Ricoh’s user manual describes the GR1v in the typically understated fashion used by many Japanese companies as an “Ultra Slim 135 Film Format AF Camera.” And it’s certainly all of that. It’s also gorgeous, solidly made, and exceptionally capable. If this machine were made in another country, its manual would inevitably use a more self-celebratory tone. It would likely congratulate its buyer for being the lucky owner of the finest, smallest, and best compact camera ever made. And when that buyer pulled the camera from its plastic pouch, they’d believe the fuss.
But the Japanese don’t fuss, and the manual doesn’t say any of this. Instead, Ricoh bows humbly and hands us a camera. A great camera. And like many of the best anythings, it does its job perfectly and without any fanfare. It’s the best compact camera I’ve yet used.
But it’s not an easy sell. With its wide-angle lens and a relatively high price tag, the Ricoh GR1v will not be the compact camera for every photographer.
What is a Ricoh GR1v?
The Ricoh GR1 debuted in 1996 and was the first camera in the now long-running GR series. It was intended to be a high performance point-and-shoot camera for professionals. This is evidenced in its key design features – a compact and lightweight magnesium-alloy body, a high-definition 28mm lens, fast autofocus with available fixed focus, a built-in flash, and useful user controls for creative photography.
It was an instant classic. In fact, when Ricoh engineers realized they’d made a nearly perfect 28mm lens, they quickly moved to recreate the GR lens in Leica Thread Mount. The resulting GR 28mm F/2.8 LTM lens released in 1997. I asked Ned Bunnell, former President of Pentax in the United States, if he could tell me anything about the GR lens –
“when talking to one of the older engineers who’d worked on the original GR’s […] they realized they’d created a perfectly corrected yet very small 28mm lens, and this drove them to make a limited edition Ricoh 28mm LTM lens for Leica. If I remember it’s about half the size of Leica’s Elmarit at that time. It was designed out of pride. I clearly remember he said that they made it in a very limited quantity, so it was really more of a proof of capability statement than a production lens.“
Also in 1997, Ricoh released the GR1s, a slightly upgraded version of the GR. The major addition was improved optical lens coatings. But the camera also added an illumination feature to the LCD display, and a bayonet-style filter mount system for users who wanted to use filters and lens hoods.
The Ricoh GR1v followed in 2001, and added a handful of substantial and useful features to the GR formula. Chiefly the addition of an automatic exposure bracketing mode, more versatile manual focus modes, and importantly, manual ISO control. This last feature allowed users to override the DX coding of loaded film, a technique favored by street shooters and those of us who develop our own film.
It’s this latest version of the GR, the GR1v, that was lent to me by the previously mentioned Ned Bunnell last month. I’v been shooting it since then, and it’s surprised me in many ways.
The Ricoh GR1v is a compact 35mm point-and-shoot film camera. It features a Ricoh GR 28mm F/2.8 lens. Focusing is handled via a passive multi-autofocus (with available manual control and focus lock), and is equipped with an auxiliary AF light for low-light conditions.
Exposures are made by an electronic shutter capable of firing in full program mode or aperture-priority autoexposure modes. Shutter speeds range from approximately two seconds to 1/500th of a second, plus a timed exposure mode.
The viewfinder is a reverse Gililean type with LCD frame lines and in-finder illumination for low light conditions, and a magnification of 0.43x.
The built-in flash automatically adjusts flash power to available light levels, with user-selectable flash modes. Flash guide number is 7 at ISO 100, and recharge time is approximately five seconds.
The camera automatically winds the film when film is loaded, and with every exposure the film is rewound into its canister. This preserves exposed frames in the event of an accidental film door opening.
There’s a film frame counter, exposure compensation dial, self-timer functionality, an LCD display on the top plate, a wrist strap lug on the right-hand side, a tripod socket on the bottom, and a date function on date-equipped models (which you’ll want to turn off).
