Hybrid cars seem like a great idea. They greatly improve real-world gas mileage, and if everybody used 'em, we'd save a huge whacking vast amount of the world's dwindling supply of black gold—maybe even enough to put a sizeable bite in America's dependence on foreign oil.
The Ricoh GXR also seems like a great idea. By putting the lens and sensor in a single module, you not only eliminate dust and match each lens to each sensor perfectly, but you detach the camera from the sensor, meaning that the camera becomes relatively future-proof—further developments in sensor technology can be easily incorporated without having to buy a new camera (or learn a new interface).
But the Achilles' heel of hybrid cars is like a persistent gnat that can't be swatted—cost accounting*. Cost accounting on the micro level—i.e., the level of each individual buyer. Never mind that driving a hybrid car is a good thing to be doing; never mind that it makes sense at a macro level; what it always, always, tiresomely comes down to is cost accounting. You get thus-and-such better mileage; gas costs X; therefore you will save Y dollars a year; but the hybrid car costs K dollars more than the regular non-hybrid version of the same car...so you won't save money in the long run. Nice idea. No sale.
Same deal, more or less, with the GXR. It's a nice idea...until you start crunching numbers. I mean, how nice would it be to buy a GXR body and an S10 module (24–72mm-e ƒ/2.5–4.4 lens, 10-megapixel 1/1.7" CCD sensor), which would give you a nice all-around happy-snapper point-and-shoot similar to Ricoh's GX-200—and then, later, be able to buy an A12 module (50mm-e ƒ/2.5 Macro lens matched to a 12.3-megapixel APS-C CMOS sensor) for fine-art and printmaking uses? It's two entirely different cameras in one, with the advantage of small size and an interface that's consistent—consistent because it's the same.
Where's the rub? Same as with the hybrid car, of course...cost accounting. Where's the savings of converting your point-and-shoot to a fine-art-fine-print camera, if the A12 module ($700) costs you more than a whole separate camera would? You can't save money by essentially re-using the same body shell with different lens-sensor units if every lens-sensor unit costs as much as whole cameras from the competition. (Plus, of course, you can't mix-and-match sensors and lenses**, which bothers some people. The reason I don't quite buy into this as a drawback is that, of course, you can't mix-and-match sensors on your DSLR, either. But still.)
I have to confess, I still really like the idea of the GXR. It's just that I can see the bean-counter objection standing in the way of the concept, too.
I'm curious as to what people think about the GXR, especially if you happen to own one.
*Reader Keamu points out that I might be using the wrong term. He says what I mean is "cost/benefit analysis."
**A corollary to this is that it give Ricoh more chances to miss your own preferences where the product-line offerings are concerned. What if it makes the right lens but puts it with the wrong sensor, or vice-versa? Ye ken the problem.
Ctein replies: I'm one of those who is bothered by the combined sensor-lens thing. Putting usability and other important issues aside, it's the characteristics of the sensor, combined with those of the lens that determine what my photos will look like. Some people put more weight on the having the right sensor, others the lens. None of this is different from the film days, really.
If sensors (or lenses) were anywhere close to ideal it wouldn't matter. They aren't. Cost aside (unrealistic assumption) I have to decide what tradeoffs I want to make between resolution, ISO performance, noise levels and exposure range when I choose a camera body. Once I make those choices, I live with and work with it, same way you'd decide to go with Tri-X for your film work and work the way the film sees.
The Ricoh approach keeps yanking the rug out from under me. I get the worst of both worlds—I d not get the consistent behavior of one "film type" but I don't get to choose the film type, either, it just changes on me. That's not a feature, it's just another handicap.
Now, maybe Ricoh has done pairings that really are close to optimal. That would mitigate my complaint. I think that's yet to be demonstrated.
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Winsor: "The GXR has never made sense to me. Integrating the element, the lens, which has the longest technological life into a unit with the element with the shortest technological life, the sensor, just means you have to throw away a perfectly good lens after the short, short period when the sensor is outmoded. Film cameras were actually the perfect modular system with lens, body, and image capture system (film) as separate units. A digital camera with separate lens, body and digital back would duplicate that, making the short life components, the electronics, replaceable. Additional revenue and customer service by offering specialized backs for things like black and white only, or infrared."
Featured Comment by David Stock: "I'm having a great experience with the GXR and the two current larger-sensor modules. The GXR may not be the best zone-focussing or action camera. But the combination of great lens quality and a high degree of customization makes for a terrific portable choice for other kinds of work.
"What the GXR lacks in terms of grabbing action it makes up for in precision. The 100% electronic viewfinder is really pretty good, and allows real-time viewing of the histogram, horizon level and other info. Focus is quick with the latest firmware, and deadly accurate. Best of all, the matching of sensor and lens seems to really deliver, at least for me.
"The 33mm (50mm-e) macro unit especially gives me incredible detail and corner to corner sharpness up and down the aperture range. (Noticeably better than I get from all but one of my lenses on the Pentax K-5, for instance.) It's ƒ/2.5, has no visible distortion or CA issues, and, of course, focuses as close as I could possibly want. I love the way it renders out-of-focus areas.
