It makes me giggle

Sometimes you think you’ve seen everything, and then you get reminded that the photographic world still has a few hidden secrets, and forgotten treasures.
Some time ago a customer brought in a true oddity I had only heard of, but never seen in person. I had a hard time convincing myself I could part with it.
First off, I believe it was the only digital camera to have a manual cocking lever for the shutter (no, I’m not counting digital back setups for Hasselblads or Mamiyas). Secondly, it was the very first digital rangefinder – not that there have ever been many of those. And thirdly, can you think of another digital camera with a traditional dial to change the ISO? The Nikon Df does – but I would have to say Nikon’s efforts to pare down the digital experience to its essentials fall short of what could have been done.
What we’re talking about here is the Epson R-D1. A digital rangefinder camera introduced in 2004, and sold in very small numbers apparently to those who could afford about three grand for a six megapixel camera to go with their Leica M-mount lenses. I’d never seen one in person, although a photojournalist back then knew a colleague in the U.S. who had one – and he swore it was one of the best digital cameras he had ever seen – far better than the Fujis he had to put up with at the time.
What I can’t figure out is why Epson, of computer printer fame, decided it was up to them to put this camera on the market. After all, it is built on a modern “Voigtlander” platform – which of course were actually manufactured by Cosina. Cosina made its rangefinder platform available to Rollei, and Zeiss, and also apparently to Epson – which up to that point were mostly associated with great inkjet printers, and cheap giveaway digital compacts. Why this isn’t a Voigtlander R-D1 is anybody’s guess.
So, aside from the manual wind lever to reset the shutter, and the beautifully big and sharp viewfinder, one has to marvel at the honest-to-goodness shutter speed dial, which can also be set to AE – so you have aperture priority and manual at your disposal – all you ever need.
On top, there’s also a needle display similar to the one I love on my Nikon 35Ti. Rumour has it Seiko (Epson’s parent company) made the watch-like components for that readout. Switching the camera on rewards you with needles that sweep around to display battery level (E…F like a gas gauge), the number of remaining shots on your SD card, Quality setting (Raw or two JPEG settings), and a white balance scale that uses different icons from what we now consider standard. Oh well. I never figured them out, and just left the camera on Auto white balance – correcting any problems in the Raw conversion.
At the far left side is what looks like a standard film rewind knob. But Epson use it as the scroll wheel for the limited menus, and for winding through images. Why on earth Leica didn’t use a similar setup for their M8 and later cameras boggles my mind. The knob is so perfect and logical it makes poking compass dials seem ridiculous.
If you want, you can flip around the rear LCD to hide it away, resist the temptation to play back every image, and just concentrate on photography.
This camera really is a sweetheart.
Inside the camera is a six-megapixel CCD sensor, probably very similar in design to what Nikon and Pentax used in their cameras of the same era, ISO 200 to 1600. A few test shots showed clear and sharp images. I thought the lens lacked a bit of sharpness at the edges of the frame, which surprised me a bit, given the crop factor. But colour was very pleasing. Above 800 ISO the noise showed the sensor’s age, which is what you’d expect. Raw files open beautifully in Photoshop, and look great.
Apparently the R-D1 spawned two successors, but they were only minor tweaks to the design, and only for the Japanese market. Newer tech, 10 megapixel and CMOS types passed Epson by, and this Cosina digital product never went any further. Somebody probably knows the whole story, but not me.
It’s a shame though, because it seems to me this is what a lot of people tell me they are looking for. A digital camera that isn’t crammed with 10 gazillion superfluous features and menu options, clearly marked main functions, and an emphasis on composition and shooting, not playing. And no stinkin’ video.
In my short time with, I’ve managed to take a number of really, really nice shots with it – and fighting the urge to giggle each time I clicked the shutter and cocked the wind lever. It really is a joy to use.
It feels small and light, even though it isn’t all that compact.
Down sides? Well, of course it would be nice to have a newer-tech sensor. Heck, with a full frame 16 megapixel, it would be downright perfect. When you do use the rear LCD, images look a bit dull – and I’m not sure if the screen’s backlight has just aged, or whether screens are just so much better nowadays.
I suppose the most awkward aspect to the R-D1 is that it is an APS-C format camera, with its 1.5x crop factor compared to full 35mm sized sensors. Not a big deal you say? Well, I’ve only used the R-D1 with a 35mm Voigtlander in M-mount – which makes for a nice normal lens. The finder has frames for the 35mm normal, along with a 50mm frame  for a “portrait” length, and also a 28mm frame – which really can’t be considered a wide angle on APS-C at all.
No, to go wide angle on the R-D1 you’d need at least a 24mm in M-mount – and then pair it up with a 35mm format finder to stick on top, if you follow me. So you have to mismatch lenses and finders to compensate for the 1.5x crop. If you already have a drawer full of lenses and finders, that may not be a big deal.
I have no plans to start a collection of M-mount lenses, otherwise I might be sorely tempted by the R-D1.
Still, when it leaves my company, I will miss it, knowing I’ll probably never see its like again.

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~ by windsorphotooutfitters on January 3, 2014.

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