By Mitch Alland
Let's start with the bottom line: for my work, the new Ricoh GR Digital III produces ISO 1600 files that are greatly improved over those of the GR Digital II. The GRD III files have much better image quality in terms of noise and dynamic range, improvements that are revealed dramatically when processing to achieve the high contrast look that I like. GRD III raw files (DNG) can be substantially "roughed up" while maintaing a longer and more attractive mid-tone range. With the GRD II I could only rarely achieve the look that I wanted without the files falling apart: my experience was that only a small proportion of ISO 1600 files shot with the GRD II were usable. Similarly, the image quality of the original GRD, which could produce only JPEG files at ISO 1600, was also much inferior to the image quality of the GRD III's raw files.
Ricoh has made a huge step forward in the GRD III. The improvement in ISO 1600 files parallels the improvement in lower-lower ISO files that if wrote about in my review of the camera on the Rangefinder Forum.
However, with the GRD III's fast ƒ/1.9 lens there is also less need to shoot at ISO 1600 than there was with the earlier versions of this camera (the GRD II had an ƒ/2.4 lens). The following picture, taken in dark lighting, I would previously have shot at ISO 1600, but the faster ƒ/1.9 lens of the GRD III encouraged me to try ISO 400: the slight motion blur (1/55 sec. shutter speed), for me, does not detract from the mood of the photograph.
Exposure for night shots is another issue, as one usually faces a high contrast situation. With street lighting the tendency is often to overexpose, particularly using high-ISO on a digital camera whose files usually don't take well to lightening (dodging). When I started shooting with the GRD III I discovered that using manual spot exposure, rather than aperture priority multi exposure, I generally got better exposures.
Manual exposure on the GRD III uses the same method as the GRD II: by pressing the "rocker button" the camera immediately centers the needle on the suggested exposure, and one can then use the ADJ lever to increase or decrease the shutter speed. Viewing the LCD allows you to select the best exposure for the subject that can been seen easily and accurately when using the LCD for framing, which is what I do in any case.
Using manual spot exposure I find that my shots are more correctly exposed and the exposure is generally less than I was getting by using aperture priority multi exposure together with an EV adjustment. The fact that the manual exposure method leads to less overexposure for night scenes is important because these are shot at high ISO, which has less dynamic range than lower ISO shots. My feeling is that people generally tend to overexpose night shots by letting the exposure meter do its 18% gray thing, without adjusting sufficiently for the reality that the night is not 18% gray. The following picture is, in my view, a reasonable representation of the the general darkness of the actual street scene.
Fast and wide
You will note that the first photograph in this post was shot with the 21mm wide converter. In my RFF post on the 21mm converter, I wrote that this was an excellent lens and a cheap way of getting an effective field of view of 21mm with ƒ/1.9. Fast 21mm lenses are not common and are expensive: for example, it's only recently that Leica has gone beyond ƒ/2.8 for its 21mm lenses, and its current 21mm ƒ/1.4 lens costs US$6,000.
Here is another picture that benefits from the 21mm FOV, complete with some motion blur that I feel adds to its expressiveness:
You will note a good amount of grain in most of the pictures above. When contrast is enhanced, just as with film, digital photographs increase "grain." From the following photograph you can can an idea of how ISO 1600 from the GRD III can look if contrast is not increased strongly.
Finally, unlike most digital cameras, the Ricoh GR Digital III might under-rate ISO somewhat, which means that the performance of this camera set at ISO 1600 is actually higher than 1600, which would make it even more impressive. Indeed the overall performance of the GRD III helps validate the idea of the small-sensor camera as a new, serious format, in the way that 35mm was a new format when the first Leica was introduced.