Why Every Street Photographer Needs a Ricoh GR III

Ricoh GR III

Ricoh presented the one-of-a-kind, street-wise GR III at Photokina on 26 September 2018. It is a textbook case of innovation without losing a product’s identity and a deep understanding of the target users: street photographers. If this is something you are interested in, it may be safe to assume you have heard of the legendary GR II. So why would the GR III be my top recommendation for street photographers?

Things the current RICOH GR II is already good at: Stealth

fencing poking action

Street Photography is much like fencing: you do not intimidate the opponent with a huge slashing battle sword but a small, discreet yet lethal foil (or Epee) that is capable of poking. Some street photographers do not wish to use full-size DSLRs but choose smaller cameras so that the subject persons behave naturally when being photographed instead of responding by looking at the camera or stops whatever activity they were doing. Stealth is a great advantage of the Ricoh GR cameras, in fact, they are made with stealth in mind from the very beginning. Let’s have a look at what the current generation GR II already does well.

camera body

It’s hard to imagine the actual dimension by saying the body size of Ricoh GR III (and GR II as well, for this matter)  is 109 x 63 x 35mm, literally, it’s like a pack of cigarette. In comparison, the iPhone X measures 143mm x 79mm, which is 50% longer and 25% wider. (Admittedly iPhone’s thickness is only 7mm.)

When holding a Ricoh GR III in your hand, the part of camera not covered by the fingers and palm is half that size. It is very discreet especially if you deliberately train yourself to shoot from hip when holding the camera in a natural walking posture. In many cases you can get very close to the subject taking photos while he or she would just think you held a phone.

Weight: 250g (8.8oz)

What common objects weight 250g? A medium sized apple or an organge. It’s only 1 and a half iPhone X, which weighs 6.24oz (177g). Ricoh GR is definitely something you can put in your pocket without having to worry about your pants sagging. It is well within the comfort zone for most people to carry while going on with almost all day-to-day activities. Even carrying it while exercising or running won’t be a huge issue. After all, if you drink a glass of water (250ml) that’s equivalent to adding 250g to the weight you carry.

Fingernail sized lens

Suprisingly, I cannot find the actual dimension of the size of the lens of GR III. My ‘intruitive measure’ is that it is the size of a fingernail of an adult man. Given the photos available online, the lens size of Ricoh GR III is about the same as that of the GR II. This is a good addition to its stealth feature because a big, shiny piece of glass is what reflects light and attracts attention. (I’ve read that the lens reflection of the sun from the rifle scope  is how many snipers in WWII became spotted and killed.)

The lens of GR series is not sticking out of the camera in an intrusive way, a huge stealth advantage comparing to interchangeable lens cameras which have to allow space for lens mount and electronics. This means when holding a GR, it is not easy for anyone around you to spot the lens. Even if spotted, the size and dimension of the lens are comparable to that of a modern mobile phone.

Non-reflective black paint on tough alloy body

I praise Ricoh for putting practicality ahead of appearance. If you see a GR in a camera shop with 10 other cameras, it is unlikely that one is impressed by how great it looks. Unlike Fujifilm (which I also like very much, by the way) GR is basically an all-black matchbox. There is no shiny logo or badge. The only identity, the word GR is written in an understated way in plain black. I know some street photographers even put a black tape over it in a true ninja style. It’s worth mentioning that the green LCD power light on top of the GR camera body can be set to be ‘always off’, making it even less detectable that the photographer is in action.

Visualized pre focusing (zone focusing)

A huge photography knowledge and skill that became obsolete after the success of mass-market autofocusing camera is pre-focusing and zone-focusing. In short, zone focusing allows photographers to take advantage of a range of focal lengths in which everything is in focus at a certain aperture number. Pre-focusing means setting focal length at a certain point so that the ‘zone focusing range’ around it can be known before a photo is taken. This allows photographers to know his photo is in focus as long as he takes it from an approximate distance. For street photographers this is huge. This means he does not have to aim and focus if he takes a photo using a pre-set aperture. As long as he is within the ‘zone focusing’ distance from his object, the photo will be sharp. Zone focusing is faster than any type of autofocus system on the market and is arguably better as it does not depend on the computer to determine which point to focus on.

