Thursday, November 7, 2013

Ricoh GR Tokyo Style

Wow, my mind is a whizz just now with all of the exciting new cameras that are being hyped and launched at us in a seemingly endless stream of intense campaigning by all of the big manufacturers, incredible times and I must say I really enjoy looking at all of the shiny new stuff. One of the less highly hyped cameras of recent times that seems to be quietly slipping into the background though as it is eclipsed by the exciting FF, M43 and retro Nikon's is the good old Ricoh GR. I wrote briefly about it in a recent post from a trip to Brazil where I used it in a limited way but began to respect its small size and easy handling. Last weekend I had the opportunity to make a short weekend trip to Tokyo and I decided to take the little fellow as my only camera as I thought it would be perfectly suited to city shooting on the streets of Tokyo.

Given that I had only three days in Tokyo I wanted to treat it casually and just enjoy the gorgeous Autumn weather and light, and to catch up with a few friends including the amazing Bellamy Hunt (Japan Camera Hunter) who is the font of knowledge on all things film camera in Tokyo. Before I left for the trip I happened to be having dinner with a few friends in Singapore, one of whom also happened to have the GR and while we were messing around Kevin Y Lee (founder of Invisible Photographer Asia) who is a smashing photographer and very knowledgable camera dude pointed out the High Contrast B&W effect preset and laughingly called it 'Daido mode' after the style of the revered Tokyo based photographer Daido Moriyama who also happened to be a Ricoh user. Well, like most serious photographers I am usually totally dismissive of in-camera effects and normally don't even bother to look at them. We continued to mess around with the setting and against my ingrained bias, I had to admit that the effect was pretty cool for certain subjects and I decided to give it a try for a bit of fun while shooting in Tokyo over the weekend with of course the camera RAW files for my more normal stuff.

With the little GR set up to shoot RAW + jpg and in the B&W high contrast (Daido mode :) ) my buddy Jay and I decided to try to stay out for 24 hours and shoot what ever came our way while wandering around Akihabara, Shibuya and Shinjuku. As any photographer who has been there will know Tokyo is a delight for just wandering and shooting as you go and the more discreet your camera the better and I don't think its any coincidence that the film GR was Moriyama's tool of choice. Where the modern GR scored big time for me was with the snap focus function, which as I mentioned before, I have programmed onto the function button on the side of the camera and I usually leave it set on 1.5 metres which works well for me most of the time.

As I said, the use of in-camera effects is usually frowned on by serious photographers and I think for very good reason. However, as I found out, they can be fun if applied appropriately and sympathetically to the shooting context. I thought it might be worth mentioning what I personally consider the pros and cons of this kind of effect. Firstly, I don't think this particular effect is overly extreme and indeed many great photographers (particularly Japanese) develop, process and/or edit their shots in this way because of the visual impact that it can achieve and from that point of view is a fast and simple way to get that look. Secondly, I very much like the consistency factor that using the strong B&W effect gives and that goes a long way to creating a mood and rhythm to your set or portfolio. Finally, I like to see my shots in-camera and as I am shooting in as close a form to the finished article as possible and I normally have my Fuji's set up for square and B&W with a yellow filter so that I can see how the light is behaving and how the shots are looking as I take them and when I review them. With the GR I have a small Lumix optical VF that I picked up cheap but I still predominately use the rear screen to frame and shoot. Its a style that I liken to a gigantic rangefinder and I have come to like it so it makes sense to see the shots on the screen in as close a representation of how you want them to finally look.

I think the downsides of using effects are pretty obvious. There is a real danger that the shots become cliched (as happened to me with a couple of these..) and that the pre-set becomes dominant at the expense of creating proper emotional effect or mood. On initial viewing some shots can appear very attractive but that can sometimes wear off very quickly after looking at a few shots if the subject matter, light, form and content is not good and the overall effect becomes tiresome.

Going back to the GR as a camera for a moment, I don't want this short, fun article to detract from the enormous capability of this tiny titan. I managed to stroll around Tokyo for hours on end without carrying any bags or other encumberancies with this little gem on a wrist strap. It goes without saying that the longer you walk and venture around a city like Tokyo then the more you increase your chances of finding interesting situations and material and, along with some good light footwear I can think of no better photographic tool for city shooting.

I don't think there is room in this short post to show enough of the set I created (40 shots) in order to build the full mood and feel that I was trying for but I hope the benefit point I made about consistency begins to emerge at least in a limited way. I haven't had a chance yet to look at the RAW files from the three days but am keen to do so to see what else is in there as I think the strong contrast obscured some detail that may be interesting.

At risk of stating the blindingly obvious, this kind of effect works best on simply sturctured subjects and frames and you need to be very careful that you don't start to miss important shots and details because your screen is showing you a mass of pure blacks and whites with very little real tonal detail.

Finally on the in camera effect front, I did out of interest try one other mode that my friends had mentioned and it delivered a shot that I like very much and for me captures a little of the essence of Tokyo's Ginza shopping district. The effect is called positive film look I think and clearly it emulates a nice slide film appearance. To be honest I don't think I will use these again in any seriousness as I like the output from the camera as it is and I think these effects can make you lazy in your shooting style. Having said that, I can't deny the fun I had with the 'Daido look' setting and it contributed to a fantastic, fun weekend in this endlessly interesting city.

Well, thats it for this brief bit of fun shooting. I mentioned at the start all of the amazing cameras that are coming our way and, as I said, I am as big an addict as anyone for cameras however, I think its a shame that less well marketed or hyped cameras like the GR will quickly be lost in the stampede, don't be seduced by the marketing spin, I never buy a camera until I have held it in my hands and got a sense for its responsiveness to the way I work. That is much more important in my book than the sensor size, resolution or tricky features. 

Incidentally for any photo book fans visiting Tokyo, the area around Jinbocho station is a treasure trove of used bookshops most of which have photography sections and I picked up a lovely cheap copy of Tarkovsky's polariods which I can't put down. Happy hunting if you get a chance to go there.

As ever, safe travels and happy shooting.



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  2. i love the feeling of those photos!nice work mate!

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