Ricoh GR III Field Test Part I
Ricoh GR III Field Test Part I
Spectacularly razor-sharp images from a camera that'll fit in your pocket!
By Mike Tomkins | Posted: 06/04/2019
Back in 2013, Ricoh brought its cult-favorite GR camera series -- which has its roots in 1996's GR1 film camera -- right up to date, launching its first APS-C sensor-based model. In the process, it created one of the best street shooters available. I'm a big fan of the original Ricoh GR, as well as its followup, the GR II, but even the latter is now a little long-in-the-tooth. For a couple of years now, I've been looking forward to another iteration in this series of coat pocket-friendly little beauties.
A major upgrade is here to reward GR fans for their patience
This spring, Ricoh finally came through for GR fans like myself, launching the totally overhauled Ricoh GR III, and redefining just what we can expect of a pocket-friendly street shooter in the process. Although like its predecessor, the GR III still quite closely resembles the original GR, this is a much more significant redesign than was the previous generation.
On the outside, there's a brand-new body with styling very similar to that of the GR II, but which is smaller in every dimension. The changes in height and depth are small enough as to be unnoticeable, but the reduction in width is certainly easy to see alongside the earlier camera. Ricoh has shaved a full third of an inch (8mm) off the GR III's width, and yet at the same time increased the weight just slightly, by 0.4 ounces (9g).
An extremely compact, lightweight camera, despite its roomy APS-C sensor
The result is a camera which is even easier to slip into a coat pocket -- or perhaps a small bag or purse -- than ever before, and which is light enough to carry around all day. I'm typically a big proponent of always using shoulder or wrist straps, in part because I'm careful to protect review gear which I'm conscious doesn't belong to me. But I've never once felt the need to attach a strap to the GR III, as it was so light and comfortable to carry for extended periods, and felt completely secure in my grip.
That's a pretty important attribute, because the GR III's compact size and light weight together make it more likely you'll have it with you when an unexpected photo opportunity arises. It doesn't matter one lick how great your camera is, if you don't have it with you when you need it.
A very familiar-feeling camera up top, save for the flash and mode dial
As well as feeling comfortable in-hand, the Ricoh GR III will also feel quite familiar if you've shot with either of the previous two generations. There are a few tweaks to the control layout, certainly, but the basics are much as they were before. As seen from the top, the only changes are the subtraction of the built-in flash strobe, and a cleanup of the mode dial.
Few GR III shooters will likely mourn the absence of the green or movie modes on the mode dial. I must admit that I do find myself missing the TAv mode a little, though. The earlier GR and GR II both adopted this option from Ricoh's Pentax brand, but admittedly, you can achieve the same thing using Manual mode plus Auto ISO control, so I'm quibbling here.
The subtraction of the built-in flash is perhaps more of a shame, because it means there's no longer built-in support for wireless Pentax strobes, and also because if you're carrying a compact street shooter like this, you probably don't want to be weighed down by a bulky external strobe. (The Pentax P-TTL-compatible hot shoe is certainly there if you want to, though.)
But if that's to allow the completely overhauled imaging pipeline of the GR III while actually shrinking body size, then I can certainly live with these few feature subtractions. Because let me tell you, the images from the Ricoh GR III are just downright gorgeous. More on that in a second.
A few very worthwhile improvements to the rear-deck controls
On the rear deck, things have changed rather more. The switch / button combo which was used to control the autoexposure / autofocus lock and continuous autofocus functions of the GR and GR II is gone, replaced by a programmable function button which serves double-duty as a delete button in playback mode. You can configure either AF/AE or AE lock alone to this function button, or configure it for continuous autofocus, replicating the functionality of the earlier GR cameras if you like.
Alternatively, you can opt for a couple of dozen other functions for this control. The previous Fn2 / delete button, which defaulted to self-timer operation in record mode, has been replaced by a dedicated menu button, instead, and the Fn1 button of earlier models (ie. the left-arrow of the four-way pad) has had its function replaced by ISO sensitivity selection, instead.
