Dances With Digital Dilettantes – Pt 2

Is it possible to have and master just one digital camera that suits all my needs?

This is the second and final part of my thoughts on the five digital cameras I have and have extensively used, what they do for me, and why I like them. You can read part one here , which covered my Sony NEX 3N, Nikon Coolpix P300 and Pentax K10D.

As usual on 35hunter, you won’t find extensive tech spec, 100% crops or pixel peeping. These are my purely subjective thoughts on how and why these cameras work (and fall short) for me and my photographic preferences.

On with the final two cameras, and my overall conclusions.

iPhone 5C (+ Hipstamatic app)

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Handling

On the upside, the iPhone is very compact, and the rubberised cover I have make it quite grippy. Aside from this, it’s not very camera-like at all, and does fall in the same category as my Sony NEX – a clever device that makes pictures, rather than a camera.

You can tilt the camera side on (which I do 90% of the time I’m shooting 3:2 aspect ratio anyway) and use either volume button as the shutter button, which is far more like a compact camera, but still not amazing. I tend to stick with the touch screen.

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Flexibility

It’s always with me and available! With the standard camera app it’s pretty capable. Adding the Hipstamatic app though opens up a whole world of options.

What I like is you can create your own favourite “filters” from a combination of different lens, film and flash options, and use these either at the point of taking the picture, or afterwards. Any number can be bought afterwards for little money and mixed and matched with the standard ones. I have very few, thus far.

Because you can set it to save a default untouched image, and the version with the chosen favourite you used, you then have the original image to play with afterwards, with any other combination of lens, film, flash and a host of other adjustments. I’ve barely scratched the surface.

You can shoot all auto, or switch to Manual mode and have manual control of ISO, shutter speed, focus, exposure, zoom and white balance.

Furthermore there are a range of aspect ratios that again can be applied before or after taking the shot. I mostly use the 1:1 square crop as it seems to fit the instant/Polaroid feel of Hipstamatic, but quite often also use my favourite 3:2 I’m so experienced in.

Also I really appreciate that that the iPhone focuses very close.

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Enjoyment

Once you accept it’s never going to handle like a proper camera, the iPhone/Hipstamatic combo is in fact huge fun.

I was recently out with the NEX and of course my phone in my pocket, and getting frustrated with the NEX and its clumsy handling. So put it away in my bag and spent the rest of the photowalk using just my iPhone. It was so refreshing and it led to a number of images I was very pleased with.

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Image

I’ve not ever had prints made from iPhone images and use it mostly to upload them to my Flickr and Instagram. For that purpose the quality is more than adequate.

Hipstamatic provides all the processing I need, and after I spent a little time setting up a default colour and b/w favourite, I pretty much stick to these now. So as with the Nikon, the iPhone photographs never see LightRoom and are simply uploaded to my MacBook as they are.

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Overall

Super portable, always with me, and capable of some very satisfying photographs, the iPhone/Hipstamatic combo is pretty irresistible.

Yes, often I want a full bodied, beautifully tactile camera and vintage lenses, and of course the iPhone can’t possibly compete in that way.

But I can’t see me giving it up anytime soon, and expect only to explore Hipstamatic further in the future as my whims and needs evolve.

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Ricoh GR Digital III

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Handling

Considering its compact size, the Ricoh handles very well indeed. Like the Nikon, but with extra curves and more instinctively laid out. Again like the CoolPix, the GRD is about as compact as a camera can be, without being awkward and fiddly. It’s genuinely pocketable, as in trouser pocketable, not a large coat pocket!

With a hand strap (mine came with a lovely leather Footprint one which is perfectly matched to the  body) it becomes super portable and ready in an instant.

Despite the small size and very light weight, the Ricoh has a very classy feel and solid build. It reminds me of the Pentax K10D in its pro aspirations.

As the settings and buttons are very customisable, the handling can be improved even further to your personal needs. For example the main ADJ button right next to where your thumb rests can be set as a quick menu to adjust the features you use most often. I have mine showing ISO, Focus type, picture setting, file type/ aspect, and exposure compensation, and rarely need to use anything else in the expansive main menu.

