The Ricoh GR II is the latest in a long line of street photography cameras and it enjoys an almost legendary status among street photographers. I shot the West Hollywood Halloween Carnaval with this little wonder cam and I’ve got a few things to say about it. Hit the jump for the full Ricoh GR II street photography review!
Ricoh GR II Street Photography Video Review
Very few cameras have as devoted following as the Ricoh GR II street photography series. From the earliest GR1 film camera through a number of small sensor GR Digitals to the latest APS-C powerhouse – the Ricoh GR (and GR II) enjoys an almost legendary status among street photographers.
But time marches on, and every few months camera manufacturers release new cameras with new sensors that push the boundaries of resolution and high ISO performance while APS-C GR cameras have remained essentailly unchanged since they were introduced in 2013.
Why would anyone be interested in a 2 year old digital camera with a 4 year old sensor when modern cameras best it in every way on paper? Why would anyone be interested in a 2 year old digital camera that struggles to shoot at ISO 1600? Why would anyone be interested in a 2 year old digital camera with a fixed lens that can’t be changed? A camera that’s prone to dust spots on the sensor?
Why? Because it’s the Ricoh GR II. And for a lot of street photographers, that’s more than enough!
Let’s Talk About The Ricoh GR II
The heart of the Ricoh GR II is a 16.2 MP sensor and an 18.3mm (28mm FF equivalent) lens. And yes, the sensor is showing it’s age but this camera isn’t about impressing you with specs. Don’t get me wrong, the GR2 still has excellent image quality. In fact I’d go so far as to say that the GR and GR II (both essentially the same camera) have their own unique look that’s easy to spot.
In this way the GR 2 sort of puts me in the mind of the venerable Leica M9. NO! Ricoh GR II street photography images don’t look like they were shot with an M9. But like the M9 the image quality is easily identifiable and it’s good enough to supercede all of the camera’s little quirks.
The thing that really stands out about GR II street photography is the camera’s usablity. The way it sort of disappears in your hand and encourages you to explore the world photographically. It’s a joy to use and I found myself reaching for it every time I left my apartment. Part of that might be the newness factor but I can’t overstate how inspiring the GR II is as a simple but effective photographic tool.
Ricoh GR II Image Quality
Image quality is one of those murky subjective areas that is difficult to quantify at best. But I can tell you that the lens and sensor in the Ricoh GR II combine to create images that stand out in a very good way.
The Ricoh GR II color science is spot on. The color contrast is rich without being overbearing. Tones are natural and require very little work in post. I don’t want to use the term “filmic” but the image quality is different enough from most digital cameras to stand out with a visual identity that’s uniquely Ricoh GR II. You really see this in the reds which don’t glow like most other digital cameras.
I’m not sure what kind of witchcraft is going on inside this camera but the image quality is impressive and I find myself eagerly going through the images I shoot to see what surprises are in store.
It’s All About Snap Focus
No Ricoh GR II street photography review would be complete without talking about the camera’s snap focus modes. The camera has autofocus but its 9 focus points and mediocre performance mean I rarely use that feature. Snap focus lets you lock the focus point to your lens’s hyperfocal distance and shoot without having to worry about AF.
I normally keep my lens set at f8 so I can set the snap focus distance at 2 meters and everything from about 1 meter to infinity will be in focus. But you have the option of choosing 1, 1.5, 2, 2.5, 5 meters plus infinity as your snap focus distance depending on the situation.
Street photographers have been shooting with hyperfocal or zone focus since forever and it’s amazing to have this feature in a compact camera like the Ricoh GR II. The big question is WHY DOESN’T EVERY CAMERA HAVE THIS FEATURE? Seriously, all it would take would be a firmware update and the feature could be esaily implemented in any camera with AF. I suspect Ricoh has a patent on the concept which is preventing other manufacturers from adding the feature. Whatever the case – this is a great way to shoot!
The Ricoh GR II also adds a full press snap mode which allows you to use AF by half pressing the shutter but a quick or full press will take an image at the snap focus distance you specified. This works like a sort of modified back button focus mode. Shoot with full presses for everything greater than 1 meter away but use autofocus when your subject is a little closer. It’s a nice extra touch if you need that sort of thing!
No Viewfinder? No Problem!
Ricoh GR II street photography relies on a 3″ LCD for framing and reviewing shots. It’s not the brightest or highest resolution but it more than gets the job done. In fact I never had a problem seeing it in full daylight.
Now, I love my X-Pro2 with it’s hybrid viewfinder. I get the precision of a magnified EVF when I need it and the versatility to switch to the OVF when I need it. I’m a big fan of eye level viewfinders for shooting street as they lend themselves to creating careful layered compositions. So the shooting with an LCD only was a big hurdle for me when I picked up the GR II. It took a bit of getting used to but I found the LCD only approach had its own rewards.
