Is the GRD IV the Perfect Compact Camera for Street Photography?
I was standing only a few feet in front of this gentleman, but because I was holding what looked like a small amateur digicam he probably assumed I was tourist taking a picture of the sign to his right. That's the beauty of using a wide-angle lens for street photography--it takes in a lot more than the subject thinks.
One of the most common pieces of advice you’ll see in guides to street photography is that your camera should be as small, quiet, and inconspicuous possible. This is based on the theory that your subjects are less likely to notice you taking photographs with a small camera, or that if they do, they won’t be as concerned about your motives. Another practical benefit to a small camera is that it won’t weigh you down as you wander the streets looking for photo opportunities.
By this logic you might therefore think that today’s compact, pocketable digicams would be popular with street photographers. In fact, the opposite is true. The main reason street photographers scorn pocket-sized digicams is that most of them (the cameras, not the photographers) are designed for people who lack either the interest or inclination to perform any control camera settings aside from framing and zooming. As a result, basic controls such as aperture, shutter speed, exposure compensation and white balance are often buried deep in obscurely titled menus where they’re hard to find and difficult to set. This is an unforgiveable sin in the world of street photography, where a moment’s delay can mean losing the shot.
Another reason is that most compact digicams lack an optical viewfinder. Many photographers simply don’t like having to focus and frame with an LCD that requires the camera to be held extended away from their face. Others don’t mind that so much as the tendency of an LCD viewfinder to wash out in bright light. It’s hard to shoot what you can’t see.
Given these problems, why would I ask Ricoh to send me a review sample of their new GR Digital IV compact digital camera and why would I spend a day shooting with it on the streets of Philadelphia? Good question. What follows is the answer.
I shot this with the camera placed on the counter in the foreground, which allowed a sharp photo and good depth-of-field at 1/22 second and f/4.5. The GRD IV automatically set the ISO to 154, hence the low noise.
Let’s start with the basic specs. The GRD IV measures approximately 109mm x 60mm x 25mm with the lens retracted. It weighs 220 grams (7.8 ounces) including battery, SD card, and wrist strap. The rear LCD—your standard viewing option—has a 3-inch diagonal and displays 1.2 million pixels in a 640x480 array. The maximum file dimensions are 3648x2736 pixels, or 10MB. You can shoot RAW format as well as JPEG. JPEG offers eight different image settings, such as Standard, Vivid, B&W, Cross Process, and so on. I opted for RAW.
The lens is a fixed focal-length 6mm f/1.9 covering a 1x1.7-inch sensor, which would translate into a 28mm wide-angle lens for 35mm film format. This is your first clue that the GRD IV was designed for someone other than the average digicam user. Street shooters love wide and fast lenses. Wide-angle lenses are great for capturing street scenes at close distances while providing adequate depth-of-field. Fast lenses help maximize shutter speeds and keep ISOs down in low light. Casual shooters prefer zooms and don’t much care about the maximum aperture because they always use flash in low light.
By the way, although the GRD IV also has a built-in pop-up flash, it’s similar to those in other compacts, which is to say it’s tiny and has a limited range. If you’re serious about using this camera with flash you should opt for something you can either slip into the GRD IV's hot shoe or use off-camera via an extension cable.
A hot shoe is rare on compact digicams and not something you should take for granted. Better yet, the GRD IV's hot shoe is located directly above the lens axis, which means you can attach an accessory viewfinder if you're so disposed. Ricoh offers two of them (the GV-2 with 28mm framelines and GV-1 with 21mm and 28mm framelines), along with matching lens hoods, a 21mm wide-angle adapter, and yes, an external flash unit. I didn’t have either of these accessories and instead shot with the GRD IV's LCD viewfinder.
What I liked most about the GRD IV’s control layout was that it was clearly designed by photographers for photographers. It had every button and dial you might need without making the layout feel cluttered or confusing. An efficient and logical control layout is important when you have to make fast changes to a small camera using only your right thumb and index finger. Controls were easy to get to, yet not so easy that you’d be constantly changing the settings by accident. The exposure mode dial has a lock to prevent accidental movement. The left side of the camera is flat so you can place it on a table, counter, or shelf in a stable vertical position. Better yet, most of the camera controls are customizable, including the front “up-down” dial, rear adjustment lever, two programmable function (Fn) buttons, and rear rocker switch.
This was shot at 1/320 second and f/5.6, with the ISO at 80. The depth-of-field and image detail are nothing short of amazing. Maybe it's because the GRD IV's lens has 8 elements in 6 groups and two of the elements are aspheric.
Setup and Feature Options
Programmable controls are an extremely valuable feature because the way I like my camera to operate might be quite different from the way you like yours to operate. That said, deciding how you want your camera set up and navigating your way through the GRD IV’s menus to find out how requires careful thought. The owner’s manual has 172 pages English-only, without other languages. It documents dozens of features such as digital zoom, camera level indicator, dynamic range compensation, JPEG image settings, multiple exposure mode, perspective correction, continuous shooting, snap focus, pre-AF, camera shake correction… In short, a lot more features than I can or intend to cover in a blog review and at least as many as you’d find on a semi-pro DSLR. I’ll therefore discuss a few key features I think would be of the most interest to street shooters in general or that were of the most value to me in particular.
Let’s take snap-focus for example. This feature allows you to pre-set the lens to focus at a specific distance, thus eliminating any pre-focus shutter lag if you press the shutter down in one complete motion. (If you use the normal half-press before full release, the camera will autofocus normally.) The preset distance options include 1m, 1.5m, 2.5m, 5m, and infinity, which should sound quite familiar to old-school street photographers who practice zone focusing. A similar option is pre-AF, which continually focuses the camera even without a half-press of the shutter button. The idea is that this too will reduce shutter lag.
I found that in practice the GRD IV has so little lag, even with a half-press of the shutter button, that there was no need to use anything other than normal AF. This is largely because the GRD IV has not one but two focusing systems. The first is the normal contrast-detection AF that most mirrorless cameras have. The second is an external AF sensor that also functions as an exposure meter. Depending on the light level and focusing distance, the GRD IV decides which combination to use for the swiftest, most accurate focus. Suffice it to say that the GRD IV always provided fast, accurate focus and exposure when I used it on the street. Note, however, that I used single AF only, not continuous, which is yet another option.
I ultimately opted to set up the GRD IV so that the front control dial controlled the aperture, the exposure mode dial was set to A (aperture-preferred), the exposure metering pattern was set to Multi (a 256-point matrix), and the rear vertical rocker switch on the back controlled exposure compensation. Pushing the upper half of the switch increased the exposure in .3-stop increments, pushing the lower half decreased it the same amount. A vertical bar on the LCD indicated the exact amount. I wish some DSLRs I’ve used in the past had a control setup this quick and intuitive.
But that’s not all: Those of you familiar with my style of photography know I have a thing for precise framing and perspective correction. Imagine my delight upon discovering that I could set the GRD IV to display a framing grid or a tilt indicator with live histogram. Because the GRD IV’s LCD displays white pixels as well as RGB and has automatic brightness compensation, it actually has enough brightness and contrast to be usable in bright daylight. Within minutes I felt comfortable enough with the GRD IV to carry it along with me as I strolled Philadelphia’s center city, placed in a jacket pocket or attached by a wrist strap. In Part Two of this review I’ll show you more photo samples, along with a summary of my likes and dislikes. Stay tuned.