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The perfect cycling camera: my review of the Ricoh GR III (and why I prefer it over my iPhone)

There are few activities that tick the boxes of spending quality time as much as cycling. Fresh air, getting a workout, chatting with friends, being offline in an overly connected world, I could go on. You will have to forgive me if I wander off on the joys of cycling every now and then, but the real hero of this post is the definitive camera for cyclists who appreciate photography, the Ricoh GR III. Before I share why this camera works so well for two-wheeled photographers, I need to address the obvious question: why not just use your smartphone? I currently have an iPhone X which is more than capable of taking pictures. It is small, and I will take it with me anyway, so why do I prefer taking along another camera? As small as the GR is, it still is an additional item to carry. For me there are two reasons why I still prefer a proper camera to a smartphone. Reason number one is the user experience. I simply detest the smartphone ergonomics. Holding the phone with one hand feels wobbly, the shutter button is not tactile, and while the controls in camera apps have gotten much better, I still don't like them. A solution could be to get a cover with an additional grip and external controls. There are some solutions on the market like Pictar. These covers remind me of the grandfather of high quality smartphone cameras, the Nokia Lumia 1020. Slapping on a cover may add a bit of tactile interactivity with a smartphone but it still feels like, and is after all, an add-on. An afterthought to a tool that wasn't designed to be used this way.

And then there is reason number two: image quality. Smartphones have come a long way but there is a physical reality to the optics that are built in smartphones that cannot be denied. The path forward for smartphone photography is one of optics miniaturization and software optimization. An approach that works really well for using a smartphone to capture most everyday scenes. But there are limitations. In sharpness, especially in equal performance across the frame for instance. Low light conditions remain a challenge, although much progress is being made here. Natural focus falloff is difficult as well, which is where traditional optics shine and the limitations of the algorithm powered subject separation in smartphones become very visible. But in all honesty, it looks like a lot of the points I raised against smartphone image quality are on there way to be resolved. This is a good write-up of where things are heading in the area of smartphone photography. So that really leaves me with issue #1, I just don't like the experience of taking photos with a smartphone. For situations where I do not want to carry my normal gear, I need a small and capable solution. And for cycling in particular, I want a camera that I can just slip into one of the pockets on my jersey. I don't like to have to strap a bag on my bike to hold the camera (let alone the torture the camera would get from shaking). Enter the Ricoh GR III.

The Ricoh GR III (I added the red ring, you can find them on Ebay) [Nikon Z6, 58mm 1.4G]

My journey with the GR started with the original digital GR, which was launched back in 2013. The market for true pocketable cameras with a large sensor was never one of many offerings. At the time, you had two kinds of approaches with the Ricoh GR I, the Fuji x100 and the Nikon Coolpix A going for APSC-based compact designs with relatively modest lens aspirations in terms of aperture. On the other side, there was Leica with the Q and the Sony RX1R who both had full frame sensors and faster aperture. I have owned both cameras and they were wonderful in their own way. Very different in terms of ergonomics but both capable of providing stunning results. But I would not call them truly pocketable. The choice for fast aperture lenses made both too thick to slip into a pocket. And then there is weight, the holy grail for cyclists. Never mind the fact that for most cyclists, their own body is a much better place to look to shave off some grams (including me), but weight is of essence for people looking to break their PR on Strava. The Ricoh GR III with its 257 grams, pales in comparison to the original Leica Q with 640 grams (the new Leica Q2 adds another 100 grams). The Sony RX1R does a little better with just under 500 grams. So, based on size and weight, the Q(2) and RX1R(II) are out of the picture for a cycling camera you want to take in your jersey pocket.

The Ricoh GRIII easily fits in any cycling jersey pocket. [Nikon Z6, 58mm 1.4G]

Let's look at the contenders from the first APS-C, smaller size approach. The Nikon Coolpix A was not a bad camera but struggled with holding its own against the competition, and therefor no new iterations were made. The Fuji X100 is an amazing camera. I owned an X100S and an X100F. Assessing from reading the reviews of the fifth edition, it has made heaps of improvements in its fifth iteration of what was already an amazing every day carry camera. But for the purpose of cycling, it loses out to the GR III. First, there is the physical aspect. It is definitely smaller than the Q and RX1RII (what a name), but not by much. Actually, it brings 478 grams to the scale, pretty much the same as the Sony. This is twice the weight of the GR III, which does make a difference. Size-wise, it is also noticeably larger than the GR III. This is understandable because almost every camera is larger than the GR III. Even it's predecessors are larger. The GR III is truly a tiny, tiny camera.

