A friend of mine has offered me to test out their latest Ricoh GXR, A12, M mount unit at the Crossing Bridges 8 in Vietnam. Crossing Bridges is the annual meet of photographers from Indonesia, Singapore, Vietnam, Philippines and Malaysia. What a better time to test this unit out when you are shooting 24/7 for 8 days in Vietnam.
The next thing was to find some M lenses to test this out. Another friend has offered his 21mm Elmarit f2.8 for me to use with this camera. Just for safe measure I brought my 50mm Summicron DR along too.
This GXR Module has an APS sensor and crop factor of 1.5. It has a 12 MP CMOS sensor with no anti-aliasing filter. For those who want to know more about the specifications, please go to…http://www.dpreview.com/previews/ric…tA12/page2.asp
Which is the best camera alternative to Leica M9?
So far the market has produced a few brands of camera that can adapt and mount Leica lenses. They are from Sony, Olympus and Panasonic via an M mount adapter. However, only Ricoh has a purposed made M mount unit.
Difference between a Mount and an Adaptor
There is a big difference between a mount and an adaptor. One must appreciate that Leica paid a lot of attention to their mounts. All Leica mounts are hand milled to perfect flatness and thickness tolerance. This is fine engineering work at its best. The mount must be perfectly parallel and have a precise distance from the lens to the sensor. This is the starting block for mounting various lenses onto the body.
The precise distance between the mount and the sensor plane is more critical in a rangefinder than a DSLR. The reason is that the M mount lenses are mounted closer to the sensor than a DSLR. The back of the lens for a rangefinder is only millimetres from the sensor while the distance of the lens from the sensor plane in a DSLR is very much further way because the back of the lens must clear the mirror box.
Adaptors are like a Swiss knife while a mount is a like scalpel. That is the main reason why owners of brands that mounts M lenses to the camera bodies via adaptors find that the M lenses do not perform as well as expected. The quality control for adaptors is not that stringent and as a result, the adaptors do not mount the lenses precisely parallel to the sensor.
Ricoh GXR A12, M mount unit was made to eliminate this problem as much as possible to become the best companion for M mount lenses….and it shows.
A User’s Experience
I took the camera unit for a spin, trying out various lighting and shooting situations to see if it can complement a Leica M8. You know Leicas these days are the one of the most sort after object of desire. Leica Owners would rather leave their M’s at home and take an unobtrusive cheaper camera out to places where they deemed not to be safe. Talking about camera snatch thefts, our Crossing Bridges group had a very unpleasant experience of encountering two not one incidents of attempted snatch thefts just outside the hotel that we were staying within a span of 2 hours on our last night in Ho Chi Minh City. So the danger is real. Luckily nothing was snatched and nobody was injured. Alternatively the Ricoh M mount unit would appeal to those who have a few M lenses but find the price of the M8 or M9 bodies a bit out of their reach.
Where do we start?
A Ricoh M mount unit is a different animal from the usual autofocus, auto everything genre that has been dominating the digital camera market. For once you have a camera that is back to the basics. Using manual focus lens like the M lenses is a challenge to beginners in photography who have been so used to auto everything. In terms of design philosophy, the Ricoh echoes the Leica genre of letting the photographer have full control over his instrument without interferences from the camera….ie, the master of the image production is the photographer not the camera. It is like giving the brain back to where it belongs – the photographer.
However, being a Japanese designed camera, it gives some creature comforts like the 3 metering modes, auto exposure (aperture priority only), movie mode and some of those bells and whistles associated with Japanese design concepts. In other words it is a marriage between the German and Japanese design concepts….not a bad mix actually.
a. Methods in focusing the manual lens on a Ricoh GXR M mount
I was having a hard time figuring how best to focus the manual lens on the Ricoh GXR without a rangefinder. I have to rely on the live view from the 3” high resolution LCD screen at the back of the camera.
