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Ricoh has rarely jumped on digital photography's bandwagons. While larger camera makers trot out variants of face-detection autofocus systems or ultra-high ISO sensitivities, Ricoh's Caplio range explores the less visited, further reaches of image capture.
The GX100 is just such an oddity, combining compact looks and a respectable 10-megapixel resolution with full manual controls, a remarkable wide-angle zoom and -- a world first -- a completely removable electronic viewfinder. It's available now, costing around £350 on its own, or £400 with the viewfinder.
Taking its design cues as much from classic film cameras as from modern digital rivals, the GX100 presents a sophisticated matte-black face to the world. Much of the body is metallic, although the control panels are plastic and your right (shooting) hand enjoys a rubberised grip. It's slim (25mm) and light (250g ready to shoot) without being especially pocket-friendly, thanks to a protruding flash unit and large lens.
The controls have been exceptionally well designed. Key buttons (power, auto mode and playback) are highlighted in green. Most others have clear lettering, while advanced dials that may confuse novices are wisely unlabelled. A top-mounted dial provides quick access to manual, scene and movie modes, and a straightforward four-way pad controls the clear text menus.
So far, so traditional. Where the GX100 strides beyond most compacts is its customisable one-touch controls. The Adjust dial, falling directly beneath your right thumb, pulls up four customisable graphic menus, letting you tweak exposure, ISO, drive, focus and more with the second (charmingly named) Up-Down dial in front of the shutter. In addition, an inconspicuous Function button to the left of the flash lets you choose one favourite feature to activate instantly.
If all that sounds complicated, it really isn't. You'll soon be adjusting settings without ever having to glance away from the display -- exactly what professionals are looking for in a camera.
The much-touted separate electronic viewfinder (EVF) slips directly on to the camera hotshoe. It's a chunky cube that transforms the GX100 into an awkward-looking device, with a rotating action that enables candid people shots or even shooting around corners. Like all EVFs, it's at its most useful in very bright conditions, although the 64mm (2.5-inch) LCD does have a handy press-and-hold power-boost function if you don't fancy splashing out on what is ultimately a luxury extra.
If there's one feature that distinguishes this Ricoh in an increasingly homogenous marketplace, it's the wide-angle zoom lens. Like many compacts, it has a 3x zoom range, but instead of the traditional 38-115mm span, the GX100 starts at a wide-angle 24mm and finishes at just 72mm. That means it's fantastic for group portraits, landscape and architectural photography -- anywhere you might want to fit more of the scene into a single frame.
The drawback is that there's less telephoto effect at the top of the zoom: you won't be able to zoom in to distant wildlife or sporting action, for example. Switch into aperture priority or manual mode, however, and the lens impresses again. You can choose a full range of apertures right up to f2.5 (at wide-angle), to let you really control depth of field or shoot in darker conditions. Even better, the optics can focus down to 10mm in macro mode, enabling weird and wonderful close-up compositions.
One fashionable feature at which Ricoh has taken a stab is image stabilisation, to reduce camera blur at low shutter speeds. Unfortunately, it uses CCD-shift technology rather than the more effective optical stabilisation found on Canons and Panasonics, and its usefulness is questionable.
There will be fewer arguments about Ricoh's decision to include raw capture. Raw files have been called 'digital negatives', preserving more colour and detail than normal JPEG pictures. They're slower to save, however, and take up much more space than JPEGs -- you'll fit just one full-resolution raw photo in the GX100's 28MB of internal memory.
Speed -- or lack of it -- is probably the Ricoh's greatest failing. Start-up takes 2 seconds, and a shutter delay of another second is typical. More annoyingly, in single-shot mode, you have to wait for the file to save before shooting again -- around two seconds for a high-quality JPEG and up to five for raw. Switch to burst mode and shooting speed maxes out at 1.7 frames per second.
The good news is that images are generally worth the wait. The wide-angle lens suffers from distortion, but only a faint smear of purple fringing. Colours are strong and accurate, although perhaps not as faultlessly natural as you'll see from some of the better Canon cameras. The multi-zone autofocus system is pretty dumb -- switch to spot focus if you want to be sure of sharp shots.
The Ricoh manages its powerful 10-megapixel chip well, delivering good levels of detail, even in complex subjects such as grass and distant trees. Noise is well controlled: ISO 400 shots are smoothly assured; ISO 800 has a sprinkling of digital grain; and only at ISO 1,600 does colour fade and detail degrade.
The Caplio has a tiny, manual pop-up flash that looks far too small to be effective. Don't be fooled -- this is one of the most powerful units we've seen on a compact, effortlessly filling a room with light or simply blasting away daytime shadows. It's far too strong for close-ups, though -- even the Soft flash is stronger than most compacts.
The GX100's lithium battery is rated for a generous 380 shots per charge, but if you do get caught short, simply slip in a brace of AA cells instead -- a thoughtful bonus.
Ricoh's rewards for ploughing its own photographic furrow are inevitably mixed. On the plus side, the superb lens is one of the most flexible around -- giving great wide-angle performance, true macro close-ups and easy manual exposure. The flash unit is wonderful and the interface, once you get used to it, will make it hard to go back to traditional, time-consuming menus.
In some respects, however, the GX100 does feel outdated. The autofocus system lacks sophistication and speed, image stabilisation is primitive and the price reflects last year's benchmarks rather than today's bargains.
Ultimately, what saves the GX100 from being merely an interesting irrelevance in the era of sub-£400 digital SLRs is its solid 10-megapixel image quality, its convenience and size, and that fascinating wide-angle lens.
Edited by Jason Jenkins
Additional editing by Nick Hide