The Ricoh GR Digital III is a seven year old camera. It was introduced in the summer of 2009. This was way before serious compact cameras with 1” sensors – such as Sony RX100 series, Canon G5 X, G7 X (II) and Panasonic TZ100/ZS100 – hit the market. At the time there were only a handful of pocketable serious cameras to choose from. What made the Ricoh GR Digital III stand out for me, were its 28mm equivalent prime lens with a maximum aperture of f/1.9, a for its time speedy operation and auto focus thanks to the GR ENGINE III image processor and the lovely 920,000 dots 3 inch LCD screen, which looks great even by today’s standards.
With a size of 1/1.7” its sensor was considered very large for a compact camera at the time. And, to top it all off, it was one of the few compacts to offer RAW capture, which made all the difference in terms of achievable image quality and post processing headroom.
All of these (and many more) features had their price, of course. The tiny GR Digital III was released with a hefty £529.99 / $699 / €599 price tag. One could buy an entry level DSLR with a kit lens or a double kit for the same amount of money. But still, getting the Ricoh was worth it, if you wanted a serious and very capable carry-anywhere camera. In my opinion it’s worth it to buy a used one even today, so many years after its release. Keep on reading to find out why.
Ricoh rarely made cameras for showoffs and wannabes. I don’t know of a single Ricoh camera with a glossy finish, large logos or big numbers all over its body. What Ricoh made and still makes instead are cameras that have an under-stated, utilitarian design with a strong emphasis on aspects like keeping a low profile and prioritizing function over form.
This “it’s a tool, not a toy” philosophy is maintained when it comes to build quality. The GR Digital III has an aluminium alloy body and amazing build quality. It is built better than most cameras I have handled and even feels more solid than my Olympus OM-D E-M10. That is just how good this little, unassuming camera feels in the hand.
What makes the experience of holding it even more enjoyable, is its large rubberized handgrip and matt, rough finish. You never feel like it’s going to slip through your fingers. Just to drive the point home: I use both my Olympus OM-D E-M10 and Nikon 1 V1 with neck straps, because I never feel 100% confident, that they won’t slip out of my hands. I use the Ricoh GR Digital III without a neck strap or a wrist strap.
One more thing I like about the GRDIII’s design and build is the all-metal tripod mount. This is a feature not many compact cameras offer.
The Ricoh GR Digital III measures 108.6 mm (W) x 59.8 mm (H) x 25.5 mm (D) and weighs around 188g without the battery or memory card inserted. It is extremely pocketable – it fits into all sorts of pants and shirt pockets.
Controls and ease of use
I have yet to see a camera of any size rival the Ricoh GR Digital III’s control scheme and button layout. If we only concentrate on compact cameras, I think that there is none that comes even close, aside from Ricoh GR and GR II and Fuji X100 series cameras. The controls on the GRDIII are extremely well thought out. They are rather simple – the exact opposite of Olympus cameras, which are very customizable but also have extremely convoluted and complex menus – yet never leave you with the feeling of not being in control of all shooting parameters – like for example the Nikon 1 V1 does, with its lack of buttons and dials. Ricoh has managed the balancing act of providing tons of control and customization AND making the camera easy to use at the same time. For me there is literally not a single irritating thing about the GRDIII’s controls, which is why I still use it to this day and will probably keep on using it till the day it breaks.
Let me quickly walk you through the controls on the GR Digital III: on the front there is a vertically-oriented dial, similar to the ones on Nikon Df and Contax G2. It is used for changing aperture in A mode and M mode and shutter speed in S mode. Next to it on the top plate is the Mode dial with all the familiar modes (Auto, P, A, S, M, Scene mode) and three customizable modes – so called MY1, MY2 and MY3 modes. What the Mode dial does needs no further explanation, aside from the fact that there is a little lock switch right next to it, which you have to push before you can change modes. This makes unwanted changes impossible. It baffles me why so few cameras offer this amazing feature.
On the upper side on the back of the camera is the ADJ lever – it looks like a dial at first glance, but it is used more like a tiny joystick. You move it to the left and right to lower and increase ISO respectively or to set shutter speed in M mode. You can also push it straight in to enter a quick menu, where you can adjust five commonly used settings: Exposure Compensation, White Balance, ISO, Quality and AF/AE Target. In the main menu you can customize the settings in the ADJ menu. Instead of the ones above I have the following set on my camera: ISO, Bracketing, AF/MF modes, Metering modes, AF/AE Target.
To the right of the ADJ lever is a Zoom lever. The Ricoh GR Digital III having a prime lens, this lever is used for setting exposure compensation in A mode and S mode or for taking an exposure reading and setting appropriate shutter speed in M mode.
Coming back to customization mentioned above, you can configure the GR Digital III and save the current settings as one of three My Settings modes. You can then access these modes by setting the Mode dial to MY1, MY2 or MY3. Since the camera remembers these settings when it’s turned off, this allows you to configure your GR Digital III for different uses and quickly access each configuration. In addition there are two Function (Fn) buttons on the rear of the camera – I have the Self-Timer assigned to Fn1 on the D-pad and AF Target, which I use a lot when shooting macro, to Fn2.
