(Postscript: a post linking all the GXR review posts is here.)
Reviewing a camera requires some tedious forward planning for the test items, where and what to shoot, the points of interest about the camera, what to compare with which cameras, organisation and presentation of your ideas, so on and so forth. The more cameras one has played with, the more numbed his senses will be. So, testing one camera after the other makes me admire the regular camera testers who write with gusto apart from giving the technical details.
In this philosophical monologue, I collected the GXR set for evaluating and wrote a number of review posts. This is the post for some afterthoughts. The links to all the GXR review posts can be seen here.
To me, there are several key criteria to judge a serious compact camera.
- Does it feature great ergonomics? - Is it reliable in locking focus at a reasonable fast speed? - Does it take some years for the user to outgrow the camera? - Does it give out images with good image quality?
The more positive replies to these questions, the higher grade the camera is.
So, does the GXR system score a good mark?
The GXR is real fun, probably unmatched by the mirror-less compacts with interchangeable lenses. After playing with it for a few minutes, I was swapping the S10 and A12 units without looking. If you have been in photography for long enough, you must have suffered from the clumsiness of an ill-timed need to change lenses with a DSLR or SLR: dismount the lens and cap the front and back of it, uncap the other lens and mount it while clinging the camera and the camera bag around the body with both hands full of lenses. If you're lucky, your subject would still be there when the lens is changed.
The GXR's compact modules work in a much easier fashion: slide in, slide out and mindlessly drop the dismounted module in the bag. This design alone should endear the GXR system to photographers, especially those who call themselves street photographers.
Ricoh touts one of the advantages of this cartridge design as giving a fully dusk-proof seal to the sensor. It is true that during the test, no weather conditions were deterring enough to stop me from changing the modules. But I think the swift module-swapping is the greater advantage here. This is the key selling point for GXR in relation to ergonomics.
In comparison, Pany's GF-1 which I tested some months ago is lacklustre in this area. While the GF-1 is as small as the GXR, the smallness of serious compacts is not just for smallness' sake. It is to turn the camera into a handy piece of equipment. The same mounting-dismounting mechanism for GF-1's lenses is contrary to this mentality.
Surely, the GXR's binding "lensor" design has caused animated debates among the photography community. While those adoring fans and young photographers yet without investment in lenses would readily welcome the design, many cast doubts on it, which I think can be somewhat dispelled by money: lowering the price of the modules or the GXR body.
As discussed in the post about the ergonomics of GXR, the camera inherits the menu system of Ricoh's GX200 and GRD III. You've got to try Ricoh's non-P&S cameras to realise how well their engineers have catered the controls for photographers' need. Specifically, the front wheel and the back lever are the centrepieces of the commendable handling of the GXR. Apart from providing shortcuts for direct setting changes through activating a customisable quick menu, the wheel and lever can swap functions while browsing images and tweaking exposure combos.
When working in tandem with the three customisable My Settings and six customisable My Setting Box which give photographers instant access to their specific technical settings, the wheel-and-lever control cuts down the need to dive in the menus.
For the GXR, Ricoh further enhances this area by adding a Direct button for activating a DSLR-like menu for quick tuning of the most critical functions. When activated, the menu is superimposed on the screen in a 4-level density. On the forth level, the Direct menu is translucently superimposed on the LCD display, allowing users to check the image and various settings at a glance.
The quick menu and Direct menu give photographers swift control over the photographic settings without resorting to the regular menus. This menu implementation is downright smart.
There is a four-way button at the back of the GXR which is common to many cameras. What is specific to the GXR's is that it can activate a favourite function of mine: one-press metering. By way of this function which is inherited from the GX and GRD systems, the camera adjusts the exposure combo to the "right" value. Users can dictate whether the adjustment is made in shutter- or aperture-priority. When used with the manual exposure mode, this function allows users to come up with the preferred exposure combo almost in an instant.
I'm an advocate for external viewfinders for serious compact cameras. Once you've use it, you'll probably agree that such a viewfinder can make you compose a shot better, visualise the exposure result better and use a shooting angle more flexibly. It bestows an added advantage in operation on a camera.
The viewfinder VF-2 for GXR is way brighter and sharper than the VF-1 designed for the previous Ricoh cameras. It is the EVF with the highest resolution available on the market at present. In fact, its resolution is the same as the LCD. A point which is not known to many is that the EVF does not seem to display images at the highest resolution when used with the S10.
