Why the Ricoh GR Digital IV Is the Ultimate Camera for Street Photography

Why the Ricoh GR Digital IV Is the Ultimate Camera for Street Photography

Many street photographers might claim that the Leica M series is the best street photography camera. While they are not wrong, necessarily, I think the Ricoh GR Digital IV offers more flexibility and value. 

The Ricoh GR Digital IV is not a new camera. In fact, it was released 2011, making this year its 10th anniversary. Indeed, there is much to celebrate when it comes to this cult classic. If one merely looks at the specs of the camera, they will seem underwhelming in a 2021 environment. For example, the camera sports a 1/1.7 10MP sensor. As I said, nothing impressive. However, the real gold lies in what the camera is able to do with that little sensor.

(c) Michael Ernest Sweet, shot with Ricoh GRD IV

 

(c) Michael Ernest Sweet, shot with Ricoh GRD IV

Many photographers today believe that a huge sensor is the ultimate feature of a great camera. This is not true. Sure, in some situations, bigger is actually better. I think portrait photography would be a good example, as would landscape work. But on the street, bigger is not necessarily better, as a large sensor slows down the focusing and can rob you of depth of field. Using a small sensor allows you to achieve more depth of field (a necessity in street photography) at a wider range of stops. This should be a priority over a larger sensor, as most street photographs are shot in decent light (outdoors) and will not be printed at billboard size. If we put the conversation into analog terms, this is like using a compact 35mm camera over a view camera for street or documentary work. When put this way, most people can immediately understand the advantage. Small sensors coupled with slow lenses can be an issue, however, but not to worry, the Ricoh GR Digital IV has you covered. The lens on this amazing camera is an impressive 28mm f/1.9. 

(c) Michael Ernest Sweet, shot with Ricoh GRD IV

Speed is also a necessity on the streets. Put differently, shutter lag is your enemy. This is where the Ricoh GR Digital IV model really shines and even stands apart from older and newer models in the GR lineup. The IV model uses a unique hybrid focusing system that couples contrast autofocus with an external autofocus sensor on the camera's body. This setup, which is unique to the Ricoh GRD IV, is pure gold for street photographers, as it allows the "snap focus" system to not only eliminate shutter lag but also to auto-detect your shooting distance. Put another way, not only do you not have to wait for an autofocus system, but you don't even have to pre-focus the lens to a set distance! Utterly amazing stuff. The end result is the ability to take photographs in a fraction of a second without making any manual adjustments. This is where the Ricoh beats the Leica M series. 

(c) Michael Ernest Sweet, shot with Ricoh GRD IV

Some may feel that the resulting image quality is not good enough to warrant giving the Oscar to the Ricoh GR Digital IV. Fine. We are all entitled to our own opinions. However, think about this for a moment. In the analog era, street and documentary photographers used all kinds of simple (low-res) cameras to make their photos. Whether or not something was high resolution, or even perfectly in focus, was not an issue. Go to the press museum in Washington, DC and look at all the famous press photographs from the 20th century. Most are not in focus, and nearly all are shot on 35mm film (the analog equivalent to a small sensor). Getting the subject matter was paramount, and the incredible speed of the Ricoh GRD IV allows you to get your subject every time. 

(c) Michael Ernest Sweet, shot with Ricoh GRD IV

I have been shooting with the Ricoh GRD for ten years, ever since the model hit the market. I also own all the other models of Ricoh GR cameras (even the 35mm versions), as well as a Leica M. Nothing compares to this one specific model. It is king. But, just like the Concorde and speedy snail mail, technology has actually regressed with the newer Rioch GR models. Gone is the hybrid focus system. Everyone whined and complained for bigger and bigger sensors, and Ricoh complied. With each sensor upgrade came a slower and slower camera. The end result is that we can now shoot photos that can be printed to fit on the side of a building but at the expense of sometimes missing the shot (or getting the shot and having it be totally out of focus, which is even worse).