Seen next to my Microsoft Surface mouse, you can see just how small the Ricoh GR III is [Nikon Z6, 58mm 1.4G]

The Fuji X100V is bigger and heavier than the Ricoh GR III, partly because it simply also is a better camera. The lens has an aperture of F2 vs the F2.8 in the GR III. It has a viewfinder, it is built like a tank, it just is a more complete camera. Which is part of the reason why for the purpose of having a camera with me when I am out cycling, I prefer the GR III. The X100V is almost too good a camera for this purpose. Next to that, it is a lot more expensive. I bought my GR III second hand and while it is not a cheap camera, I feel OK taking it with me in a tiny plastic bag, even if the weather conditions are unstable. Not sure I would do that with the Fuji, which at the time of writing costs 1499 euro new (in the Netherlands). The Ricoh GRIII sells new for 899.

Now that we've gotten the competition out of the way, let's spend some time discussing the GR III in action and show you some pictures I took with it. There are a ton of reviews on using it for street photography and, given its small size, I can see why the GR III excels in that area. I travel quite a lot for my job in normal circumstances and I like to shoot street when I am out and about exploring a new city, but like everyone else, my business travel has been non-existent. So for now, I can only tell you about using the GR III for cycling adventures. I've mentioned just how small and light the GR III is, and when you are riding and you see an interesting viewpoint, getting the camera out of your pocket and taking the shot is easy and fast. It boots really fast so going from 'off' position to shooting is almost instant. The lightness gives you confidence to hold the camera in your hand and the shot, even while riding (while having assessed that it is safe to do so of course...). I use the wrist-strap that came with it which gives me just that little extra comfort in case the camera were to slip or a wind gust takes it out of my hand.

Shooting while on the bike is easy with the GR III [Ricoh GR III]

I used to be a runner until both my knees told me to go find another sport to do. This forced me to switch to cycling but now that I've become a true cyclist, I wouldn't have it any other way. You get a great workout either way, but the real joy of cycling compared to running is how much your world expands. Running in different loops of 10k or 15k around your house gets boring pretty quickly because there are only so much routes to take in that radius. With cycling, the area you can cover increases dramatically. And so do the photography opportunities. I ride a mix of asphalt and gravel myself which leads me to beautiful paved back-roads that I didn't even know existed, and also opens up nice vistas when going off-road on gravel.

Big audience on the side of the road [RIcoh GR III]

The 28mm (full frame equivalent) of the GR III is well suited for this kind of environment. It is wide enough to take in the views and not too wide to allow you to bring people or objects in for context. The lens is very sharp across the frame and while the aperture may be modest, the focus falloff is nice and smooth allowing you to do some mild separation. It does vignette quite a bit but that is easily fixed in post. Speaking of post, I've been editing about half of the shots from the GR III on my mobile while on a break during my rides vs my traditional flow in Capture One Pro. The app works well and setting up a connection between your phone and the GR III is easy.

The 28mm equivalent lens captures plenty of sharp details [Rico GR III]

Having the GR III with me when riding gravel or mild single-track trails is great because it gets me deep into forests or other nature settings that I would not get to otherwise. That opens up opportunities for interesting shots. The GR III works well in all sorts of lighting conditions and AF has been working fine for me.

Sand banks provide nice views [Ricoh GR III]

If you want to do a multiple day trip on your bike, the GR III also works great for that because it loads via a simple USB-C cable, either from the socket or a power bank. No additional charger to carry with you. The screen is bright enough, even in direct sunlight. I would prefer a tilting screen since there is no viewfinder, to allow you to get a better angle on your shot without lying on the ground. But being in sporting clothes makes that less of an issue anyway.

In closing, I can truly recommend the GR III for anyone that wants the smallest, lightest possible camera with an APS-C sensor in it. Whether for cycling, hiking or any other activity where you don't want to carry heavy gear and where some of the other larger-sensor options are too heavy, too expensive or both, the GR III is a great choice. Below are a couple more shots I took over the last few months.

Great clarity in the texture of the trees [Ricoh GR III]
Cyclists on the roads of North Holland [Ricoh GR III]
Fighting the enemy of cyclists: the wind [Ricoh GR III]
You never know what you might run into on the road [Ricoh GR III]
Making new friends [Ricoh GR III]
Crisp & Sharp [Ricoh GR III]
Beautiful lake in Southern Bavaria, Germany [Ricoh GR III]
It does selfies too, you need a bit of guesswork as it has a fixed screen [Ricoh GR III]


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