Despite my preference for an external viewfinder, I'm suggest you be picky about the one you're planning to buy. In the GF-1 review, I said its EVF would be knocked off with just a slight push. This won't happen to the GXR's. Although the docking on the camera body is lockless like the GF-1's, the EVF sits securely atop it. The built is of high quality.
The diopter wheel is located on top of the EVF and can be adjusted in steps. You'll never turn it accidentally like in the case of the GF-1's. This EVF also tilts up and down in steps, an improvement over the previous VF-1 which can be moved by accident when in use.
Outgrowing the Camera
When looking for a camera, you'll be better off if you buy one which lets you experiment your techniques. In this regards, the GXR system will take the user a long period to outgrow it because of its customisability, most notably the My Settings, individual colour settings for each colour (orange, green, sky blue, red, and magenta; hue and saturation can be set at five levels) and white balance compensation.
Better still, the GXR can outgrow the users. When the GXR set first arrived on my hand, the word "organic" immediately sprung to mind in the sense that it could grow into different possibilities (like, wireless dual-module/ underwater shooting). This camera is surely in its own class. But no rose is without thorns. Unlike lenses which can be used for other camera system by way of adaptor rings, the modules acquired by the users will bond them and the GXR system together.
The images taken with the A12 are solid. The lens is not called GR for no reason. It has good resolution. The edge-to-edge sharpness is good as evidenced by the full-size photos previously uploaded here, here and here. I have no complaint about its image quality. Frankly, for amateur photographers, images taken with a MFT or a APS-C sensor are very decent irrespective of which brand the camera belongs to.
Regarding the S10, it should be compared with the GX200. The S10 images are one step better than the GX200's. The ISO 400 images by S10 are comparable to the ISO 200 images by GX200. As the S10 is fitted with a tiny 1/1.7" sensor, I have no complaint about its images up to ISO 800.
As in the case of GF-1, focusing is a problem for the A12 in situations where light is low, the objects are less contrasty or at too close a distance from the lens. But the A12 is more burdened by the macro-focusing mechanism which further slows down its AF speed in those situations.
When the macro-focusing is on, the lens goes through all the focusing range to find the right focusing spot, then retracts completely and moves out to lock the focus. Sometimes it fails after such a process. It doesn't happen all the time. But this just makes the issue worse because the user can never guess when it will behave like this.
The remedy is to turn off macro-focusing, which is turned on by default (i.e. the lens automatically switches to macro-focusing if it detects that the subject is needy of such focusing). Also, switch the focusing mode to Multi-AF or, if suitable, infinity rather than Spot-AF. This will improve the focusing speed by much in all situations. Of course, you can use manual focusing. But, mark you, the image doesn't magnify automatically during manual focusing. Users have to activate it manually. Not a good idea.
This is how I'd mark the GXR on the four criteria mentioned above: (full score: 5 stars)
- Does it feature great ergonomics? 4½ (A10 and S12) - Is it reliable in locking focus at a reasonable fast speed? 2½ (A12) 4 (S10) - Does it take some years for the user to outgrow the camera? 4½ (both) - Does it give out images with good image quality? 4 (both)
A point should be added here that the saving grace for the A12 in relation to its slow focusing speed is: it does not represent the performance of the GXR. At press time, Ricoh has introduced another APS-C lensor. We shall see if the issue has been tackled on the new module.
The GXR system is a novelty. It is more a new idea than a new camera, as revolutionary as challenging to photographers. So Ricoh's task is first to sell the idea that it is worth the dear admission price. Before photographers' attention is attracted to the camera itself, efforts have to be made to substantiate the "lensor" concept by a more substantial choice of modules at a reduced pricing level.
Therefore, to drum up for the system, Ricoh has to rigorously preach this concept and convince the photographic community. Apart from publicity efforts, the best sermon is action: beef up the GXR system with a wider range of modules in a year or two.
For those who worry about the life cycle of the GXR body. Well, I think the body should be able to cater for the photographers' need in a good many years. The body sports a LCD display with a resolution level much higher than the present market norm for small compact cameras. After all, we don't really need a more extreme one to make the images look better than on a computer screen, do we? For the menu system, I wonder if users wish to adjust to a new menu system from time to time. For button disposition, the GXR body is good enough in this area. So the only problem for the GXR body is its price. It certainly adds an unnecessary overhead cost to the modules which actually take photos.
Again, pricing is a concern for this organic system to grow in its market share. The drawbacks of price and the focusing speed in certain unfavourable situations for A12 aside, the GXR system is a very enjoyable system offering great ergonomics and superb (A12) to good (S10) image quality.