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GR Diaries Getting acquainted around Chatsworth

I’ve been a photographer for about ten years now, and in that time have owned a number of cameras from different manufacturers. Two singularly important insights over that time have been that (i) the specs of the camera do not matter nearly so much as your own complete familiarity with it, enabling you to get the best out of it; and (ii) as a photographer, having a camera, any camera, with you at all times is probably the most important thing.

The first point is particularly true today, in so much as any modern digital camera has enough megapixels and processing power to produce technically proficient imagery. Whether you are able to use it to it’s full potential is another matter. Being able to modify settings on the fly, with minimal thought and maximal efficiency, is something that comes only with practice. As for point number two, well, it may be stating the obvious, but the fall-back for everyone these days is “I’ll have my phone on me”. Sure, that’s usually true, but...

Phone cameras have come a very long way in the last 5 years, and in a pinch they are probably better than missing the shot altogether. But I would argue that a photography enthusiast will never be truly satisfied by the limited control a phone camera allows. Certainly that is the case for me. Yes, there is something of a challenge in creating a good composition with, and working within the limitations set by, a phone camera. But sometimes you do want more than just a 7-iron in your bag.

So, is there a camera out there that is small and portable enough that I can realistically carry with me anywhere, yet capable of enough creative control to provide at least some degree of resistance training for my photographic muscles? In all likelihood there are many, but the one my research has led me to believe is a cut above the rest is the Ricoh GR III.

I am not going to go into a full-blown review of the GR III. I’m not particularly interested in doing so and a Google/YouTube search will provide more than enough of those to satisfy the specificionados. What I am going to do is chronicle our relationship as it develops, whether it ultimately ends in tears a few weeks from now, or ages gracefully, with some fine memories along the way.

There are probably not many better places to a put a little camera through it’s paces than Chatsworth house. Wide vistas, architectural, still life and detail shots galore. Whether in the house or out in the gardens, this is a photography playground that delights.

The 18mm lens is sharp! The 28mm equivalent focal length is a versatile one too - wide enough to get nice environmental shots yet capable of grabbing detail too if you can get close enough. And the f2.8 aperture throws the background out very nicely indeed, without looking like a digitally applied effect (which of course it isn’t in this case).

The size of the GR is the first thing that strikes you - surely something this small cannot rival a DSLR/mirrorless for image quality? I had my doubts, but kept an open mind. After all, this is an APS-C size 24 megapixel sensor. What was evident from the start was that it is definitely a camera I can carry anywhere - in a jacket pocket, or any pocket but those found on the tightest jeans. A (very) small bag is a luxury, and allows for the addition of the filter adapter with a (sometimes very useful) circular polariser, and perhaps even a flash. The size also meant changing most settings and shooting with one hand was a doddle. I normally would be shooting in these circumstances with a Fuji X-T3 - not exactly a cumbersome camera, even with a couple of lenses - and, in fact, I did have the X-T3 with me on this trip as well, but I honestly found myself far more likely to pull out the GR for a quick shot when something caught my attention. New gear syndrome? Perhaps - time will tell on that one. It is also completely unobtrusive - no one bats an eyelid if you have the GR in your hand, whereas even the X-T3 would, if not shout, then at least indignantly declare itself as a “big camera”. When shooting candid that makes a big difference.

Again, the field of view is just perfect for shots like this
The ability to quickly change settings with a combination of the command wheel, adjustment wheels and touch screens is intuitive and very functional

I’ve set the camera up to what I think will work well for me (thanks to some good instructional videos from Samuel L. Hopf and Mattias Burling). The 3 user modes are fabulous for bespoke set-ups and the fact that the camera remembers the settings you used each time and updates them for each mode is brilliant. For now I have my modes set up as Master, Flash and Street with master keeping everything to manual control, flash obviously set up for use with a flash and street using snap focus with a 2.5m snap distance (more on each of these later, as I use them). I’ll probably change the master mode though, because I find that it simply duplicates manual mode.

The black and white modes on the GRIII are fantastic. I particularly like Hi BW, but they are all different enough to be interesting, and will work for different types of images. It’s going to be fun experimenting!

1/30s, f2.8, ISO 400, B&W profile from Lightroom mobile

Even at higher ISO’s the images held up well, and I set the aperture priority mode to auto-ISO, which worked a treat in the variable lighting conditions in the house.

1/30s, f2.8, ISO 400, Hi BW camera jpeg

Again, the Hi BW mode works really well here. It seems to make metallic objects really sing.

1/160s, f2.8, ISO 2500, Hi BW camera jpeg

IBIS (in-body image stabilisation) is maybe a tad over-hyped as a camera feature these days, but there is undoubtedly a place for it, and to have it in a body this size is remarkable. I’ve tested my hand-holding technique a few times in the past, but 4 stops of sabilisation here really comes in handy in low light. I didn’t check how far I could push it, but I will in a future outing.

