I previously wrote about camera recommendations for most normal, non-photographer types who simply want to make some good vacation pictures that are a step above the quality you can get with a typical modern day cell phone. If you’re interested in something a little better that falls squarely into the professional image quality level, then read on as I discuss my current favorite travel camera, the Ricoh GR.
There are several components that I look for in a good travel camera. Size is the most important one. If it’s big and cumbersome, I don’t want it. The ideal travel cam needs to fit in my front pocket, so this automatically rules out all DSLRs and pretty much any camera with interchangeable lenses. What’s left over are a few different compact zoom cameras like the Sony RX100 and Canon G series, and large sensor prime lens (non-zoom) cameras like the Ricoh GR, Fuji X100F, and Nikon Coolpix A (which is sadly discontinued but still easily found on eBay).
Of these remaining models, the next priorities on my list are:
- Good lens
- Preference for a big sensor over a little sensor
- Speed of operation. Meaning how fast the camera turns on and off, how quickly it acquires focus, and time between when I press the shutter button and when the camera takes the picture.
What is not a priority is megapixel count. Megapixels are a meaningless measure of how good a camera is, and this has been the case since at least the start of this decade. Every modern day camera has sufficient megapixels, so that isn’t even a consideration when comparing camera models.
Of all the small, competent cameras listed previously, I believe the Ricoh GR strikes the best balance of size, weight, price, and quality. The current version of the camera, the Ricoh GR II, can be bought brand new for under $600. The GR II is more or less the same camera as the original GR, so if you can find a good deal on a used original model at keh.com or B&H Photo, I’d say go for it. What you get with this camera is a tiny device that has an excellent sharp lens and a large APS-C sized sensor (the same size found in most DSLR cameras). Basically, if you can’t get a good picture with this camera, it’s not the camera’s fault. If you want more of the technical specifications, there are lots of detailed reviews out there. Here’s one of the better written ones.
So how does this device fare as it specifically relates to travel?
1. It has a a slim profile and weighs practically nothing. The Ricoh GR has a front to back thickness of around 3.5 centimeters, meaning that it can easily slide into a front pants pocket. It weighs a little over 8 ounces, which is quite a bit lighter than anything else this size currently on the market. Even the Sony RX100 V, which is one of the most popular small cameras right now, is thicker and heavier. The following graphic compares the sizes of the two cameras (image courtesy of camerasize.com)
The Sony is smaller horizontally, but the lens barrel protrudes out more, making it more awkward to fit in a pocket. This is what made me hesitate to upgrade my original RX100; I played around with the new model at my local big box store and did not like how much thicker and heavier it had become compared to the first one that came out in 2012. As I said before, portability is essential, and those few extra millimeters make a big difference.
The smaller and lighter a camera is, the more likely I am to take it with me everywhere I go. In that respect, the Ricoh GR has no peer other than a cell phone, which is way worse in the image quality department. It’s the best part of using the GR: carrying this thing is like carrying no camera at all.
2. Fantastic image quality. Those who know way more about cameras than I do have given the GR universal praise when it comes to image quality. I completely agree. I’ve made 20×30 wall posters with images taken with this camera, and the print quality is excellent. Here are a few sample shots that I’ve accumulated over the years:
3. Speed of operation. This camera powers on quickly, shuts down quickly, and in general is a speed demon when it comes to general operation (with one big exception which I’ll mention in the next section). It’s a night and day difference compared to the Sony RX100 which is slow as molasses to turn on and off, resulting in the occasional missed shot.
1. Slow focusing in low light. In good light, the Ricoh GR is one of the fastest focusing cameras I’ve ever used. In the dark, not so much. I’d say this is the one area where other cameras may be preferable to the GR. It will focus when there’s not much light around; it just takes a while. I’d like to see this improved in a future model.
One way around this problem is to turn on the focus assist lamp. It’s a green light that briefly fires in the dark to help the camera acquire focus. It works really well, but the obvious disadvantage is having a bright green light blind everyone in the vicinity whenever you want to take a picture.
2. Prime lens. The lens on the GR doesn’t zoom. For me, this isn’t really a con, but the reason I list it here is that most regular folks see the lack of a zoom lens as a negative. I prefer prime lenses to zoom lenses. They’re smaller, weigh less, provide significantly better image quality due to simpler optics, and force creativity from the person behind the camera. Zoom lenses tend to make people lazy when they shoot pictures. But if you absolutely have to have a zoom, then consider a Sony RX100 instead.
The lens on the Ricoh GR is a wide angle with a focal length equivalent of 28 mm, which is the same as any of the iPhones released within the last few years. If you’re comfortable shooting with your phone, transitioning to the GR is a piece of cake, as the field of view captured by both devices is nearly identical. Anything between 28 mm and 35 mm is my personal favorite lens for travel photography; the lens is wide enough for landscapes and people/group shots in front of said landscapes, but it’s not so wide to where it causes large amounts of perspective distortion. If you like to zoom in all the way and snipe pictures from afar, this camera isn’t for you. I don’t typically shoot at long focal lengths, so I’m not missing anything – it’s just not my style.
So in summary, the reason why I like this camera so much is that it disappears. It’s so light and unobtrusive that you forget you have it until the moment comes up when you need it. This is so much better than lugging around several pounds of camera gear and making yourself miserable when you’re supposed to be on vacation having fun.
If image quality is important to you and you like making large prints to put on display, then the Ricoh GR is the camera to get. If not, there’s nothing wrong with going with one of the Sony RX100 models or even using your iPhone.
*The Ricoh GR 3 was announced in late 2018 and will be released sometime in the Spring of 2019. They made a few changes to the camera, including a minor increase in megapixel count, image stabilization, removal of the built-in flash, and loss of some buttons on the camera rear. If you’re considering buying the new model, I’d wait for some reviews to come out before making your decision. Based on preliminary hands-on reviews, one disappointing change in the GR 3 is that the battery life has gotten drastically worse with an estimated 200 shots per full charge (about half of what it used to be). For a travel camera that’s unfortunate, and you may want to consider picking up an older GR 2 while they’re selling for clearance prices.