The customization doesn’t end here on the software side of things. Since the GR Digital III has a built in flash and a hot-shoe you can customize it further by making your own flash diffuser for macro (you can see what mine looks like here) and by using the hot shoe to either mount a more powerful flash or mount an optical viewfinder. I don’t use an additional flash because in my mind it goes against the spirit of this camera (small, light, take anywhere…), but I do use the optional Ricoh GV-2 viewfinder. Being a purely optical viewfinder it isn’t well suited for subjects that necessitate very precise framing including parallax correction, like macro, but it is perfect for run-n-gun type of shooting in the sun, like street photography. Should you prefer even wider focal lengths, there is the optional GW-1 wide conversion lens which provides an even wider 21mm equivalent focal length. Since I don’t have it, I can’t comment on its build quality and optical performance.
Autofocus, metering and speed
In the realm of consumer electronics seven years is a very long time. Hence most of current gen cameras are speedier in every way than the Ricoh GR Digital III. But back when it was new, the GR Digital III was one of the fastest compact cameras money could buy. It offered very fast single point AF (with nine separate auto focus points), which was also fast’ish in macro mode. In addition there is a feature called Snap focus mode that remains Ricoh-exclusive to this day. It allows you to press the shutter release button fully and have the camera focus to a pre-set distance (1m, 2.5m, 5m or Infinity), which reduces AF delay to almost zero. For all intents and purposes, shooting with Snap mode is like shooting with no lag whatsoever. It is perfect for street photography or action photography. There is also Pre-AF, which is similar to AF-C. It was quite amazing back then, but now it’s hardly comparable to some of the current gen cameras’ continuous focusing abilities.
On the burst mode side of things, the GR Digital III offers 1.5 frames per second while shooting RAW! This was a jaw-dropping feature back then. Now compare this with the 60 RAWs the Nikon 1 V1 can take in one second. There is simply no comparison.
In short: the Ricoh GR Digital III is not painfully slow when compared to modern day cameras, but it is not fast either. But just to be perfectly clear, I have no problem shooting it alongside my Nikon 1 V1 and Olympus OM-D E-M10, which are both very fast cameras in terms of AF and burst capture. Your mileage may vary, though.
As for metering, the 256 segments metering system sounds dated on paper, especially when you compare it to systems in current cameras with many thousands of segments and fancy color-analyzing algorithms. But in practice the 256 segment metering system works very, very well. It predictably errs on the side of caution, underexposing a bit in order to protect highlights. You can keep in check of what it’s doing by activating the live view histogram. I have it activated on my GR Digital III at all times. There is also center weighted average metering and spot metering, in case you are a purist.
Maybe I’m wrong and some current high-end compact cameras offer the following two features, but for me these are quite unique.
Firstly, the Ricoh GR Digital III can trigger external flash guns in the S1 mode without needing to activate a special mode in the camera settings first. And it can do this with a sync speed of blazing fast 1/2000 of a second (!), thanks to having a leaf shutter in the lens. Needless to say you can also use its built-in flash up to the said shutter speed, which makes the camera very useful for shooting macro or portraits with a mix of ambient and flashlight. For macro you will need a flash diffuser like the one I have linked to above. Otherwise the flash light will get blocked by the lens. Here are some of my macro shots, which I took with the built-in flash and my diffuser.
Secondly, the GR Digital III has a longest shutter speed of 180 seconds! Most other cameras, even more recent and more expensive ones, like the V1 and OM-D E-M10 only offer 30 or at the most 60 seconds. What a long shutter speed like this allows you to do, is shoot very long exposures (star trails come to mind), without having to fiddle with bulb mode or without the need for special triggers and such. I haven’t used this feature so far, most I used was maybe 120 seconds, but it’s nice to know that it is there should I ever need it.
Who’s it for?
The GR Digital III is a capable compact camera, but it’s not for everyone. If you are considering buying one second hand, you should ask yourself first whether a compact with a prime lens, and a wide-angle 28mm equivalent lens at that, is the right camera for you. Some people can’t think let alone shoot in wide-angle and would be ill-advised purchasing a camera like the GR Digital III.
What this camera is good for are landscapes, nightscapes (thanks to that very long shutter speed of 180 sec and very low sensitivity of ISO64), street photography and macro. Should you be willing to experiment a bit, you will find that it also excels at flash photography, especially when mixing ambient and flash light. I personally don’t use it for portraiture, since I’m unable to make wide-angle portraiture work, but I do use it for macro with a mix of ambient and flash light and for night time macro.
Where to buy it?
I don’t believe the Ricoh GR Digital III can be bought new, and even if you happen to find one, I imagine that it would be quite expensive. The used ones sell for 150 bucks and more on ebay.
The following are a some of my better shots taken with the Ricoh GR Digital III. You can find more in my Flickr set.
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