Ricoh's catalogue is full of original and unusual cameras, like the GX range, the first expert-level compacts with ultra-wide-angle zooms or the R models, tiny little cameras with a bigger zoom than any of the competition at the time.
The most surprising part of its collection is still the GR Digital range and its cameras which don't zoom: you get 28 mm and that's it. They're ideal for photographing a landscape or taking a quick snap for a photo assignment, so cameras like this used to be nicknamed 'notepads'. This is the third version, logically enough called the GR Digital III.
Anybody who's familiar with earlier GR Digital models will feel at home here as the frame is a simple update to the one used for the GR D II. It has to be said that it would be difficult to improve it much further. Although the grainy black surfaces and general aesthetics aren't to everybody's taste, the large rubber handle and the thumb rest make for a camera with a formidable grip.
The controls on the GR D III has got a lot to teach amateur digital cameras. The combination of a scroll wheel and a slide switch underneath your thumb don't just make it easy to quickly configure the photo you're taking, they also give easy access to a selection of settings that you can customize yourself from the list of options available. There are two more buttons and a vertical slider that can also be assigned to different features.
Given the amount of customization available, it's easy to see why the GR D III is a camera for expert users. That's why there's no intelligent auto mode or scene detection here, unlike on the Panasonic LX3 or the Canon G11. On the other hand, the semi-automatic and manual modes are still available and you can save up to three personal modes. You can also save your photos as RAW files (Adobe DNG), making for more leeway when you handle them afterwards.
The first thing you notice when you switch it is the resolution of the screen. Ricoh was one of the first manufacturers to opt for high resolution displays on its cameras, and continues that trend here with the same excellent VGA quality screen found on the CX1. Even right up against the screen, the individual pixels are invisible. Ricoh has made the most of the extra resolution to review its menus, which, although packed with options, remain legible and detailed.
Compare the Ricoh GR Digital III to other digital cameras in our Product Face-Off
Once you get going, the next thing you notice is how responsive this camera is. A half-press on the shutter-release button produces a traditional focus rather quickly, but pressing it all the way down takes a photo instantly, with the focus pre-set at a certain distance. That makes it possible to keep photographing as much as you want without ever waiting unless the subject is moving a lot closer or further away from the camera between one shot and the other. This little detail is just one of the reasons that the GR D III makes for a great 'notepad'.
After years in the wilderness, the Panasonic LX3 reminded anybody who was still interested why a lens with plenty of light is an attractive option. The GR D III goes one further with a maximum aperture of f/1.9. The lens does its job well with precise details across the whole frame from the widest aperture up. There's just one hitch: we noticed a significant blur around the edge of the frame that appeared independent of the aperture that can only be explained by a bug in the focusing system. However, apart from these rare cases, there is plenty of detail at low sensibilities and the result is photos that are quite simply excellent.
As always with Ricoh, the automatic white balancing is very neutral, and is sometimes almost too perfect, producing photos that don't look very natural indoors. In the past, though, we've been more disappointed with the manufacturer's abilities at high sensitivities: noise handling has often lagged behind the competition and the GR D II struggled to provide workable prints at 400 ISO.
What a pleasant surprise, then, to find some real improvements, with noise that only begins to appear at 400 ISO and a good balance between blur and noise at 800 ISO. Beyond that, the graininess is too visible and there are irritating coloured areas, but the GR D III can stand up against its competitors without fear. The most demanding photographers can use the DNG format to correct their pictures afterwards using the software of their choice.
It's a less happy tale with video, where the image is accurate and movements fluid, but the whole thing is held back by the VGA resolution and mono sound. That's not really what a wide-angle camera with no zoom is for, though.
- Impressive hardware
- Lots of customisable features
- Instant photos (autofocus optional)
- Thin, fluid VGA screen
- Image quality
- No zoom
- Austere styling
- Few automatic modes
- No HD video or stereo sound recoding
The Ricoh GR Digital III Is a direct descendent of its predecessors: a notepad for an expert photographer to jot down ideas when he doesn't have a bulky SLR with him. It's responsive and produces great quality photos, but isn't the simplest camera to use and remains a more exclusive product than much of the competition.