The ultimate compact camera is something of a holy grail for photographers. Pocket-sized shooters just can’t live with the image quality of the DSLR big boys, but Ricoh could just have hit on the answer with the GXR, offering the chance to not only change the lens, but the sensor as well.
By changing both the lens and the sensor, different combinations can be created for different situations. For instance, if you want a really big zoom but without too much bulk (or expense), you’d use a smaller sensor. Where quality and maximum light-gathering are paramount, you’d want a bigger sensor like the 4/3, APS-C and full-frame ones used by SLRs.
Sensing the possibilities
Currently Ricoh only sells the A12 50mm lens with large APS-C CMOS sensor (the same size as most SLR sensors) and the S10 24-72mm lens with smaller 1/1.7in CCD sensor. But imagine the possibilities of this compact cam with a 28mm lens and full-frame sensor – a landscape photographer’s dream – then being able to switch to a 10x zoom lens unit that still fits in your pocket because of its smaller sensor.
The picture quality from the 50mm lens unit (£600) is stunning, and it's capable of sublime macro close-ups. Sadly, the autofocus is appallingly slow and hunts a lot, even in good light. It does have a nice manual-focus ring, though.
The more versatile of the two lens units currently available, the 24-72mm (£330) has a smaller 10MP CCD sensor that takes images more akin to a compact. It compares favourably with the Canon G11, but the autofocus is a little slow and it's not great above ISO 800. A neat folding lens cap (LC-2) is available as an optional extra.
Mix and match
There's very little to the base unit: just a 3in LCD, controls, rechargeable battery and connections – including an HDMI output. Simply slide a lens unit onto the front to complete the package, while a safety catch slides across to release the unit when you need to change.
The controls will be familiar to anyone who’s used a Ricoh compact, but they’re clear and intuitive. Dedicated clickwheels make manual control nice and simple. The only letdown is that the zoom control is a rocker button on the rear.
There's no optical viewfinder, but an electronic finder is available that slips onto the hotshoe. It makes shooting in bright sunlight much easier, but it’s very bulky. The 3in LCD is super-sharp and bright, though, and almost good enough for manual focusing.
Of course, the drawback to this combo lens/sensor system is that the image quality you’ll get between lens units is inconsistent – you may as well be using several totally different cameras. But with a 28mm and big zoom, we’d be in love.