Ricoh CX1 compact camera

The Ricoh CX1 looks stylish and is undoubtedly well made once you heft the all metal compact from its box, but looks otherwise unremarkable. The black liveried version we had to test has a rather simple control layout that belies the underlying complexity, as we’ll see.

On the top a small mode dial perched on the rear corner joins with a small on/off button and a combined zoom control and shutter button. The lens zoom lever controls a very nice 28-200mm (35mm equivalent) lens that has a respectable F/3.3 to F/5.2 maximum aperture range and is a pin sharp set of optics that helps to get the most from the first of the CX1’s stand out features.

The camera sports a specially designed 1/2.3-inch CMOS sensor with an effective 9.29MP resolution, which beats at the heart of series of specially developed technologies to help provide better quality images.

To start, there’s a new image engine, the Smooth Imaging Engine IV that combines with the new sensor to give high-speed image processing for up to 4fps shooting and that’s as good as some entry level DSLRs. It can also shoot in an "enhanced" continuous mode that provides VGA sized images at up to 120fps. These images are combined into one final Multi-Picture Format image.

An M-Continuous Shooting Plus mode joins these high-speed snapping systems and provides a way to shoot images at 15fps or 30fps, the camera storing the 1 or 2 seconds worth of frames just prior to removing your finger from the shutter release.

In other words, in this mode, keeping your finger on the shutter button until just after the key event has finished and you can be sure you’ve captured it on one or more of the preceding 15 (or 30) images which are shot at 2MP in order to achieve the high frame rates.

Thankfully, the screen stays active throughout so you can pan with fast moving action and while the refresh rate is reduced, Ricoh’s high-speed shooting system works very well, with the caveat on the image file size of course.

One of the other features developed for the CX1 is the rather tongue twisting Dynamic Range Double Shot Mode, or (thankfully) DR for short. DR is designed to boost the camera’s effective dynamic range - something often seen as the Achilles heel of digital cameras - to around 12EV, at least according to Ricoh. In essence, the system works by combining two images (or rather, the properly exposed portions of two images) shot at different exposures, one biased to the highlights, the other shadows.

An obvious downside of DR is immediately obvious if you try this hand held, or with moving subjects, the combined image is blurred, so it’s only really effective on static subjects that are shot using a support such as a tripod. However, when it works the effect is akin to a HDR image but more natural looking, and helps get more shadow and highlights from otherwise hard-to-expose scenes.

You can assign the "strength" of the DR effect in four steps from "very weak" to "strong" but that means a certain amount of trial and error is required until you know which strength is best for specific subjects, so practice is key here.

The clever (and I believe) unique bit about this feature, is that Ricoh’s boffins developed an algorithm that compensates for overexposure within the green segments of the R, G, B, Bayer colour filter matrix (green allows more wavelengths of light through than the red and blue sectors of the matrix) used to reconstruct colour in the images, by re-calculating lost green values from surrounding blue and red sections of the Bayer filter.

The CX1 has a dedicated processor for this, so it does not slow image capture or image processing and it is always active but can be used in the DR mode, on two images (as described above) to give a much more dramatic boost if needed. Another big plus for those needing high quality images, is this system works without affecting the sensitivity and as such does not have the problem of increased noise within images.

The CX1’s white balance control has also had a significant new technology added, Multi-Pattern Auto White Balance. This is great for scenes where you have mixed lighting such as flash, sunlight and tungsten, for example. The camera can define the "correct" white balance for each section of the image and fit the white balance to the proper level for each zone within the image.

This is great for fill-flash work on, say, portraits where you have lighting, with or without flash and you still have the "normal" presets to choose between such as sunlight cloudy and shadows, plus a very simple to set manual WB setting via a single press of the display button on the camera’s back, once selected from the menus.

And I’ll delve more into the menus shortly as they’re rather daunting at first glance, in the meantime though, the next feature of note is the focus system. The AF is very good on the CX1, the multi-AF system works well and will pick a range of options within a complex scene to give a correct focus range or you can pick a single (central for example) focus point if preferred.

Alternatively there’s a Multi-Target AF system that shoots seven, quick-fire images with a variety of focus points based on elements within the scene and you can then choose the most appropriately focused image. Ricoh recommends this focus mode for macro work and given the excellent 1cm closest focus point it can help get the correct focus point if you don’t have the time to set up on a tripod, for example.

Multi, centre-weighted and spot metering is very good on the CX1, exposure control overall is excellent in fact, particularly given exposure compensation can be quickly accessed via the ADJ(ust)/OK button on the back.

This mini joystick control, while a little fiddly to use, also provides fast access to WB, resolution, ISO and focus controls; adding to the camera’s armoury you also have an auto exposure bracketing mode and here’s even flash exposure compensation too.

Other back plate controls include a Fn or function button that can be assigned up to 11 separate functions from Macro focus point selection to WB bracketing or limiting a minimum aperture that can be used by the camera.

Another very useful tool I loved is a digital spirit level that uses a small graph-style indicator on the screen to show whether the camera is perfectly horizontal or vertical and helps greatly when trying to get horizons straight in landscapes, for example, and is another excellent handling bonus on such a svelte camera.

All this complexity is reached via menus presented as two large menus, one for camera settings and one for set-up and control. The menus are presented as two rather comprehensive lists that look a little daunting at first, as there’s a lot to go through and many options available.

The more enthusiast user will not be put off, as undoubtedly they are the targets for the camera after all. But given most users will simply point and shoot and won’t delve into menus unless something goes wrong, this is a menu layout that may make a few users gulp loudly as they dip in, should something simple need tweaking, such as date and time settings.

The detailed menus are easy to read thanks largely to the stunning 3-inch LCD and its high-resolution, 920,000 pixels. The screen is good to use in most conditions but only just in direct sunlight, when even with the low reflection coating it sports, it can be a challenge to compose or check the correct focus point has be achieved. The lack of an optical viewfinder means you have no fallback composition tool either or should you need to conserve battery power.

In terms of image quality, the CX1 is extremely good indeed with perhaps over saturated colour out of the box being a slight niggle. Sensitivity is usually the key to image quality, or rather noise at higher ISOs. For the CX1, things are rosy below ISO 400, at ISO 800 noise is obvious and at the top ISO 1600 setting, as expected, noise is very intrusive.

But, interestingly detail does not suffer as I’d expected, it seems the way the new image processing works is to preserve detail even if that means more visible noise in the final shot and so yes, images do look very noisy at the top two settings, but the film-grain like quality at least allows you to make a more (arguably) creative decision on its inclusion should the high ISO modes be your only option, given there’s no optical image stabilisation of offer here.

On the flip side of this, I felt detail could be retained more effectively in lower ISO shots, where there appears to be a slight smoothing of detail, so perhaps the default sharpness is a bit on the conservative side. Nevertheless, overall the image quality, metering, focus and WB setup is excellent and yes, the new image processing to pull detail out of the highlights does work helping get more subtle tones within highlights and detail within shadows.

Verdict

A highly specified, well crafted camera with a host of very clever features that work, the Ricoh CX1 is a machine for the more advanced user and offers image quality to match for those that know what they’re doing. Yes it has all-auto and scene modes to use but that would be missing the point of this camera, a camera that is, it must be said, rather excellent.


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