Review: Ricoh GR1

Photography

Review: Ricoh GR1

TLDR: The GR1 is almost perfect, but you’ll need deep pockets to find one in working order.

In the process of selling all of my digital gear, it became apparent that I needed a 35mm camera to replace my old Olympus Pen, which was small enough to fit in a pocket, light enough to go anywhere, and took great pictures.

The only way I was going to get down to the sort of size I needed was with a compact camera, and with an eye to lens quality, it had 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 am not about to join the red dot brigade with a Minilux (I am waiting for the lottery win, so I can go with something really stupidly overpriced).

Before we even get to what the camera is like to use, we need to address the biggest issue you’ll experience with the GR1: it is (nearly) impossible to get hold of one in fully working condition. I had to accept that whatever I was are paying, I’d have to probably double it in 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 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, and the motor, which sounded like a motorbike revving up every-time I took a shot, and the lens sometimes didn’t extend. These things may be possible to solve 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). If they are solvable, they are not cheap.H

However, a broken LCD, and apparently even the nosiest motor in the world had precisely zero impact on my use of the camera I bought. I shot three rolls with it in this condition, and all came out perfectly. 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, good photographs emerge.

In terms of negatives, there are really only a couple more to mention: The viewfinder is tiny (but then so is the camera). It only sets ISO with DX, (if you care that much buy the next model up, or save yourself some money and get some DX labels).

So on to the positives. 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. One mode sets the focus to infinity for pictures of far-away things, another sets the focus to pretty close, for pictures of things that are close. You get the picture. I have used absolutely none of these, mostly because the focus is extremely 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.

The second positive is that it’s the smallest camera I have ever held, smaller even than most disposable 35mm cameras.  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.

The final positive is really why people like this camera so much – it has a small but sharp fixed focal length lens that outperforms some cheaper prime lenses. It is wide, but doesn’t distort at the edges, and opens right up to 2.8 without anything too dramatic going on. Generally, all there is to say about this lens is that if you told me it was twice the size I’d still be saying it takes good photographs. Aperture can be left alone 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 but that little dial does mean you have a good deal of flexibility at your fingertips.

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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