Tag Archives: Ricoh GXR A12

You’ll Be a Better Photographer if You Use a Leica

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“The essence of communication is intention.” Werner Erhard

Let’s face it: Leica cameras are ridiculously expensive and technologically crude. They lack common features found on cameras a fraction of their cost. They can be finicky and incredibly expensive to maintain and repair. Their digital offerings, when not plagued by manufacturing defects, have been years behind the curve in an industry where technical obsolescence is measured in months, not years.

I’ve owned a few digital M’s along the way, but exercising the rational part of my brain, sold them and have since settled on a Nikon D800E for exacting work and a couple of Ricoh GXRs for easy digital capture. Both the Nikon and the Ricoh produce stunning files, and, if there exists in the digital era certain cameras that approach the minimalist perfection exemplified by the Leica M in the film era, the Ricoh GXR is surely one of them. The folks at Ricoh hit it out of the park with the GXR and it’s A12 M mount, but also its 28mm and 50mm AF modules mating a dedicated sensor to impeccable optics. I remain completely blown away by how good my photos are from the GXR. As for the D800E, well, we’re easily talking resolution and dynamic range found in medium format 6×9 cameras. That’s crazy.

And along the way I’ve followed, admittedly with a certain amount of schadenfreude, the debacle that is the delaminating CCD sensor of the M9, ME and MM. As I understand it, Leica still sells the MM and ME with a sensor they know, at some point, is going to need replacing, for no other reason than its defective by design. Yet, people are still queueing up to buy them, knowing all of the above. And, I must admit, in moments of weakness, I’m tempted to plunk down five grand and pony up for a Monochrom, outdated, delaminating CCD sensor be damned. When all is said and done, I must admit, that’s one cool camera.


It used to be that a ‘serious’ photographer had to do things and master techniques that required specialized knowledge and training. Any art school graduate who’s been made to read Leslie Stroebel’s Basic Photographic Materials and Processes as a foundation of their studies in photography learned that a serious interest in photography required an understanding of its technical aspects, aspects that required considerations of mathematics, physics, chemistry, psychology and physiology. Armed with the skills such knowledge provided, we could easily differentiate ourselves from the dilettantes who took snapshots and dropped their rolls off to be developed at the corner drugstore. We were serious about the craft of photography, and we versed ourselves in its chemical and physical underpinnings and the means to manipulate its variables to produce something unique, a product of our specific vision. And it was this knowledge that was a prerequisite of our photographs being qualitatively better than the snapshots of the dilettante, even if, in practice, there was little about the photographs themselves that might have distinguished one from the other. Our photographs had intentionality.

Russian Reichstag Dude

Digital photography is radically democratized. Everybody can do it, and do it well without any real understanding of the mechanisms involved.  My niece, who knows nothing about photography as a craft, routinely produces stunningly beautiful photographs with her iphone, photos with more power and aesthetic character than 99% of those uploaded in endless procession by “serious” photographers on enthusiast sites like Rangerfinder Forum or Photo.net.  She has an “eye.” Digital image-making (I hesitate to refer to it as photography) is essentially idiot-proof; point the device, press the button, send out the result for other’s perusal. If you’ve got an “eye,” chances are your results will be good, often better than the best creations made during the film era by serious photographers with advanced knowledge and painstakingly acquired technical expertise.

If we profess to value the dissemination of visual reality, this is good, an advance, because we as photographers are freed from the encumbrances of the technological constraints that stand between us and the creation of our vision. Now all of us can document our lives and the lives of others around us without first hurdling the technical bar existent in analogue days. Photography need no longer be a craft, a practice that requires something other than a common aptitude. Anyone can do it, and do it well.

But there’s a catch. The tools we use, and the manner in which they allow us to use them for our creative purposes, have an authority in the process, because they function to structure our attention in a certain way. The design of the tool conditions the nature of our involvement in our creative practices, an “ecology of attention,’ in the words of philosopher and social theorist Matthew Crawford, that may be more, or less, adapted to the skills needed to meaningfully involve the craftsman in his creative actions. Tools do matter. I would suggest that, in spite of the tired cliche that “it’s not the camera,”, your skills are dependent, in a real sense, on the camera.



