Whether you call them “interchangeable lens cameras”, “mirrorless system cameras”, or my current favourite “compact system cameras”, a new type of camera was born with the launch of the Panasonic Lumix G1 in 2008. Olympus joined in early last year with its popular Pen E-P1, and this year Samsung and Sony have both jumped on the bandwagon. However they will have found to their consternation that Ricoh was already there, having launched its innovative but rather strange GXR system in November last year.
Although it has a tiny share of the market compared to the likes of Panaonic, Sony and Samsung, Ricoh has always been one of the great innovators of the digital camera industry, coming up with a number of ideas which other companies have copied and taken on to commercial success. However while long-zoom compacts with wide-angle lenses have proved to be a big hit, whether the GXR concept will become as popular remains to be seen. While the other manufacturers have adapted the traditional SLR system of lens mounts and interchangeable lenses, the GXR has a unique modular design, with the lens and sensor combined as a removable, interchangeable unit. Ricoh has reasons for doing this, and to be honest they are good ones, but while there are some advantages to doing it this way, there are also disadvantages.
Ricoh claims that by having the lens and sensor in a combined unit it avoids certain optical compromises that have to be made with an interchangeable lens and mount design, allowing each lens to be matched to a sensor that can be optimised to suit its optical properties. It also avoids a problem that plagues all interchangeable-lens digital camera designs, that of dust getting on the exposed sensor when the lens is removed. It also saves a bit of weight and bulk by eliminating the mount. The major disadvantage is that the lens/sensor component is much more expensive than a corresponding lens for another system. It is also potentially larger and heavier.