Three Big Reasons to Love the Ricoh GR1v
The success of compact point-and-shoot cameras relies inevitably on three major points – portability, image quality, and user control. The first and second of these points can be directly and objectively measured. The last, user control, is more subjective. But I think the Ricoh satisfies even this last notoriously tricky demand handily. After shooting a dozen rolls through the Ricoh, I’m a bit baffled as to why this camera isn’t the most popular film compact on the market today.
Reason One – Size
Size is objective, making it one of the more easily measurable elements of a review. The Rioch GR1v is a tiny camera, measuring just 117mm (length) x 61mm (height) x 26.5mm (depth), excluding the grip, which has a depth of 34mm. The camera weighs just 177 grams, without battery (one CR2 battery).
For those keeping track, that means the Ricoh is smaller in two dimensions than the smallest main line iPhone. More relevant to film camera nerds, it’s smaller than the Contax T2 (and more than 100 grams lighter). It’s also smaller and lighter than the Leica Minilux, and the Contax TVS, the Yashica T series cameras, and most of the other trendy compacts.
Unlike these “small” cameras that are actually quite bulky when stuffed into a pocket, the slimness of the Ricoh separates it from the pack. An incredibly shallow depth of just 26.5mm (just a few millimeters larger than a roll of film) allows it to slide into any jacket pocket, into any suit pocket, into any pant pocket without producing unsightly bulges.
Reason Two – Control
Compact film point-and-shoots with premium lenses are popular among street photographers and those who wish to be street photographers. And among this group, there’s a common set of features that’s frequently asked for, but provided by very few cameras. Even the most popular film point-and-shoot compacts, the Olympus Mju II, the Yashica T series, the Contax T2 and T3, fail to satisfy the needs of these select photographers in the areas of user control.
The Ricoh does not fail. It has everything that these street shooters want – zone focus, manual control of flash which retains its settings even when the camera is switched off and then on again, ISO control, aperture control, and exposure compensation. The Ricoh, remarkably, offers all of this, and it does so in elegant ways.
The flash control is a physical button with three detents – On, Automatic, and Off. Simply slide the control to the desired flash mode and fire. It will stay physically switched to whichever mode you like even when it’s turned off and then on again. No menus to navigate, no fiddly buttons to press multiple times, and no accidental flashing of candid subjects on a dimly lit city street. It’s a stealth machine, and the flash modes never betray this.
The exposure compensation control, mounted on the top left of the camera, is a physical dial. It rigidly clicks through half-stop increments from +2 to -2 exposure value. Like the flash mode, it also does not reset with each power cycle. This makes the Ricoh GR1v ideal for pushing/pulling film.
The manual aperture control, again, is a physical dial. Positioned on the right top of the camera, it allows the photographer to manually control the lens aperture in half-stop increments from F/2.8 to F/22. Switching it to any of these numerical values will switch the camera to aperture priority autoexposure, a mode in which the photographer chooses the desired aperture and the camera selects a shutter speed that will result in a correct exposure. Switching this dial to “P” activates programmed autoexposure, the mode in which the camera’s brain automatically selects the correct aperture and shutter speed to make a proper exposure.
Another detent on this dial’s range of motion is used for ISO control. Switch the dial to “ISO” and the photographer is able to manually set the sensitivity of the camera’s metering system. Essentially a more versatile exposure compensation, manual ISO control provides direct control of exposure to knowledgeable photographers and those who choose to develop their own film in pursuit of specialized results.
The manual focus controls are accessed via the top-plate mounted “Mode” button. The only creative control that doesn’t receive its own dedicated physical input, it’s the least pleasant of the creative controls to use. By pressing the menu button we’re able to cycle through infinity focus, single AF, snap focus mode, and fixed focus mode. We’re also able to set the snap focus mode to a desired distance by pressing and holding the Mode button and simultaneously pressing the shutter release button while the camera is focused on the desired distance.
