Ricoh GRIII: field test, review and comparison with GRII

It took me five days to completely fall in love with GRII. So I thought five days would be enough to give the new GRIII a test run as well.

Ilia Slonski
Apr 22 · 13 min read

Back in winter, when it became clear GRIII was nigh, I made an agreement with Pentax Russia to take it for a long-term test. Initially it was about 2 to 3 weeks in order to calmly make some pics, compare it with GRII and write a review.

Eventually plans went south, and I only managed to take the camera before my five-day vacation in Budapest.

From this angle it seems that GRIII (in front) is same size as GRII

I was anticipating the test run: spring, a new city, vacation thrill. It’s pretty easy to take great pics during a journey. I couldn’t think of better conditions to run the field test.

Should I buy GRIII instead of GRII or not? TL;DR

If you can afford it, don’t put much faith in automatics, your hands aren’t bigger than mine (I wear S-size gloves), and you aspire for higher ISO values than GRII can offer, then you definitely should. It’s a very cool camera. It just isn’t much better than the previous one.

GRIII is considerably less noisy that GRII. As for the rest, I honestly see no reason to upgrade.


Usability and controls

Flash is gone, the body got reduced

Grip is now worse

The camera became 1 cm shorter or so. This caused changes in the weight balance and holdability: there’s just less space to grip the body.

Almost no free space left on the frontal side, between the handle part and the ring around the lens. With GRII, you could place four fingers there; now they touch the ring.

But worst of all — one-handed use is next to impossible with the new design, while the GRII was practically perfect for it.

Legend has it, the designers of GRI and GRII had their left arms tied to their body and had to make photos and adjust the settings while running in the wilderness. As a result, all buttons and switches were designed in such a way as to be fully usable with just right hand.

Well, now this magic has gone.

Now, in order to reach the controls, you have to uncomfortably twist your thumb. Meanwhile, the camera has every chance to fall.

On GRIII, the thumb hardly reaches the controls (second pic)

As the weight balance has changed, the support for other fingers weakened as well. There’s less space next to the grip beside the lens, and the supporting fingers have to move away from the center of gravity. As a result, you can’t safely operate the controls with just one hand.

Buttons on GRIII moved to the edge of the body. Or, more accurately, the edge moved to the buttons.

While with GRII, I never even came close to feeling I can drop it. With GRIII, it seems, I’ll have to abandon my old habits.

Why shrinking an already tiny camera and sacrifice its usability? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Less buttons on the back panel

I’m not going to whine about some buttons that now are gone. There is still tons of customisation possible, and you can assign and/or remap a lot of function buttons, so changes are not that significant.

Aperture at F2.8 blurs the foreground quite nicely

What I definitely noticed:

  1. They removed the AEL-AFL/C-AF comboswitch. I know GR fans who keep their camera in snap mode by default, and assign focus on that button. Now there’s Fn on its place, and you can assign anything to it.
  2. They removed the exposure compensation lever (+/– button). They should have worked better on it: it was the only button on GRII that could be ‘palm dialed’ by mistake*. However, working better on it doesn’t mean removing it altogether. It was simple and natural to input compensation with a selected switch. Now you have to use the back rocker switch for that, and its meaning changes with the context. All in all, it’s a change for the worse: the more context-dependent controls there is, the more likely you’ll make a mistake during the photoshoot.

* A hint from Nick Clark: set “Shutter Button Confirmation → On” and half-pressing the shutter button will act as OK for the compensation confirmation dialog.

Mode dial: farewell, TAv

Here comes the second dealbreaker (the first was the failed grip).

The GRIII designers obviously made an effort to decrease some clutter from the modes dial. It’s a great idea, but they also decreased “shutter + aperture priority” mode aka TAv. I personally can’t imagine my life without it. Well, I can, but I wouldn’t call it life.

They removed TAv, full auto, and video. And renamed user modes more concisely

What is TAv? In a couple of words, it’s a manual mode with loosened ISO.

In TAv, the photographer sets up the shutter speed and the aperture, and the camera automatically adjusts ISO to normally expose the scene under given conditions.

On GRII, I made up three user modes for three lighting conditions: “sunny” (F11, 1/500), “as usual” (F5.6, 1/320), and “depression” (F2.8, 1/125). Switching to one of those modes activates relevant parameters, and then you can proceed with all compensations you want. It all keeps up until you switch off the camera. When you turn it on again, it will wake up with the settings you assigned to the respective mode.

