Home Travel Ricoh GR: My old weathered travel camera went to Bhutan

Ricoh GR: My old weathered travel camera went to Bhutan

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When it comes to travelling, apart from the medicine and clothing paraphernalia, I guess one of the most excruciating dilemmas some of us must have experienced at one point is: What camera will I take? 

Shall I take my big 24-megapixels (or more) monster with its amazing lenses or shall I take another route? Is my camera a tool that can produce amazing files when pixel peeping (I guess most of them will remain on a hard drive without being ever printed) or is my camera a social friend that will enable me to meet friendly and amazing people who I will be sharing nice moments with and who won’t be frightened by a bulky zoom or lens when they are ready to have their photo taken? 

Having got rid of bulky cameras, my choice was quite limited. Shall I take my X2 (thank you, John, for the fantastic articles with your X1) or the Ricoh GR + a GRD 4 as back up in both cases if one should fail?

Although I know the files of the Ricoh do not have the soul and density of the Leica, my choice always came down to the Ricoh. Image quality is , and you can crop to 35 and 47 in addition to the original 28mm. You lose some pixels when cropping, but the quality remains good when using it. Another advantage is that you don’t have to travel with three lenses if you can accept the pixel limitations in when cropping, I’m not a zoom shooter and always ended up selling zoom lenses them when I bought them. 

Two years ago, my wife and I went to the Kingdom of Bhutan — or the country of gross national happiness. We flew from Delhi, along the Himalayan range, had a glimpse of Mount Everest and eventually landed in Paro (Bhutan international airport) with the impression that the wings of the plane touched the rice paddies on the mountain slopes. 

This kingdom as big as Switzerland and it provided one of the most impressive trips my wife and I have ever made. The architecture was amazing, but what will remain forever printed on our minds is the kindness of the Bhutanese people. 

The scenery was, of course, breathtaking, as one may easily imagine. What was extremely impressive, though, was the terracing of the flora. Trees cover the mountains up to 6,000 metres, rice is cultivated at altitudes up to 2,000 metres and sometimes more, and the glaciers and snow appear around 6,500 metres (funny when you think that le Mont Blanc is a mere 4,810 metres high). 

The main difficulty was in adapting to the height, especially when hiking in the mountains. In the beginning, although we used to mountaineering in the Alps at home, we were short of breath at these altitudes. 

I did a few shots of monuments and landscapes (the Ricoh was handy), most photos were of people as they are not afraid of being photographed and sometimes ask to have their picture taken. I remember the occasion in Thimphu (the capital) when visiting the Memorial Chorten (a big stupa) where old people come to pray for the younger generations and their families. As soon as I started taking one picture, a whole crowd came down on me to have their photos taken. Fortunately, cameras have jpegs, and software engineers have invented 64 and 128GB SD cards! 

Our guide and experienced driver (you have to be experienced on Bhutanese roads) also contributed to a fantastic trip. Anyway, you need one as you can’t visit the country like a backpacker. Bhutan is an exotic country with really amazing people. I don’t know if their famous gross national happiness has something to do with it, but if your back and spine are willing to absorb potholes the size of a small bomb crater, if you’re “suicidal” enough to travel roads where blocks of Himalayan mountains fall onto the roads without any warning, it’s well worth a visit. 

You also need to like spicy food. The national dish, a sort of gratin dauphinois (potatoes, garlic and yak cheese with loads, tons of spices) will make your hair stand on end, and you’ll be crying and sweating through every pore even if you are used to spices. I guess it’s hotter than a very hot Madras curry.

This photo was taken in the capital Thimphu at nightfall, cropping to 47 mm. It was almost pitch-dark, and that girl was behind the dart shop window. The GR is quite unobtrusive, so I was able to take a candid shot. When she realised she was being photographed, she had a broad smile, and her grandfather waved at my wife and me. Communication ensued, thanks to sign language, and the moment will remain in my memory. Had I had a huge camera (let’s say a Canikon with a 24-70 f/2.8 -—no offence meant there), I wonder if I would have been able to take that image. 

  Prayer flags at a mountain pass, Bhutan(28mm)
Prayer flags at a mountain pass, Bhutan(28mm)
  Stupas with a view on the Himayalan range (28mm)
Stupas with a view on the Himayalan range (28mm)
  I guess the visit would not be complete without having a try at Yack cheese. Don
I guess the visit would not be complete without having a try at Yack cheese. Don’t ever try to bite in it. If you do you might end up toothless so hard is the consistency (47mm crop)
  Of course, you will expect to see the fantastic tzongs (Bhutanese forts combining a regional council with a monastery). 35Mm crop
Of course, you will expect to see the fantastic tzongs (Bhutanese forts combining a regional council with a monastery). 35Mm crop

I guess the walls of our houses or flats don’t look like this one and I imagine we would be censored in our western world if we decided to have one on our walls. Yet penis painters are renowned in their country and well-sought after. The legend says that one of the local lamas tamed an evil dragon by showing his penis. That lama must have been a potent one (excuse me, ladies). But having one painted on your house is supposed to bring you luck and protect your family.

