Ricoh released the GR Digital IV almost ten years ago. In the world of digital technology, that’s a lifetime. In fact, just nineteen months after the GRD IV’s debut, Ricoh tossed the GR Digital range onto the trash heap in favor of a totally new line of GR cameras. This new series, simply called the Ricoh GR, swapped the old GRD model’s 10 megapixel 1/1.7″ CCD sensor for a much larger APS-C CMOS sensor – 16 MP in the GR II and 24 MP in the GR III. Onward and upward, right? Yes, and no.
I’ve spent the past few weeks shooting the Ricoh GRD IV around the house, in the backyard, and on walks locally (sorry for the bland sample shots – this is all we can really do at the moment). What I’ve discovered in the GRD IV is a camera that’s predictably outmoded in some ways, yet still quite exceptional in most others. Weighing the thing on the whole, it’s a camera that’s still relevant some ten years after it was first released. And it would be a great choice for certain photographers looking for a hidden gem, a value camera with just a few compromises.
What is the Ricoh GRD IV
In 1996, Ricoh released the GR1, and ever since then the GR cameras have stayed true to their core identity. The hallmarks of the GR series (both film and digital) – a compact body made of magnesium alloy, a superb 28mm lens, simple controls, built for snapshots, fast everyday shooting, and street photography. Daido Moriyama famously used GR film cameras, cementing the model in the hearts and minds of would-be street photographers the world over (but especially in Japan).
The Ricoh GRD IV is 2011’s model, and it’s got everything we’d expect from a premium digital camera released in 2011 (in fact, it’s also got some things that would impress us even today).
At the heart of the camera is a 10 megapixel CCD sensor, exposed via a 28mm (equivalent) F/1.9 fixed prime lens. On the back is a 3″ TFT LCD display, and the top hides a built-in flash. It offers the full suite of shooting modes (PASM), plus user selectable preset modes. Excellent ergonomics and intuitive controls adhere to the GR formula. ISO climbs to 3200 in auto or manual modes. Metering can be changed from center-weighted, to multi-segment, to spot. There are six focus modes, including fixed focus, infinity lock, subject tracking, multi-AF and spot-AF. There are numerous customization controls. It has sensor-shift image stabilization. It shoots RAW and JPEGs, individually or both at once. It uses SD cards, has a big battery, there’s a tripod mount and a strap lug.
All of these features work as they should. Fast and responsive, the camera was a marvel of technologies when new. In 2011, all of this stuff (and much more that I didn’t list) would cost just $599.
The Ricoh GRD IV Compared
Ten years after it first debuted and even following last year’s release of the brand new Ricoh GR III, there are theoretically still some very compelling reasons to own and shoot the comparatively ancient GRD IV today.
The first reason is found at the very core of the machine. The GRD IV is the last of the Ricoh GRs equipped with a CCD sensor. While this might automatically seem to be a liability given that the APS-C CMOS sensors in the newer GR cameras are roughly nine times larger, the truth is not so black and white.
Yes, the larger APS-C sensors offer more megapixels (16 megapixels in the GR and GR II, 24 megapixels in the GR III) and therefore can produce higher resolution images with finer detail. But it’s also true that there are plenty of photographers who prefer the “gritty” (their words, not mine) images produced by the tiny 10 megapixel CCD of the GRD IV. In every corner of the internet where Ricoh fans reside, we see this common refrain. “The GRD IV makes gritty images,” they say, and the people love it for that. I find this to be something of a myth. Yeah, it makes images that I suppose could be described as “gritty,” compared to the cleaner files of the newer GR cameras. But it’s not like images straight out of the GRD IV look like they’re from the pages of a Daido Moriyama book. And I can make images from any camera look gritty in Lightroom. I just don’t get the popular take – unless maybe they’re talking about Ricoh’s preset image profiles. I don’t use these with any camera, so I’m not going to pretend to know anything about them here.
A more tangible area where the GRD IV shines is its compact form factor. A commonality shared amongst GR cameras of all types, even the film GRs of old, the GRD IV does actually edge out its newer brethren. The GRD IV is smaller than the GR that replaced it, as well as the GR II that followed. It’s even a little bit smaller than Ricoh’s most recent GR, the GR III (and that camera lost its built-in flash to keep its size in check). For a series of digital compact cameras that has long-prided itself on impossible smallness, the GRD IV is the smallest of them all. That counts for something.
And then there’s the lens. While all of the GR cameras share a virtually identical 28mm lens, the GRD IV and GRD III are the only models that offer a fast maximum aperture of F/1.9. Every GR camera that’s followed the GRD IV has been saddled with a comparatively slow maximum aperture of F/2.8.