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On the main mode dial, as well as the PASM, green full auto and Scene modes, there are three modes – MY1, MY2, MY3 – which can be fully customised to the user’s preference, so you don’t need to switch between other modes and delve in the menus. More in these later.

Ricoh designed this as a photographer’s camera, and the balance of ease of use versus functions and customisability is magnificent.

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Flexibility

Yes it has a fixed prime lens of 6mm which is the equivalent of 28mm on 35mm film, so you’re stuck with one focal length, a downside to some. But it’s a fantastic lens, and for me the ideal focal length to choose for a compact.

There’s also a 21mm lens attachment available which I have just received, which loses a little pocketability, but gives a very wide angle, more than virtually any other compact.

Everything else on the camera offers a vast range of options as mentioned above, and because of the customisable ADJ and Fn and MY1/2/3 buttons, it can be as simple or as advanced as you wish.

Stick it on the green camera auto mode and let the camera make all the decisions for you – a pure point and shoot.

But if you’re willing to take more control you can shoot with any of the usual PASM modes found on much larger cameras (like DSLRs) as well as the Scene mode with interesting options like (very) high contrast b/w and cross process.

Aspect ratio can be switched between 4:3, 3:2 and 1:1, the latter two being my two favourites anyway. ISO, picture mode (including two customisable modes) and Focus can be user selected.

Rather than further regurgitate the contents of the user manual, to illustrate the Ricoh’s customisation potential, I want to share the two mains ways I use it (so far).

First, for shooting colour, I like the “Cross Process” scene mode. This gives shifted colours similar to cross processing slide film, or shooting expired film.

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When on this main mode on the dial, I set the ISO to Auto Hi ISO400, 1/15. You can set the ISO and shutter speed here. This means the camera increases the ISO automatically when required (up to a maximum of ISO400), when the necessary shutter speed is less than 1/15s.

In practice the GRD favours wide apertures and low ISO. So for colour photographs I get the images optimised at the sensor’s best performance. And it doesn’t just jump to the next ISO stop. Sat here in the half darkness I point the camera and squeeze the shutter button and the aperture is f/1.9 (max), shutter speed 1/15s (the minimum I’ve set) and the ISO is 227.

Also the camera never chooses a shutter speed below 1/15s, unless the aperture is at its widest and the ISO at its maximum. Then it adjusts shutter speed so you’d still get a well exposed shot, but helpfully flashes the camera shake warning to alert you it’s dropped below your minimum (in my case 1/15s). In my usual decent light shooting though, with ISO400, f/1.9 and 1/15s it’s unlikely I’ll see this warning.

To me, this set up is a fantastic way to optimise the camera’s (and my!) likelihood of making the best looking colour images. With just one setting.

I set AF to Spot AF, the quality to F1:1 (Fine JPEG (you can’t shoot RAW with the Scene settings), 1:1 aspect ratio) and exposure compensation to -0.3 (it tends to blow out highlights a bit too readily otherwise).

Once all this was set up once, then my decision making is simple. If I want a colour shot, I rotate the mode dial to Scene. The camera remembers everything else, I just compose and shoot.

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The second set up is for, yep, black and white photography.

Here I use one of the MY modes, where you can set absolutely everything to your personal preference. I use MY3 as it’s directly next to the Scene setting on the dial and all I need to do when I’ve decided whether I’m shooting colour or b/w is to choose Scene or MY3.

In this mode I go with ISO400 (I like the film like grain that starts to creep in), AF to Spot AF again, and image to black and white, quality to RAW 3:2. The black and white I adjust to increase contrast +2 and sharpness +1. Exposure compensation again is -0.3.

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Another detour here – by choosing RAW 3:2 (the aspect ratio I love from film and my Pentax DSLRs) and image black and white, the camera shows black and white on the screen when shooting, which makes it easier to choose the compositions that work better in b/w.

