Ricoh CX2 digital camera review

4.5 out of 5
£300

For

LCD, low ISO image quality, easy to use, features, build, auto level indication

Against

No optical viewfinder, high ISO image noise, longer zoom creates camera shake issues

The Ricoh CX2 is basically the same as the CX1, it looks stylish and is undoubtedly well made; once again we had the black liveried version to test, though silver and a two-tone version with a coloured top plate are available. A simple control layout belies the underlying complexity; 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 28-300mm (35mm equivalent) lens that has a respectable F/3.5 to F/5.6 maximum aperture range that is only slightly reduced compared with the CX1’s F/3.3 to F/5.2 aperture range.

The lens is very sharp and helps gather and direct light on the same 1/2.3-inch CMOS sensor as found in the CX1, but what is more remarkable is the fact that such a large lens can be folded away into the camera’s svelte 29.4mm wide body. Though slim, the camera’s handling is actually rather good, although the long focal lengths on offer mean reduced apertures, and so camera shake can become an issue, particularly in low light and at the longer end of the 300mm zoom.

The Smooth Imaging Engine IV returns and combines with the sensor to give high-speed image processing for an improved 5fps shooting an impressive frame rate as good as some entry level DSLRs. It can also shoot in an “enhanced” ultra high continuous shooting 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 the 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, keeping your finger on the shutter button until just after the key event has finished, you can be sure you’ve captured it on one or more of the preceding 15 (or 30) frames, each shot at 2MP necessary to achieve the high frame rate.

The screen stays active throughout – so you can pan along and compose with fast moving action – even though the refresh rate is reduced. Ricoh’s high-speed shooting system works very well, with the caveat on the image file size, but even an 2MP, astute use of image editing software should give reasonable sized prints if required.

One of the other features developed for the CX1 and found here also, is the rather tongue twisting Dynamic Range Double Shot Mode, 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 is immediately obvious if you try this hand held, or with moving subjects; the combined image is blurred and so DR is only really effective on static subjects that are shot using a tripod. However, when it works the effect is akin to an HDR image and helps get more shadow and highlight information from otherwise hard-to-expose scenes.

So, a tripod and careful use of DR can provide a powerful tool for hard to expose shots or where (perhaps) you might want to dig out more detail than would otherwise be achievable. Of course, the inclusion of a RAW shooting mode, something lacking here, might have helped too as you can claw back extra highlight and shadow detail when playing with RAW files on a PC. But, the extra processing “at home” this needs, may be a step too far for the potential, “snapper” oriented market?

The “strength” of the DR effect can be adjusted in four steps from “very weak” to “strong” but that necessitates a certain amount of trial and error to learn which strength is best for specific subjects; practice is important then here and on balance it’s better to shoot four (or rather eight!) images at each level and be safe than waste time fiddling, since you’ll need to “test” the effect for each subject you use it on.

However, the excellent screen makes this experimentation in-camera and when in the field achievable, since its 920,000-pixel resolution provides enough detail to see what’s going on. However, the cleverest bit about this 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 does the red and blue sectors of the matrix) used to reconstruct colour in the images. It re-calculates lost green values from surrounding blue and red sections of the Bayer filter helping get better and more natural colours.

Just like the CX1, there’s a dedicated processor for this, so it does not slow image capture or image processing and it is always active, can be used in the DR mode and on the two DR images (see 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, so does not have the problem of increasing image noise within images.

The CX2’s white balance control includes 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 seems to be an accomplished system, as some of my abstract fibre-optic lamp shots, taken in low and mixed light, have been handled extremely well and with few noise artifacts.

Indeed, colour rendition and saturation are great, easily on a par with the CX1, as you’d expect, and yet lifelike, with a deep richness that is natural looking rather than overblown as some consumer oriented digital compacts tend to be.

The Multi-Pattern Auto White Balance is also great for fill-flash work shooting portraits, where you have mixed lighting – natural light with flash – say, and as you’d expect (and just like the CX1), you still have all the “normal” WB presets to choose between such as sunlight, cloudy and shadows. The set of manual WB setting, set via a single press of the display button, once this mode selected from the menus.

The next feature of note is the focus system. AF is very good, the multi-AF system works well and will pick a range of options within a complex scene to give a correct focus range encompassing the lot, or you can pick a single (central for example) focus point if preferred, ideal for macro or portrait work.