Also deleted is the rocker switch at top right which used to control both exposure compensation and playback zoom. And frankly, I couldn't be more thrilled by this change, because I frequently found myself bumping it on the earlier GR cameras, dialing in unintended exposure compensation all too often. Its function is absorbed by the "Adj." lever, which now defaults to exposure compensation control in all but manual mode, where it controls shutter speed instead.
It's also clickable, so you can press it to bring up an adjustment menu with five different slots providing quick access to things like aspect ratio settings, metering and drive modes, outdoor view mode and plenty else besides. 14 different functions can be assigned to one of these five slots, and when you press the lever inwards in record mode, the functions you've chosen will be accessible from a column that pops up at screen right.
The four-way controller can wobble a bit, but it doesn't affect performance
While in most respects the GR III feels very solid and tightly-engineered, in one respect it struck as as slightly unusual, and indeed, Ricoh itself has announced a repair program and a short extension to the warranty for customers experiencing the issue. It's not one which will significantly affect your use of the camera in the real world, but I mention it here mostly for completeness.
In the first couple of weeks after the GR III went on sale, Ricoh heard from customers experiencing a wobble in the four-way controller pad on the rear panel. Some rotation of this control is normal, according to Ricoh, and indeed our review unit's four-way controller moves a little. (You can see it in our rear shot of the camera here, where the controller is slightly but noticeably tilted to the left.)
According to Ricoh, the problem only affects a limited number of early production cameras, and as I found in my own real-world use, even if there's some motion, you're still never going to accidentally press the wrong button. Nor is this a weather-sealed camera, so I would have no greater concern about water getting into the camera than I would were the control rock-solid in its orientation. And realistically, if you're among those who do have a more significant degree of wobble, you can expect Ricoh to stand behind its product, so I wouldn't hesitate to consider the GR III despite this issue.
The wider-aspect display and its touch-screen overlay are a great improvement
Also new on the rear panel, by the way, is the Ricoh GR III's display. While it has a slightly lower dot count than that of the GR II, it now matches the 3:2 aspect ratio of the image sensor, which I think makes far more sense as your photos now fill the screen, rather than leaving a black border until you dial in some playback zoom.
Even more significant, though, is the addition of a touch-screen overlay which allows the screen to serve double-duty as an input device. This is a huge improvement, because it means you can very quickly directly select where in the image you want to place your focus point, with a simple tap of the finger.
Optionally, you can also have the camera perform an autofocus cycle immediately after moving the focus point where you tapped, and even trip the shutter too if you wish, much as you may already do with your smartphone. And for movie capture, you can also change the focus point by touching the display, even during capture.
The touch-screen can also be used to swipe between images in playback mode, for a pinch-zoom gesture to control the playback zoom much as you would on your smartphone, or to control menus and enter text with an on-screen keyboard. I found the touch-screen to be accurate and responsive, and the display itself pretty easy to see in most situations, although I did have to shield it with my hand sometimes in bright conditions, as it's rather glossy and so prone to reflections.
Time for a real-world test on the road in North Carolina
As I mentioned in passing earlier in this field test, the Ricoh GR III really has me impressed with its image quality thus far. (I should note quickly, though, that I'm talking about image quality in daytime shooting thus far, as I've not yet spent a lot of time shooting in low-light conditions yet -- that will be coming in my second field test.)
The entire imaging pipeline is brand-new here, with a much higher-resolution 24.24-megapixel APS-C sensor in place of the previous 16.2-megapixel chip, an updated and simplified design for the 28mm-equivalent f/2.8 prime lens, and a new GR Engine 6 image processor in place of the previous GR Engine V chip.
To get a feel for what this new combination could do, I took the Ricoh GR III with me on an impromptu road-trip to North Carolina. I headed out having packed light, with just the camera itself, a flash card and a couple of batteries -- one in the camera, and one for a spare. Initially, I headed for Cherokee, NC, stopping off enroute at the nearby Oconaluftee Visitor Center and Mountain Farm Museum, both to see the elk and a representation of pioneer Appalachian life. From there, I headed on to the picturesque (and rather artsy) nearby towns of Waynesville and Maggie Valley before I ran out of daylight.
