Why Your Gear is Important.
I suppose in a way, having spent so long shooting with it (certainly when compared to other systems that have taken space in my bag over the years) I do feel especially attached to my Ricohs. What follows is my account of what I firmly believe to be one of the most usable, tank-like, versatile, enjoyable, ugly and yet most rewarding cameras ever made, not so much a review or a user-guide (we’ve had nine years of those already) but a personal reflection about why I still shoot with it. Whether any of this is relevant, or, of interest to you or not – well, that’s for you to decide, but I think that in some way, this could be written about most of us, with few changes of context.
[From the off, I just want to get something out there before I get into the meat of this thing – I have shot plenty of crap on every camera or system I have ever owned. The longer I do this, the less crap I produce. With that said, it’s more about you than your camera but – your choices do matter.]
Gestation | GXR A12 33mm / 50mm FoV.
Birth | GXR w/A12 33mm Macro.
Concept versus Reality:
On the 10th November 2009, Ricoh (before they became Pentax-Ricoh) released a number of unique ideas, in an unusual form. The ideas were thus:
- A camera body doesn’t have to contain a sensor.
- A camera body only needs to house the controls, battery, card, the screen and, a pop-up flash.
- A lens doesn’t have to mount from the front of the camera body – it can slide from the side.
- A lens can also house a uniquely matched sensor behind it, making each new lens-unit unique.
- Serious photographers (outside of the East Asian markets) would catch-on.
With respect to points 1-4, Ricoh were right. On point 5, however, they were hoping for a little too much. Sadly, I believe, this was a real shame. A massive shame for Ricoh and, also for many photographers and enthusiasts who either just didn’t get the idea, or, even worse, never even got to learn of its existence and hence, its capabilities as a bona-fide camera-system.
Frankenstein’s Monster? | GXR w/A12 18.5mm [28mm FoV].
The idea was dubbed ‘GXR’ – and I am one who was fortunate enough to have availed my camera-bag with one back in late 2010. As I recall, on first release, the GXR was hideously expensive. Around £400 for a body alone and just shy of £600 a-piece for the two APS-C lens units (the A12 50mm / 28mm units) – left a lot of people stumped, scratching their heads and justifying their not investing in this new system simply (and rightly) because for the kind of money Ricoh was asking, it was far cheaper to look at other systems of similar capability or, further invest in currently owned systems. For the most part of 2010, I was in the same camp and, reading the continuous streams of negative reviews, forum-comments and discussions at the time did nothing to persuade me to bite Ricoh’s new, if slightly oddly-conceived bullet. But in late 2010, prices began to fall, and, how they fell. Ricoh marketing has always been a total disaster in the West, so I guess this was always going to happen, but for a new system to plummet so harshly in such a short space of time after release was almost unheard of. By the end of 2010, the two APS-C lens units that were released on launch of the GXR could be had for as little as £300 each and stockists couldn’t do enough to offload them to the consumer. Suddenly, there started to be a little more interest. Internet posts (or rather the increasing number of more positive reviews and images from the GXR) bore this out and, bore it out solidly. However, the GXR was still not catching-on like many other popular system-cameras, especially here in the West. I began to wonder – why are ‘popular’ cameras so popular? What aspects of the product are people attracted to? It can’t all be just marketing, surely? I think – possibly, that the answers are pretty obvious.
There is Always a Limit | GXR A12 28mm [FoV].
Want, versus Need.
