While cameras such as the Olympus EPL-1 and Panasonic Lumix GF manage to combine interchangeable lenses with compact dimensions by utilising the fourth-thirds format (which eliminates the SLR-like mirror from the design), Ricoh has taken a different approach with its interchangeable lens compact.
The body of its GXR is one component of the camera, while the lens, sensor, and pretty much every other part of the image processing is included in a separate, standalone, independent (you get the idea) module. It pretty much means that you attach a new digital camera every time you attach a new lens to the body. But why?
The concept allows Ricoh to tailor the sensor specifically to the requirements of the lens. At the moment, this means you can attach a module comprising a 50mm macro lens with a larger sensor (like from a digital SLR) with 12 megapixels on board, or a module combining a 24-72mm lens with a 10 megapixel sensor that is physically much smaller in size. This idea allows Ricoh to put together what it thinks the “ideal camera” would be.
Outside of this, Ricoh has equipped the GXR with a bright 3-inch LCD, top-mounted accessory shoe (hotshoe), RAW support over the DNG format, HDMI and USB connectors, and excellent controls lining the outside and top of the body. Despite its size (11.4 x 7.0 x 7.7 cm), the Ricoh GXR looks and feels like a solid camera, the magnesium alloy body giving it the “heft” of something that can take a few bumps.
And if the rear LCD doesn’t leave you with the impression that you’re using a real camera, Ricoh has an optional electronic viewfinder that can be plugged into the hotshoe.
The optional electronic viewfinder will set your wallet back an extra $299.
Image quality from the GXR during our test period was excellent. Our review sample included the GR Lens A12 50mm F2.5 module, a lens and sensor combo that actually translates to a 50mm F2.5 macro with 12 megapixels. Running it through the ISO gamut of 200 to 3200, we found surprisingly low noise with great colour, even at the level at which low light usually produces problems.
Controls are surprisingly intuitive, with Ricoh taking the feel from single-lens reflex cameras and applying that to a smaller body. A directional pad on the back helps you navigate through menus, while control wheels let you change aperture and shutter speed when you find you need to. The mode selection wheel on the top is very sturdy and locks in place, with the remainder of the buttons making it easy for you to raise the flash, turn the LCD off, or switch to playback or timer modes.
Controls like this, and the clean menu system show that Ricoh has put in a great deal of work here.
The GXR didn’t fare so well in our focus tests, being neither fast nor accurate. We found ourselves switching back to manual mode, as our eyes proved better at acquiring focus than the lens.
Battery life is also an area where the GXR fails to meet expectations. Any semblance of life seems to be missing, and while you’ll get maybe a hundred images out before the battery starts to die, we’re of the opinion that you will need at least one extra battery if this is going to be your dedicated camera.
The biggest problem facing the GXR, however, is the price. Because the system is a “forced modular” design, you’re basically re-buying a digital camera with every future lens purchase. The actual GXR body doesn’t itself seem to contain much and yet costs $699. That’s 700 bucks for camera controls, an LCD, a flash, and slots for a battery and memory card.
There’s no doubt about it: the Ricoh GXR is definitely unique.
Ricoh already makes brilliant high-end compacts that offer terrific value, and its creative approach to expanding its business by creating a DSLR-type shooter in a compact format deserves recognition. Its GXR is an innovation and a competent shooter too, but it has some ground to cover before it will find a home with many would-be creative photographers.
Against existing high-end compacts and compelling Micro Four Thirds models, for which there is a growing selection of lenses, Ricoh’s concept is an expensive and alien format that may just confuse consumers.