The in camera jpegs with the tweaks to contrast and sharpness are very usable, and if the camera couldn’t shoot RAW I’d be happy with them. But as it is set to RAW 3:2, it also saves the original RAW file, and I have been importing that into LightRoom, adding a preset I’ve found and adjusted, which gives me slightly more preferable results for b/w.

Having this depth of control – yet being able to set it up so the only decision I have to make is colour and b/w – Scene or MY3 on the mode dial respectively – is I feel a near masterpiece of user (more importantly photographer) focused interface.

Oh and a final mention that it can focus down to 0.01m – on auto or manual focus. And I like my close focus.

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Enjoyment

Once set up (which isn’t hard – I have a pdf of the manual but haven’t yet needed to use it), the GRD is a joy to use. Choose colour or b/w, then revel in the lovely build and handling and intuitive design of the camera.

The depth of functionality is there to be explored and customised as little or as much as you wish, if at all.

However you use it, it’s hugely enjoyable, and very well designed and implemented. I already absolutely love this camera. You might have figured that out by now.

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Image

Again following on from my two main colour and b/w set ups, I’ve been delighted with the Ricoh for both.

With colour, the settings optimise using low ISOs, and the slight quirkiness of the colour shifts in “Cross Process” mode add up to make, to me, very impressive results for a very compact 10MP camera.

On the b/w front, pushing the ISO up to 400 gives a little noise that to me is reminiscent of film and arguably it’s here where the Ricoh excels.

In fact, though this two part post is about my digital set up, the Ricoh has impressed me so much it’s got me think about my film cameras. The last time I shot “proper” black and white film was maybe two years ago. Since then, all the rolls I’ve shot have been AgfaPhoto Vista Plus 200 – a colour negative film – then desaturated to b/w.

Also, the last half a dozen rolls of film I’ve shot with compact cameras have been b/w. So with the results of shooting b/w with the Ricoh GRD III being so pleasing, and it being so enjoyable to use, I’m questioning whether I need a compact film camera at all anymore.

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Overall

The Ricoh is very well designed and made, and is a real photographer’s camera.

Its performance for such a small compact is excellent, and whilst its not a DSLR and has a much smaller sensor, the range of settings you can adjust, combined with the shooting modes and the 28mm equivalent f/1.9 lens make DSLR-like images almost attainable. In a tiny, beautiful and wonderful to use package.

I can’t see the Ricoh replacing my DLSRs, but I can see it being used in tandem with them, without the need for the NEX, Nikon CoolPix or even my iPhone, so pocketable is the Ricoh.

From 10MP RAW images ready for quality prints, down to simpler 7MP 1:1 ratio “Cross Process” shots fresh and ready for Flickr and Instagram, the GRD genuinely feels like a bunch of cameras in one, unfeasibly small and straightforward to use machine.

(Update – between writing the draft of this post and the final edit, I’ve sold the NEX. It was no longer required with the Pentax DLSRs for vintage lenses and the Ricoh GR Digital III for everything else. Plus I’ve hardly touched my iPhone. The shifted colour square 1:1 shots I mostly use it for have been usurped for now at least by my colour set up with the Ricoh.)

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Conclusions

When you started reading part one of this post, my aim was to figure out which digital cameras I really needed, and which I don’t.

With film there have been a number of cameras I bought then never used, and others I’ve shot hundreds of photographs with.

On the digital front, every one I’ve had I’ve used pretty extensively, so can make a good comparison about their pros and cons for my needs.

In reality, right now I could narrow down to two digital cameras and have all the options, enjoyment and results I could ever need. My original K10D (do I really need a clone (Samsung GX10) plus a baby sibling too (Samsung GX-1S)?) and the small set of lenses I have, plus the Ricoh GR Digital III.

Which in truth very much reflects my film cameras – a capable SLR (or three) plus a very compact, fun to use and capable compact – again three, Olympus Mju 1, Olympus LT-1 and Ricoh R1.

Though as I touched on above, do I really need a film compact anymore?

I’m not about to get rid of my iPhone as it does so much else for me. But I have used it a lot less than before even in the short time I’ve had the Ricoh GRD. The latter’s Cross Process mode with 1:1 square images has all but usurped the iPhone. The NEX has gone entirely.