From what I find in the operations manual, there are 3 methods of focusing:-
1) Mode 1 – using an enlarge section or whole screen with magnifications of between 2 to 8X to focus
2) Mode 2 – using a form of hybrid rangefinder style of coinciding images with enlargement of a section or whole screen.
3) Hyperfocus method – not written in the operations manual but a very popular method used by Leica M or rangefinder users.
In practise, I used a combination of method 1 and 3. The only irritation of method 1 is that after enlarging the image by assigning one of the two “Fn” buttons to taste, the image remains enlarged even when I half pressed the shutter button. I have to go back to the assigned “Fn” button and turn off the enlargement to compose the image.
In order to get maximum brightness on the screen, I have to manually set the aperture of the lens to its largest aperture and then stop down to the operating aperture before pressing the shutter. It does not have the auto aperture facility like the DSLR lenses.
For street shooting situations, the aperture that I used most is between f5.6 to f16. With such apertures, it is very easy to use the hyperfocus method and this is my preferred method of focusing.
There is an option to use an external EVF finder mounted on the camera. However, this unit was not available at the time for testing.
b. Testing the accuracy of the focusing scale.
Using the focusing scale on a manual lens is a lost art. Today most AF lenses do not even have a focusing scale. For most beginners in photography, a focusing scale is unheard of lest knowing how to make use of it. However, with hyperfocusing method, photographers are forced to test the accuracy of the focusing scale on the lens before using it confidently. From my personal experience the focusing scales on rangefinder lenses are more accurate that focusing scales on DSLR lenses.
In order to test the focusing scale of the lens, I mount the camera on a tripod and used method 1 and the enlarged playback image to see where the infinity mark is on the lens. With a new mount or adaptor, this exercise is necessary. Some mounts or adaptors tend to “over” or “under” focus…ie to say that by turning the lens to infinity, the part of the image that is far away is not in focus. I have done a chart to show the deviations in the focus scale.
“Over” focus means the real infinity focus happens before the infinity focus mark. This indicates that the mount to sensor distance is shorter than what is designed for. If the result is “under” focus the distance between the mount and the sensor plane is longer than what it is designed for. It is very easy to correct “over” focus situations but impossible to correct “under” focus situations.
I was told that the Ricoh M mount unit was a pre-production model, the focusing was found to be “over” focus. I have to correct the focusing scale accordingly when using hyperfocus method. I hope the production units would have fixed this problem. The mounts in the Leica cameras were hand milled to perfection to overcome this problem.
c. Picture quality
a. Anti aliasing filter
There is no anti aliasing filter just like the M8 or M9. The removal of this filter is supposed to enhanced the micro details and tonal characteristics of the well-made and fine Leica lenses. I find the images are sharper and need very little sharpening.
b. DNG RAW
I wished more camera companies would adopt this format instead of their own proprietary formats as ultimately most digital files will be converted to DNG if Lightroom or Photoshop is used. Proprietary format files do not have a seamless conversion to DNG format although Adobe does allow proprietary files to be converted to DNG.
Ricoh like Leica has chosen to use this format and WYSIWYG from the LCD screen.
c. High ISO
I have tested this unit at the highest ISO permissible, ISO3200 and the files are useable when I applied some noise reduction. The Leica M9 that I have tested can only have clean files up to ISO 800. That is a 2 stops advantage.
d. In camera BnW conversions
Most in-camera BnW conversions are neither here nor there and as a BnW shooter, the subtle differences are very noticeable. The Leica M9 that I have tested has one of the best in-camera BnW conversion that is similar to Kodak T-Max 400.
I am surprised that this Ricoh has spent some time to fine-tuned the BnW conversions to be very similar to the Leica M9 inspite of having different sensors. The Leica M9 has a CCD while the Ricoh has a CMOS sensor.
