Released in 1996 by Japanese camera manufacturer Ricoh, the Ricoh GR1 marked the company’s entrance into the premium compact point and shoot market. It brings nearly everything that point and shoot camera lovers love. It’s tiny. It has a beautiful lens. It’s sleek and stylish and makes excellent photos nearly effortlessly while allowing for plenty of optional user control. Good things indeed. But the Ricoh GR1 also comes with a cost.
I was first introduced to the GR1 when a well-loved copy was posted for sale on Instagram by an analog photographer who I deeply admire. He had gone through his collection and decided it was time to make room. His price was reasonable, and I simply couldn’t say no. The GR1 was a camera that I had often heard about, but never personally experienced. My first outings with the camera were in downtown Toronto, as I picked the camera up while visiting some friends there. I flew through a few rolls, and quickly fell in love.
Specifications of the Ricoh GR1
- Camera Type: Premium compact 35mm film point and shoot
- Lens: Ricoh GR 28mm F/2.8 (7 elements in 4 groups); Multi-coated aspherical glass
- Focusing: Passive type multi-autofocus (with focus lock available), Automatic auxiliary AF light in low light; Focusing from 0.35m (1ft) to infinity; Single AF mode, Fixed Focus mode
- Shutter: Electronic shutter, speeds from 1/500th to 2 seconds
- Exposure Modes: Aperture priority and full Program modes; Exposure compensation +/- 2EV available
- Light Meter: Dual Silicon Photo Diode cell; EV2 to EV17 at ISO 100
- Flash: Automatic flash for backlit subjects up to 3 meters; Slow synchro mode; Red Eye Reduction mode
- Viewfinder: Reverse Galilean type with LCD bright frame illumination in low light; Coverage is 81% vertically and 83% horizontally; Magnification 0.43; Diopter of -1
- Film Speeds: ISO 25 to 3200 (DX Coding); Non DX coded film defaults to ISO 100
- Additional Functions: Automatic film advance and rewind; Exposure counter; Self timer; Auto power off; Bulb exposure mode;
- Battery: 1 CR2 battery
- Size: 117 x 61 x 26.5mm
The camera is small and light despite its durable metal construction. Though point and shoot cameras are often not known for image quality, the lens on the GR1 is nothing to scoff at. The 28mm f2.8 GR lens features seven elements in four groups and is multi-coated to enhance color reproduction as well as reduce flare. The GR1 was succeeded by the GR1s, GR1v (see James’ review of the final film GR, the GR1v). Every version of the GR features the same lens, albeit with updated coatings as the line progressed. A wider GR21, named for its 21mm lens, was also produced.
The Ricoh GR1 is feature rich, especially for a compact point and shoot. Featured prominently on the top of the camera are dials for both exposure compensation (+/- 2 stops), as well as an aperture dial allowing program aperture (automatic), or any aperture in half stops between f/2.8 and f/22. The top also features a self timer button (I never use self-timers, but I suppose it’s nice to have) and the mode button (more on this later).
On the rear of the camera we find a red on/off button, along with a flash switch that allows the flash to be either always on, automatic, or always off. Not only does the switch make the selected flash mode easy to read in an instant, but it also allows the flash mode selection to be preserved even when the camera is shut off. As a frequent user of the Olympus MJU and MJU II cameras (which use a button rather than a switch to toggle modes), the ability of the camera to “remember” our preferred flash mode is a big upgrade. The left side of the camera features a manual film rewind button, along with the film door release switch.
The GR1 features aperture priority mode (by setting the aperture manually on the dial) as well as auto exposure mode (by setting the aperture dial to P). There are five different auto-focus modes available, and users can cycle through them using the mode button.
The first mode is “normal” mode, which acts in the way of any other point and shoot, with the camera focusing on whatever is in the center of the frame whenever the shutter button is pressed. Next is “infinity” mode, which as the name suggests means that the camera always focuses at infinity. Third is the “single auto-focus” mode where the camera focuses on whatever is in the center of the frame when the shutter button is half pressed, allowing the photographer to focus on their subject and then recompose. The last two modes are snap mode, where the camera focuses at a distance of two meters, and fixed focus mode, where a custom focus distance can be manually set.