Maybe this helps lead us to an explanation of why some of us consciously reject the ease of modern photography, preferring instead to treat our photography as a craft that requires a certain intentionality. Many of us believe that the values that Leica has heretofore embodied – simplicity grounded in the assumption that the photographer understands the process and is best able to choose the appropriate variables, aesthetics driven by functional concerns, a need for the transparency of the camera in the process because it is ultimately only a tool in service of our particular vision – are necessary aspects in what we define as “photography.” We’ve learned and practiced a craft we define as “photography” that requires knowledge, skill, intentionality, and we see these aspects eroded to the point of irrelevancy with the remarkable inovations of the digital age.

So, we chose to “do it the hard way,” even though its now no longer necessary as a technological necessity. Granted, an evocative photograph is an evocative photograph irrespective of the means of its capture, but many of us still find a great satisfaction in the process of photography, a process that requires specialized knowledge and tools that allow us to translate that knowledge into a photograph that embodies our intention. And for these purposes, there exists no better camera than a Leica M. It’s minimalism of design and function creates the perfect tool with which to exercise intentionality in the practice of our craft. We get to do the thinking and make the appropriate choices. To do so it requires of us a sophisticated knowledge of basic photographic principles. We ‘take’ the photographs, not the camera.

Do we get ‘extra points’ for difficulty? No. A good photo is a good photo, whether I take it with my unmetered M4 and chose a film and developer to enhance the effects I’m looking for, or whether my niece pushes a button a her iphone. We both may create beautiful photos, but I’ll do so as a ‘photographer’ who understands and values the process, while her motivations, concerns and interests in what she’s doing may never have reached the level of mindfulness. To my mind there’s a huge difference between us, not merely a difference of degree but a qualitative difference in who we are and how what we do defines us. “Snobbish” ? Possibly. True? Most definitely.

And that’s why I’m intrigued by the Monochrom. It looks, feels, and operates like a traditional analogue camera. No ‘modes,” no image stabilization, no wifi, no mindless automation. You get to choose. Is it hopelessly crude from a technological standpoint? Yes. But if you’re looking at it with those technological parameters as decisive factors, you simply don’t understand how the function of photography is a guiding interest for a remaining few. Insofar as a digital camera is capable of recreating the minimalist design and function of a traditional analogue camera, its the best current option for carrying forward the practice of mindfulness in the photographic process, a practice many of still desire in an age of the mindless ubiquity of iphones and social media.155c4d30148bc15c46dec2db8fe1fff0



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The Ricoh GXR: The Digital Leica CL


Let’s get this straight at the outset. Digital Leica M’s – the M8, M9, MM and M240 –  are not traditional Leica M cameras. They are computerized simulacrums of traditional film M’s, sharing only a certain corporate continuity, a rangefinder mechanism and aesthetic likeness of form, albeit fatter, heavier and less pleasant in hand. Most importantly,  their useful life is measured in years as opposed to decades.

Many of us who grew up shooting Leica film cameras learned these lessons the hard way, at great frustration and expense, and for many of us, those experiences have caused us to re-evaluate our relationship to Leica in the digital age.

I remain firmly grounded in the film world, both for technical and philosophical reasons, for 90% of my work. But the practical requirements of capturing quotidian experiences- snapshots as it were-  sometime require the quickness and immediacy of a digital process. So, I need at least one digital camera to keep myself (and others) happy. But I’ve bought them reluctantly.

My only criterion when buying a digital camera is never to be an early adopter. I won’t buy a digital camera that isn’t at least 2 to 3 years old. Let the early adopters work through the bugs and take the digital depreciation hit. In return, they can obsess about their newest toy and its revolutionary IQ standards while warily eyeing the new, improved version inevitably around the corner.

