Friday, 25 September 2009

Ricoh GRD III review




View over Strath Nethy to Bynack More from the slopes of Cairn Gorm. 1/640@f5.6. ISO 64. Raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.


View over Strathspey to the Cromdale Hills. 1/1000@f.5.6. ISO 800. Raw file converted to JPEG in Lightroom 2.

The GRDIII has now had a fair bit of use since my initial comments on the camera (see post for August 14). Other new cameras have appeared too, most noticeably the Panasonic GF1. Using the camera over the last month – in places varying from the Cairngorms to Edinburgh - has been a pleasure but the image quality, especially at high ISOs, is a drawback. Taking pictures with the GRDIII is a wonderful experience. Viewing them on the computer afterwards raises some questions.

The GRD III has a tiny sensor and in common with other small sensor cameras at high ISOs there is more noise than in cameras with bigger sensors and even at low ISOs results aren’t quite as detailed. I compared raw images from the GRD III and the Sigma DP1, which also has a fixed 28mm lens but a much larger sensor (subscribers to Backpacking Light.com can see my DP1 review here). At every ISO speed the DP1 images are sharper and more detailed. This becomes more noticeable the higher the ISO. At ISO 64 and 100 there is virtually no noise in the GRDIII images, they are just slightly coarser looking than those from the DP1. By 200 ISO noise is visible and by 400 it’s prominent. At 800 it’s intrusive. At 800 ISO the DP1 images are cleaner and less noisy than the GRD III ones at 400 ISO. For good results ISO 64 and 100 are best with the GRDIII. This is a criticism of all small sensor compacts of course and not specifically the GRD III. It must be said though that the DP1 images are noticeably higher quality. Ironically, the DP1 is a far inferior camera otherwise, awkward to use and with several poorly designed features. A DP1 size sensor in a GRD body would be a wonderful camera!

The big attraction of the GR series for hill walking and backpacking is the light weight and small size combined with high image quality for a small sensor camera. However the DP1 is only slightly bigger and heavier.

The GRD III is as easy to use as the original GRD with most settings accessible without having to delve into menus with a series of button presses. The main controls are a dial on the top of the hand grip and a rocker switch on the back of the camera. The first controls the aperture, the second the shutter speed, with a bar on the screen showing how changing them alters the exposure. There’s also a menu button the back surrounded by four arrow buttons, one of which switches the macro option on and off and one controls manual focus. When viewing images the arrows are used to scroll through them. Also on the back is a button that switches from live screen to image display, a combined self timer/delete button and a display button that varies what can be seen on the screen. With all options visible the screen shows all the information you could require, including live histogram, battery life, number of shots left on the memory card, ISO, shooting mode and, depending on the mode, aperture and shutter speed. New here is an electronic level, which is very useful for ensuring lakes and seas are level and not pouring out of the picture! The live histogram is very useful too – I use this as my main guide to exposure, which is usually set on manual. So you don’t have to go into the menus for all other controls four of them can be chosen to appear on the screen when the rocker switch is pressed. I selected ISO, White Balance, Image Quality and Focus for these. The screen itself is clear and sharp though as with every screen I’ve used it can be hard to see in bright sunshine. Ricoh offer an optional viewfinder – the GV2 - and I recommend this, although it is expensive at £95. Apart from being able to see what you are photographing clearly, using the viewfinder also means you can have the camera to your eye with your elbows tucked in at your sides, which is better for stability than holding the camera in front of you.

A new feature on the GRD III is the Dynamic Range Double Shot mode, first introduced by Ricoh on the CX cameras. With this the camera takes two shots at different exposures and combines them, gaining greater dynamic range (the range of brightness that can be recorded) than is possible with a single shot. When the sky is really bright and the land dark this is a useful feature. However you need steady hands and a high shutter speed to use it handheld. Ricoh advises a tripod. Also, it only works with JPEG not raw images. Test results with the DR feature shows that it does make a difference but not enough in my opinion to justify carrying a tripod.

The GRD III uses tiny SD or SDHC memory cards, which weigh a mere 2 grams each. A 4GB card will hold 204 raw images and 957 fine JPEG images. One problem with the original GRD was that it took many seconds to write images to the card (it’s surprising how long 13 seconds seems when you’re waiting to take another picture). With the GRD III even raw images only take a couple of seconds.

Power comes from a rechargeable battery. Ricoh say that fully charged it should last for around 370 images. That accords with my usage though I haven’t used the camera in cold conditions. Batteries weigh 26 grams so spares could easily be carried with little weight penalty.

The GRD III is not a point and shoot. It’s designed for the photographer who like control over their camera. For walkers who want this it’s worth considering, especially as image quality is good for a small sensor camera. However it is expensive at around £530 and there are alternatives that have larger sensors like the DP1 and the newer DP2 with 40mm equivalent lens and the micro-four thirds cameras with interchangeable lenses such as the Olympus E-P1 and Panasonic GF1. All these will produce higher quality images than the GRD III. When the original GRD appeared it was arguably the best digital compact, both in terms of ergonomics and image quality. The GRD III still leads with the first of these but no longer with the second.

Specifications

Pixels: 10 million
Sensor: 1/1.7 inch CCD
Lens: 6mm – 35mm equivalent 28mm
Screen: 6x4.5cm – 920,000 dots
Shutter: 180 seconds to 1/2000 second
Aperture: F1.9 to F9
ISO: 64, 100, 200, 400, 800, 1600
Exposure modes: Auto, Program, Aperture Priority, Shutter
Priority, 4 Scene, 3 My Settings
Metering: multi, spot, centre weighted
Focusing: multi auto, spot auto, snap, manual
Image Quality: Raw (DNG), JPEG normal, JPEG fine
Memory: SD/SDHC card
Battery: 3.7v rechargeable or 2 AAA alkaline/NiMH
Size: 10.9x6.1x3.1cms
Weight: 216 grams with battery and memory card

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