The camera unit with a M lenses mounted felt solid and is slightly heavier than expected. The weight however, is lighter than the M9 with lens combo though. The buttons and dials are well placed. Menu short cuts are offered and can be programed to taste.
f. Shutter lag
Since there is no auto focus offered by M lenses, there is no shutter lag just like the M8 or M9. You do not need to half press the shutter to activate the auto focus facility. For street shooters, shutter lag has been an obstacle to overcome.
What I really like about this Ricoh GXR A12 M mount?
i) Design philosophy of giving the brains back to the man that is 6” behind the camera.
ii) Manual focus, there is no focus hunting in bad light or low contrast situations.
iii) No shutter lag, a given for street shooters
iv) No anti-aliasing filter – brings out micro details and tonal characteristics similar to Leica M8 or M9.
v) DNG RAW – no need for color corrections in photoshop or lightroom.
vi) Ability to use very high quality lenses like the Leica M, Carl Zeiss M, Konica M, Minolta M Voigtlander M and even some Russian made M mount lenses.
vii) High ISO capabilities – this camera has better ISO capabilities than the Leica M9.
viii) High dynamic range – I have not tested this in the lab but on inspection of the images, it seems that the sensor could handle up to about 7.5 stops of exposure latitude similar to Kodak Tri-X or M9 sensor.
ix) In-camera BnW conversions – for those who have problems with BnW conversions, this camera will be able to assist you to understand what a BnW picture should look like.
x) Light weight – it is lighter and more compact than the Leica M. You won’t feel the weight hanging it around your neck the whole day.
xi) Movie mode – this is a feature that the M9 does not have.
xii) Price – the body unit including the mount cost about 6 to 7 times less than the current prices of the Leica M9. This alone should encourage photo enthusiast to give rangefinder photography a try. The price of the Leica M lenses could cost more than the body though. The alternative is to get the cheaper Voigtlander M lenses.
What I hope Ricoh could improve on?
i) The quality of the mount to correct the “over” focus problem. Not many beginners or even advance amateurs have a clue on how to solve it.
ii) Battery life – the rated battery life is about 330 shots, but the battery life on the unit that I have lasted is about 200 shots or just about 2 hours of continuous street shooting. This is really a disappointment. There was a situation where I had to stop shooting as I only carried the Ricoh camera with me.
iii) I have trouble finding a neck strap to fit the camera unit. The strap mounts are so small that none of the traditional neck straps can fit in. In the end I ended up using a PnS hand strap. Just imagine a camera with this configuration, a mid price body, expensive lens that is about 4 times the price of the body and a cheapo camera hand strap….it just doesn’t seem right as a “lifestyle” product.
iv) Automatic switching off the screen enlargement when used with Mode 1 or 2 at the half pressing of the shutter so that the picture can be composed properly.
v) An optical viewfinder perhaps to frame the picture for those who are used to viewing and composing thru an optical viewfinder.
vi) A full frame sensor instead of a 1.5 crop APS sensor. Leica does not produce wide angle lenses wide enough for those who love to shoot ultra wides. The widest lens that Leica produced is a 18mm Super Elmar. However, one can find 12mm or 15mm Voigtlander lenses.
Personally I would like to use a Ricoh GXR A12 M mount as a second body alternative to the Leica M9. Though there are competitors out there that clamour or marketed as a second body alternative, all of them used M mount adaptors instead of mounts. It will be a hit and miss situation depending on your luck.
The advantages that the Ricoh GXR has over the Leica M9 are the higher ISO capabilities and movie mode. There are also a lot of bells and whistles that cater to specific groups of people who like interval exposures and a host of other features. The built-in flash works well with the 21mm Elmarit.
I only wished that the battery life can be improved and it is an irritation to change batteries often in the field. You may need to carry 3 to 4 spare batteries if you are a prolific street shooter and it will also take ages to recharge those batteries at night. I have timed that it takes about 4 hours to recharge a single battery. So you may need to take along 2 to 3 battery chargers if you are on a photosafari trip.