Ricoh GR II Review: Street Dreams Are Made of This

I'm always on the hunt for a powerful fixed lens compact camera for street shooting, and after reading countless positive reviews, I finally picked up a gently used Ricoh GR II. This is a camera that has a cult following, and after using it for about 6 months, I can see why it is considered a modern classic by street shooters around the world. 

I will not get into technical details in this review, but I will talk about the basics. The GR II is essentially the same as the previous generation, the WiFi capability is the only major upgrade. It has a fixed 28mm f/2.8 lens and a 16MP APS-C sensor.  It does not have a built-in viewfinder but it has a pop-up flash. For the next generation, I hope there will be a pop-up viewfinder in place of the flash. While I believe the flash is useful in certain situations, especially as a fill flash in daylight, I'm willing to go without it if that means I can have a Sony RX100 style viewfinder in the GR. 

Even though I arrived quite late to the GR party, I am no stranger to fixed lens compacts. Some might say I have an unhealthy obsession when it comes to this kind of cameras. Being a 35mm shooter, I loved my Fuji X100S, it was a game changer for me.  I also picked up a used Sony RX1R recently, I was attracted by that beautiful 35mm Zeiss Sonnar lens mated to the full frame sensor. The jury is still out, so far I haven't bonded with the Sony, there is no doubt it produces amazing picture quality and offers unbelievable dynamic range and excellent high ISO performance, but it's missing something, that's why the technically inferior Ricoh GR is still occupying a permanent spot in my camera bag. 

In terms of real life shooting experiences, the GR handles like a dream, the ergonomics is near perfect. The grip is so good that it feels like an extension of my hand. I didn't get the optical viewfinder that sits on the hot shoe, and I rarely use the rear LCD screen either. In fact, most of the time I have the screen turned off. I simply set the GR to snap mode, strap it to my wrist, and bring it to my chest level or eye level and press the shutter. I guess it's kind of like shooting from the hip, except I would raise it a bit higher to have a bit more control of the composition. I absolutely love the way the snap focus works and the fact you can customize settings and buttons in various ways. On the street, I'm a "f/8 and be there" shooter, I set the snap mode to one of the fn buttons so I can switch between AF and snap with one click. The snap mode allows you to zone focus with ease, you preset the focus distance, and the DOF scale on the LCD screen shows you the focus range. This feature is a godsend to street photographers.

The raw files from this camera converts nicely to black and white, the images are contrasty and punchy. The files are also very malleable, you can push the clarity and contrast quite a bit before you reach breaking point.

The GR also has a TAV mode along with the usual aperture priority and shutter priority modes. The TAV mode allows you to set both aperture and shutter speed and leave ISO adjustment up to the camera. The only issue I have with this camera is not being able to limit ISO in TAV mode. I normally set AUTO ISO Hi to 3200, and this will effectively limit ISO to no higher than 3200, but the TAV mode overrides this setting and removes the ceiling on ISO, so if you set aperture to f/8 and shutter speed to 1/500s, you will end up with ISO 25600 under low light. This renders TAV mode useless to me, but hey you can't please everybody. It comes with the camera, but I don't have to use it or like it. 

While the GR lens is not super fast, it is very sharp even wide open at f/2.8. It will not produce silky smooth bokeh however, so if you like that creamy shallow depth of field look, then the GR is probably not for you. When the macro mode is enabled, shooting at f/2.8 will create enough subject isolation and the bokeh can still be somewhat pleasant to look at. The below images were shot wide open with the macro mode turned on. 

If you are a run and gun type of street photographer that get in people's faces and captures the gritty side of things , then look no further and accept no substitute, the Ricoh GR/ GRII is the best camera out there for you. It's a camera that will get you really close to people on the street and put you right where the action is. Is this the best fixed lens camera for me? I would have to say no, I don't think I can live with having GR as my one and only camera. On the other hand, the more versatile Fuji X100 series will be my choice as the desert island camera, if I could only have one camera in my life, that would be it. The X100 series is also better for when you want to be more thoughtful in your composition, it is a camera that will help you slow down and evaluate your surroundings, perhaps this is not really a fair comparison in terms of size and cost.  The GR is truly pocketable while the X100 will only fit into pockets of winter coats, and the X100 series costs twice as much as the GR series. The only direct competitor to GR on the market is the Fuji X70 ( read my X70 review here), there are a lot of similarities between the two, but as much as I like the X70, I still prefer the Ricoh GR, both in terms of operation and image quality. 

My wish list for GR 3: 

  • A pop-up viewfinder
  • Dust Proofing/ Weather sealing
  • Better high ISO performance ( My GR 2 starts to get quite noisy at ISO 1600)

If the GR 3 is already in the works, it will probably be equipped with the industry standard 24MP APS-C sensor, which will improve high ISO performance. Other than the points I made above, I really can't think of much else.  Ricoh has carved out a nice niche with the GR series because for what it does, it does it better than any other camera.