Okay, I’m cooking the books a bit with that last point. It’s true that the F/1.9 lens of the Ricoh GRD IV looks a lot better on paper than does the F/2.8 lens of later GR cameras. But to be honest, it only looks better on paper. That’s because the low light capability of the newer APS-C sensors easily compensates for the slower maximum aperture. The old camera just can’t compete in high ISO shooting, even with its fast F/1.9 lens.
But fast apertures aren’t just for low light shooting. Fast apertures also provide better subject separation, shallower depth of field, and creamier bokeh than slower lenses. However, the tiny sensor of the GRD IV totally negates this argument. The 1/1.7″ CCD is just so damn small that even at F/1.9, almost everything in a GRD IV image will be in sharp focus.
Okay, look. The GRD IV isn’t objectively better than the GR, or the GR II, or the GR III. Ten years is, after all, a lot of time when it comes to digital camera advancements. Megapixels are important. Ten megapixels isn’t a lot. And packing those ten megapixels onto the GRD IV’s tiny sensor creates problems – namely, noise. I suspect people who hold the previously touched upon “gritty image” opinion are misrepresenting noise as grain, but what do I know? Well, I know that images from the GRD IV appear noisy blown up large, and especially when the ISO values creep anywhere above 800. The limits of 2011 tech do not improve with age.
The Ricoh GRD IV On Its Own Merits
Comparing the GRD IV to newer cameras is inherently unfair. A more useful metric is found when we forget its age, ignore its younger siblings, and simply shoot the thing. Does it handle well? Does it make good photos? Does it do things that delight and excite and impress? The answers to all of these questions, simply, is “yeah.”
The core functionality of the camera is solid. The 28mm lens is strikingly crisp, and the CCD sensor that it’s married to is still quite capable. The auto focus system is fast and responsive. The manual focus modes (where focus is locked to a preset distance or infinity) make the camera even faster. Deep depth of field ensures that everything we point the camera at will be in sharp focus, even when it misses the mark, but it rarely does. Metering is similarly flawless. The LCD screen is gorgeous. The menus are intuitive enough, especially impressive given the vintage (2011 cameras seldom got menus right).
In the hand, the camera is a joy. Tiny and perfectly fitted to the user’s right hand, every control is thoughtfully executed and placed exactly where it should be. The pre-mapped controls fit directly under the index finger and thumb, allowing the user to set aperture, shutter speed, exposure compensation, ISO, etc., with just one hand, and in about two seconds. This flawless control execution is further bolstered by the high level of user-customization that Ricoh built into their camera. Two separate function buttons can be set to specific functions in pairs, offering up to four combinations of two-button functions. In addition, the back-mounted ADJ dial allows the user to set five of their most-used control parameters into a hot menu that’s activated with one button press. Very smart.
Standout special features? It’s got those, too. How about the macro focusing mode, where the minimum focusing distance becomes an astonishing 1 centimeter from the front of the lens? That’s unbelievable. I spent hours using the thing to shoot incomprehensibly small bugs and plants and the irises of my children. Even in macro mode when shooting with a subject one centimeter away, the autofocus system works perfectly. It’s astonishing.
And then there’s the sensor-shift image stabilization. Sure, the camera suffers a bit in low light. But this system (something many premium cameras of today still don’t get right) does well to help keep our shots at least less blurry than they might be without it. I wouldn’t use the Ricoh GRD IV in low light when I absolutely need to get the shot sharp and clear, but for the type of photography I enjoy shooting, I’m happy to use it at night (I prefer motion blur and “imperfect” photos in low light).
It’s not a perfect camera (doesn’t exist). The video modes are passable, but not good. The mode dial has a lock, which is mildly annoying. It’s not weatherproof or dust proof. And it’s still a 10 megapixel sensor. Images can’t be blown up very large before a lack of detail becomes obvious, and those of us who obsess over having the finest, most detailed RAW files might be disappointed by 10 MP. High ISO images are noisy (I wouldn’t use any photo shot above ISO 800). And the tiny sensor makes it hard to create images with selective focus – at almost all times, depth of field is super deep (this could be considered an asset for street shooters, but I’m not a street shooter).
These liabilities noted, on the whole the GRD IV is a very excellent camera, even today. This becomes especially true when we consider that the thing can be easily bought used for $250 or less. For those not keeping track, that’s significantly less expensive than the original GR1 film camera in today’s market (what?!). Shrewd, patient shoppers could find a GRD IV for $150, I’m sure. And even buying a mint, like new in box copy shouldn’t cost more than $350. For that money, this camera is a steal.
Since 1996 there’s really never been a camera to compete with the Ricoh GR series. Back in the film days and into today, no competing cameras can match its combination of small size, focused ergonomics, and that incredible 28mm lens. The GR series, past and present, are special cameras. And the GRD IV is no different.
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