(c) Michael Ernest Sweet, shot with Ricoh GRD IV

All this pining for larger sensor cameras has made the Ricoh GRD IV a real gem on the used market. No one much wants this model anymore, as they see it as out of date. This camera model can now be had for about $250-300 in near-mint condition. The only downside is that most ship from Japan and may incur import fees and taxes, etc. If you are going to buy one (and I highly recommend that you do if you shoot street), then be patient and wait for one that ships from the USA. I also recommend getting the 28mm viewfinder for the hot shoe.

(c) Michael Ernest Sweet, shot with Ricoh GRD IV

The Ricoh GRD IV and the Ricoh GV-1 viewfinder make a winning street shooting combo. Oh, and don't let the naysayers below discourage you from trying this camera, as I can promise you one thing: anyone who crap-talks this camera has obviously never used one (despite the fact that they will claim to have done so). To use a Ricoh GRD IV is to love it. Pure and simple. 
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41 Comments
Matt Williams's picture

I agree that the GR Digital IV is a great camera and offers a few things over the current GR I/II/III cameras (primarily the deeper DOF for any given aperture and price).

However, there are a few things that I don't understand/are wrong here:

1) I'm not sure what you mean about the focus of the newer cameras being a regression. They all still have the snap focus feature.

2) there is no "35mm" Ricoh GR. The new ones have APS-C sensors.

3) This kind of misses all the many other advantages of the newer models, e.g. IBIS (in the GR III), ability to crop to 35mm and still have 15MP (the GR III), much better high ISO performance, etc.

This is not to say the GR Digital IV isn't still amazing - it is. But I don't quite understand the idea that the newer ones are a regression in any way. They not only have significantly more features to enhance versatility, but the larger sensor also makes them more versatile for a wider range of situations.

Michael Ernest Sweet's picture

Hi Matt,

1) The newer cameras do not have the hybrid focus system (sensor on the body of the camera), which allows for the snap feature to NOT need a pre-focused distance (the camera does this automatically in the GRD IV model and only the GRD IV model). This feature is important on the street as you do not need to adjust your distance manually (which can waste time and cost a decisive moment).
2) There are indeed 35mm Ricoh GR cameras - they were the originals! Just google it.
3) Newer models do indeed have some "different" features, however, I would not call many of them improvements when used for street work.

Yes, I do agree with you that the newer models are more versatile and work better for a wider range of situations. This is why I limited this article of speaking about the GRD IV in terms of street only.

Matt Williams's picture

ah i see what you meant by 35mm model, duh. I was very tired.

bob mocarsky's picture

Gee, I can't wait til masks are a thing of the past and we can start shooting street photography once again. Getting ready for the 'newer' normal!

Dan Jefferies's picture

Why on earth would masks deter you. If they're on the street wearing a mask take the shot. It's history as well as art.

Matt Williams's picture

didn't you know that you can't shoot street photography unless you can see the person's entire face

It's like Rule #3 of the Street Photographer's Manual

Dan Jefferies's picture

lol!... yea, must have missed that one... )

Deleted Account's picture

Wow! Great pictures. If Bruce Gilden had had a camera like this, he would not be so criticized. Of course, his flash would then have to go too. I think I'll get this camera. Thanks for the article.

Michael Ernest Sweet's picture

Thanks, Jan. Glad you liked it.

Matt Williams's picture

If Bruce Gilden had this he would probably still find a way to use it just as obnoxiously and rudely as he always has

Deleted Account's picture

Probably. The last three pictures here remind me of that. I think they are great!