As consumers, photographers, enthusiasts (we’re all of these) – we’re attracted to new ideas (so long as we understand them and they appear to have the abilities that might work more in our favour) and, how we do all love new equipment. We’re attracted to system-functionality too, and, the prospect of (over)expansion, the idea that we have the ‘next great-thing’, that people may even envy us for using our chosen system. We want to show it off, wear it like a badge, but why, I don’t know; to extract the best we can from it, show off our images and even find ourselves professing that we now shoot with the ‘one size fits all’ equipment and we’ll never trade-in again. (Oh, the fibs we tell our spouses – and, ourselves.) It’s tosh, but it’s a truth, too. Ask any system-fan. What we also love, are looks. How our camera looks to us has taken on a ridiculous and unfathomable importance – perhaps for the image that we want to create of ourselves and, display. At this point (and I get it, because for a long while, I was of the same mind, too) I now know that such perceptions are ridiculous. I know this, because I shoot the GXR still – as it approaches nine years since release. There has been a veritable myriad of newer, shinier, faster, more button/dial-tastic systems on the market since from a number of manufacturers (the usual big-named suspects) with much more money invested in effective marketing than Ricoh ever has. However, I always felt that, though the GXR was, aesthetically speaking, a rather unattractive camera-system, the idea of it was incredible and extremely clever (or, brave) of Ricoh; and so eight years ago, because quickly dropping prices gave me the opportunity to, I bought into it. To this day, I shoot with it and (perhaps in part because it’s still going strong and new GXR modules and system-parts are like hens’-teeth nowadays) I appreciate it more and more. I enjoy it so much that I still expand my GXR systems from time to time. But almost eight years of image making with this thing has given me an insight into what the process of photography, is all about.
Approaching Light | GXR A12 28mm [FoV].
How the GXR Helped Me to See [the] Light.
Now, this bit is really quite personal, but seeing as how there are many who get themselves into far, far worse positions and never climb out of them, I can write this. Since 2000, when I first began to shoot with digital cameras (after a number of years cutting my teeth with film) I have, like most of you, owned a lot of camera equipment and systems. If I listed it all here (what I can remember anyway) I would easily run into another half-hour of typing, so I’m not going to. Suffice to say that I have used full systems by Pentax, Canon, Leica, Fujifilm, Nikon, Olympus, Sigma, in vast numbers of body / lens configurations, not to mention a whole slew of ‘capable’ compacts for those days when I couldn’t be buggered to carry the big-rigs around with me. Like many of you again, I have spent way more than a small fortune (of my own money, I might add) on the stuff and, lost again through falling / plummeting re-sale values. It used to truly hurt if I thought about the numbers too much.
The Crows | GXR A12 50mm [FoV].
When at first I encountered a certain auction site on the then still fast-evolving internet, I was of the impression that it was rather handy to have a site where one could sell unwanted items and use the proceeds to buy something more desired, all in the same place. It was a new idea then and crikey didn’t it catch on? The web too, was as now, awash with endless images, information, reviews about every commercial product known to man and that made choice difficult. It also meant that whatever we had – we would always find something better very soon after our last big purchase. Given too that digital cameras largely become almost obsolete (tech-wise, I mean) very soon after release, because of newer technology or ‘features’ – it meant that many of us were like mice on a wheel. It’s knackering, in more ways than one. But my, how the negative margins widened over just a few unmonitored years, without my even realising it (until years later, when I inquisitively took a look at my statistical history, you know, just out of curiosity, then, I started to think about that dream car that I could have had, if only…). No matter. Eight years ago, I did just that. I looked at the numbers, shat myself copiously, realised that a done-deal was just that, shrugged my shoulders and decided, no more. At the same time, I also made myself think about and realise that what I wanted from a system was, to make pictures. Pictures that I was happy with and as part of a process that I actually enjoyed – and enjoyment was missing for me. This was after all, the only reason I was doing any of this at all. That said, I stopped chasing a ridiculous dream (of finding my ‘Holy Grail’ camera, so to speak) pulled myself out of the rut I’d got myself into and, got a little bit logical. I then did my research.