The Ricoh GR II frees me to experience the world and shoot naturally. Shooting with an LCD only takes a lot of pressure off and frees me to experience the world with fresh eyes. Seeing relationships in the world and allowing the camera to capture those relationships in an instant.
In some ways, shooting with the LCD only makes you less noticable on the street. If you pull your camera up to your eye you’re unavoidably drawing attention to yourself. But hold the camera at arm’s length and many people will think you’re just reviewing images or something and stop paying attention. More than one shot was captured while standing a few feet in front of my subject. Quite liberating!
After a couple days of shooting with the Ricoh GR II, I got to know the camera’s field of view and could reliably predict what it was going to capture without paying too much attention to the LCD at all. I was able to stop thinking about framing and see the world with my eyes instead of through the camera. I was present in the situation I was shooting and I could trust the camera capture what I was seeing.
I joke about it in the video review but this kind of shooting brings to mind Daido Moriyama. Daido’s a fan of compact cameras and often talks about wandering like a stray dog when he’s shooting. Letting the world guide him organically to his next shot. For this to work your head has to be in the world instead of in your camera. This way of thinking sort of reinvented photography for me and made shooting Ricoh GR II street photography a heck of a lot of fun.
Am I going to give up shooting with a viewfinder? No. But shooting Ricoh GR II street photography has really opened my eyes to the alternatives!
I Think I’m A 28mm Convert
The Ricoh GR II uses an 18.3 mm lens which is approximately a 28mm full frame equivalent. It’s a popular focal length for street photography but I’ve always avoided it in favor of 35mm. No particular reason for this. At some point I just decided I’d be a 35mm kind of shooter and never thought about it again.
But the Ricoh GR II is a fixed 28mm lens so it was time to embrace the dark side. It took me a couple of days to get comfortable but I was able to easily adapt to the wider focal length.
Not only does it give you a bit more elbow room in your shots (important when shooting an event like the West Hollywood Halloween Festival) but the wider 28mm focal length tends to create more dynamic compositions. Buildings soared in the background as the perceived distance between subjects stretches and creates a stronger sense of depth in the scene.
I should mention that the Ricoh GR II does have a 35mm mode that essentially crops the image in-camera to replicate the 35mm field of view. It’s a nice fallback if you can’t get past the need to shoot with a 35mm equivalent lens but 28mm really worked for me. Give yourself a few days to get used to the new focal length and you should be good to go.
Hey, it was good enough for Winnogrand! It’s good enough for me!
Okay, Okay! Here’s Some Halloween Pics
I could go on and on about Ricoh GR II street photography but at the end of the day it’s the image quality that matters. I shot in RAW and processed the images in Lightroom with brightness and contrast adjusted to taste.
I shot the 2017 West Hollywood Halloween Carnaval with nothing but the GR II and an off camera flash plus a couple of extra batteries in my pocket. This camera proved to be a reliable tool that I completely trusted on the street and in the moment.
You can judge the image quality for yourself and compare it against the Halloween shots I took with the X-Pro2 last year. The differences are subtle but I think the GR II has a slight edge in color rendition and contrast.
The Ricoh GR II Is Almost Perfect
Ultimately, there are newer cameras with better sensors and more features than the Ricoh GR II. But that has nothing to do with why I like this camera so much. It really comes down to experience of shooting with this stealthy little camera. It’s quiet and responsive and never stands between me and the image. Every time I shoot Ricoh GR II street photography I feel inspired to explore the world and discover new images along the way.
But no camera is perfect, and the Ricoh GR II has a few niggly bits. The biggest issue is the fact that the lens extending and retracting can cause dust to appear on the sensor. And because this is a fixed lens camera you have to send it in for repair to clean the sensor. Major pain in the butt!
Ricoh says the GR II is better at preventing this than the original APS-C GR but you still hear reports once in a while. I keep my camera in a small pouch when I’m not shooting and I haven’t seen any dust on my copy but it’s still something to consider. If it happens, it’s not the end of the world. Just send it in to get it cleaned then keep on shooting!
Ricoh GR II Pros:
- Excellent handling and usability.
- Amazing build quality and with stealthy matte black finish.
- Image quality with a unique identifiable look.
- That friggin’ lens is really really good.
- Snap mode is perfect for my shooting style.
Ricoh GR II Cons:
- Lens extending and retracting can lead to dust on the sensor.
- Battery door and mode dial feel a little flimsy.
- No extrenal battery charger (need to plug camera into wall to charge).
- LCD blackout time could be faster.
I review a lot of cameras for the site but few have made this strong of an impression on me. The Ricoh GR II is an excellent camera that I whole-heartedly recommend.
UPDATE: Since this review was published Ricoh has released the GR III which is an amazing camera in its own right!
What’s your take on our Ricoh GR II review? Will this stealthy little shooter find a spot in your camera bag? Or are you holding out for the GR III? Post your ideas in the comments below and keep the conversation going!