Educational

Review: Ricoh GR II, a Luxury Compact Fixed-Lens Camera

Previously, in this ongoing series on luxury compact fixed-lens cameras, I covered the Fujifilm X100F, the Sony RX1R and the Leica Q. Today, I’m looking at the Ricoh GR II.

As always, before we get to the handling and shooting experience of the Ricoh GR II, let’s see if this camera fits the criteria.

Is it luxury?

While the Ricoh GR II is certainly a premium product, it’s a stretch to call it a luxury item. Don’t get me wrong, the camera is well-built and has an austere aesthetic which some might find stylish, but few would call it luxurious. Essentially, it looks like an unremarkable point-and-shoot—and that’s the point. Its low-key design is what makes it a stealthy street shooter’s dream. People don’t really notice it, so you have an easier job capturing organic moments.

Is it compact?

Considering it encloses a 16-megapixel APS-C sensor, the Ricoh GR II is incredibly compact. It’s the first camera that I’ve reviewed in this series that is reasonably pocketable. Not just jacket pockets either—it can slide into the front pocket of jeans with little effort. Its small size and light weight make it the perfect everyday-carry or walk-around camera, whether in a pocket, on your wrist or in a bag.

Is it fixed-lens?

It sure is. The Ricoh GR II sports a wonderful 18.3mm lens. On the crop sensor, this is roughly equivalent to a 28mm full-frame focal length—a classic for street photographers. The lens is relatively fast with an f/2.8 maximum aperture and is razor sharp.

Is it a camera?

Undoubtedly. Although, judging by how much time you’ll spend with it in hand, you may start treating it like an extension of your arm.

Handling the Ricoh GR II

The GR II isn’t the first in the series for Ricoh—the 35mm film GR1 came out in 1996 and the design has barely changed through several iterations, even after making the jump to digital in 2005. The solid magnesium-alloy body has a matte black finish and a rough texture, almost akin to sandpaper or grip tape on a skateboard. This may not sound comfortable, but don’t fret—the parts of the camera you actually hold are covered by softer, grippy rubber.

I held the Ricoh GR II with only my thumb, index and middle finger, and while this is usually a sign of bad ergonomics, the light weight of the camera made it work. It also helps that all of the buttons are easily accessible with your thumb and index finger, making one-handed operation a snap. The buttons and dials are exactly where they should be and after a few minutes of configuration, I was ready to shoot.

The lens doesn’t stick out far when extended, so the camera is perfectly balanced and has a low profile. You can hang it from your neck comfortably, but I think a wrist strap makes more sense. The Ricoh GR II is meant to be carried in hand and it’s so light and comfortable that you won’t think twice about holding it all day. That’s the beauty of this camera—it’s designed to stimulate use and draw you into making photos of just about anything.

The shooting experience

The low profile and wide focal length of the Ricoh GR II favors close quarters, so I took it to the Atlanta Pride Festival where I was sure to find crowds of colorful characters. With a record-setting 300,000 people in attendance this year, I wasn’t disappointed. For the day, I wanted to shoot subjects up-close using hyperfocal focusing and the built-in flash. I wanted these photos to pop, so I shot and edited them accordingly.

The combination of the flash and the leaf shutter make the Ricoh GR II ideal for shooting during the day, because it will sync at any shutter speed. I used TAv mode, which is shutter/aperture priority, keeping my exposure around f/8 and 1/500 of a second while my ISO was set to automatic with a high range of 1600.

I wanted to take advantage of the snap focus setting. Basically, you set the distance you want to focus and it will hit that mark every time you push the shutter. I have no idea why every modern camera doesn’t have this feature, especially since street photographers have been using the hyperfocal technique for decades. I set it for 1 meter and didn’t have to worry about getting things in focus for the rest of the day—I just had to get close.

Since there’s no viewfinder, I held the camera out in front of me and snapped away. I loved how inconspicuous the Ricoh GR II was to shoot—barely anyone noticed the camera in their face and those that did just didn’t care. On occasion, I wished I could pull the camera to my eye to nail the right composition, so if I was to own this camera I would probably opt for the hotshoe-mounted optical viewfinder, but otherwise, I got by using the LCD.

If you shoot RAW+JPEG, there are a few fun profiles to play with—my favorite being the high-contrast black and white. This profile lives up to its name, as the contrast between tones is so stark that things that are bright basically appear as pure white and things that are dark show up as inky black—not a lot of gray area, but a lot of fun. While it’s not right for every shot, when it works, it’s very effective.

There are a few known issues with the Ricoh GR that are worth mentioning. For one, the mechanism that pushes and pulls the lens in and out has a tendency to suck in dust, which will end up on your sensor over time. This means that every so often, you’ll have to get it serviced. On top of that, ISO performance isn’t great past 1600, with the limit being 3200 for my taste. Also, I noticed that the battery life was pretty poor while using flash, but that’s to be expected.

Don’t let those shortcomings keep you from the Ricoh GR II though. It’s such a joy to shoot and the image quality is really great, especially considering the portability factor. The lens is crazy sharp and has a wonderful character to it, unlike others I’ve used.

Final thoughts

The Ricoh GR II is great for beginners and experienced shooters alike. It encourages spontaneity and it’s a whole lot of fun to shoot. It’s designed with advanced shooters in mind, but is easy enough to pick up that it would make a great first camera for the budding street photographer. I can certainly see myself adding one to my bag, and find little reason for why other photographers wouldn’t enjoy it as well.

For the price, these little wonders are a steal. And if having a wifi connection and a bigger buffer don’t really matter to you, you can save even more by picking up Ricoh’s original APS-C model.

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