Ricoh GR Digital Mk III digital camera

The new Ricoh GR Digital Mk III marks a big step-up from the Mk II, previously the company’s quality compact for the enthusiast or professional needing a decent and pocketable back-up camera.

The new camera has high image quality at its core, at least according to Ricoh. However, a new image processing engine, a new CCD, and the newly developed 28mm GR lens are all elements that should have such snappers drooling.

Performance has been upgraded too, with faster shooting capability and tweaks over the power consumption and handling. So what is the GR Mk III like? Well, at first glance it looks exactly the same as the Mk II model and that’s because it is. The magnesium alloy bodywork and design, the understated black livery; the neatly curved grip into which the SDHC/SD and MMC external storage slots, alongside the 1250mAh rechargeable lithium-ion cell are all the same.

But that lens is the first and most obvious change however: it is a 28mm, fast apertur, f/1.9 optic providing a flexible aperture range up to f/9. It is inside the sleek exterior that things have been given a less visible, but not insignificant, shake up: a new image processing engine, a new 10-megapixel sensor and improved power performance and the use of dual AAA cells as well as the supplied rechargeable battery pack add power choice and flexibility in the field.

After 2 days shooting, 150 shots captured, the remaining battery power still showed as full. As I write, 3 days into the test, it’s showing full, so impressive stuff.

The lack of a built-in viewfinder is a quibble however, since the new screen, as high resolution as it is at 920k-dots, is hampered in bright conditions. It’s very difficult to compose with any certainly and almost impossible to assess critical things like focus point selection and exposure (though you can fire up a live histogram) so without there being some shade somewhere, like me, you’ll struggle.

An (optional) accessory viewfinder is available that slots into the hot shoe but given the camera's price (more on this later) it’s a shame it’s not included. While we are looking to the camera’s top plate, a large shutter button and an illuminated on/off button join the hot shoe, along with a small, rather underpowered but manually activated pop-up flash that is so near the left corner of the camera, my fingers kept getting in the way, until I got used to it its placement.

A small mode dial sits on the opposite shoulder to the flash, has a small, rather fiddly, locking button that makes using the mode dial a challenge for those with larger fingers. The mode dial provides a point and shoot mode for quick snaps, with the rest of the settings giving Program shift, Shutter and Aperture priority and Manual shooting options.

There are three "My" settings, where you can save predetermined camera settings for fast access and there’s a Scene mode that provides just four additional options, no multitude of scene modes here, oh no.

You have a movie capture mode (640 and 320-pixel resolution only, so no HD movies), a DR (Dynamic Range double and more on this later) setting that combines two images to help improve the, erm, dynamic range; there’s a skew correction setting – for sorting out converging verticals or when shooting documents on the slant for example – a black and white text mode.

And that’s yer lot. But that’s what you’d expect given the camera’s target market where scene modes and the like would simply be surplus to requirements. The addition of a point and shoot (green) mode seems at odds with that to me, but for those that want it, it’s there.

A small control wheel on the front of the camera allows adjustment of settings reached via the “Adj” (for Adjustment) control on the back: white balance, resolution, ISO, picture style (vivid or mono for example) and AF and AE settings, each of which can be controlled by either the aforementioned control wheel or the “up” and “down” buttons on the back that form part of four jog buttons also on the camera’s rear.

You also have a control for quick access into exposure compensation and this, perhaps confusingly for some, looks like a lens zoom button (as seen on other compacts) and it does act as the image magnify button within playback mode.

A central Menu/OK button, an Fn1 (Function1), a flash mode button and an Fn2 button along with a display mode toggle button complete the back plate controls. The “down” button also provides the route into the camera’s rather good (1cm) macro shooting mode. Both Fn buttons can be assigned a variety of tasks within menus such as self timer functionally to name but one, though you can tailor them to use almost any key control you use a lot not already covered off elsewhere by other direct controls.

Speaking of menus, they are a little daunting for at first as you get a long list of scrollable options over several pages for each sub menu: shooting, key custom options and a setup menu. Don’t expect neat tabbed categories; you simply have scrollable lists, which can take a little getting used to.

These lists include powerful stuff such as Pre-AF, an excellent setting that allows you to keep the AF running even when the shutter button is not half pressed, ideal for problems associated with shutter and AF lag. These problems are, however, refreshingly minimal in the GR Mk III, which is a responsive camera indeed, start-up to shoot a shot is under 1 second for example, the AF is blisteringly fast for a compact. Shutter lag is almost non-existent as well.

What you have here then is a compact that has – at last – been built to successfully deal with a lot of the bug bears relating to responsiveness on lesser models such as pressing the shutter button and waiting, waiting still waiting and then the shutter fires. Just in case however, Ricoh has included a snap mode too, with a focus fixed to infinity so you can get almost instant response times.

Other clever touches include an auto leveler feature, which allows you to keep a weather eye on your horizons, say, for landscape shots and this combination means the GR Mk III is responsive and well made, has a host of cool features – that actually work – and upgrades that are not simply tweaks but significant changes that work.

So what of the image quality? Ricoh’s claims that the Mk III is a vast improvement are born out on close analysis of the images. The new 10-megapixel sensor, though rather small (it’s a 1/1.75-inch CCD) kicks well above its weight.

Throw in the DR double shot mode where two images are combined with correctly exposed parts from the two combined to create an image with improved dynamic range using three levels of “strength”; weak, medium and strong and it works a treat, so long as you use a tripod. Any movement and you’ll just have a blurred shot otherwise. You get bags of shadow and highlight detail and without compromising on the rest of the image as a result.

As discussed, response times are great as is the AF performance, even in low light. Metering is as nimble as the rest of the camera, and provides shots with good overall exposure. But again, with such a great level of customisation to hand, and the three "My" modes, you can easily and quickly tweak things to your preferred set-up for am multitude of tasks.

Detail and resolution are remarkable, some of the best I’ve seen in a compact and certainly since I tested Panasonic’s Lumix LX3 which was also remarkable for its level of captured detail; the new lens pulls out all the stops getting the most the sensor has to offer.

Sensitivity settings up to ISO 1600 provide a good range and in terms of image noise, the Mk III does very well, with noise, such as it is and at each setting is well below that of the Mk II and certainly very good compared with compacts with otherwise similar specs and sensors. Colour performance and white balance tread lightly too, though auto white balance can leave slight orange casts in mixed lighting.

However, it’s no worse than you’d expect from any digital model – compact or DSLR – and the level of control here too means you can get a grip of the problems if needs be.

Verdict

Fittingly, it’s third time lucky for Ricoh’s GR Digital Mk III. The Mk I was good but had issues over noise, the Mk II was better but still was not quite there. But here at last the promise shown by those forbears has born fruit; the GR Digital Mk III is superb and performs superbly too.

Yes the LCD makes accurate metering and focus assessment problematic in bright conditions but wow! Like me, you’ll marvel at the captured detail and image quality when you get to see it up close. I’d recommend buying the optional viewfinder though, but this additional cost item brings me to one final consideration.

It is a consideration that makes for a rather a large fly in the otherwise wholesome GR Mk III soup. It’s a fly akin in scale and impact to the Titanic’s iceberg, one that could hole the GR Mk III below the (sales) waterline, on its maiden voyage, and it is…

The price.

At a penny shy of £530 it’s too expensive. Remember, this is a price that would allow you to buy a good DSLR and lens kit, a kit featuring a much larger sensor, so value for money it is not. And yet, given the camera’s capabilities, image quality and likely budgets of the target market; this price may just be one worth paying.


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