In manual focus camera era, lenses usually come with zone focusing meter on the barrel. Ricoh GR creatively modernised this by digitally showing the zone focusing meter digitally and allowing users to set a pre-focusing value. It is almost a product of the ‘alternative reality’ if autofocusing wasn’t invented after all.

One hand operation

The GR has most of its buttons cleverly laid out so a user is able to operate using one hand in most situations. One hand operating attracts less attention by allowing this tourist look, casual photography appearance. What’s more, the presets on GR are useful in reducing the action at a ‘decisive moment’ to just one full click of the shutter button. This is priceless for opportunities which will not be missed.

Useful jpeg image presets

The Ricoh GR has jpeg presets that adds to unique signature and elegant styles. The favourite ones of mine includes the ‘high contrast BW’ which gives this contrasty classic GR black and white look, as well as ‘positive film’ that does exactly what it says. The presets choices are limited which to me is a great thing. It is the last thing that one uses a different software preset for each photo and end up having a portfolio that seems like a random collection of stock photos. Stick to a limited number of pre-sets or even one preset, and your portfolio will look a lot stronger a few months down the track.

The major Ricoh GR III Improvements that Matter to Street Photographers

next generation

Sensor stabilization

Sensor shake reduction is not new. Pentax, Olympus, Panasonic and Sony all have their similar sensor-based shake reduction system. (what is N & C doing? Are they not capable of this or are they enjoying selling a stabilization system with each lens?) Having it on such a small camera body, however, is a mechanical challenge that requires some micro engineering. Ricoh GR III finally showed us this is possible even in its pocket-sized body. Did it borrow the technology from Pentax? Afterall Pentax is owned by Ricoh nowadays. Anything that increases the speed of photo taking in street photography arena is huge. It means capturing the moment rather than missing the moment, it means in focus rather than out of focus. It’s almost life and death for a good street photographer.

The stabilisation system allows more free, natural hand movement while shooting. For example, holding the camera in one hand and walk naturally.  Photos taken this position almost always suffer from a ‘panning’ movement which the in-camera stabilisation system would correct to a certain degree. If the system works as well as it is described, it is gold!

Hybrid AF

An improvement in AF is not a huge advantage of Ricoh GR III but the improvement of a huge disadvantage. Ricoh (and Pentax, for that matter) probably has one of the slowest AF systems amongst the Japanese camera makers. The contrast detection based AF system in Ricoh GR II is a thing of yesterday, this has finally been upgraded to hybrid AF (Image plane phase-matching and contrast detection). My suspicion is that it is still not as good as the market leaders, Canon, Nikon and Sony. It would not matter for zone focusing users, but remember zone focusing is not always possible. At night you will almost certainly need to enlarge aperture, which makes it almost impossible to rely on zone focusing. A good autofocusing system is also vital to the small point-and-shoot camera as there is no way for the user to easily validate focus either on an EVF or on a LED screen easily. It is something that we photographers fully let a camera control, yet we know that it does not work 100%.

24 Megapixels

Another improvement that is in line with market expectation. The 16MP APS-C sensor from the GR II was actually not bad when put in use with the super sharp 28mm lens, but as time moves on, 16MP is behind the market and 24 MP is the new norm. There are some reviewers that keep saying ‘pixel is not everything’, which I strongly agree and have to add that pixel is still quite important but things like dynamic range, low light, high ISO exposure is what I expect from a camera image sensor today. If a 16MP camera is good at all these values, I’m happy to use it today. The reality is that a camera sensor made 6 years ago is most definitely lacking in most, if not all, of these measures. I am sure the new 24MP sensor is an improvement to the previous sensor. The big question is by how much, in each technical aspect discussed above. Also, another important question for GR fans out there is that how is this chip compare to those in other mirrorless digital cameras. After without the inter-changeable lens to lock people in, changing camera system brand is easy. The ‘brand loyalty, or rather ‘lens hijacking’ doesn’t work in this market segment.