If you chance to go there (and not buy the M10 or the CL as you have spent all your money on a trip and can no longer afford it), you can always get a brochure at your local Leica store and pray to god or whoever or whatever you believe in that you are the lucky winner of the lottery. You will remember people’s kindness and smiles. I’m pretty sure that the Ricoh’s discretion and unobtrusiveness helped when taking photos. Mine is on the verge of dying after years of flawless service and pleasure of use, I wonder if I’ll upgrade to the long-awaited 24mp GR III or buy a new GR II as the prices will surely drop when the new one is on sale early next year, The second solution would enable me to keep exploring, as Louis Amstrong would say, this wonderful world.

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20 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you for your marvellous account and interwoven pictures – a colourful variety of people and buildings and views. I am not missing any quality even in your in-camera crops, though I suspect that facility could be an argument for buying the GRIII when it comes. It certainly seems to make for a more versatile and genuinely compact camera than Fuji’s X100 series with add-on lenses or Leica’s X1 and 2 without.

    • Hello John,

      it is indeed a versatile camera once you accept its limitations. The only trouble is that your thumb may press the exposure compaensation button without your realizing it. It’s truly compact and fits in pocket and you’re sure to always have it with you. It’s also much lighter (though I guess not as solid as the X2). It’s just a no brainer when you go out anywhere.

      • Ah, indeed. That is my one big gripe with the GR — the rocker switch for the exposure compensation is forever being nudged out of setting. I’ve even tried sticking black tape over it, but it doesn’t work. For me, it spoils the experience. I’m glad you mentioned it, because I was beginning to think I was the only one noticing this.

        • Hello
          Yes that’s just terrible and I haven’t found how to invalid it. I tried to switch with the aperture but it’s not in the menu
          Jean

  2. Congratulations for the pictures and for the text. I guess you only have to see your pictures to realize how nice the people are in Bhutan. In the old days of film I had a Ricoh compact, which I loved. Very often the Ricoh GR has tempted me, but people complaining about dust easily getting to the sensor have made me stop. After seeing what a good photographer like you does with this camera, I might stop worrying about secondary problems…

    • Thank you. It’s true that I did have a few minor dust issues with the gr. I have had the same problem with my Leica X2. It’s nothing to worry too much about as the problem can be easily fixed in post when working on your photos. I’m very careful about my cameras but you can’t expect a pump lens not to have dust issues.
      Jean

  3. Thanks for the trip, love the pics, if Ricoh works for you and that is your go to camera, sit back and enjoy the ride! That is what I learned from John S on X1, 2…

    • Hello
      Thanks. I’m more confident with the ricoh than the X2 but I love John S photos with the X1. Maybe one day it’ll become my first camera

  4. Wonderful photos, Jean. It is, of course, the photographer and not the camera or other equipment that really matters. You appear to have a real talent for connecting with people and this shows in your photos of the people of Bhutan. For travel photography, a small camera is best and just having one main focal length forces the photographer to think about photos, particularly as regards composition and pictorial content. In these and many other respects you have succeeded admirably.

    William

    • Hello,
      Thank you. It’s true I love taking photos of people and having a chat with them even when it’s sign language though I admit this is much more difficult here in Europe. I did travel with just one lens (28mm) years ago and it’s true you think a lot more about the shots but I like to have the possibility of cropping just as you could with the tri-elmar (28-35-50) by leica a few years back (there’s one on sale at my leica dealer near home but I can’t afford it). I think that having just my X2 when travelling wouldn’t work for me. I have these 3 focal lengths somewhere at the back of my head and instinctively know which to use always starting at 28mm and cropping when need be. Sometimes you can’t get too close and there’s this invisible distance between you and the other person, some sort of a privacy line that can’t be crossed and in these cases the 47mm proves handy.

      Jean

  5. Hi Jean,

    Excellent article, and some wonderful images that do the Ricoh justice.

    I have travelled in the last year or so with more or less just the Leica X typ 113. And found it very liberating,

    I am currently out and about with my latest acquisition the Nikon Df – a bit bigger and not pocket friendly, but it certainly packs a punch.

    I look forward to seeing more of your articles and images.

    Dave S

    • Hi Dave

      Thanks. Following you on flickr and Wonderful images with your X. Dfaut issus à Wonder full caméricain but to bulky for me

      Jean

  6. A most entertaining, interesting, and informative post. The combination of your great images and information, like National Geographic, make me want to go there. Thanks Brian

  7. Wonderfully composed pictures of beautiful, happy people. While we worry over whether the camera we have is the best for the job, they seem to have found the secret to happiness. After seeing these pictures, I must visit Bhutan!

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