Digital Archæology — The Ricoh GR Digital

On the eve of the release of the Ricoh GR III, I thought that it was time to take a look back at the original GR Digital camera that was released in 2005.

The GR series of cameras from Ricoh hold a special place in the hearts of many photographers. The original GR1 was a compact 35mm film camera with a sharp, fast 28mm lens. It was a compact, elegant package that was perfect for street photography and versatile enough to serve in other functions when you needed it to. When switched off, the lens retracted into the camera body, creating a slim profile that fit easily into a jacket pocket. The GR1 became popular with Japanese street photographers in the 1990s and was particularly associated with Daido Moriyama. The camera went through several iterations, culminating in a final version with a 21mm lens so good that it was released separately as an M-mount lens.

The first digital iteration of the GR, the GR Digital (GR-D) had a 1⅛ inch, 8 megapixel, ISO 64 sensor coupled to a 28mm-equivalent, f2.4 lens in, impressively, a slightly smaller package than the film-based GR1. Ricoh increased the maximum shutter speed of the GR-D to 1/2000 of a second and kept the snap focus modes that debuted in the GR1v. Importantly, Ricoh had adopted Adobe’s DNG format for the GR-D making it one of the few compact cameras at the time to record RAW files. 

I bought the GR-D in 2006 in the “Creative Set” kit that included a wide-angle (21mm) adapter, lens hood, case, strap and an external optical viewfinder. The 21mm adapter and optical viewfinder were fun for a bit, but the attachments ruined the pocket-ability of the GR-D, so they were quickly relegated to my storage case.

The GR-D was a joy to use. Like the original GR1, the GR-D excelled at street photography. It was the definition of discreet with virtually no shutter sound and snap focus modes that let you shoot from the hip. I often mounted a spirit level in the hot shoe so that I could level quickly and shoot without raising the camera to eye level. The camera and its 28mm lens were equally at home in the city or as a petite landscape package. Looking back, the only problem was the image quality.  

By modern standards, GR-D’s sensor is tiny. Images taken above base ISO is very noisy and the color from this camera is, frankly, terrible. Converting to monochrome helps as the grain pattern in the files is quite organic looking and not dissimilar to black and white film. But in anything other that excellent light and at ISO 64, the colors are a murky mess. Color science for digital cameras has come a long way in the intervening fourteen years! Ricoh produced four iterations of the GR-D with similar sized sensors, steadily increasing the megapixel count and adding features. In 2013, Ricoh released the new GR with an APS-C sensor and, as mentioned above, the third version of that camera will be released in early 2019.

The market for high-quality compact digital cameras is a subset of a subset; The compact camera market has been decimated by the arrival of smartphones with multiple lenses and advanced in-phone image processing capabilities. For many people, smartphones are good enough. Hopefully, for those of use who prefer dedicated image capture devices, companies like Ricoh will continue to produce excellent cameras to serve a small but critical market. I’m looking forward to the release of the new GR III and competing cameras like the Panasonic LX-100 II or their full-frame brethren like the Leica Q and the Sony RX1r.

The GR-D was my primary compact camera until I bought the Panasonic GF1 in 2010. In those days, I was traveling often for work and the GR-D was a perfect travel companion for short-haul flights and train rides. The images below were taken in 2009. Over the course of a  particularly busy September, I was in four countries — France, Holland, the UK and Finland. I decided to make a small project out of my travels, The September Project — Thirty days, four countries, one camera. Certainly nothing groundbreaking, but it was a fun way to fill up those minutes and hours waiting for planes, trains or automobiles. Originally presented in slightly desaturated color, I think the images work better now in monochrome — much the inverse of my series from Dubrovnik with the Nikon D200. Enjoy!

Next is Digital Archæology, the Panasonic GF1.

Processing information: the GR-D DNG files were all re-processed in Adobe Lightroom 6.14 with the 2012 processing engine. 

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