Alternatively, Multi-Target AF 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. Interestingly, Ricoh recommends this focus mode for macro work and given the excellent closest focus point of 1cm, it can help get the correct focus point if you don’t have the time to set up on a tripod, for example. A new mode is continuous AF, which makes shooting a sequence of a moving subject much easier to do – and keep the shots sharp.

Multi, centre-weighted and spot metering are very good; exposure control overall is excellent, particularly given exposure compensation can be quickly accessed via the ADJ(ust)/OK button on the back. This mini joystick, while a little fiddly to use, also provides fast access to WB, resolution, ISO and focus controls; adding to the camera’s armoury further is the auto exposure bracketing mode, and there’s flash exposure compensation too.

Other back plate controls include a “Fn” or function button that can be assigned up to 11 separate function, from Macro focus point selection to WB bracketing, or limiting the minimum aperture that can be used by the camera; useful if you need further control the amount of light reaching the sensor to help prevent camera shake or add an element of control for depth of field.

The excellent digital spirit level remains, via a small graph-style indicator on the screen to show whether the camera’s horizontal or vertical, an excellent handling bonus on a svelte camera such as this. And so there’s plenty of complexity crammed into the CX2, all reached via menus presented as two large lists.

Just like the CX1, the menus seem rather daunting at first. The more enthusiast user will not be put off, but given most users will simply point and shoot and (probably) won’t delve into menus unless something goes wrong, this is a menu layout that may make a few users tremble in trepidation, should they should dip in.

However, the detailed menus are easy to read, thanks largely to that stunning LCD with its high-resolution, 920,000-pixels. The screen is good to use for composition in most conditions, but only just in direct sunlight, when even with the low reflection coating, it’s often a challenge to compose (or check the correct focus point has be selected) for a shot.

The lack of an optical viewfinder means you have no fallback composition tool either, or should you need to conserve battery power; having said that, for power consumption, Ricoh claims a full charge will provide enough juice for around 290-shots. Actually that’s about average performance at this level in the market.

There are a couple of new shooting modes to join the array already present and carried over from the CX1. The Easy Shooting mode remains for those that want to leave the “thinking” to the camera. However, when shooting both the focus and exposure areas can be shifted within the scene to anywhere, making fine tuning of exposure and focus in portrait or macro work easy and eminently controllable.

One of the new scene modes is the very clever “Miniaturize” mode, which blurs an area at the top and bottom of the image to give the impressions you’ve shot a miniature scene. A little bit of creative fun then but how useful it is remains to be seen. The new High Contrast B&W mode seems more useful and, as you’ve probably guessed, it boost contrast and shoots a mono image akin to that from grainy black and white film.

And the CX2 now has its own “Manner”. No, not an area in East London, but a scene mode for snapping indoors, a mode more commonly called a “museum” mode on other makes of camera. Here, operational beeps and whizzes are muted; flash and the AF auxiliary light are also cancelled, so you can shoot with impunity inside a museum, for example.

In terms of image quality, the CX2 offers an extremely good performance; with the slightly over saturated colour from the CX1 tamed nicely here, out of the box. Sensitivity is usually the key to image quality, or rather noise at higher ISOs. For the CX2, things are as rosy below ISO 400 as was the CX1, at ISO 800 noise is obvious and at the top ISO 1600 setting, as expected, noise becomes intrusive.

Detail does not suffer the image processing working to preserve detail, even if that means more visible noise in the final shot, but the film-grain like quality at least allows you to make a more (arguably) creative decision on its inclusion, should the high ISO mode be your only option, given there’s still no optical image stabilisation on offer and the longer focal lengths make camera shake even more likely than with the CX1.

The slight smoothing of detail from the CX1 at low ISO is less prevalent so that’s an improvement, and so, overall the image quality, metering, focus and WB setup is excellent and better than the CX1. And yes, the image processing, used to pull detail out of the highlights works and actually does help get more subtle tones from within highlights and detail within shadows.

Verdict

The CX2 is, well, just the like the CX1 – only more so. A relatively minor update might furrow some brows as to why the CX1 needed replacing so soon. The longer focal lengths are (arguably) more useful, but the flip side is problems with camera shake and low light. However, this is a highly specified, well-crafted camera with a host of very clever and new features that work.

The Ricoh CX2 is undoubtedly a machine for the more advanced user, but offers image quality to match for those that know what they’re doing and is easy enough to use. The all-auto and scene modes have useful tweaks but to get the most from the camera you’ll need to keep control to yourself and you’ll be amply rewarded with some stunning shots.