Who’d have thought, after owning and using literally hundreds of cameras over the last few years, I’m actually in touching distances of having just a couple of film and a couple of digital?

The only problem I’m faced with now is, if Ricoh made the GR Digital III this good, what other cameras have they made that I’ve yet to discover? Oh dear…

What’s your favourite digital camera? Please tell us about it in the comments below. 

Thanks for reading. Please share this post with others you feel will enjoy it too.

8 thoughts on “Dances With Digital Dilettantes – Pt 2”

  1. Interesting that you post this just as I’m considering buying a GR to replace my Olympus XA pocket camera. It’s quite expensive so I’m not sure if it’s worth it, but as a camera that I always have with me I feel like I should be able to share the pictures relatively quickly, rather than waiting for the net film development batch.

    1. Sam, are you meaning the GR film camera or digital? I’m assuming from what you say about sharing the pictures more quickly you mean a digital one?

      There are a number of models, beginning with the original GR Digital with 8MP CCD, then there was a II, III (which I have), IV, then the plainly named GR (no “Digital” in the name) with APS-C CMOS sensor, then the GR II which I think has the same sensor. The older you go, the more affordable they become – I’ve seen the originals around the £100 mark. The latest are more like £500 I think, but spec wise with the larger more capable APS-C sensor they’re seen as a more direct rival to DSLRs and mirrorless, even though they’re still so compact.

      Waiting for your film to be developed and the surprises that may await is one of the best things about shooting film. I’ve found that with the exposure latitude of film (most consumer films are -1 / +3 stops) you rarely get a picture so badly exposed that it’s unusable. Whereas with digital, it’s much harder to get the exposure right. Which makes it fortunate that we have the screen, histogram, overexposure “blinkies” etc on digital cameras, to make a judgement, and retake if necessary. Or just use exposure bracketing all the time.

      What are your thoughts on a GR following on from my experience I outlined above?

      The XA is one of the best film compacts ever made, and has some marvels of design within it, like the clamshell cover, the lens, and just how much control they packed into such a tiny body. But they’re not, for me, the easiest or most rewarding camera to use.

      The viewfinder I found difficult to focus with, the aperture control is pretty fiddly, and the ISO dial needs rather fine fingernails! If you just shoot it at, say 3m and f/8, it’s great, just pop it open and shoot! But I found the control it offers isn’t actually backed up by how easy it is to use those controls, and ultimately sold mine in favour of the Mju-1, which does just pop open and shoot immediately with no fiddling about.

      The XA and GR Digital(s) can’t be compared really but I would say the Ricoh is one of the best, if not the best user interface I’ve experienced in a camera, especially as it does so much and gives such a breadth of customisation, without being confusing or overwhelming.

      1. I still love the anticipation of film, but I’m just thinking about it as a medium to always have with me. My current one is actually an XA2 which is superb for quickly snapping something that catches my eye since it’s fully automatic. But I find that sometimes the first shot on a roll that goes through it is several months older than the last one. So sometimes there are 20 photos on a roll from a great location that I can’t wait to see, then the rest of the roll takes forever to fill up. With a digital compact I’d be able to get stuff immediately, which is why I was considering the GR.

        If I bought one, even at just over £100 for an early one, it’d be the most I’ve ever spent on a camera and I’m still not sure about that. The XA2 was £10 and has been as good as I’ve needed, though I do like to control aperture if possible (another benefit of the GR, though a different 35mm compact could help with that as well). The other thing is the lack of a viewfinder. I don’t like holding a camera away from my eye really, though I know there are detachable viewfinders you can use.

        Your writeup is nearly enough for me to try one, since we also share a love of Pentax’s cameras and lenses!

      2. Sam, because I struggled with the rangefinder patch on my XA, I found I ended up using it zone focus mostly by estimating the distance from the object, then using f/8 to get enough depth of field to forgive any focusing errors. Then realised I might as well be using an XA2 which was designed to do that.

