Saturday, 26 November 2011

Ricoh Meetup: Mission Completed

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The Ricoh Meetup HK was held this afternoon with 20 lucky Ricoh users (there were 100 applicants in total), bloggers, several people from Laikok the distributor and Ricoh getting around in a cafe-on-balcony – luckily not a camera cafe or else there might be crying over accidental extra spending on lenses and stuff – with free drinks and snacks.  There were sharing, playing with the CX6 and numerous manual lenses and  some officially unofficial announcements, which included a very exciting news to be released real soon. All participants left happily with a free pin and a towel as souvenirs. It was a successful event.

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Friday, 25 November 2011

No Admittance

R9352647L(GXR M-mount with Voigtländer Nokton 35mm F1.2 ASPH II)

I am getting some preparation for tomorrow's Ricoh Meetup HK. So, another break before the M module review resumes.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

When You Are Tired

R9352553L (GXR M-mount with Voigtländer Nokton 35mm F1.2 ASPH II)

When you are tired, you just take every chance for a breather. The GXR M-mount field review will continue after a break.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

GXR M-mount Field Test: Unique Features and High-ISO Performance

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As discussed in the first review post, the M module is a departure from the original GXR concept of lens-sensor combination. One aspect of it is that, with the lens component dropped, the M module adopts a focal plane shutter instead of a central shutter for the other two A12 modules. This is because the focal plane shutter allows the use of interchangeable lenses without requiring the extra cost of fitting in a separate shutter in individual lens. But there are some inherited disadvantages to a focal plane shutter. Let’s look briefly at the three most prominent ones.

Three Disadvantages

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The first one is the louder shutter noise. To those traditionalists who may have a penchant for everything nostalgic, the M module’s solid, deeper shutter sound could be rather sexy. To me, it sounds as do any usual mechanical film cameras. One may wish for a quieter operation in certain situations as I did in doing shots in indoor settings. Silence operation is especially important for doing stealthy candid shots too. But the M module is a head turner in the first place, not to mention that it requires all the attention-seeking manual focus tweaking. To overcome this shortcoming, the M module features an electronic shutter mode for silent operation in case of need.

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The next disadvantage is that unlike a central shutter (which opens fully to allow flash sync at all shutter speeds), the focal plane shutter restricts the flash sync to 1/180s top. Unfortunately, this maximum flash sync speed applies to both the physical and electronic shutters of the M module. The saving grace is that the electronic shutter mode allows a speed of 1/8000s top (double the maximum speed of the physical shutter) which can therefore double as a ND-equivalent substitute in case one needs to use a larger aperture under a bright sky. A side note is that the base ISO of the M module is ISO 200.

shaky
(The 35mm lens is equivalent to 50mm with the APS-C sensor.  The shots were taken at 1/30s -- two stop  away from the safe shutter speed -- along with the same exposure combo. My notes read: the upper left one is not properly focused; the upper right and lower left ones are blurred as I held the camera in a casual position; then for the lower right one, I leaned against something with my elbow pressed against my chest to steady the camera)

Third, beyond the safe shutter speed, the camera can be vulnerable to shutter vibration due to the mirror-slap of larger curtains. I have no laboratory proof to substantiate the suspicion of the module’s vulnerability to mirror-slap vibration, but judging from the results of several hundreds of shots, the images are likely more prone to blurring at two or more steps below the safe shutter speed – not ideal by the standard of digital cameras but similar to the result with film cameras. That said, the above shots were done to prove how worse it went.  Under normal circumstances, I always apply the old techniques (lean against a wall, elbow rest against the chest, take continuous shots, etc) to prevent blurry shots. And there are other ways to get a safer shutter speed.  So far, the results I got with the M module are predominately steady shots.

Another musing is that since the GXR body is tiny and the safe shutter speed corresponds with the focal length, I would like to see how the GXR M module mounted with a heavier, manual telephoto lens fares in terms of making steady shots.