The GR1 relies on a DX code reader to read the ISO of the loaded film automatically and has a unique pre-winding feature in which the entirety of the roll is wound on upon loading. This means the exposure count display indicates frames remaining, rather than frames shot, and that the film retracts back into the film canister whenever a photo is made. For this reason, if one were to accidentally open the film door mid-roll, the previously shot photos would already be rewound into the canister and no photos would be lost.
Shooting the Ricoh GR1
The GR1 is both small and robust, given the shell is made of magnesium alloy. The physical dials mean that it is easy to see and adjust settings on the fly without having to go through any menus or remember specific button combinations. The finder is nice and bright, with critical settings (focus point, shutter speed) being shown on the side and illuminated by an LED. The focusing modes allow you to shoot how you want, in whatever way best suits your style and situation. In my case, most of what I shot was street photography, so I opted to set the aperture to f/11, use the infinity focus mode, which ensured that everything beyond a few meters from the lens would be crisply in focus. Shooting in this way also meant that the lens wouldn’t have to move to obtain focus, speeding up the shooting process and making the shutter-press-to-capture-time lightning fast.
The famous 28mm f/2.8 Ricoh GR lens offers sharp images with nice contrast, and the auto-focus was spot on, even in challenging low-light situations. All of my exposed negatives had similar density, suggesting the auto exposure was working as it should. When flash was employed, it had even coverage and made scenes look natural.
Would I replace one of my SLR cameras with a GR1? No, I wouldn’t, but then again, none of my SLRs fit in my pocket, have a built-in flash, or can be used with the simple press of a single button. The GR1 is as close to perfect as I can imagine a point and shoot being for my needs. It’s small, light, fast, and feels nicely constructed, all while delivering excellent consistency and above-average image quality.
Sounds great right? Well at this point I’m sure you’ve read the title. So, what is the price of this remarkable little gem? At this point I’m not referring to the monetary cost, though that is steep. For the budget-minded among us, here’s the bad news. In the current market, a nice GR1 will run from $380 to $500 USD. This is a large chunk of change, but truthfully it’s not an unreasonable price for the quality that the GR1 delivers.
But the real price is that this camera is temporary. A fleeting experience. Yours to enjoy, but only for a limited time. The expiration dates of every GR1, GR1s, GR1v, and GR21 are preordained. All of the GR film cameras share the same fatal flaw: all are electronic and rely on very thin ribbon-cables to transfer data and power between components. Time is not kind to these cables, and they eventually corrode, ceasing to function (even the youngest GR is going on 21 years old at this point). What’s more, Ricoh no longer services this camera, and replacement parts are not being manufactured. Even if they were, no one I have spoken to (and I’ve searched high and low) is willing to work on this camera.
Only a few short months ago, I traveled to my hometown of Winnipeg, Manitoba to attend my sister’s wedding. Though a truly lovely experience, and a very happy evening, it was a bittersweet event for me. While documenting the proceedings of her reception, my GR1 suffered the same terrible fate that they are all destined to suffer. The images from this final roll are some of my favorites I have captured with this little marvel, and will never be topped given that I now possess a Ricoh-branded paperweight.
I will always cherish the time I spent shooting this fantastic camera, but I’d be lying if I said the experience hasn’t since been tainted with the knowledge that it’s not “if” but “when” with these cameras. I have been tempted to repurchase a GR, but can’t, knowing that I will once again be forced to say goodbye long before my time with the camera is through.
The Ricoh GR1 is the camera I wish I could keep forever, my perfect point and shoot. The fatal flaw they all share makes it so that this can never be. You can be a steward of this camera, but never truly own it. This is both a love-letter, and a cautionary tale. If you can stomach the eventuality of its demise, maybe it’s perfect for you too.
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