Review: Ricoh GR1

Photography

Review: Ricoh GR1

I had a problem – I was in the process of selling all of my digital gear, and needed a 35mm camera to replace my old Olympus Pen, which was small enough to (just about) fit in a pocket, light enough to go anywhere, and would take fixed length prime lenses. In short I wanted the quality I get from my huge Canon EOS 5 and I didn’t want the weight of something like my old Pentax SLR, which is small, but not small enough.

I did some research, which actually really just comprised of working out how much money I had got for all of my digital gear then spending a lot of time watching youtube reviews of old cameras. The fun thing about buying 35mm equipment is that because no one is really making it anymore, you can get a really good idea about build quality, reliability etc. and you know that something better isn’t going to come along in just a couple of months.

The only way I was going to get down to the sort of size I needed was with a compact camera, and realising that I wasn’t going to get the sort of image quality I wanted from the sort of thing my mum used on holiday in 1999, I decided it needed to be a fixed length premium compact camera – of which only a few really exist.

I was looking at the Leica Minilux, the Contax T3, or the Ricoh GR1 that I eventually bought. The T3 was way out of my price range, and I wasn’t so sure about the Leica I looked at in the camera store – something about the shutter button placement and the inelegant hot-shoe put me off. The Ricoh was the once for me.

And so, I have put about ten rolls of film through the GR1, and am ready to give you the lowdown on this brilliant little camera. We’ll get the bad stuff out of the way – and the worst bit really is that this camera is nearly impossible to get hold of in fully working condition. Accept that whatever you are paying you’ll probably have to pay at least a quarter again on repairs. This is for two reasons, the first is that no one sells mint condition GR1s, because no one wants to part with them, and second, because of the notoriously fragile LCD display will be broken on any one you buy. All the screen does is tell you how many shots you have left on the roll, and which shooting mode you are in, but it won’t work, and you’ll have to pay to get it replaced. The camera I eventually bought was sold as ‘in perfect condition’ which in reality meant that everything worked except the LCD. Oh, and the motor, which sounded like a motorbike revving up every-time I took a shot.
These things can be solved with a trip to the repair shop, and are apparently so common that people are fully set up on ebay just to do these specific repairs (if you trust sending your camera off to the unknown). They are not the cheapest repairs either, but as long as you factor them into your buying cost a half working camera + repairs still comes in slightly cheaper than a mint condition one.

Equally, a broken LCD, and apparently even the nosiest motor in the world had precisely zero impact on my use of the camera. I shot three rolls with it in its half-dead condition, and all came out wonderfully. I had no idea how many shots I had left, and I couldn’t touch the mode dial, but the lens on this camera is so good that as long as you can (no matter how noisily) get some film behind it, you are going to be ok!

In terms of cons, that’s pretty much it! If I was forced to, I’d say the viewfinder is tiny, but then so is the camera. It also only sets ISO with DX, but if you care that much buy the next model up, or save yourself some money and get some DX labels. There really isn’t anything else negative to say about it. So what about the positives – well there are many, enough that I have given them each their own section…

It is easy: Remember how I said I had still got great results out of the GR1 even without the LCD screen working? This is because since I have had the camera I have touched the ‘mode’ button about once. It’s a fixed length 28mm lens, so there really isn’t a great deal that a mode button can do. This one simply sets the focus to infinity for…pictures of far-away things, sets the focus to pretty close… for things that are close, sets the focus to wherever you want it to be, or sets it for one shot so you don’t have to focus on whatever is in the little focussing square in the viewfinder. I have used absolutely none of these, mostly because the focus is insanely fast and accurate anyway, but also because with a 28mm lens, you’d be hard pressed to get anything that is more than a few meters away from you out of focus. This is why the camera comes with these set focus modes, the wide angle of the lens (as well as its quality I guess) makes it super easy to get super sharp shots.

It is small: Wait – this is a lie, is TINY. It’s the smallest camera I have ever held, smaller even than most disposable 35mm cameras – and here is where it is awesome, it’s still full frame 35mm! There is absolutely no way you’d ever get a digital camera with a full frame sensor this size, even with the latest technology. It fits in a pocket with room to spare and is light enough that you can easily forget that you are even carrying it. It has stayed in my bag since I have got it, and never once thought ‘I am going to save some weight and leave that out’. Its size means it’s always with you and never a burden. If the best camera really is the one you have with you, then it’s the best camera is probably the GR1.

It is satisfying: It might just be because of the size, or the discrete bulge at one end that makes it fit right in your hand, but the GR1 is so satisfying to hold and use. It doesn’t have the decisive, mechanical click of the shutter that you’ll get with a SLR, but enough happens when you hit the shutter that you know you have taken a picture. It really invites you to point it at random stuff and take pictures.

The image quality is great: This is really why people like this camera – it has a small but perfectly formed fixed focal length lens that outperforms some cheaper prime lenses. It is super wide, but doesn’t distort at the edges. Generally, that is all there is to say about this lens, it is good.

It is easy: A sense of déjà-vu? Well to end it is worth returning to how easy this camera is to use. I have not mentioned that the aperture can be left in programme mode, but for those that want to there is the option to set from 2.8 up to 22. The camera does a great job with exposure if you leave it alone, but that little dial does mean you have a good deal of flexibility at your fingertips. What is more important though is that leaving everything in programme mode isn’t the same as leaving your SLR on automatic – it doesn’t give you something pretty good, that you could make amazing with some tweaking, it gives you amazing and you’ll only really want to tweak it if you want to do something actually different in terms of aperture or focus. This means that all of that energy you could be using thinking about your exposure, focussing etc., you are now using just on finding amazing things to shoot and your composition.

Given its diminutive size, you’d be forgiven for thinking that you were not getting much for your (not inconsiderable amounts of) money with the GR1, but in reality you are getting a brilliant little photo-machine, that you’ll want to carry with you all the time.

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