Eric Segarra's picture

I own both the Leica M240 and Ricoh GRIII, but have never owned or tried the IV version, so I can't speak to that. I do agree that even older models of the GR line are still great. I also own the original GR and use it too. However, my only issue with the article has to do with the labeling of the Leica M line as the best camera for street photography. That is not my experience after having been shooting with both M's and GR's for the past 10 years all over the world. Sure, the M's are great cameras, but equally great are their limitations. All cameras have these. But in most highly-busy cities around the world, like Tokyo/Osaka/Madrid/Paris/Venice/etc., it is my experience that nothing beats a Ricoh GR. Speed, stealth, portability, snap focus, ND filters, now IBIS, and the ability to get close, and really close to the subjects, is the realm of the GR's. I constantly found myself leaving the M240 behind and using the GR's almost exclusively in those busy city environments. They are indeed quite incredible, and all for about $900 new, or like you point out, for far less for another GR gem.

Michael Ernest Sweet's picture

Eric, I could not agree with you more. In fact, a careful reading of what I actually said in the article will reveal that I too do NOT believe the Leica M to be king of the streets. What I did say is that many other people believe this, and I still think that is a true statement.

Christian Durand's picture

My ultimate streets camera is the Fuji X100V

Sridhar Chilimuri's picture

I was waiting for someone to say that - Thank you!

Dan Jefferies's picture

this

Ryan Handt's picture

I agree that the GR IV is a great camera, as are all of the GR line new and old, but I don’t agree with the small sensor size being a 35mm equivalent. Shooting 35mm film can be enlarged way beyond that if the GR IV. there was an article years ago about the equivalent pixel to 35mm and it’s something like 175mp. The depth of film far outweighs that of any digital camera, especially older lower mp cameras. No, not everyone needs all the megapixels, but I’ve printed 35mm film photos as large as 40x60 inches back when I was younger. You can’t do that with the GR IV. I’ve seen it done with the later GRs, which was highly impressive.
But back to the GR IV, if you don’t plan going bigger that 11x14ish, it’s an incredible camera to have for street. It’s furtiveness is a huge plus for street photography and great camera to add to anyone’s arsenal.

Matt Williams's picture

35mm film is in no way equivalent to 175MP.

The most rigorous study about this concluded that even the finest grained b&w could, at best, resolve about 20MP.

Most film that people use today is more like 12MP.

Ryan Handt's picture

"If we put the conversation into analog terms, this is like using a compact 35mm camera over a view camera for street or documentary work." Right here.

Michael Ernest Sweet's picture

Who was comparing the small sensor to 35mm ... not me! No comparison. That, however, is not to say that a small sensor can be perfectly capable of much street work.

Ryan Handt's picture

Do you have any resources, because I've read the opposite, like here: https://www.kenrockwell.com/tech/film-resolution.htm

Michael Ernest Sweet's picture

Nope. I don't. And I am not concerned with pixel count. I am concerned with real-world experience and this camera provides the best real-world experience on the street. Go to the Press Museum in DC, you will quickly learn that good documentary/street photographers are not concerned with pixel counts/resolution.

jgabby FR's picture

175mp is so ridiculous estimation and so wrong. I wish my slides and film collection had that resolution.
An other factor you forgot is the rising of AI software , soon enlarging to a huge poster size with not sharpeness loss won't be a problem, Look at whatt google is doing, it is mind blowing

George Malczynski's picture

I look at this camera and have a hard time seeing what it might offer over a newer smartphone, which for street photography would be even less conspicuous and far more disarming. It might even be an improvement in terms of image quality.

Matt Williams's picture

If you were shooting RAW or ProRAW in an app like Halide or FIrstlight, then yeah the IQ would almost certainly be an improvement.

The sensor sizes are even the same (or roughly), so you still have that deep DOF that the GRIV offers (plus a lower base ISO)

But in terms of handling/ergonomics, the GR cameras are maybe the best cameras ever made in that regard. However the point about smartphones being more discreet is incredibly true.

Edit: not to mention the extra lenses of some phones, like a tele and ultra wide - both also useful for street.