+/- 5 EV and 14 bit RAW

The +/-5 EV  and 14-bit RAW file is an indication that the low light performance and image quality in high ISO should improve from the previous generation Ricoh GR II. These may sound technical but they are very very meaningful upgrades no smaller than the pixel increase. As soon as a street photographer has GR, these features need to be tested so that when the time comes, you know how much to push this camera to its limit without failing. Afterall you don’t want to be in an arm raised, knee bent  ‘steady shot’ position on a street unless you absolutely have to. Lowering the EV compensation and shooting RAW allows the exposure to be re-adjusted in post-processing steps while minimising motion blur.

The ‘nice to have’ GR III improvements

improvements welding

6cm minimum distance macro

Although not typically a requirement of street photographers, a short macro distance is a good feature for those that are not satisfied with camera photo quality on phones and carry a GR to take photos such as food, flowers as well as other creative uses. 6cm means the details of a small object can be enlarged further in a photo. Comparing to the 10cm minimum distance in the Ricoh GR II, this is a big improvement.

With this capability, all GR users should put on a creative hat and think about new possibilities with this camera. Combining macro and street? Macro portraiture? Artistic macro effects? It is best to let you, my friend, to explore and find your style.

2GB internal memory ( I don’t need a second card!)

I understand how everyone is worried about data loss. In 2018 dual card slots make a standard feature in mainstream DSLR bodies, but not in mirrorless world. We may have pushed too hard to expect this in a pocket-sized GR III camera, however, the Ricoh engineers made a brilliant compromise: having 2GB internal memory. This is enough to hold hundreds of jpeg images which doubles as a second card if the external SD card is somehow damaged. Personally, I do not buy cheap SD cards and use them for photography but only use quality, reputable brands. I also have the habit of exporting the photos as soon as I return from a photography trip. With the combination of these things, I have never experienced data loss.  (touch wood.)

Highlight weighted metering

The newly implemented highlight weighted metering is a feature not widely commented on. I feel there is potential that it addresses the issue of overexposure in ‘high contrast b/w’ mode as well as in high ISO situations. Although both overexposure and underexposure mean the loss of color information, it is the plain white overexposure that is less pleasant for viewers. My guess is that it is to do with how our eyes need to avoid direct exposure to strong light source to avoid damage, therefore the overexposure in a photo tricks viewer to send a signal to the brain that the light is too strong which triggers unpleasant, cautious feeling.

Features that have been removed from GR II

Flash

Who takes night street photography with a flash? I have experimented this. It is not for the faint-hearted for sure yet the effect is one of a kind. You see needle-sharp details of the person, the reflection of their glasses, sometimes the shocked expression, the raindrops frozen in time or a leaf blown up by the wind. Street photography is truly the art of a split-second. You can do some flash photography with the Ricoh GR and GR-II, however, the onboard flash is not powerful enough if the object is further away. Some use a handheld flash with the GR for a more dramatic effect and this would be your only option if your pursuit flash-photography with a Ricoh GR III.

TAV mode

As a removed function in Ricoh GR III, TAV mode supposed to let the camera determine the best ISO while the aperture and shutter speed are both determined by the photographer. However, in reality, I find it does not work very well. The ISO is always set higher than ideal making the photo grainy and lacking details. The removal of TAV mode is somewhat a confirmation of this experience I had. The best engineering decision for something that doesn’t work well: remove it from the design. At least the dial will be cleaner on a GR III.

This also tells the Ricoh GR II users: avoid using TAV mode.

LCD screen resolution (20% reduction in dots, but added touch function)

LCD screen resolution on GR III is 20% lower than that on GR II. This comes as a cost of having the touchscreen. Overall it is an acceptable compromise. Higher resolution LCD provides the benefit if you wish to do on-screen post-processing. This is something that doesn’t worry me too much. If I wish to see the detail of a shot I can zoom in instead of trying to find everything at 100% scale as is.