Two Unique Functions

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Let’s move on to two photographic functions unique to the M module. First, there is the Peripheral Illumination Correction which allows correction levels adjustable between -3 and +3. According to the FAQs page on Ricoh’s official website, it is there supposedly for brightening up the corners. But the better way to utilise this function is to leave it at -3 to give the final images a taste of lomo images with dim corners. Personally, I quite like this effect for it bestows the image with a more purified tone and nostalgic mood.

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The M module also features a Colour Shading Correction function which allows adjustment of individual corners for pinkish colour shades typical to lenses sitting close to the sensor, such as the Voigtländer lens used for the review.

The Voigtländer lens is prone to a pinkish cast over the brighter area of a scene under the bright sky. This doesn't happen all the time but is more noticeable as the aperture opens up wider. However, when it occurs, the lens sometimes does not bulge and the pinkish cast cannot be removed even under the strongest shading correction level. Take the following shot for example. The correction was tuned up to the maximum for both upper corners (red minus 4) but the corrected image on the right doesn't look quite correct.

R9352506 (Medium) R9352507 (Medium)

One may try a simple and effective way to work around the issue. It is to stop the aperture down to f11 or narrower while compensating the exposure by tuning up the ISO value or slowing down the shutter speed. For the corrected shot here, the aperture was closed down to f22.

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High-ISO Performance
3200(@ISO 3200; 100% crop below)
3200left margin 3200near center 3200right corner

The M module is fitted with the same 12MP sensor as the A12 50mm and 28mm modules, but has done away with the low-pass filter. So, together with the higher optical quality lens, the M module produces pictures of gobsmackingly good quality at even ISO3200. Take for example the above shot taken at ISO 3200 (with Voigtländer Nokton 35mm F1.2 ASPH II): the image excels in terms of details (see the tiny Chinese characters above the "KM"), noise level (suitably suppressed) and colour accuracy (the metallic colour and the reflected images). Readers should note that noise level will be more noticeable in darker areas of a scene.  And I chose this dimly lit street scene just to strain the noise extent a bit.

On this note, we will see some side-by-side shots taken with the M module and the Sony A55 for comparison in the next post. As for now, readers who are interested in seeing the excellent details and colours reproduced with the M module, look no further beyond Crist's Hong Kong shots here and here.

Tomorrow, we will be focusing on the lens.

(Kudos to Laikok for lending GX Garnerings the camera unit and the lens)

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

GXR M-Mount Field Test: Manual Focusing and Others

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In the Hand

The GXR body with the M module is very solid in the hand and evenly distributed in weight, with the generous bulge giving users a comfy grip of the camera. But the overall weight increases significantly when mounted with the Voigtländer lens on loan for the review. As a matter of course, the camera lends itself to dropping head down when the lens is mounted. This is certainly no fault of the camera or the design. It will be the same case for any cameras used with any lens of comparable metal construction.

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In fact, among all mirror-less cameras, the 2-year-old GXR body is probably still the best in terms of ergonomics. GXG would have given it full marks if not for the wheel-rocker mechanism instead of a truly two-wheel system for making exposure combos. For the bells and whistles of the GXR body, readers may refer to the previous posts on the implementation of its buttons and functions here and here.

The camera requires two-hands operation; but who will complain? Operating a camera singlehandedly is at best counter-intuitive. After all, in the case of the M module, there are lots of tweaking to do to both the lens and the camera body, most notably for manual focusing. In fact, the manual focusing the most prominent feature compelling interested users to shell out money for the M module. So, let’s dig deep into it.

Focus confirmation: Some Issues

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Understandably, there are more visual confirmations to do than with a manual-focus lens. Since there is no electronic or mechanical communication between the lens and the camera body, users are obliged to visually check out the lens to confirm the settings done to it. A side note is therefore that if you are contemplating an external viewfinder to go with the M module, you probably will be better off without one – it is just easier to travel your eyes between the LCD instead of the viewfinder and the lens.

For confirming the focus, the GXR LCD display at 92K dots does an adequate job. But surely an upgrade display on par with the GRD4's 1.23M dots will be much welcomed so that the enlarged image can be beefed up in resolution. This is important because for focus confirmation, the digitally enlarged image sometimes requires quite a guess.