For 95% of all time, I don’t need other modes aside from TAv and three user ones mentioned above (they, too, work with autoISO). TAv allows one to set up the shutter speed (defining the tolerance for motion blur) AND the aperture (it dictates the depth of field, which is extremely important while shooting in Snap).

F11, snap (1 m focus distance), autoISO

TAv without TAv

GRIII has the Аperture + Shutter priority mode. Still, it’s not on the big dial anymore, which makes me especially sad: all the logic is there, but you’re not supposed to use it conveniently.

How to find your way to the TAv on GRIII:

  1. Put the camera in Av and set the aperture value you like
  2. In autoISO settings, set the required shutter speed (for instance, 1/400)
  3. Optionally: activate remembering the cursor position in the menu so that you could quickly adjust the minimum shutter speed or change the ISO cap if necessary

Done. The aperture is there, the shutter speed is there, the camera changes ISO within the minimum and maximum values you have set. Now go make some photos as if it’s TAv. In fact, it is TAv, it just has to wear crutches.

This wouldn’t have worked on GRII, by the way. The shortest shutter speed for autoISO there is 1/250. In GRIII, you can set up 1/500 or 1/800 if you want.

And to finish this mode dial thing. The dial turned by itself in my pocket every now and then, so the shooting mode was a surprise more than a couple of times I turned the camera on. Of course, it could be a problem with this particular camera, but there you go. This hasn’t happened once during the two years of using GRII.

UPD. Well, I am a moron. M mode + autoISO effectively work as TAv (you couldn’t activate autoISO in full manual on GRII). It was under my nose but I didn’t see it. Also it means this second dealbreaker is no more, which is amazing! Thanks for the feedback.

Touchscreen

GRIII now has a touchscreen. I can easily think of several scenarios when one might need that, but shooting street isn’t one of them. I disabled the feature immediately as I went for a walk: accidental touching kept on changing the focus.

Also, GRIII now has a much bigger display.

Or does it?

The diagonals of GRIII (left) and GRII (right) screens are almost the same.

As it turns out, the glass panel covering the display is way bigger than the actual screen. In fact, the screens are almost the same size.

Or even exactly the same.

The official website http://www.ricoh-imaging.co.jp/ claims both screens are 3’’. The GRII display resolution is even higher than that of GRIII: 1230k vs 1037k.

And here’s one more thing:

Once I compared GRII to Fuji X70. Here’s what I wrote back then: “Fuji puts the stuff like shutter speeds, apertures or ISOs right on top of the image when you have focused and are working on the composition. Ricoh has a separate strip on the bottom of the screen, and after half-pressing the shutter button, it shows only the most relevant info there, while the frame itself is absolutely clear and is not cluttered by anything. That’s the feature that makes me to jump at some far-reaching conclusions with regard to Pentax vs. Fuji usability specialists.”

I’m sorry. Jinxed it :-(

Flash? What flash?

They removed the flash.

USB-C, speed, battery life

Hurray, GRIII doesn’t use the old charging connector. It’s USB-C now. The same I have in my phone. And the same that every available cable is compatible with. What a joy.

GRIII turns on even faster than GRII. It seemed impossible, but there you go.

Earlier it took the camera a bit longer than a second to turn on. Now it’s under one second. It’s truly and incredibly cool.

When the girl just started yawning, the camera was in my pocket.

Alas, the battery life flashes by faster as well. In GRII, the full battery worked for 350 to 400 photos, i.e. for a day or two of walking with a camera for me.

In GRIII (with image stabilization on), the battery asked for a refill just as I was about to make my 200th photo. The day wasn’t even over.

A power bank or a spare battery are a must have.

Snap mode is alright

Nothing’s changed in this department. The snap rules as before.

It’s unfortunate that they didn’t foresee the option of setting up an arbitrary focus distance in the snap mode. The scale of possible focus distances is the same as on GRII. The minimal distance for Snap and Full Press Snap is 1 meter.


Image quality

The weather let me down: during all those five days, I had just a few hours of sunshine. Most “overcast” pics looked better in black and white. Sometimes I compensated for a miss focus or blurriness by turning the photos into black and white and adding some grain. So don’t check the b&w photos to know about the camera’s dynamic range or noise at higher ISOs. Most of the color photos were not processed.