1/100s, f2.8, ISO 4000, Hi BW camera jpeg

1/100s, f2.8, ISO 2500, Hi B&W camera jpeg

1/80s, f2.8, ISO 3200, Hi BW camera jpeg

1/80, f2.8, ISO 2500, Hi B&W camera jpeg

Except the sepia toned image which was converted to B&W in Lightroom, the others are all Hi BW jpegs again. It is interesting to note the difference with this effect with different lighting conditions and subjects

Choosing between RAW and jpeg is an active decision to make on this camera, which it decidedly is not with my other digital cameras (despite being Fuji’s). As with the Fuji’s, the Ricoh jpeg’s are superb out of camera, but the clincher is that this camera will come with me on short travels and scouting trips, on family excursions and a local stroll in the park or through town. These are generally not images I will want to sit at my computer and spend time processing, although the ability to capture RAW images allows for that possibility should I need it.

The touchscreen allows tap-to-focus, but also it allows you to just tap to choose a focus point, and then fine adjust with the D-pad if necessary. I found this much quicker than trying to move the focus point around with just the D-pad. Back-button focus is available too (for me a defining feature of a true photographers camera). Again, this can be set to particular user modes, so when you do find yourself having to hand your camera to someone else, you can just flick it into P mode (with shutter button focus) and avoid any confused looks. Or better yet leave tap-to-focus on the screen, for those used to phone photography.

Speaking of handing your camera to someone, you probably will need to do this for any kind of portraiture of your good self. The GRIII does not have a tilting screen, so selfies will have to be shoot-and-hope jobs, or find-a-friend. Personally I rarely shoot selfies, so this doesn’t bother me, and I prefer the weight/size saving that the lack of a hinged screen provides. Selfies really are the dominion of the smartphone, and that’s fine.

Out in the gardens the GR continued to be a joy to use, but battery life was getting deep into the yellow zone. This has been raised as a concern by some reviewers, and I would have to add to those voices from my (thus far limited) experience.

The inclusion of a USB-C connector does mitigate the poor battery life to some degree, since the GRIII can be charged from an external battery pack, such as you would use for your phone. So an extra battery is not an absolute necessity, though it may be preferable as an instant back up.

Macro mode on compact cameras is usually no more than a gimmick, but enter the GRIII... macro focusing distance is 6cm! And the depth of field is not too shallow to render the images pointless (see what I did there?) Yes the focal length means you have to get really up close and personal to your subject, but that gives a unique point of view, particularly suited to “environmental macros”.

I found myself using this mode quite a bit, and was very pleased with the results. For that matter the close focus distance even in normal mode is quite impressive. The macro capability of this camera was probably the biggest surprise to me, and a very welcome one. Well done Ricoh!

Bokeh is lovely for a camera of this focal length, too!

So there you have it. A first outing with the Ricoh GRIII and my first impression has been a resounding affirmation of my research ability - it seems to be exactly what I hoped it would be!

  • A powerful compact camera that can come with me anywhere
  • Supports RAW shooting but also produces superb in-camera jpeg’s
  • Supports back-button focus and tap-to-focus
  • Has a (surprisingly) good macro mode
  • Has a razor sharp lens
  • Has broad and useful customisation options that save automatically as you make changes
  • Has fantastic black and white modes in-camera
  • Supports multi-exposure blending in-camera

Some lament the loss of the in-built flash on this body. I think on-camera flashes have an extremely limited remit in good photography, so I’m not losing any sleep over it. That’s not to say the GRIII doesn’t have some foibles:

  • Battery life is poor. Some reviewers have said they have managed over a day’s shooting of more than 200 images. Although that may be possible I think it’s optimistic. 4-or-so hours around Chatsworth with me not leaving it on for long stretches or spending too much time fiddling with settings and the battery gave up before we were done.
  • The pesky protector ring around the lens that protects the contacts for the (separately available) wide-angle adapter is very easy to dislodge. It does have a click-catch but simply getting the camera out of my jeans pocket dislodged it, and once it fell off while I was walking along in the gardens (nudged it with my fingers). Fortunately I noticed before I got too far and managed to find it by back-tracking a few dozen yards!
  • Autofocus is not as fast as, say, the X-T3, but I wouldn’t expect a Golf to be as fast as an F-type Jaguar either. Who says the Golf isn’t a good car though?

Some may wonder, would it replace my X-T3? Well, here are some shots I took with the X-T3 the same day:

Shot with the Fuji X-T3 and Fuji 80mm XF macro

So no, don’t be absurd! The X-T3 is a phenomenal camera that I would rely on for almost any photographic situation and is undoubtedly my go-to at the moment. But the truth is, I wouldn’t bother to take it everywhere and sometimes I do wish I had a proper photographers tool with me for when the light unexpectedly does something remarkable, or for those moments that just deserve to be captured for the family and friends album - you know, the proper album and not the one that gets relegated to the bottomless ether of iCloud or google photos. For those times, the GRIII seems like it will be there to save the day. And who knows, even on the days that I do pick up the X-T3, or another from the stables, the Ricoh will still probably slip into a pocket!

All images and content ©Arjun K Nambiar 2019

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Arjun Nambiar
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