These focus modes work fine, and they retain their setting even when power is cycled. For my needs, manual focus isn’t critical. Mostly this is because I don’t practice snapshots and I’m not a street photographer. But even for these types of shooters I feel the manual focus modes will be mostly unnecessary. That’s because the autofocus system is very good, and the 28mm lens produces images with fairly deep depth-of-field, even when shooting wide open. With subjects approximately six feet away, everything is going to be in focus.
Startup time is 1.75 seconds. It’s also possible to hold the shutter release button while the camera is starting, and when it’s ready it will immediately autofocus and fire. This takes 2.5 seconds. If the camera is set to “Snap Focus” mode it takes even less time. This is a “feature” that few people will use. But for those few who need a fast camera off the line, the Ricoh is the fastest.
As mentioned earlier, I find it baffling that the Ricoh, given that it offers literally everything that everyone seems to demand of a compact point-and-shoot, fails to earn the fanfare of other more popular compacts. With its exceptional grip and a complete suite of creative controls, it effectively handles better than any Contax compact (or any other premium point-and-shoot) that I’ve used.
Reason Three – Lens
Size and control are major factors in creating a successful compact point-and-shoot. But the major reason to love and choose the Ricoh GR1v (or its earlier progenitors) announces itself when we hit the On button. Doing so causes the GR 28mm F/2.8 lens to rapidly extract from the body, and it’s this glass that makes the GR1v truly stand out.
Made of seven elements in four groups, and featuring multicoated and aspherical elements, the GR 28mm F/2.8 lens is without question one of the best lenses ever packed into a compact camera. It’s even one of the best 28mm lenses outside of this class, outperforming the best interchangeable lenses for rangefinder and SLR systems. It’s an incredible assemblage of glass.
Punchy images, zero distortion, extreme clarity and resolution, excellent flare and ghost control, barely any vignetting, sharpness from corner to corner at all apertures – images made with this lens are simply flawless.
Its nature as a wide-angle lens also sets it apart from most other compact, premium point-and-shoots, most of which have 35mm or 38mm lenses. As such, images from a Ricoh GR1v are intrinsically different from those made with, for example, a Contax T2 or T3, or a Yashica T series camera. Wider angles can help add dynamism to what might typically be an otherwise boring shot.
[Shots in the samples gallery below were made with Kodak T-Max 100]
One Small Problem
The 28mm lens of the Ricoh GR1v is a fairly wide lens, even brushing up against the long end of ultra-wide (which technically starts at 24mm when exposing the 24x36mm image area of 35mm film or a full-frame digital sensor). While this wide lens brings all of the benefits and interest mentioned earlier, it also brings a handful of compromises.
Wide-angle lenses have strong personalities. Not everyone gets along with strong personalities.
The quickest example – wide-angle lenses tend to push backgrounds into the distance, which can leave some types of photograph feeling empty and vacuous. For street photographers in particular, the 28mm lens will demand that we get very close to our subject. For some of us, this requirement will fall under the umbrella of “uncomfortably close.”
It’s also true that wide-angle lenses aren’t ideal for typical portraiture. While they are good for making contextual portraits, in which the main subject shares the frame equally with other subjects (other people, an environment, etc.), they struggle at the standard headshot-with-subject-isolation portrait. If we do decide to buck the trend, set the aperture to f/2.8, and fire some frames at the minimum focus distance to achieve a semblance of the traditionally close portrait, filling the frame with our subject will require such closeness that faces will invariably distort. Ears will look distant, eyeballs will stretch away from the nose, and the nose will look gargantuan.
For someone like me, who mostly shoots a 45mm or 50mm lens, the 28mm lens of the Ricoh GR1v is a perfect accompaniment to the longer lenses typically mounted to whatever camera I happen to be using today. But to say a 28mm will work for everyone, or will work as an everyday lens in universal application, would be to lie. Regardless of how special it is, the GR 28mm is a specialty lens. And that won’t work for everyone.
One Bigger Problem
Electronic cameras are a risk. Readers familiar with classic cameras and the electronic branch of this tree that is the hobby photography will have been knowingly waiting for this caveat. Its mention is unavoidable, even if my personal fears are less acute than most commentators.
