic, even though it's magnesium-alloy construction
- Rather cramped control layout and not a true twin-dial design
- Exposure compensation buttons are too easily bumped
- Menu system is cramped and uses tiny, hard-to-read fonts
- Optional Android / iOS app is clumsy and doesn't work well with this camera (but you needn't use it)
- Web browser Wi-Fi interface is quite disorganized and cluttered and initial setup a bit complex
- Fantastic lens that's sharp across the frame even wide open
- Built-in ND filter
- Low geometric distortion (with no correction performed by processor)
- Fixed focal-length lens
- Moderate corner shading in JPEGs, higher in RAW files
- Supports wireless off-camera flash with recent Pentax-branded strobes
- Can't choose whether onboard flash should take part in wireless flash exposures
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