What I want: a manual focus camera that uses my extensive collection of M mount rangefinder optics, and I want a decent size sensor that doesn’t turn my Rokkor-M 40 f2 into a telephoto. 12 mp or thereabouts  is the sweet spot – I don’t need 36 mpx files because I print, at most, 19 inches on the long side, and if I want bigger I can always “res up” with the appropriate software. My alternatives: an M8, M9, M240, Sony NEX or A7, Fuji X…. or the Ricoh GXR. The Sonys are designed by computer guys, not photographers, and it shows. Too computerized, with their nested menus and touch screen technologies. And, like the Fuji, their sensors aren’t maximized for the limited flange distance of M lenses.  So this leaves the Leica models…and the Ricoh. The M’s are simply too expensive for what you get. And there’s the issue of dodgy sensors that continue to plague the CCD M’s. Spending $6k on a camera body, only to have to replace the sensor at scheduled intervals, is insane. The fact that digital Leica owners accept this is, if nothing else, a testament to the irrational in many’s purchasing decisions.

This leaves me with the GXR. Ricoh has a tradition of funky, quirky cameras that appeal to serious photographers. The GXR follows in that tradition. Unlike conventional digital cameras which either have a fixed lens and sensor or interchangeable lenses and a fixed sensor, the GXR takes interchangeable units, each housing a lens, sensor and imaging processing unit. This allows each unit to have features optimized to one another and a specific task, whereas with conventional interchangeable lens cameras, each different lens must use the same sensor and engine. The sealed units also prevent dust from reaching the sensor, which can be a problem with interchangable lens bodies used in the elements. Having previously owned an M8, I know it to be a definite issue with digital M’s.


In addition to a 24-85 zoom and superb 28 and 50 mm auto focus units, Ricoh offers a 12 mpx unit to mount and use Leica optics, the A12 M Module. The Ricoh’s M mount is strictly designed with the technical specifications of the M bayonet in mind. It contains shifted micro-lenses on its periphery to deal with the angled light produced on the sensor plane by M lenses with short sensor plane distances. You get a Leica M sensor with all the advantages for wide angle lenses, without a AA filter to boot. And the Ricoh is as modular as a Phase One or Hassy. You can change out the sensor in a second to use the excellent Ricoh lens modules if you need auto-focus or are lazy and want to use a zoom.

The Ricoh with A12 M Mount is a much less expensive alternative to digital M’s that does an incredible job with M-mount lenses. I recently picked up two GXR bodies, an A12 M module and the 28 and 50 modules, all for just a tad over $1000, which is pretty remarkable for what you get. I’m not an IQ guy, but I can’t help but be amazed at the sharpness and depth of the files the GXR M mount produces with Leica lenses, a function of a sensor without an AA filter tailored to M mount lenses and the native quality of the lenses themselves. And both the 28 and 50 2.5 AF units are exceptional as well, the equal optically of any Summarit or Summicron I’ve used with the M Module.

xxxx--93Ricoh GXR, A12 M Module, 21 VC f4

The  relationship between the GXR and current digital M’s is similar to the 1970s Leica CL and its relation to the M5. While both shared the same format, meter, etc, the CL was lighter, smaller, and much less expensive, although it felt built to a price point, while the M5 retained the traditional robust Leitz build. The CL used the same Leitz lenses, which, of course, was more determinative of the final output than all the other considerations, and, in practice, produced negatives indistinguishable from the M. Ironically, in a transposition of the relationship between the CL and M5, the Ricoh feels better made, more solid and durable than the often fragile digital M’s. It’s an exceptionally well made camera with the heft associated with durability. It feels great in the hand, and it’s compact and unobtrusive in a way the fattened digital M’s no longer are.

Ricoh discontinued them in 2014, probably because the interchangible lens/sensor unit design never caught with most folks, which is a shame. The upside to this is that new units are still available and you can find them cheap.

My B&W workflow with the GXR: set the display for B&W RAW. set EV at -.07 to avoid blown highlights, ISO at 1600 or, when needed, at 2500. Process in SEP2 using either the HP5 or the Tri-X simulations, or if you want something really gritty, the Neopan 1600 emulation, very minor sharpening on output. Voila! Only a trained eye will notice any difference between this and a roll of Tri-X shot with your CL.

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