"Almost all the controls are very customizable, which allows many different ways of working. For instance, I can change from autofocus to manual focus instantly.
"I use little Voigtlander optical viewfinders on the GXR sometimes. Not perfect, but really good for certain situations. Ditto for the very good rear screen.
"The GXR has very solid construction, like all the little Ricohs. Because the units are sealed, I have no hesitation wrapping my fingers around the lens casting, which makes the camera more stable and comfortable for me.
"All in all, this is one of the best digital cameras I've used. I think the GXR is a sleeper—it's been under-reported and perhaps underestimated. It could be even more versatile with some firmware tweaks, and with real helical manual focus. Then again, that M-mount unit is coming...."
Featured Comment by Miserere: "I am currently using the GXR for a review to be published on SeriousCompacts.com. I too had misgivings for the system, but after a couple of weeks of shooting with the 28mm and 50mm modules I've had to reconsider my feelings. The thing is, the camera is very small, silent, and it has two control wheels! True, the sensor isn't of Sony NEX quality, but it's holding up so far. My point is this: You can't judge a camera solely by how much it costs. There are some cameras that just feel right and you're willing to pay extra for them. Just ask the Leica folk!"
Featured Comment by Christopher Osborne: "The problem with the GXR is that the cost of future-proofing the camera it that you do completely the opposite to your lenses. My lenses are a much bigger and much more long term investment than any camera and any system that requires me to junk them all every time sensor technology improves is just really never going to work!"
Featured [partial] Comment by Godfrey DiGiorgi: "The GXR was a 'dark horse' pick for me when i was looking for a compact alternative to my pro DSLR kit. I'm very glad I discovered it and have found it to be more than just capable. Even though it's somewhat expensive and the system is limited in scope, it suits what I do very well and produces image quality that is nothing short of excellent while being a pleasure to use." [Read Godfrey's entire comment—really a mini-review—and find a link to his image samples, in the Comments section. —MJ]
Featured Comment by Ed Hawco: "Frankly, the GXR concept seems a bit like a solution in search of a problem."
Featured Comment by Farnesworth: "GXR? Best small camera out there. After just about getting on with a Leica X1 (slow, less than helpful interface but lovely pics) the GXR with A12 modules was a breath of freash air. Excellent pic quality (at least equal to X1), endlessly customisable—just the perfect small cam at the moment."
Featured Comment by Jan Kusters: "As far as I am am concerned, the biggest news with the GXR was that is shows how a sensor can be an interchangeable part. Now ad a lens mount, and we get a camera that is really versatile. We do not need a new camera because sensor technology takes a step forward, we can opt for a smaller sensor to get more reach of depth of focus, or a bigger sensor for more IQ.
"Dare I dream? We could even get dedicated infra-red and black&white sensors.... Those specialized sensors would even go a long way in overcoming the bean-counter argument (one body, two sensors and three lenses might still be cheaper then three bodies). And right now black and white sensors (three times the pixel count of a colour sensor and no bayer filter) don't even exist, as far as I know."
Featured Comment by Dan States: "The GXR is the Helena Bonham Carter of cameras. Wacky, but hot in a strange way."
Featured Comment by Thom Hogan: "Wish I'd thought of the hybrid analogy. It's a good way of pointing out the conundrum that Ricoh presents possible GXR users. Technology sometimes solves the right problem at the wrong cost.
"However, unlike a hybrid, the GXR will never pay back the extra costs. Lenses (at least good ones) are expensive to produce. Sensors and ASICs (each module has one as does the body) are also costly parts. So most of the cost is bundled in the wrong place.
"Fortunately for Ricoh, the GXR body is well-refined, very photographer-centric, and pretty substantive in build for a 'compact.' Thus, the APS modules make for a fairly nice fixed lens compact, and you'd get a body plus two lensors at about the Fujifilm X100 price. Plus you'd get more refined firmware and not be swatting bugs while you shoot. The X100 produces somewhat better IQ at high ISO, but it also has shooting issues to get that. For what it's worth, the Ricoh GXR is, like the X100, one of the best cameras to use to shoot in quiet environments. It's even quieter than the X100, actually (assuming you turn off the ubiquitous Japanese 'let me beep for you' settings).
"With the upcoming Leica M mount module for the GXR, things change slightly. Suddenly we get a digital 'Leica M8 substitute' at far less money (but only 12MP of resolution). But if you don't already have M-mount lenses, then the economics, once again, don't work out.
"It's a strange game Ricoh is playing, though they play it well. The thing that makes me sad is that in many ways they 'get' the things that a photographer wants in a camera where other makers don't, but then they wrap it in a strange, costly package that will keep you paying in the future."
Featured Comment by J Stern: "It's a great camera and once you use one you know it. you have to have one in your hands and shoot with it to really know what it is all about."