There are high-end compact cameras and there are high-end compact cameras. The Ricoh GR most definitely fits into the latter group: there's an APS-C size sensor - the same size as found in many DSLR cameras - paired up with a fixed 28mm equivalent f/2.8 lens.
No zoom, no nonsense, just top-spec tech that will appeal to only a niche group of enthusiast snappers. There's little else to compare the Ricoh GR against, except the somewhat disappointing Nikon Coolpix A which also landed earlier this year, or the slow-moving Sigma DP3. Does the Ricoh GR have the upper hand?
To view the GR in the same light as any normal compact camera wouldn't do it justice. If you're in the market for a point-and-shoot then look elsewhere; there's a clue in the GR's asking price that it's not just any old camera: it costs £599. That's a whole chunk of cash, but it is £400 less than the Nikon Coolpix A's asking price was at launch.
READ: Nikon Coolpix A review
At first glance the rather vanilla-by-appearance GR doesn't look much different from a normal compact camera. The very fact that it houses such a large sensor inside a relatively slender body size - it's 35mm thick (or thin?) and weighs just 245g - is its special move; that sensor is the feature which ought to deliver the killer blow when it comes to image quality.
The lightweight body is built from magnesium alloy which, while it sounds swanky, has a lightly textured finish that, for us, lacks the high-spec visual sheen or quality in-hand feel that a pricey compact camera should have. It's certainly tough, but aesthetically we prefer the look of the Coolpix A. For the sake of £400 the Ricoh GR does still lay out a sturdy spread though.
The lens is the second important piece of the GR puzzle. Billed as an 18.3mm, the APS-C sensor's crop factor provides a 27.5mm equivalent - a relatively wide angle of view that's a classic focal length for street photography and the like. It has its limitations for all tasks - close-up portraits won't work out well, for example - but that's all part and parcel of a specialist package such as this.
Control-wise the camera is laden with plenty of particular controls. From normalcies such as the mode dial and dial-lock on top of the camera, through to the more unusual - but eminently usable - Adj jogwheel-button on the rear, which sits above a switch and button combo used to toggle between AEL/AFL (auto exposure lock/auto focus lock) via the switch and jump into C-AF (continuous autofocus) via the button. There's also a rubberised +/- button to the far right on the rear which can be used to adjust exposure compensation and although it looks like it's precariously positioned for accidental presses we found it to be perfectly placed for quick adjustment using a thumb. A four-way d-pad, function button, display button and side-mounted Effect button finish the package.
For expanding the camera's use there's also a hotshoe for attaching accessories - including the rather glorious GV-1 optical viewfinder which also has markings for the 21mm equivalent to tie-in with the wide-angle-converter lens that's also available.
There's a lot of detail and customisation available too. The rear Adj jogwheel can be pressed to bring up a quick selection menu - think ISO, aspect ratio, focus type, bracketing and the like - with five active options out of a 13-strong list. Things get even deeper with the trio of function buttons - Fn1 is on the d-pad's left press, Fn2 a standalone button beneath this, and an Effect button resides on the side of the camera - which can each be programmed with a single function from a detailed list of 26 options in total. Many of these options from the extended list function as quick toggles between, say, autofocus and manual focus, or JPEG and raw capture.
Exhaustive is the word. The Ricoh GR covers just about every angle that a demanding photographer is going to want. It's got high-spec controls sussed out.
Autofocus lacks focus
But when it comes to using the camera it's not the fastest. Autofocus is workable in good light, but in low-light conditions it hunts extensively and won't always resolve focus. It's fairly typical of high-spec compact cameras to lack the super-fast autofocus systems of interchangeable lens cameras, as the Nikon Coolpix A had already shown us. But, to put it in context, the Ricoh GR is the preferable system out of those two compacts.
Part of the reason for that is the number of focus types and areas available. There's Multi AF (auto area), Spot AF (user-defined single point), Pinpoint AF (small AF area, centre only), subject tacking, manual focus, snap focus (pre-programmed, user-defined focal point) and infinity focus. The last two of that list are rare beasts among compacts, but with the right aperture set and an eye for subject distance it means the camera can be used almost without looking to capture that otherwise elusive shot in the blink of an eye. It's good to have both on board.