All cameras (even the fully mechanical ones) will eventually fail. Shutters need to be readjusted, rangefinder optics de-silver, coatings separate. In the case of electronic cameras, things are even more complicated. Repair of electronics requires specialized knowledge, benefits from experience, and demands a supply chain of increasingly harder-to-find spare parts. For this reason, many people advise that shrewd shoppers should avoid electronic cameras entirely, saying definitively that they will break, and that when they do they simply cannot be repaired. I don’t necessarily offer this same advice, but I understand why others do.
I have a Nintendo Virtual Boy, a stereoscopic 3D video game console that innovated in some really interesting ways, but failed spectacularly in the marketplace. Released in 1995, it’s nearly twenty-five years old. My unit’s displays stopped working last week due to aging adhesive on a ribbon cable. I heated it up and reapplied the glue, which fixed the unit. It will break again someday, I’m sure. I may not be able to fix it next time.
But here’s the rub with the “don’t buy something that’ll eventually break” argument – I’ve gotten twenty-five years of intermittent joy from that ridiculous video game console. Twenty-five years of fun that started with excitement and wonder, later aged to nostalgic revisitation, and recently matured into true curiosity and a real appreciation of the unique history and excellent design of a quirky device that’s still giving me pleasure (when it’s not giving me occipital neuralgia).
That a thing will eventually stop working and that the repair of that thing might cost us more money and time than another thing that will also eventually stop working for different reasons is not cause enough for me to deny myself the temporary (is twenty-five years temporary?) enjoyment of that thing. Individual users may feel differently. I know how I feel about it. Earlier this week I bought a backup Virtual Boy. Later, I will buy a backup Ricoh.
[Shots in the samples gallery below were made with Cinestill 800T]
The GR1v was the last of the line (a GR21 was also released, but this camera features a wider 21mm lens), and as such, it’s the most advanced and the newest. This makes it the safest buy today, though these benefits come with an elevated price. The GR1v is the most expensive 28mm lens-equipped GR, and potential buyers will need to determine whether or not the benefits of the made-in-2001 warrant the higher price.
The GR1 or GR1s, made between 1996 and onward until the release of the GR1v, offer a nearly identical package. The 28mm lenses on these cameras uses the same optical formula of the later GR1v. Though the lens coatings of the original GR1 are technically inferior to the later camera’s coatings, this will hardly show in practical application.
The only users who will definitively require the GR1v over the earlier cameras are users who need manual ISO control, auto-bracketing, or who simply want the newest possible unit.
Compared to other premium point-and-shoots, the GR1v is a good buy, if that buyer is looking for a 28mm lens. Among wide-angle point-and-shoots, it falls on the affordable end of the price spectrum, and among these it’s the most capable camera available. If 28mm is too wide, well, look for a different machine.
I’m notoriously selective of the cameras I keep. My collection is tiny (a surprise to people who follow this site and know what I do for a living). If a machine has one feature that annoys me, or an unexceptional lens, or an unappealing design, it’s gone.
For compact, electronic point-and-shoot film cameras, a home in the display case of my permanent collection is an unattainable dream. They gaze longingly at the unoccupied spaces between the Nikon SP Limited Edition and the Rollei 6008 Professional or the Pontiac Super Lynx and the Kodak Ektra, and reach in vain as I carry them by, to rest in their temporary spot on the inventory shelf for cameras that will be sold to customers of my camera shop.
But this Ricoh is an exception. If it’s not changed my mind about compact, electronic point-and-shoot cameras, it’s at least opened it. Its lens is truly incredible at making images, and with its 28mm focal length, it offers a perspective that I seldom use elsewhere and find to be refreshing. The clarity of its design is equally refreshing. Its ease of use clears the mind. Its size and subtlety make it a perfect guest.
I’m going to see if Ned will sell it to me. If he does, you can expect to see the Ricoh GR1v in my Instagram feed, here and there, until the day it dies. When and if that day arrives, I will buy another. It’s that good.