Welcome to the tenth in my series of quick compact 35mm camera reviews. Over the coming weeks, I’ll be publishing a total of 12 of these articles as part of an upcoming 35mm compact camera mega test spanning cameras made from 1990 to 2003 – arguably the golden age of these pocketable beasts. You can find the full list of cameras being tested here.

I’ll be comparing image quality, durability, speed and overall performance for cameras ranging from the very high end of the 35mm compact camera world to the very low – or close to it. The final articles will cover my criteria and scoring in full. At over 12,000 words in total, it seems a sensible approach to break these mini-reviews out, rather than trying to cram everything onto a single page.

You can check out the reviews that have already been published over on this tag page.

The Ricoh GR1s
The Ricoh GR1s

The Ricoh GR1s lacks bling. It does not look expensive. Kendall Jenner does not shoot with it. It is not the product of a premium brand. The Ricoh GR1s is a pretty uninteresting camera except for one notable feature: it is really good.

First of all, pick it up. Wow, it is really light! The Ricoh GR1s is the only camera in this test made of magnesium. Magnesium is a weirdly light metal, much lighter than titanium. Just don’t hold it in a bunsen burner! (Remember magnesium ribbon in school science class? – just kidding!)

The GR1s is slim, too – the slimmest camera on test here – it will slip into a pocket easily. This is the sort of camera you will actually take out with you.

The lens? Well, the GR1s has a 28mm lens with 7 elements – more elements than any other prime-lens compact. The results, I can confirm, are excellent. The GR1s produces stunningly sharp images. Well, most of the time. Occasionally the autofocus accuracy seemed not quite perfect enough to totally nail all the sharpness of the lens. But that’s splitting hairs – overall, I found the Ricoh to have one of the very best lenses of any compact camera.

Ricoh GR1s - Focus failure when it really should have been able to nail this
Ricoh GR1s – Focus failure when it really should have been able to nail this

The speed? Well, there are only four compacts that focus fast like an SLR: the Nikon 35Ti, the Contax T3, the Contax TVS III and the Ricoh GR1s. Those four cameras were the fastest in this test. I couldn’t tell them apart, they were all impressively fast.

Little touches show that the Ricoh is a well-designed camera: The viewfinder shows the focus distance in a simple, clear way, by showing a flower, one person, two people or a mountain. Not as informative as the Nikon 35Ti’s analog distance dial, but faster. The flash mode is a simple three-way switch, so you can switch off the flash easily – and leave it permanently off – faster than you can with other cameras.

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Downsides? The lens is 28mm, so you need to get in close. I love the 28mm look, but in street photography, sometimes I find it hard to get close enough. The Ricoh’s focus is fast and quiet, but the film wind-on is the loudest of any camera in this test. It is a weird, harsh, metallic sound. My theory is that the magnesium body is acting as a strange resonator. Death metal bands should use guitars made of magnesium!

The Ricoh’s Program mode never uses f/2.8 (it is programmed to stay at f/4 for any exposure shorter than 2 seconds). That means if you want to use maximum aperture, you will have to use aperture priority mode.

The Ricoh’s LCD has an appalling failure rate. You have to pay a high price to buy a GR1s with a working LCD, and then it could fail at any moment. Here is an alternative thought: you could consider buying a bargain-priced GR1s with a failed display, and just live with it. If you definitely want a perfect LCD, then I humbly suggest the GR1s may not be the right camera for you.

The Ricoh GR1s is one of those rare cameras that shoots film backwards. When you load a film, don’t expect to take any shots quickly, because the camera takes 40 seconds to wind all the film onto the take-up spool. As you shoot, it counts down and winds the film back into the canister. I dislike the ass-backwards counter, but I’m sure it would be fine once you got used to it. It also means that if you happen to open the back with film loaded, everything you’ve shot will be safe.

From a distance, the Ricoh could be mistaken for a cheap plastic camera. That is a bad thing for posers, but a great thing for street photographers. There is a reason that famous Japanese photographer Daido Moriyama used a Ricoh GR1s: it is an excellent “stealth ninja” street machine.

There are three GR1 models: the GR1, the GR1s and the GR1v. They are all very similar, with the GR1v having one extra feature worth mentioning: the ability to manually set the ISO. Personally, I would seldom use that, so I would not pay a big premium for the ‘v’ version.

On the other hand, if you have deep pockets and you want the youngest one, the ‘v’ is it. There is also a related camera, the GR21, which has an extra-wide 21mm lens. The GR21 is startlingly expensive, simply because so few were made. It loses pocketability since the lens sticks out even when closed. Plus, for some reason, the GR21’s body is 5mm (1/4 inch) taller than the GR1’s body.

Ready for review number eleven?

~ Ray

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About the author

Ray Rapkerg

I photograph people, including fashion photography, quirky portraits and art nudes. I feel photography is mainly about the images and the people in them, but secretly I am a bit of a gear-head as well! I like using a variety of medium format film cameras (current...

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  1. Ray i would Love to see Nikon L35af review in your test. I know its a Little folder, but its usually compared to the best compacts, and it is much cheaper. Btw tkanks for These articles, They are really helpful and interesting

  2. The GR1 is, hands down, my favourite compact camera, having owned all of its “premium” alternatives. The close focusing capabilities @ f2.8 make it a greet portrait shooter (example: https://ilcimento.files.wordpress.com/2013/12/transib0381.jpg). Along with a pinhole camera, it was the only camera I brought with me on a solo Trans-Siberian journey. All shots turned out great. Only problem with the GR1: it can (and will) fail for no reason, and it’s no longer repairable.

  3. I’m in love with my Ricoh GR1s and have it with me every single day. Just would like to add that with this autoloading film mechanism we always get exactly 37-38 frames per roll. Plus its possible to modify the DX code located on every film canistre (well almost on every) – here the great explain how to modify it – https://www.35mmc.com/08/03/2014/recoding-dx-barcode-35mm-canisters/
    Also thank you for this tip about f/4 aperture – i was sure that program mode also use F/2.8 during low light conditions shootings.