Michael Ernest Sweet's picture

Most phones (new Leica excluded) have much smaller sensors than even the Ricoh GRD IV. Phones have very, very small sensors and use algorithms to "fix-up" the photos, which is not ideal. I have made rather large prints from the Ricoh GRD IV and they are grainly but good grainy. Very similar to B&W film (as many, many people have mentioned over the years). On the other hand, I recently make a large print from an iPhone XR and it positively looked like mud in the details. It is also hard to fire an iPhone with the same speed and accuracy as a Ricoh GRD IV (which, as I said, in "auto" snap mode has no discernable shutter lag. This is not to say that some people cannot make wonderful street images with a phone, we all know this has been done.

Matt Williams's picture

1) the difference is very small - iPhone 12 main camera is I think 1/2" vs GRIV's 1/1.7", but we're also talking about current technology vs. very old technology. Many current APS-C sensors best full-frame sensors from a decade ago.

2) those algorithms are part of why smartphones bunch so far above their weight. Also, if you truly hate algorithms so much, regular RAW does not use them.

3) I agree that a GRD IV is superior in terms of ergonomics and overall usage, but it's impossible to deny a phone is more discreet. Plus you can pre-focus smartphones as well, using any of the apps I mentioned along with dozens more.

Add a Bluetooth grip to a phone and it's an incredibly nice and comfortable shooting experience, though again - not as good as any Ricoh GR, which are probably the best ever made in terms of ergonomics.

Michael Ernest Sweet's picture

I think you should use whatever camera suits you best, Matt. To each his own.

Matt Williams's picture

Sure yeah. I think you're taking this way too personally.

Matt Williams's picture

Also, the hybrid focus system you mention - it's not zero lag. In fact, it's significantly slower than any modern mirrorless or smartphone (0.2 seconds). It's similar to many film point and shoots that used external focusing systems. But in no way is it the same as a pre-set snap focus mode. It's simply an improved focusing system over the prior GR models. The newer APS-C models are even faster with PDAF on sensor focusing.

Michael Ernest Sweet's picture

I'm sorry but this is totally wrong. Have you actually used the camera? I have used this camera for over a decade (daily use) and this is just plain wrong. With the "auto" snap engaged there is no lag. Have you actually tried to shoot street or any type of "action" photography with a phone? It sounds as though you are making judgments off of online reading and not practical hands-on use. Anyway, as I said, everyone should use what is best for them. I just wrote the article to relate my experience with the camera. And, believe me, I take nothing in the photography realm personally ... most especially comments on FStoppers! LOL

Matt Williams's picture

So it's totally wrong that Ricoh advertised the hybrid focus system you specifically mentioned as being twice as fast as the GRD III at 0.2 seconds? They just straight up lied?

Why would the camera have a pre-set snap focus distance AND an auto one if the auto one is just as good? There is literally no camera that has ever done that.

But sure ok. You're right, they're wrong.

Yes Modo's picture

Hi Michael, thanks for the article.

How would you rate the IV RAW colour output? I'm not a big fan of baked in JPEG presets so no need to cover those unless you think otherwise.

Asking because your samples are in b+w so I'm curious how you find it's colour rendering.

Michael Ernest Sweet's picture

I have never used the camera to make color photos (JPEGs or RAW). Sorry. Maybe someone else who has actually done so can chime in.

ryanfromDetroit .'s picture

First of all, totally agree with you Michael! I learned on film back in early 2000’s and have owned a full range of cameras from Canon to Fuji (old and new digital) to Minolta to Nikon and now Ricoh. This GRD IV is a different breed.

Shooting it almost daily, it shoots like I remember from my 35mm days. The results in B&W and positive film (both dialed in camera to my liking) remind me of that filmic point and shoot feel but extremely fast! I don’t think people can honestly understand until they’ve held it and made art with it. I’ve got an APSC Sony, I have an APSC Fuji and even a 1 inch sensor Sony RX100VA….they just do not have what this little guy has.

With that, @Yes Modo…I shoot equally in color and b&w with this camera but never ever shoot Raw. Call me old school but I prefer my photos to be shared without post processing…it’s always been that way for me since my wedding photography/film days. I have shifted the AWB slightly and tweaked the positive film settings to give me a look I call Classic Film. I’ve don’t similar for my black and whites as well! You can see some of my pics on my YT channel (YT.com/ryanfromdetroit) but this camera is special, no doubt!