        Yes I’ve evolved hugely with film shooting – at my peak I remember shooting 15 rolls one month. I have a roll in my Ricoh R1 that’s seen maybe 10 shots, and it’s been in there a couple of months probably. Before that I hadn’t shot any film for a few months at all.

        When I used to shoot a lot, I would say go out on a Saturday or Sunday, shoot two or three rolls of film at one place, then take it in to be developed the next day and sometimes have it back with the one hour developing, or at worst it was two or three days. So there was a quite short turnaround. I think because my film output has slowed so much, digital has replaced this for speed of turnaround, and I couldn’t tell you what any of those 10 shots I’ve taken on the R1 were of. I think this is what you’re getting at too.

        Re the cost, remember this is the blog which suggested we could start film photography for £27, then wrote another post a few weeks later saying it can be done for £12! So I know where you’re coming from.

        My GR Digital III was £150, the second most expensive camera I’ve ever bought. But I haven’t thought for an instant about whether it’s been worth it – it’s worth every penny for the user experience alone!

        With the viewfinder, using the Ricoh is a very different kind of experience to an SLR and I haven’t missed a viewfinder. When I had my NEX, because I was using vintage lenses with adapters, it was the equivalent to a (D)SLR, so I longed for that immersive viewfinder experience. Especially with fast lenses where good viewfinder looks at their brightest and most impressive. Hence why I bought the Pentax K10D – vintage lenses, plus the viewfinder and handling that the Sony NEX sorely lacked.

        But the Ricoh is completely different, it’s a fixed lens compact. Think about using something like the XA2 and how immersive and high quality an experience looking through the viewfinder is. Er, well, it isn’t, it’s basically just a little hole you squint through to roughly frame the composition.

        Using the (rather good) screen of the Ricoh, you can see much more precisely how you’re framing, and how any adjustments you’ve made will impact the image (eg shooting b/w, contrast adjustments, exposure compensation etc).

        You can also manipulate exposure much more, for example to get trees against a bright sky in almost complete silhouette, you can aim the camera towards the bright sky so it exposes there, lock it, then recompose and shoot. If you pointed the camera initially down at the level of the darker trees, the exposure would increase to try to make the trees more visible and the sky would be overexposed. With a film camera with a VF you don’t get this feedback so you’re using a combination of experience, guesswork and reliance on film’s exposure latitude. Hope that makes sense. On the playback screen you can have a number of options, including a histogram and blinkies to show areas of overexposure, so again that feedback can help you get the look and the exposure you want.

        There are VFs that slide into the flash hotshoe on the Ricoh, but for me this instantly reduces that compact design. The screen also means you can get lower and higher and into more interesting angles than you can with a DSLR and viewfinder.

  2. Hi Dan,

    As I will soon be the proud owner of a K10D I’d like you to drag me deeper into the dark digital swamp.

    How much will I have to set aside for a GR III?

    I know I’m copying you all the way…. sorry. I liked my short affair with the film GR1 so much that I really want to have a similar camera again

    1. Hi Frank, well I paid £150 for mine. I’ve seen them cheaper very occasionally (one sold today for about £110 + postage) but usually they’re nearer £200. They’re far more common in Japan so you’re probably more likely to get one from there for a decent price from a dealer.

      Not cheap compared with the many bargains of the film world, but it’s a lot of camera for the money, and remember these are semi-pro, and were originally £500+.

      Despite having the GR Digital III and GX100, I’m incredibly curious about the others. Not bothered about the far more expensive APS-C sensor GR and GR II, but the original GR Digital, the II and the IV I’m curious about.

      It might be worth reading up about the whole range, as the GR Digital and GR Digital II tend to be a bit cheaper than the III.

      And the generally also slightly less expensive GX100 handles almost identically, it just has the zoom lens.

      Pictures aren’t quite so great compared head to head with the GRDIII but still fantastic for a little compact and I think it has the same sensor as the GRDIII. Mine cost under £50.

      I haven’t had a GR1 (film) just the R1 and R10, which were both great handling wise. The GR Digital III and GX100 are probably the two best handling and most intelligently designed cameras I’ve ever used.

      Let me know if/when you find one!

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