Is This the Perfect Compact Camera for Street Photography?
Here's what the Ricoh GR Digital IV looks like in its fully relaxed state. The generous grip allows for a secure hold despite there being space for only two fingers. On the bottom you might just be able to make out the reflection of the stainless-steel tripod socket.
In Part One of this review I highlighted the Ricoh GRD IV’s key features and explained how I set it up for my own particular style of street photography. In this second and final part I'll cover some of the more operational and experiential aspects of using the GRD IV.
I want to reemphasize that the GRD IV has an amazing range of setup options, most of which are quite useful, depending on your needs and desires. The catch is that there are so many of them that the choices can be bewildering, especially for the neophyte. My approach, which I recommend to anyone else who decides to buy a GRD IV, is to focus first on familiarizing yourself with basic controls such as how to adjust the aperture, shutter speed, focus, and exposure compensation. Once you’ve got that down to the point that it all becomes second nature, you can then add specialized settings and custom functions at your leisure and as you find useful.
I used the GRD IV with the file size set to maximum resolution (3648 x 2736 pixels) and the file format set to RAW. With a freshly formatted 4GB SD card this allowed a maximum of 203 frames; more than enough for an average day of street shooting. The advantage to shooting RAW is that you don’t have to worry as much about white balance and exposure; you can make adjustments in post. The disadvantage is that it significantly slows down the GRD IV's frame rate.It needs 2-3 seconds after each RAW shot to clear the buffer before it’s ready for the next. If you set the camera to Continuous mode you can shoot several RAW shots in a row at approximately 1 fps, but each shot you take will still need 2-3 seconds to clear before the camera is ready to shoot again. If you’re big on continuous shooting and you insist on RAW format you may want to look elsewhere.
Battery life shouldn’t be a concern under normal use. When fully depleted it takes roughly 2.5 hours to recharge. Once charged it’s spec’d to last up to 390 shots, depending on how much you use the flash and LCD. After a few hours of fairly steady shooting with the LCD used for framing and reviewing, the battery charge indicator still showed "full."
It takes approximately two seconds for the lens to extend or retract once you press the power button, so for the sake of speed and readiness you may want to leave the camera on for several minutes at a time. If you're worried about forgetting to turn it off, there's an Auto Power Off feature which can be set to 1 minute, 5 minutes, or 30 minutes.
I was less than five feet away from this produce vendor in Philadelphia's Chinatown. Because of the low angle he probably thought I was taking pictures of the scallions and bok choy. I converted to B&W because the colors were too varied and distracting. The sunlit areas are overexposed, but given the extreme dynamic range this GRD IV still did pretty well.
Framing with the LCD-only has several advantages over optical and SLR viewfinders. From a street photography perspective it makes you look more a harmless amateur and less like a serious pro with expensive equipment and questionable intentions. I felt comfortable enough to point the GRD IV directly at people and in full view. Most simply ignored me. If not, the most they would do would be to either move aside, so as not to “get in the way,” or glance behind them to see what I was photographing. From a framing perspective I could set the camera at ground level, against a wall, or on a counter, and still be able to use the viewfinder without contorting myself into awkward positions. I have to say it made me feel a lot more free and adventurous in how I framed my photos.
Another major advantage of the GRD IV for street shooters is quietness. You can adjust the shutter sound in three increments, from an audible “chirp” to a whisper “snick.” Even at the default medium setting I could stand right next to someone and release the shutter several times without being noticed.
Handling was great. I could set the aperture with my right index finger and exposure compensation with my thumb on a rocker switch on the back of the camera. I could also use my thumb to press in on a dial/lever on the back, which brought up a sub-menu that allowed me to choose and adjust other frequently-used settings such as white balance, ISO, file size and format, image setting, metering pattern, and AF point position. I found the GRD IV's size to be just right—not too large, not too small. On the other hand, a few non-photographer female friends of mine thought it was tad large.
Of course, all the ease of use and flexibility of the GRD IV wouldn’t count for much unless the image quality met expectations. I’m happy to say it did. Unlike most compacts I’ve used, the GRD IV usually managed to retain detail in the highlights, yet because I was shooting RAW there was still enough dynamic range that with judicious exposure I could use curves to boost the shadows or reduce the highlights in post if necessary. I could boost the shadows by at least one stop without the image posterizing or otherwise falling to pieces. All post-processing was done in Adobe Lightroom. Ricoh’s native RAW format is Adobe DNG, so Lightroom had no trouble digesting it. The color balance was on the cool side of netural, with colors that were rich without appearing garish or over-saturated.
To get the best image quality, however, you’ll need to shoot at as low as ISO as possible. When set to Auto ISO the GRD IV ISO never rose over 154. That was fine outdoors in daylight. Indoors it resulted in shutter speeds too slow to stop camera and subject motion, even with the GRD IV’s built-in image stabilization. You can set the ISO as high as 3200, but I personally wouldn’t go any higher than 800 unless there was no other way to get the shot and I didn’t plan to make large prints. The high ISO examples I’ve provided should explain why. There’s only so much a 1/1.7” sensor can do, even one as good as the one in the GRD IV.
So is the Ricoh GR Digital IV the right camera for you? That depends. If all you need is a simple, low-cost, general-purpose compact, you can find plenty of good options for a lot less than the $599 the GRD IV will cost you. On the other hand, if you’re looking for a fixed-lens, wide-aperture, compact camera that can perform almost as capably as larger, heavier micro four-thirds or APS-C alternatives, the GRD IV deserves to be on your short list—and in your pocket.
By the way, should you decide to buy one, I'd recommend using the link to B&H Photo that I've provided here and above. They're an authorized Ricoh distributor, their prices are competitive, and ordering from them helps support this site. Also keep your eyes peeled for a short review of the GRD IV's bigger brother, the Ricoh GXR with A12 module. If you've been wondering how practical it would be to attach Leica M-mount lenses to a camera with an APS-C sensor, here's where you'll find out.