Manual focus, on the other hand, feels rough around the edges. Once activated the front thumbwheel is used to control both aperture and focus distance, with the macro button the kicker to toggle between the two - but it feels clunky and there's no focus-peaking to assist with highlighting in-focus areas. As there's no manual focus ring on the camera it lacks the hands-on sensation of something like the Sony Cyber-shot RX100 II or Fujifilm X100S.
READ: Sony Cyber-shot RX100 II
For close-up work the GR offers a macro focus option that has to be manually activated by an upward press of the d-pad. It can focus on subjects around 10cm away from the end of the lens which isn't particularly close, but typical of a larger-sensor compact. Similar models such as the Leica X2 suffer similar limitations that feel exaggerated due to the relatively wide-angle setting of the lens.
READ: Leica X2 review
Then there's the battery life which is poor. The in-camera charging method also makes a nuisance of charging up a second battery should you decide that a spare is an essential - which it is - as the GR just needs more juice to keep it going longer.
Ultimately the Ricoh GR has its highs and lows in the performance department, but it doesn't blow us away when we were hopeful that it might. It's better than the Nikon Coolpix A, but there are still shortcomings.
This is the Ricoh GR's wow moment. Its image quality is nothing short of stunning - better than the Nikon Coolpix A in our view.
The lens is the star of the show and is super-sharp when things are perfectly in focus. Add in a minimum shutter speed control, built-in neutral density (ND) filter - which can even be set to automatically come into action in bright conditions - and there's plenty of control to ensure top-notch image quality.
But it's not just the sharpness, it's that large APS-C size sensor that more than proves its worth. If you're a 28mm fiend then we don't doubt that the Ricoh GR can produce better-than-DSLR quality images. No problem. But obviously that's its restriction: if you're after a more versatile package, i.e. something with a zoom, then the GR obviously isn't going to be it.
Sensitivity-wise there's an ISO range which can be set from ISO 100 through to ISO 25,600, including an Auto ISO option. Even when pushing into four-figure sensitivities you won't think the images could have come from a compact camera. That's great use in practice too: when we were shooting a feisty feline the auto ISO 100 sensitivity wasn't cutting it due to the animal's movement, so we upped to ISO 1600 for a faster shutter speed. The results are still exceptional:
Stick to the lowest available settings and things are yet another step better. ISO 100-400 deliver fantastic results; there's great dynamic range, stacks of detail and a good colour palette. However auto white balance can occasionally falter by throwing up cool or colour casts that aren't to be expected. The JPEG files also take on typically warmer magenta tones compared to their raw file equivalents.
Image noise also isn't completely absent. In middle grey tones there's some colour noise, but it's only the slightest whisper of it from around ISO 400. It's not visible in JPEG shots until noise reduction processing kicks in a lot harder at above ISO 1600 and the bolder shadow areas seem to hide away anything too noticeable. Our preference is for the grainier raw files each and every time.
Overall the Ricoh GR is an authority when it comes to image quality. If only its performance were to match.
If you've been stroking your chin about buying a fixed focal length compact camera with a large sensor then we're not surprised: the choices in this niche market are limited, while each available option has its limitations. Fortunately the Ricoh GR sits up there among the best of them in - for us it's better than the Nikon Coolpix A on account of its price tag alone.
If image quality is number one on your list then the GR sure is a winner and we've been stunned by the super-sharp lens quality. Add in bundles of customisation and it feels like a pro street snapper in use.
So what's the catch, why isn't it quite good enough to achieve super-stardom? The autofocus system isn't great - particularly in low-light - while rather clunky manual focus and a battery life that assists in strangling the Ricoh GR's potential are to blame.
Image quality is in the bag, there's no doubt about that, but as a full package it falls into some of the traps that its similar competitors do too. That has a two-fold effect - it stops the GR from being a five-star product while simultaneously making it the best of its kind.