As so many of us have come to realise over the years of carrying around cameras, lenses, bags, tripods, all sorts of superfluous crap, that (we hoped) would make us look purposeful, experienced or whatever we wanted others to see of us as we go about our shooting, it comes to each of us that as enthusiasts or hobbyists, it’s a real pain in the backside carting so much weight about for hours and hours, especially when most of the stuff we were lugging around wasn’t even being used. So much so that it tarnishes the enjoyment of what could have been a fabulous trip, event, day or week, for the sake of a few photographs (a large portion of which would inevitably get uploaded, viewed on the big screen, grunted at and swiftly deleted). I mean, what’s the point? That’s when you realise it’s time to downsize and just shoot with what you have. All you need is a camera and a lens and, perhaps a spare battery. Invest wisely – and keep your investment. Learn you’re tools to the smallest detail and keep your rig to a minimum. Ah, salvation! If you have done the same, you know exactly as to what I’m referring. It’s a great feeling isn’t it? By the time I downsized, I sold off two DX Nikon bodies, a FF Nikon, around 5 pretty expensive Nikon lenses, flash units and studio lighting gear with a ton of ‘freebie’ extras thrown in to nudge each sale along. When all was sold, I probably realised no more than 65-70% of their collective resale value but it was more than enough to start over with a smaller but capable system. I’d done a shed-load of reading up on the GXR reviews and comments from all speculative and user angles and, I decided (with some reserve and trepidation) that this may be the right camera for me, for the image qualities that I hoped to see and, for the way that I shoot. I had the body and both A12 units at my door within a week of making my decision. (It was around this time that Fujifilm had announced the development of the X100. Alongside copious GXR reviews, I was avidly devouring anything I could find about Fuji’s new, ground-breaking offering too. All these answers to my prayers coming at once!) Anyway, I embraced the GXR almost instantly.
Cherry Blossom | A12 50mm Macro.
It has always had a charm, physically not that good-looking but extremely well laid-out, rugged and solidly built, a menu system that a photographer would instantly be at home with, a weight and finish that instils confidence and best of all – few pointless bells and whistles that other manufacturers call ‘features’. In other words, it has what counts to make pictures and doesn’t handle like a child’s portable computer-game with a lens on the front of it, like so many cameras do.
I was beginning to seriously enjoy this new freedom of not only having a much smaller system to carry with me, but also, the restrictions that shooting only two primes inevitably brings and, with that, a more thoughtful approach to shooting; more imagination and with that, more possibilities of ‘seeing’ in focal-lengths that I had deprived myself of for years, most notably, 28. I was never a wide shooter. I’m not sure I am now but I am certainly used to and happy with it when I’m photographing. Less is definitely more. The layout and customisability of the GXR also won me over quickly. Any relevant review will give you the skinny in this department so I’m not going to, but I am going to mention now, briefly, the image characteristics of the GXR with the A12 units. To do this, I am going to compare if I can, in words, the images from the GXR to those from a much newer, faster camera, which, until recently, I also owned and shot with for over two years – Fujifilm’s X-T1.
The X-T1’s files can be superb – but as I found out, only for certain subjects. But what I saw when I looked at the best shots I’d taken with it were either (squeaky) clean, crisp, faultless images or, utter mush. So, when I say – can be, I do mean that. As a RAW shooter I found skin-tones of jpegs from the X-T1 very ‘waxy’ or ‘plastic’ looking often, which is another reason I shoot RAW, because this character only appears in the X’s jpegs. Still, properly focused and exposed foliage would present as horrible mush even in the RAWs. But this isn’t an X review or a bashing either. What I saw besides crispness and cleanness in the Fuji’s files were images with a lack of lens character. It was all just a bit too perfect which, is a testament to how well Fuji build their lenses and, a sadness at the generic appearance to digital images from most modern camera systems now judging only personally from what I’ve shot with over many years. I also blame the countless reviewers who verbally pray for ever more image perfection from the manufacturers. When I wanted perfect reproduction under conditions at which I knew that it would excel, I would reach for the X-T1 every time. When I want character though, I always reach for the GXR. As such, my GXR was still my main system, and now, it is my only system. (I shoot a GR alongside it or, if I am not wanting to cart any bags at all, the GR fills in nicely all on its own). It produces images with a certain filmic quality, sharp but not bitingly so, a grain that pleases as it increases with film speed (ISO / ASA) right up to 1600 (which is as high as I shoot with any camera) but there’s a warmth to the GXR files that relates not to tone or colour or balance – but a certain something I have never been able to put my finger on. But it’s there. There’s no ‘Ricoh’ look (besides, I think the sensors in the A12 units were made by SONY) – it’s just a quality that speaks to me when I see it. A quality that I love. As for the lenses, the A12s are painfully slow by modern standards and very noisy, especially the 50/2.5 Macro, but as one who doesn’t rush when I shoot, that’s perfectly fine with me. The corners and edges can sometimes be a little soft but I really don’t care; I try to concentrate around the centre of the frame anyway. There is no image-stabilisation, in-lens or otherwise, and actually, I like that. It makes me think harder about what it is that I’m doing. Simple. No excuses or concessions for poor technique, either.