Battery life is modest, but spare batteries are tiny so its easy to bring a few
I shot close to 400 images during the day trip without quite draining the first battery pack, around double the camera's official CIPA rating, although admittedly this was with three-shot exposure bracketing active, as I always do when shooting a review camera. (I'm a belt-and-suspenders kinda guy, and like to be sure that if the metering system misses the mark a bit, I still have a shot that's in the ballpark.)
However, I wasn't switching the camera off between shots most of the time, only doing so if there was more than a few minutes between shooting sessions. And I also spent a little while both chimping my shots post-capture, and even transferring some via Wi-Fi to my smartphone, so it wasn't like I was going out of my way to try to extend the GR III's admittedly rather modest rated battery life.
So while yes, you're almost certainly going to want a spare battery or two for the GR III, I don't think it's perhaps quite as significant a concern as the CIPA rating might suggest. Especially not when one considers just how tiny these batteries are -- it's easy to slip a couple in your pants or shirt pocket and completely forget they're even there until you need them.
Plan to spend a bit extra on batteries and perhaps a dedicated charger, too
Of course, that does rely on you buying a couple of spares in the first place, and with a pricetag of $40 apiece, the cost does build up fairly quickly if you want a few packs with you at all times. And nor can you charge a second pack while you're shooting with the first one, at least not unless you're willing to splash out on an external battery charger, as by default the GR III recharges in-camera via a USB cable.
That's great for saving space when packing, as you probably already need to bring a USB charger for your phone and other devices anyway. Doubly so if you have a modern phone with a USB-C interface, so you can share the same cable, too. (While USB-C is still growing in popularity, there's really something to be said for not needing to worry about which way around the cable is when inserting it!)
But it's not ideal that it's the only option. I'd really rather see Ricoh drop the USB charger you likely already own from the bundle, and replace it with the standalone charger you'll most likely want as well, rather than expecting another $50 or so for the charger by itself. Long story short, if you're planning to buy the GR III, you'll also want to budget $90-130 for a standalone charger and an extra battery or two, unless you already own any. (And you most likely don't, as this battery pack is a new model, shared only with the recently-launched Ricoh WG-6, G900 and G900SE cameras.)
A great lens and razor-sharp imagery, especially by compact camera standards
But enough of the battery situation, what of image quality? Well, here Ricoh has done a really great job with the updated lens, in particular. Images shot with the GR III are absolutely packed with razor-sharp detail, even in the corners. For the most part I found color pretty attractive -- if perhaps a little muted -- at default settings, and loads of scope is provided for tuning this to your own tastes. Auto white balance has also proven good thus far, if perhaps a bit warm indoors under incandescent lighting.
And in the daytime at least, noise levels are good, too. I've thus far predominantly stayed at ISO 800 or below, but at these sensitivities what little noise there is remains finely-patterned and quite film-like. I will of course be revisiting this topic once I've done some more extensive low-light and night shooting, however.
Moire has yet to rear its ugly head in my shots, but that's likely due in part to my choice of subject matter for this first field test. I have a feeling I'll see a bit more of it shooting downtown as I'm planning for my second field test, where things like air conditioner grills, venetian blinds and the like will doubtless present more of a challenge for the GR III.
On the plus side, thanks to the new in-camera image stabilization system, the pocket-friendly little Ricoh now sports the excellent AA Filter Simulator function we've seen in many Pentax-branded cameras. This should be able to squash moire for all but flash exposures by very subtly moving the image sensor during exposure, although it does limit you to a shutter speed of 1/1,000 second or slower. (Want to know more about how it works? Read this in-depth guide to the function from our Pentax K-3 review.)
Plenty more to come in my second field test, so watch this space
And that's about it for this first field test. I'm planning to take the Ricoh GR III out for another shoot soon, this time with a focus on low-light / night shooting and video capture. I'm also planning to take a look at the efficacy of the camera's new sensor-shift image stabilization system and (as just mentioned) its moire-fighting capabilities, and also to discuss the GR III's wireless communication feature set.
If there's anything you'd like to see tested, please do let me know in the comments section at the bottom of this page. And be sure to watch this space for part two, coming soon!