Everything is fine here with focus and ISO, yet it looks better in b&w.

And now for the main course: is it any good as a camera?

The picture is great, yet they should work better on the software. Ironically, GRIII is more faulty than its predecessor in my opinion.

A contrast subject, and the lighting is okay but focus is fluctuating for some reason.
Artificial lighting, less contrast — GRIII just can’t focus sometimes.

Often I blind-shoot, meaning I don’t look in the finder. I know the force you have to apply to the shutter release. I’m well-accustomed to the 28 mm angle of view. Yet I missed on more than one photo I would have made with GRII. And it doesn’t mean I just made bad photos. I made no photos at all: I pressed on the release but the camera couldn’t decide how to shoot so it didn’t. And the subject was all gone.

I don’t know what’s the matter. Is it in the camera’s character? Bad software? I’m getting old? Maybe it’s all that. Anyway, for the first two days all my impressions with GRIII were about “what’s your problem, camera?”

On the other hand, with color and lighting (and an additional second to work the settings without TAv), GRIII shoots like a god.

Less noise. Much less

It’s true. The greatest and most important positive difference between GRIII and GRII is lesser noise at higher ISO values.

Color rendition is absolutely fine on well exposed photos at ISO 2500.
ISO 2500, 100% crop

The color is quite acceptable at ISO 3200 to 4000 as well.

The yellow one is at ISO 4000; the blue one and the cafe are at 3200

While I avoided going anywhere higher than ISO 3200 with GRII, with GRIII, ISO 6400 is more than acceptable.

ISO 6400

Even ISO 8000 doesn’t go full arc of covenant on your eyes. In my experience, ISO 8000 in GRIII is more or less like ISO 3200 in the previous generation.

ISO 8000. If it were GRII, the same level of noise would be at ISO 3200

GR has always been great with sharpness and details. Well, I didn’t shoot the test target, but I have a strong feeling it would be more than okay.

Raw works out pretty great.

With lower ISO, colour is great, malleable, and expressive. It’s a pity there were not too many subjects worth color.


Conclusion

583→50→1

During my four and a half days in Budapest, I made 583 photos. Fifty of them made it to the short list. And I really like just one (the first one here).

Did I fall in love with the camera? Frankly, I did not. Or, more accurately, I would have fallen in love with GRIII hadn’t I had GRII.

GRIII is superior to its predecessor in many respects. It has an interesting option of highlight-weighted AE metering, which means that the camera sets the exposure trying not to overexpose even smallest part of the picture. Face recognition is now available in all modes. Combined with auto-area multi-zone focusing, it creates a cool combo for shooting in a blind mode: just point the camera in the general direction of somebody’s face, and it will find it, and cling onto it. Also now you can account for the blinking frequency of fluorescent lamps (50 or 60 Hz) so that there won’t be any signature stripes under artificial lighting.

The problem is that none of these things really matter to me.

The GR series has always been a niche product focused on enthusiasts. I can easily understand why they removed video or full auto. I cannot understand at all why they threw away totally harmless TAv, though it was so good for street photos. Totally a mystery.

It would be very interesting to have a chat with GR’s product team to find out who they see as their core audience, and which problems they sought to tackle with those changes.

New GR is unequivocally cooler at higher ISOs. The boosted sensitivity combined with the image stabilization system can in some way compensate for the lack of the flash. It’s a heavy-weight advantage.

Yet, the reduced body that killed off the legendary grip and perfect controls… That’s the feature that makes me to jump at some far-reaching conclusions with regard to Pentax usability specialists.

Of course you can survive without flash. You just can’t make photos in the dark. I’m confident they’ll do something with focus in some of the upcoming software upgrades. Still, I will mourn the dedicated TAv until the next generation is released. I seriously hope they will bring it back.

So, GR4, I’m waiting for you.


My Instagram: instagram.com/slonski/

My Facebook (feel free to ask me anything about this review in Messenger): https://www.facebook.com/ilia.slonski

My 365 Project (a photo a day for a year, 2016–2017): https://take365.org/slonski/story/966

With thanks to Photo-One (St. Petersburg, Russia) and Pentax Russia and Vanya and Lena, specifically. I hope I will have another test drive with GRIII — I am still going to fall for it.