What would I like to see (but not yet on GR III)?

Black and White Filters

Collaboration with top post-processing providers such as Adobe Lightroom or Topez, have a range of best in class Black and White filters. This will set GR apart from Fujifilm cameras and make it the go-to camera for the black and white photographers out there.

Workflow software

Better In camera processing workflow. When I am writing this I just heard the news that Carl Zeiss announced a new full-frame compact with onboard Lightroom. Exactly what GR could have done for true street photographers on the move. This is not lanscape photography, street photographers need to be able to put on a preset filter, adjust some basic curves and move on.

A Faster Lens

Faster Lens – f/2.8 is good for this size, but I don’t mind f/1.8 just so I can have the familiar feeling of using a prime lens.

A Lens Cap

A traditional lens cap: if Ricoh can make a slightly bigger (but not thicker) f/1.8 lens, I won’t mind having a traditional lens cap instead of the motorised retractable lens. This may even solve the dust issue once and for all: if dust gets in, that’s because you didn’t put the cap on!

High ISO performance

Better high ISO performance (instead of better pixel count)-  I would like to see Ricoh increase the maximum ISO so as to improve low light performance without having to use large aperture setting which impacts zone focusing. This is a unique requirement for street photographers and one Ricoh should address as a priority.

A Full-frame GR IV?

Pentax and Ricoh don’t have a full frame mirrorless camera yet. Some believe the reason is that the Pentax K mount may not be suitable for mirrorless systems. If this is the case, why don’t Ricoh start its full-frame mirrorless product line from a full frame GR? Referencing the Pentax K1 pricing strategy, if the full frame GR can be priced around US$1000 this would be very attractive as a street photography speciality camera in the full frame market.

Keep reading: 

Why You Should Own and Carry a Mirrorless Camera with a 35mm Prime Lens in 2018

2 thoughts on “Why Every Street Photographer Needs a Ricoh GR III

  1. A most useful summary for GR III interested readers Eric!

    Regarding Flash:
    The removal of the Built-In Flash was the most radical step, it does not fit the evolving Ricoh GR philosophy, it is a step backward. I admit I do not use the GR II flash while shooting street at night because I do not like to scare people. However, flash It is essential for any situation with backlights. Try to shoot a sunset portrait without a flash and you will know what I mean. The GR II flash is good enough for such situations and of course for shooting street strangers during the day! Now you might say to bring an additional flash but how does that fit to the whole concept of the GR being small & stealthy? I realized that Ricoh went the wrong way and created a petition to Safe the GR III Flash. I would be interested in how you think about it. More details here: https://www.change.org/p/tomohiro-noguchi-we-want-the-ricoh-gr-iii-to-have-a-built-in-flash

    Regarding TAv
    It is a unique mode to Pentax that works in your favor when you choose to limit the ISO to levels which do not introduce noise, such as 800 or 1600. The GR won’t shoot above the set limit and you can also choose if you want the GR to override either your set Aperture or Time or neither of them.

    1. Hi Michael,
      Lovely comment, many thanks.
      Regarding flash, I agree it is not ideal. I offer an assumption here, that is to keep the physical size of GR almost identical to the current model but somehow include the whole SR mechanism, it is necessary to sacrifice existing components. Flash was unfortunately chosen maybe for the reason that a hot shoe is provided. Think you can do without a hot shoe? check out Fujifilm XF10 in this comparison: https://35mmlens.com/ricoh-gr-iii-vs-fujifilm-xf10-what-you-must-know-before-buying

      Tell me about TAv mode! It is a logical complement to the more common TV ad AV considering the idea behind all three modes is ‘fixing one variable out of the aperture, shutter speed and ISO, and let the camera decide the other two. This is kind of ‘semi-automatic’ comparing to the full manual mode.

      I have signed your petition, great idea. What do you think of the jpeg mode and the color filters in GR? Is it comparable to those in Fujifilm cameras?

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