On the Mother Road with the Ricoh GR III

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When you think of cameras with a cult following, the Ricoh GR series instantly comes to mind. And with the newest generation—the Ricoh GR III—this advanced point-and-shoot is ready to take on a mainstream audience. While the camera has the name “III,” it is, in fact, the 14th GR-series camera, following a long legacy of beloved film and digital cameras prized by street and reportage photographers. Not to disrupt a good thing, this new version retains its especially sleek design, fixed 28mm-equivalent wide-angle lens, and simple operation that has made it a favorite for many for more than 20 years. What is new, though, is an improved sensor, updated image processing, and image stabilization, among some other smaller tweaks to the proven design. I recently got to take the GR III on a mini Southwest road trip, covering some highlights along the Mother Road from Arizona to California.

The kitchiness of Route 66 and a sunset over LA

I was excited to use the GR III because a) I’d heard so many great things about its predecessors and b) I’d never used a GR of any kind before. Even before turning it on, I knew I wanted to take it along with me on a trip somewhere. Its small size is definitely the most striking feature at first; it is pocketable, yet still packs a respectable APS-C-sized sensor and an 18.3mm f/2.8 (28mm equivalent) lens. Compared to other pocketable premium cameras, the larger sensor size of the GR III is the true differentiator. And if you’re a fan of wide-angle lenses, even better.

Scenes from Route 66

What separates this new model from the previous two recent GRs (the GR and GR II) is an entirely new sensor design. Now at a comfortable 24.2MP, the higher resolution of this model is more in line with contemporary mirrorless cameras and DSLRs. It also gives you greater freedom for cropping your images in the instance where the 28mm might be a bit too wide. A 35mm focal length crop mode yields 15MP files, and a 50mm focal length crop mode yields 7MP files. While I preferred to work at full-resolution and crop later if needed, these are useful settings for those who prefer to compose in the narrower field of view.

Scenes from Route 66 and the Petrified Forest National Park

The second key upgrade the GR III sports is the inclusion of image stabilization for the first time in a GR-series camera. Using Ricoh’s 3-axis Shake Reduction technology, this system helps to minimize the appearance of camera shake for sharper imagery when working at slower shutter speeds. This came in handy when photographing at dusk and indoors; we let it work with slower shutter speeds rather than higher ISOs. Conversely, something unique the GR III features is a built-in two-stop ND filter, which suits working with wider aperture settings in the bright sunlight of the desert.

Interior of a rest stop on Route 66
Desert scenes

The next feature I’d heard so much acclaim about is the lens. While seemingly modest, at an equivalent 28mm with an f/2.8 maximum aperture, the small stature and retractable nature of the lens is its best quality. The optical design is relatively simple, but contains a pair of aspherical elements that contribute to greater sharpness and correction of distortion. In use, there is some noticeable vignetting, but it is very easy to correct for that during post-production. The other attribute of the lens I especially enjoyed was the dedicated macro setting, for working with subjects as close as 2.4" away. In the desert, I made use of this when taking detail shots of the petrified wood and desert plants. Ricoh has also improved the Hybrid AF system for quicker performance, which seemed clear to me during daylight shooting, but in low light the camera still hunted at times when the subject didn’t contrast well with the background. The AF illuminator helped speed up low-light focusing, but it’s also a feature I typically turn off to remain more inconspicuous.

Close-ups of petrified wood and plants
Details from the desert

Regarding the design of the camera, I feel as though the haptics and physical design of the camera is a most important attribute. Sure, the improved sensor and Shake Reduction are great, much-requested improvements, but handling the camera was the most impressive experience. I would chalk this up to Ricoh having more than 20 years to perfect a way to make a compact camera function in a seamless and intuitive manner. While the references to its predecessors are obvious, the GR III did, in fact, receive a handful of updates of its design. Chief among them is a new 3.0" 1.037m-dot touchscreen LCD monitor. Touchscreen operation has been a major request many users were looking for, and the implementation of it is as seamless as any other camera on the market. Strangely for me, though, I’m not the biggest fan of touchscreens and chose to deactivate it most of the time. I found myself accidentally changing the focus point more often than I used it to select a focusing point intentionally, and I felt like the D-pad was sufficiently quick for selecting focus and navigating the menu.

Three characters
Various hills

If there is one drawback to the ultra-sleek design of the GR III, it is that it is so small that there is no room for a built-in viewfinder. I think this would be fine in most cases, since the screen’s brightness can be adjusted to suit working in daylight, but in the relentless sun of the desert, it still proved tough sometimes to see the screen. Luckily, Ricoh makes the well-matched GV-1 External Viewfinder, which mounts directly on the camera’s hot shoe and provides surprisingly accurate frame lines for shooting. When I was working with the GV-1, I would set the focus point to the middle and turn the camera’s audio settings up a bit, so I could listen for the focus confirmation beep to give me a bit more confidence when shooting without the screen.

Scenes of Los Angeles

Other aspects of the camera design I liked include the layout of the buttons– all are easily accessible when shooting one-handed, and I especially liked the ADJ lever for setting exposure compensation. Compared to a dial, it’s unique to have a lever/toggle switch to shift your compensation values quickly. I also appreciated the inclusion of a USB Type-C port for faster in-camera charging. The rub of this, though, is that the DB-110 battery is fairly small (I found myself going through 2-3 batteries per full day of shooting), so I was often making use of in-camera charging when driving for longer periods.

Wigwams at Sunset

At the end of my week of shooting, I had grown to appreciate and respect the GR III. I can understand its popularity and see why it is so revered among street photographers and those who work in a more off-the-cuff aesthetic. It’s small yet powerful, and is the ideal camera to have with you at all times. Its strength also lies in its intuitiveness and simplicity; it's a minimalist camera that has obviously been refined over the years to be the perfect everyday carry camera.

Do you have any experience with a Ricoh GR-series camera? What are your thoughts on this most recent installment? Let us know in the Comments section, below.

1 Comments

I have the GR1 and bought the GR3 to replace it because after 6 years of fairly hard use the GR1 was starting to get buggy. Overall I agree with most of of the reviewers comments on the camera but I would add one knock on the GR3 I think Ricoh shouldn't have decreased the size of the camera, because in so doing they got rid of the exposure compensation toggle that used to reside above playback button, it was far more intuitive and less prone to be inadvertently bumped than the current arrangement, additionally the larger body could have accommodated a larger battery alleviating the battery problem (which really is a problem). As far as other complaints people have had like the flash being removed I think I used the flash maybe 10 times in 6 years on my GR1 so I don't miss it a view finder would have been nice but I probably wouldn't have used it much.  

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