On the Rocks | GXR w/A16 [24-85mm FoV] at 24mm.
As well as the two A12 units, Ricoh also developed and released the A12 Mount, onto which M mount lenses can be fixed and I have used this too with a few different lenses. It’s a fabulous piece of kit to use but in the interests of keeping my gear to a minimum, I don’t use or even have the mount any more. I do hanker for it every now and then because the image qualities attainable with various legacy glass are wide and wonderful. The two small-sensor units though (the S10 and the P10) are largely useless to me, certainly as far as IQ, anyway. The larger sensor units are what makes this camera an absolute must in my bag. Even the A16 24-85mm is a bit of a corker when it comes to IQ and set-up ability.
The set-up I’m using now is similar to a few years ago when I was using two of the three Sigma DP Merrills. Namely, the DP2M & DP3M. The GXR at that time was consigned to a drawer while I evaluated the Merrills and, whilst I loved the concept of taking two small fixed prime lens cameras and nothing else, I couldn’t get on with the DP2M focal-length. I don’t know why by I didn’t gel with it at all. The DP3M on the other hand, I loved from the start, but the limitations of shooting at a maximum of ISO 200 hampered me some, 400 at an absolute push (and then I’d have to have been desperate for the frame) therefore, I traded them. Currently, in my main bag I carry only a GR and two GXRs. I’m in the process of re-working my bag though, so at some point, I’ll fill in on new additions and / or subtractions. As brilliant as the GR is (it’s made a huge amount of frames over the past few months, mainly using the internal 35mm crop-mode at the expense of a few MPs) I still prefer the GXR with the A12s. Like the GR, it is possible to set-up the custom settings (MY1,2,3) for different MF distances and apertures making zone-focusing and freelensing an absolute breeze. No need for snap focus either – instant shooting with no lens shift at all. Monochromes from the Ricohs are adjustable and consistently wonderful too. Just to get this out there as well, the GXR has a really neat trick when it comes to Auto ISO. On no other camera have I seen this: go into the menu and set the Auto ISO to 1600 (with whatever change-over shutter-speed you like). Now, instead of the camera auto-bumping up the ISO in the usual increments (100 to 200, 200 to 250, or 640 to 800, for example) it actually increases the ISO in increments of 1. Yes, you read that correctly. It will only bump the ISO by as much as needed to maintain your fastest possible shutter-speed (and best possible IQ) and as a result, you may, as I have, find that the GXR shoots at ISOs of for example, 201, 387, 1004, 1234; any number you can think of, really. So, whilst the GXR doesn’t have the IQ of more modern systems (which I am largely glad about) – it does make the very most of what it has for the benefit of the one behind the camera. This is probably my most favourite feature of the GXR. I do wish that it was a feature of the GR but sadly – it isn’t. Nonetheless, the feature itself comes across as a real ‘cock-a-snook’ to any and all other camera companies. It really bloody works.
That Ricoh had continued to develop the GXR instead of abandoning it is another wish that I have always harboured. The fact that they didn’t only makes it more special but how I wish they would pick up the baton again. Yes, it has a kind of cult status – but even that will die as time moves forward. But I’ll still be shooting with mine until it dies on me. It may not look like much, but when I wanted a camera that was aimed at photographers, the GXR delivered and, still delivers for me
Not long after the GXR and the A12s were released, Steve Huff made a comment about it on his site saying something like “If a camera can make good images now, it will still make good images in years to come, no matter what new tech arrives in the future.” I subscribe to the very same thought and, after years of keeping up with modern camera-tech – I have stopped because I just want my camera to make pictures. Pictures that I am happy with, from a system that I enjoy using, that actually inspires me to shoot and, can work the way that I do. It’s not quick, it’s not quiet, it’s not pretty, however – it’s a perfect fit for my hands, works the way I want it to, it’s built like a brick shit-house and, consistently produces the goods.
Not bad, for an ugly ol’ thing…
Gerbera Daisy | GXR A12 50mm Macro.
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