R9352513LR9352516L (The above two shots required quite a guess for the focus: the first one with the Porsche badge in relief pattern and the second one with an uneven surface of paints peeling off)

That said, I have not found it a serious issue to manually focus on the LCD display except for when the aperture is so large like below f2 that the DOF becomes extremely shallow (then I really have to guess and sometimes take several shots to be sure). However, it should be borne in mind that for any camera featuring an APS-C sensor -- hence shallow depth of field-- at f2 or below, even AF lens sometimes requires users to spot focus to get the exact point in focus. It is advisable for potential users without any experience in manual-focus lens to find out what to expect with the M-mount. Without limiting to the case of M module, manual focusing is not about getting the focus swiftly across a scene. It is more about being creative in focusing and, for some, the joy of the photographic process too.

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But the M module has done some clever tricks to alleviate the occasional frustrations in manually accomplishing the focus.

Two Measures

The good news is that the M module features two smart measures to assist the manual focus operation. First, a focus assist function (FA 1 and 2) to highlight the area/subject in focus; second, a switchable enlargement box for easy confirmation.

In the focus assist function mode 1, the LCD display highlights the area in focus with flickering dots. The same will be displayed in the magnified area when you turn on the magnification box (customisable to the function key for one-press activation and the magnification rate selectable) But, honestly, on some occasions – for example, shooting the foliage or water body under a bright sky – even the magnified area left me guessing whether the focus fell surely on where I intended.

The FA mode 1 and the enlargement box works like this:


The cropped-out final image at f2.0:

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For mode 2, the screen displays the scene in embossment and the area highlighted in relief is in focus. Whether mode 2 is usable is a matter of debate because seeing things in grey is a bit anti-intuitive. Here is a shot showing mode 2 in action:

DSC_0079L

I have not found this mode 2 particularly useful except for maybe an object against a monotonous background. Fact is, I am so unaccustomed to all other objects being shown in grey that this mode 2 has not been used for a meaningful time during the testing period. As far as the field test is concerned, mode 1 is able to handle the job effectively in general. When customised to the two fn function keys on the four-direction button respectively, the focus assist function mode 1 and the magnification box combined are useful enough for the job.

Summing Up

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When I moved around shooting on the street, the expensive looking camera was quite a head turner. I would love it to keep in low profile but the eye-catching retro-look of especially the manual lens simply lends itself to the contrary. I almost heard the aahs and oohs from bystanders on some occasions.

R9352643L Being familiar with the GXR system, I was swiftly geared to the manual operations of the module and the lens. To new comers, the menu items are so extensive that it looks uninviting at first and will take some time to get used to. But once the user knows what the camera can do, the learning will pays off as there are plenty of customisable functions, slots and buttons to tailor-make what and how the operations suit the user best. I personally love Ricoh cameras for being very sensible with what functions are essential to photographers. The case is that a user coming from a different brand name may, with his pre-conception of how a camera should operate, agree with me with a qualified “yes”. But after getting used to the Ricoh cameras, one will see the benefits spot on. The caveat is that one has to read the user’s instruction.

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The biggest concern before trying out the was how best the manual operations designed for the M module could work, in particular the manual focusing.

Together with the useful movable focus area at the press of the Adj. rocker, the two measures discussed speed up the manual focus process effectively. Manual focusing is not a problem to me since I am used to pre-focus my cameras to do shots. As a matter of course, pre-focusing a manual lens with a APS-C-sensor camera is less practicable if the photographer mostly uses wide aperture, do wildlife animals pictures, R9352528L shots children running around and the like. So, whether manual focusing is desirable depends on your photographic style. At any rate, the M module works smoothly with all the manual operations. Fact is, once you have got a deft hand with the manual camera, the whole process could add fun to doing photography. The advantage in return is images produced in colours, saturation and exposure as desired. Most importantly, the anti-aliasing filter is gone in the M module and you will be gobsmacked to see the extremely sharp images.

