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another photography revolution

2009 will long be remembered in the history of digital photography for two break-through cameras: The Olympus EP-1 and the Ricoh GXR. A distant third is the Sony a850, the world’s first $2000 full-frame SLR.

On June 16th of this year, the first micro Four Thirds camera (Olympus EP-1) was announced and that day I blogged about how this format would bring better quality to compact cameras because of its lack of a mirror system resulting in a much smaller body. One considerable problem with the Four Thirds system is that its 17.3mm x 13mm sensor is still smaller than the standard 24mm x 16mm sensors in most SLR cameras.

TRULY 2+ CAMERAS IN ONE
Well, today another alternative was introduced. It is the Ricoh GXR. dpreview.com has nice details about the camera. I’ll cut right to the chase and say what makes this camera great. It’s two completely different cameras at the same time (and potentially more). It can be something like a compact consumer camera in that it’s pocket-sized, has an average 3x zoom, and the image sensor is the same size as any other consumer compact camera. It can also function, in terms of image quality, exactly (theoretically at least) like a traditional SLR camera with its 16mm x 24mm image sensor. How’s this possible? Two different image sensors?

BUT HOW?
Here’s how they do it. Until today all SLR cameras had the imaging sensor in the camera body. The Ricoh GXR has the imaging sensor inside… the… lens.

Here’s a list of what’s in the lens unit:
sensor
shutter
aperture
processing engine (there’s also one in the camera body)
focusing motors

Here’s a list of what’s in the camera body:
LCD screen
memory card slot
processing engine (there’s also one in the lens unit)
controls
flash
battery

So every time you buy a new lens, you’re essentially buying a new camera. The immediate benefits can be seen in the two lens units introduced with the camera.

1. COMPACT ZOOM
Ricoh GR Lens S10 24-72mm f/2.5-4.4 VC Camera Unit, 10 Megapixel with 1/1.7″ sensor (typical sensor in most point and shoot cameras)
The physical length on this lens is relatively small. With this lens unit installed, the camera is 1.75″ thick. Today’s compact digital cameras tend to be 1″ or less, so 1.75″ doesn’t exactly make it a true compact camera. It also shoots VGA video.

2. PRIME LENS
Ricoh GR LENS A12 50mm F2.5 MACRO Camera Unit, 12 Megapixel with 16 x 24mm lens (typical sensor size in Nikon SLR cameras… Canon’s SLR sensor is smaller)
This lens is bigger than the compact zoom, but it’s got the SLR sized sensor built-in. It also shoots HD video.

So if you want the Ricoh GXR to be a point-and-shoot that slips in your pocket (or at least your coat pocket), then pop on the compact zoom lens unit. If you want better, SLR quality images, then slide on the 50mm prime lens.

MORE BENEFITS
Another benefit of this system is that there’s no worries about dust getting into the lens unit unlike what happens with digital SLR cameras. (Anyone who owns a digital SLR will gush at that.) I also read somewhere that you can theoretically swap other units in place of the lens unit. I’m not quite sure what that would be.

Ricoh is also making the claim that it’s the “world
s smallest and lightest digital camera with interchangeable lenses”.

CONCLUSION
The Ricoh GXR is an incredibly versatile camera. There’s probably no camera in the world right now that’s more versatile. But you’re gonna pay the price. The camera is set to release in December and the body goes for $549, the compact zoom lens unit for $440, and the prime lens for $830. You want the latest, newest, most revolutionary camera? Then it’s gonna cost you $1819 to have the camera body and two lens units.

It will be interesting to see how the public reacts to this camera and what lens units Ricoh will release in the future. My hope is that the camera is a great success. It’s always nice to have a wider range of options when purchasing a camera and the Ricoh GXR just opened a whole new world of digital imaging.

CAMERA BODY

COMPACT ZOOM. Buy this to make the Ricoh GXR into a compact point and shoot.

PRIME LENS. Buy this to make the Ricoh GXR into a SLR quality camera.

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Matt Maldre
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Wait. I’m confused. Can I use the lens by itself as a micro-camera?