AJ Tedesco's picture

Those images are stunning, I apologize if I missed it, but how did you process them?

Stephen Prouty's picture

Great article. Nice to see some love for the older cameras.

I've been a GR user for over 15years and currently have a GRiii, an X100V and a Leica M6.

I've had the Leica for decades and will never sell it. It's such a beautiful camera and a joy to use.

The X100V is also a beautifully built camera and in many ways is the compliment of the M6. The OVF is tremendous and the camera can be set up to operate just like a fully manual rangefinder. Or if you prefer just like a point and shoot.

It focuses a little faster than the GRiii in daylight, but in low light there is really no comparison. My experience is where the GR stumbles to lock on the X100 will continue to have no issue.

Curiously, considering how much talk there is about the snap focus on the GR, the X100V can be set up in a similar (though not identical) way.

Basically you set the touch screen to touch-to-focus and then set the camera to MF. So now you set your focus point with the screen and then you snap away...as many times as you like, with no delay.

If you like the feel of a rangefinder, but want a digital camera, the X100V is pretty much perfect.

Now having said all that, and as much as I love both the Leica snd the Fuji, when i walk out the door, 99% of the time I pick up GR.

The snap focus, touch screen, image stabilization, sharp lens, highlight-weighted metering, lovely color rendition, etc.

And of course the form factor and ease of use simply can't be beat. So all of this combines to make a camera you just love to use.

It's amazing how the original design intents have been carried forward through the years, yet the camera continues to remain so relevant.

Stan Koltowski's picture

Great post, but I’ve got a couple of gr’s. How the devil do I find out if I actually have a grub?

Stan Koltowski's picture

That should have read gr iv

Eames _'s picture

You will see the model number printed on the bottom of your camera.

Eames _'s picture

Sometimes you go back to the beginning...

I originally purchased the Ricoh GR Digital IV when it was first released back in 2011.

I absolutely loved it and I always thought that the images had a certain raw, edgy, organic and filmic quality to them. I know it sounds like a cliche, but there was something magical about the photos.

Of course back then, I was filled with so much GAS and updated my gear often and always thought newer is better.
Bigger sensor, faster lens etc. So I sold the GR Digital IV and bought a crop sensor camera.
Then I bought a full frame camera with an even bigger and faster lens
And granted, I started making money out of my work and my full frame gear was a necessity.
My 5D Mark III's were my work horses and treated me well.

I ended my business during the pandemic, it was just time and my interests had changed.

I sold all my gear and wanted to find something that I could use everyday for my pure enjoyment.
I stumbled upon some of my very old photos taken with the Ricoh GR Digital IV many years ago. I was taken back!
Damn!! They were so good...
I actually started questioning the photos..."how on earth did I do that?". What was the secret sauce? Was it done in post?
But they were all shot in JPEG, baked in camera.
I didn't start using software (Lightroom/Capture One) until I started shooting weddings, which was when I started shooting in RAW.

So I thought. Okay, I'll just buy a brand new GR III, why on earth would I buy an older camera?
Newer technology, newer lens.. it will obviously have even better images, it's the current model for goodness sake.
- I was very wrong.
The images were alright, but they lacked a certain something...
I sold the GR III very easily on eBay (everyone wants the newest version).

I searched on eBay and found a "MINT" condition in the box with everything included "Ricoh GR Digital IV".

All I can say is that I haven't looked back.
It's my baby and it goes with me everywhere.
If one day it breaks, I'll buy another one.

Side note: If I was still shooting professionally (weddings, portraits etc), sure, I'd still have my full frame bodies and fast primes.

My life is now just about enjoying my photography and seizing the moment.

All my photos are now shot as JPEGS only and I use my computer as little as possible.

All round, it's just "magical" :)