The Ricoh Caplio R4 builds on the R-Series range, offering a svelte, well-styled compact digital camera that provides a level of specification and shooting options akin to a much more expensive camera. A new square-pixel type, 6-megapixel sensor provides plenty of resolution for larger prints or cropping and is ably assisted – on the spec side of things – with a comprehensive raft of features.
Foremost of these must be the 28-200mm F/3.3-4.8 wide-zoom lens, offering a focal length range that means it can be used just as well for excellent, vista filled landscape shots as for paparazzi style zoom snaps or frame filling close ups in macro mode (both at the tele and wide ends of the lens) down to 1cm focusing. In other words, the lens covers just about anything you care to throw at – photographically speaking.
The lens is capable of providing a superb level of detail; the compromises usually associated with such long zoom lenses having been well handled by the R4’s lens designers. Supporting the lens performance further is image stabilisation, interestingly using the CCD-shift method, similar to the type employed previously by Konica Minolta and now Sony on its Alpha 100 D-SLR. The CCD moves in the opposite direction to any vibration caused by the user, countering the worst vagaries of camera shake at longer zoom focal lengths or in lower lighting conditions when slow shutter speeds make it problematic to hand hold a shot.
A large 2.5-inch colour screen is nice to use, performing well in very bright conditions thanks to its single-touch brightness adjustment that can help when direct sunlight can make it hard to compose a shot. In fact most of the camera’s controls are great to use (even menu icons can be magnified to improve viewing) with the shutter release, on/off and anti shake buttons placed on the top plate with the remainder of the controls arrayed on the back, next to the aforementioned screen.
The lens zoom control is nicely placed and zooming from 28 to 200mm only takes around a second, so is responsive. One down side of this is controlling the amount of zoom you want (if it is less than 200mm) can be a little fiddly as the zoom steps (the amount the lens will move if you press and release the zoom control once) are difficult to control with any finesse, making fine zooming adjustments a bit hap hazard. A step zoom feature is available, but the steps are too large to be really useful for fine control.
Still image capture, movies and sound can all be selected from a separate switch on adjacent to the zoom control; still images have Normal and Fine quality settings (the amount of compression used), movies are somewhat disappointing in that you only get 320x240-pixel maximum resolution setting while sound is recorded in the WAV format. All can be stored within the on board 26Mb of internal memory or on external SD/MMC storage.
Other controls include the Playback button, the "ADJ" (or adjustment) button which fires up a new screen providing an active histogram display, exposure compensation, White Balance and ISO quick adjustment settings. All can be tweaked using the four-way controller that surrounds a Menu/OK button. Scene modes (seven of them) include a neat skew correction facility for correcting converging verticals (ideal for low angle shots of tall buildings or for correcting shots of documents that must have all edges perpendicular for example) and a high sensitivity mode along with the more "usual" landscape, portrait and sports modes.
White balance control offers a range of automatic settings for varying light sources (tungsten and daylight for example) with a manual control in there too. However, I found the auto white balance control to be very good indeed and able to cope with most light sources well. You also get both exposure compensation (+/-2EV in 1/3rd steps) and exposure bracketing (to a rather limited 0.5EV either side of the "as metered" exposure) which are nice to have at your disposal if you need a little help with difficult lighting situations.
And as for lighting, you get a small built in flash unit that’s great as a fill-in but not much else – it’s underpowered and its position very near the top right corner of the camera body means fingers continually stray in front of it when snapping. Yes, you do get used to avoiding it after a while, but it’s darn frustrating at first.
The lack of an optical viewfinder is now common on such camera’s as the R4 and means the screen must be kept on all the time for accurate composition. Despite this, the battery (a compact lithium-ion DB-60 rechargeable) lasted well; in fact, after over 200 shots and about three days the battery indicator still showed it was full. However, once it started to drain it went quickly, around 250 shots – with a modest amount of flash and frequent reviewing on the screen – in total when it gave up the ghost. Ricoh claims around 310 shots using its testing methods. Not bad either way.
As for image quality, you’ll have gathered from my earlier comments on the lens that it is not bad at all, and you’d be right. Although I noticed flare on shots taken into the sun or on bright scenes, but I feel any lens on any compact such as this would have suffered in the same way given the high contrast extremes to which I was pushing it.
Focusing is accomplished (you can pick multi-AF, spot-AF, manual focus (a great addition) a Snap setting for fleeting moments (action where you want to be sure to get the image) and an infinity setting. Metering is accomplished, though if it did fail, it tended to over expose on brighter scenes. It was not dramatic; only around a stop, and it is easily countered using exposure compensation/bracketing. Image noise becomes an issue, but only when you get to sensitivity settings above ISO 400 (you have ISO 64, 100, 200, 400 and 800 to play with). ISO 64, and 100 look good, 200 things get a little worse but not problematic, at ISO 400 noise becomes noticeable, but in a film grain-like way.
At ISO 800, the camera throws all its toys out of the pram and you get some serious noise all over the images. However, thanks to the anti-shake system, you can shoot a lower ISOs than you might otherwise be able to get away with and because the anti shake works well, particularly at longer focal lengths when the limited maximum aperture of the optics means shutter speeds quickly drop into camera shake territory. Overall, detail is superb, fringing is almost non-existent, colour control is great – natural rather than over saturated – but you can adjust that too if needed all making the R4 a very accomplished little camera.
The Ricoh Caplio R4 houses a class leading lens with a sophisticated feature set that not only works but works very well indeed. Despite a couple of niggles the benefits easily outweigh them. True versatility, excellent optics and a wide range of shooting/image capture controls at a reasonable price should ensure that the R4 is very near the top of your list if you’re thinking of buying a digital compact any time soon.