Compact Ricoh GR III Review: an SLR sensor that fits in your pocket

Compact Ricoh GR III Review – Compact Ricoh GR III, Does a compact with fixed focal length still make sense in 2019 against smartphones? “Yes” affirms Ricoh by launching its GR III, the third offshoot of the series of APS-C sensor devices initiated in 2015 with the first GR (and seventh box of the digital GR range if we take into account the GRD I to IV ). A compact equipped with a reflex sensor measuring 23.7 x 15.7 mm (372 mm), compared to the 7.18 x 5.76 mm (41 mm) that can be found in the main camera module of the iPhone XS for example.  

Compact Ricoh GR III 257 grams in the pocket

The dilemma of the GR III is to offer a focal length approaching that of smartphones (28 mm equivalent). If photographers know the advantages of a large sensor, the fact remains that many still shoot with their phones at wide angle because it is always in their pocket. To make people accept to take another device, Ricoh fully played miniaturization and further reduced the volume of its case compared to the previous generation. The GR III is arguably the world’s smallest APS-C sensor camera. And the lightest too: with 257g battery and SD memory card included, it weighs only 31 grams more than the latest iPhone 11 Pro Max (which is admittedly heavy for a smartphone). We can thus have the telephone in the right pocket and the GR III in the left pocket. With much more pixels and image quality in the latter.  

50% more pixels

The Ricoh GR and GRII shared the same 16 megapixel APS-C sensor. For this GR III, Ricoh has pushed image definition even further with a new 24 Mpix sensor, a jump of + 50% which is useful for large prints. But also for cropping whether they are on the computer or directly in the body, since the GR III integrates a simulation mode of 35 mm and 50 mm focal lengths of the body (read further). Who says more pixels says challenge for the rise in ISO. A challenge painfully met by the GR III, digital noise at ISO 6400 being a notch below that of its ancestors. The optimum quality limit is thus rather around ISO 3200-5000, even if the ISO range is unbridled up to ISO 102,400 – a threshold where the images are clearly mush. We can still consider shoots at ISO 12,800, but at the cost of a lot of noise processing in RAW and in the acceptance of a sacred loss of detail. Or in the optics of a black & white development a little “trash”. The device’s internal Jpeg mill does a very satisfactory job, but be careful with the interpretation of colors in the default mode. Besides a rather soft rendering of details, the default white balance is a little too cold for our taste. Set the white balance to natural light or do it a posteriori in your RAW development software to recover some natural heat. Another technical criticism, the dynamic range is less wide than what APS-C devices like the Fujifilm X-T3 offer for example. We catch up well with the highlights, but a little less the shadows, in any case without exploding the noise and the accuracy of the colors.  

Mechanical stabilization: a marvel of integration

A stabilization which represents a tour de force of engineering since the device is more stocky than its ancestors. You read that right: in a more compact body than the GR I / II. Ricoh engineers have miniaturized the electronics so much that they took advantage of the space freed up to integrate a stabilization mechanism. No 5 axis stabilization like in hybrids but a 3 axis stabilization which already does a good job. Ricoh told us last year during an embargoed presentation of the product that the choice of mechanical stabilization rather than optical stabilization was motivated by the choice to “produce the most compact camera possible”. Optical stabilization “would have lengthened and weighed down the optics, making it less rapid of deployment and would have made the unit bigger (optics, editor’s note)”. An optical unit which has been revised since the GR and GR II, improving the resolving power in order to stick to the image definition up by 50%. This stabilization is a blessing for macro mode, detail shoots at arm’s length and other low-light situations, where the gain of a few speeds makes it possible to avoid going too high in high sensitivities.  
Blurred backgrounds, sharpness of the image and richness of details
With an equal focal length – or almost – what does the Ricoh GR III bring to a smartphone? Its APS-C sensor of course! In addition to its 3/2 format, which is a little more panoramic than the 4/3 format of smartphones, the APS-C sensor of the Ricoh GR III is above all much larger. This allows it, in addition to the better rise in ISO, to offer a much better rendering quality. The details are richer on the one hand, but the shots also have more relief, more punch – we speak of sharpness – which makes them more “real”, more organic than the somewhat flat images of smartphones. Its larger size also gives it the ability to create blurry backgrounds. If it is slightly noticeable on the portraits, it is very visible on the images of details or the “macro” shots. In these configurations where the subjects are close to the camera at the time of shooting, the area of ​​sharpness becomes very fine, and the background very blurry, velvety, with a very smooth transition from sharp to blur. While the algorithms of Apple, Huawei and others perform well in many situations, smartphone images have nothing to do with background smoothness and pure quality, especially when viewed. under a magnifying glass or drawn on formats larger than the classic 10×15.  
AF and the battery in Achilles heel
Without being a real black spot, the speed of the autofocus of the GR III is a little disappointing: in use, we did not notice any noticeable difference with the GR II. The “snap” mode which allows the focusing distance to be fixed is still there – fortunately for street photography – but the hybrid AF (phase + contrast) is not at the level we expected. The fault is probably the Ricoh GR Engine 6, maybe not as powerful as it should be. Face recognition and AF timing on them saves the day, but don’t expect quality tracking. Burst side, despite the 50% more pixels, Ricoh maintains the rate of 4 images per second. This is sufficient for the use of this kind of box. And this, especially since pushing performance further would have had a negative impact on energy consumption. A very high consumption already since the device has a battery life of only 200 shots per charge according to the protocol of the CIPA standard. In fact, by reviewing your images and browsing the menus, you turn around 200 to 250 images. If a backup battery will be useful for your trips, know that the USB C socket allows you to recharge the device on any external battery, such as smartphones. A real plus for backpackers.  

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