Next, we will discuss further on the M module.

(Kudos to Laikok for lending GX Garnerings the camera unit and the lens)

Monday, 21 November 2011

GXR M-mount Field Test: Selling Points

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Some two years ago, the GXR system saw the light of the day. Ricoh, jumping on the mirror-less bandwagon, bet on the lens-sensor solution to capture the expanding customer bases. In this vein of development, the A12 modules (the 50/Marco and the 28/f2.5) were rolled out in response to the keen upmarket competition while the P10 and S10 modules were launched for casual shooters. Among diverse public opinions about its market viability, such a lens-sensor strategy is still a matter of debate. In a nutshell, the system has in its infancy drawn more debates than purchases.

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For one thing, factoring in the body overhead cost, the higher-end modules become too pricy to be attractive than the mid-level DSLRs. For the lower end modules, the admission fee is not what many would pay for a point-and-shoot camera. Price aside, certain operation performances have come under fire, most notably the sluggish focusing speed of the A12 50mm Marco lens especially in low light situations. What hits the system hardest could be the inadequate choice of lenses, which is badly limited by the lens-sensor bundling.

An Important Step

With the A12 M-mount module (M module), Ricoh has taken an important step. A much welcomed deviation from the lens-sensor concept, the M module serves to expand the lens choices. Apart from a wide range of available Leica lenses, those on a tighter budget could opt for the compatible Voigtländer lenses. The lens choice can be further extended upon purchase of the optional M39 mount with the M module. The remaining issues are probably budget and for some, alas, the permission of your wife or partner.

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Selling Point 1

Touted to be the advantages of the lens-sensor bundling are the near-undefeatable dust-proof and the well-toned image formation capabilities. So, what about the M module non-complaint with the original GXR concept? After all, one may with an adapter mount a Leica lens on any mirror-less camera.
The M module is bestowed with the well-toned image formation capability as it is tailor-made to perfectly suit the 27.80mm flange distance of the Leica M-mount lenses. This advantage can be reproduced in the same way for, say, a K-mount module for Ricoh’s K-mount Pentax lenses. Now that Pentax is part of Ricoh, it is not foolhardy to prophesise the coming of such a module.

Selling Point 2

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The M module is codenamed A12 in the same fashion as the existing 50mm and 28mm modules – undoubtedly, the numeral 12 refers to the 12 megapixel APS-C sensor inside. However, the new comer is unlike the old ones in that it does not feature a low-pass filter. As we all know, the anti-aliasing (AA) filter has a blurring, softening effect on the final images. Removing the AA filter enables the M module to produce 3-dimensional-ish images. This trump card, together with a high quality lens as the one used in the review, helps produce crispy straight-out-of-camera images, which arguably have less to do with the sensor or algometric processing.

Selling Point 3

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The total number of Leica M and M39 lenses is believed to be in the ballpark of over two hundred. The high-quality lenses are big draws to entice photographers to grab the M-module. In passing, it should be pointed out that some M-mount super wide-angle lenses and collapsible lenses have tail too overextended to fit in the module. For that matter, the M module comes with a measurement ring as a handy tool for figuring out lens compatibility. It works in an intuitive way. With the ring capping on, those lenses whose tail goes beyond the ring bottom do not fit in the M module, and vice versa.

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The M module sounds enticing enough. Next, we will go into how the camera feels in action.

(Kudos to Laikok for lending GX Garnerings the camera unit and the lens)

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Left or Right

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(Ricoh GX200)

A friend asked the author why not placing the subject on the left instead.  Apart from the obvious reason that the boy was sitting near the edge of the row of chairs, the answer lies in the typical way most people read a picture which is from left to right. As you may notice from the above images, the second image, which is horizontally inversed, looks odd in that one's gaze encounters the subject too soon while the right side of the image is wasted. In the first image, the viewers' sight travels from the left, which becomes functional and therefore is not a wasted space, to meet the subject. It is so in line with our reading habit that the first picture is just not as odd visually.

This is Sunday.  Have a nice day.