In October 1996, the Ricoh GR series of 35mm film cameras were born in the shape of the GR1. This camera and its later film bearing GR counterparts were some of the company's first compact cameras aimed at the enthusiast or pro snapper where image quality and resolving power of the lens were the paramount considerations, but crammed into a tiny package.
Today that small GR package has evolved and the introduction of a digital GR version that aims to follow those illustrious forbears in terms of image quality, usability and sheer photography panache, has its work cut out.
The Ricoh GR Digital certainly looks the part of a GR of yore, its 25mm "thin" body with slightly bulging handgrip-come-battery-and-memory-card housing are key traits. Its fixed focal length 28mm (35mm equiv.) lens has a bright F2.4 maximum aperture and as a prime lens, it's the key to preserving the GR reputation; it does however provide the same unparalleled sharpness and lack of distortion synonymous with the GR name.
Those familiar with GR film cameras know they were not simply point and shoot cameras; the new GR Digital is no different. It provides a comprehensive set of controls, full manual shooting options and a range of fine tuning options for controlling the cameras myriad settings that will satisfy the most demanding pro or enthusiast.
There are also a set of "system" accessories that allow you to attach accessories, wide-angle lens adapters, matched optical viewfinders (disappointingly there is no built-in optical viewfinder) and external flashguns (incidentally made by Sigma) that allow you to expand the camera and its versatility.
In use, the camera sits snuggly in the hand with the shutter release and dual control dials (one front and one on the back, a la D-SLRs) making the camera feel every inch a camera within your complete control. A mode dial with the manual, aperture priority and program settings includes a green coloured point and shoot setting a 320 x 240-pixel, 30fps movie mode and a single Scene mode. This last item providing a black and white text setting for snapping documents.
The large 2.5-inch screen provides comprehensive display options including composition frame lines and dominates the back plate; active histogram display and you can opt for nothing being displayed at all. The screen is sadly quite difficult to use in brighter conditions and although it is very sharp, I found that shadows and highlight areas in a shot were not displayed particularly well even when adjusting the screens brightness, giving a lack of detail that belied the true quality of the shots, more on that later.
Other controls on the back include the main menu/ok control; a four-way button set up that surrounds the menu button providing flash, replay, and the camera's excellent 1.5cm macro settings. These buttons also double as jog-style buttons that assist in scrolling the many menus the GR has to offer or displayed images.
The menus include the usual array of set-up options, access for the more advanced settings such as the completely customisable image parameters where sharpness, contrast and colour depth can be tweaked and saved as custom settings. There is also auto exposure bracketing and white balance bracketing built-in along with the ability to shoot with the AdobeRGB colour space embedded into the shots.
You cans shoot JPEG, TIF, RAW and RAW/JPEG combo files which savable on either the internal 26MB storage of removable SD or MMC storage. You get comprehensive ISO control, from ISO 64 to ISO 1600, with the noise controlled fairly well up to ISO 400, mediocre at ISO 800 but suffering more beyond that.
A fast shutter response of around 0.1-second makes the camera responsive to use but writing larger TIF or RAW files to any storage is disappointingly. In terms of image quality, the 256-zone metering and AF work a treat, macro focusing is excellent too and the sheer level of detail that GR lens captures (or the GW-1 0.75x wide-angle adaptor lens I also got to play with on this test) allows those 8 million pixels on the sensor to do there job well. Distortion is minimal at worst and negligible at best.
While the Ricoh GR Digital is not without flaws and notwithstanding its £400 price tag, which may make some swallow hard before parting with any cash for it, it is also a very accomplished little camera. The new GR would be ideal as a professional's back up, or perhaps the main weapon of choice for photo enthusiasts.
In either case they'd be safe in the knowledge the camera boasts a superb spec, lacking practically nothing; a built-in optical viewfinder would be a benefit though. Moreover, the image quality and versatility will not let them down. In short, it is worth every penny.