How we learned to stop worrying, and love our batteries

Some weeks ago, a regular customer stopped by for a little help with his Ricoh SLR. I think it was the XR-P, which ranks as one of the last Ricoh SLRs put onto the market. It only took a moment to figure out his problem, and as I just happened to have an old Ricoh product brochure close at hand, I opened it up to see if his camera was in there.
The XR-P, was a model boasting new-fangled multiple program modes intended to lure photographers away from knowledge of shutter speeds or apertures, and it had a new line of updated lenses – Rikenon “P” lenses, which still used the Pentax-type K bayonet, but added extra electrical contacts to help with programmed exposures. These lenses were short-lived on the market as autofocus was the next big thing on the horizon, and Ricoh, like many other SLR companies, never made the investment for jumping into the AF marketplace. Instead, they put their eggs into the 35mm point-and-shoot marketplace, and did well there while the SLR line faded away. One trick to remember today is to never try to mount those “P” lenses on a current Pentax camera – they’ll jam on the AF coupling.

The flagship XR-S

Billed as the world’s first “solar powered” SLR.

But that brochure I pulled out didn’t show the XR-P. It was just a couple of years too old. Instead, the flagship Ricoh shown was the XR-S. I was quite familiar with photos and descriptions of the XR-S, but I told my Ricoh-enthusiast customer that it was the one model I’d never, ever seen. I’d even asked the Pentax Forum people if the camera really existed, or had only been a short-term “vaporware” kind of proposition. However, those who responded assured me the XR-S was a real product they had seen and used, once upon a time.
My only conclusion then, is that the XR-S didn’t make it onto shelves in Canada, whereas its almost-identical little brother, the XR-7 … well I’d seen lots of them over the years.
My Ricoh-fan customer looked at the brochure, and said he hadn’t even heard of the XR-S, but promised to see if he could find one. I’d almost forgotten about the conversation, but the other day, he walked through the door and presented to me an honest-to-goodness, XR-S!
I asked where he found it, and he confessed he’d bought it on that on-line auction from a fellow in England. He didn’t come across any in North America.

XR-S b

While Nikon were still putting leatherette on their prism sides, Ricoh had a better idea.

So what is an XR-S, and why does it hold such a fascination? Well, as the brochure clearly states, it was the first camera to use built-in solar cells to keep the battery charged up.
In around 1980-81, when this camera appeared on the market, many photographers were paranoid about battery-dependent cameras. Low battery voltage could suddenly render a camera useless. Whatever would you do?
Never mind that you could ask the same question about your radio or flashlight, the fact was that cameras had traditionally been mechanical devices, powered by springs and such. Professionals demanded cameras that had some mechanical override should the batteries die. Which is why the Canon New F-1 of 1981 could shoot at most shutter speeds if you pulled the battery out. Nikon’s F3 had one 1/80th shutter speed should things go dead.
And Ricoh’s XR-S had solar panels up on the sides of the pentaprism, recharging a special 5-year battery.
Trouble is, 10 minutes later, photographers seemed to forget all about mechanical backups. Nikon, after all, had made their F3 able to draw power from the motor drive pack. Any self-respecting Canon F-1 owner just made sure they had a spare battery or two in the camera bag.
And Ricoh shoppers probably thought the XR-S looked cool, but saved a few bucks and bought the almost-identical, but not solar, XR-7.

XR-S a

Aside from the solar panels, the XR-S was pretty similar to the less exotic XR-7

And, as I said, autofocus arrived only a few years down the road, and batteries were going to be an essential part of that. The worrying and fretting about batteries seemed to fade away.
Still, the XR-S was a neat testimony to those battery fearing days. Despite being Ricoh’s top-of-the-line model in 1981, it’s still only a basic, competent, aperture priority SLR. Ricoh never had any models with professional aspirations, but they always offered good value for the money. Despite the fact this camera probably cost nearly half what a Nikon FE did at the time, it had manual speeds from 1/1000th down to 16 seconds, depth-of-field preview, a memory lock button, an electronic self timer (with new-fangled beeper), multiple exposure button, and an LCD viewfinder display that mimicked a traditional needle readout. Oh, and there was a window so you could see the aperture below the focus screen. All the goodies.
Sad to say, this particular XR-S didn’t work. Its shutter wasn’t cocking properly, but its owner wasn’t deterred. He came back a few days later with another one – but it too was dead. A few days later again, he came in with another in good mechanical order, and only needed new seals to put it back to work.

XR-S d

The bigger battery was rechargeable, but two button cells were a logical replacement.

But he also held up a special trophy – a pack of three of the special rechargeable batteries. A specialty battery supplier he found on-line sold them to him at a close-out price. Naturally, we found they could only be barely charged up, and died a little while later, solar cells or not. We don’t think these batteries were actual 1980’s vintage cells, but were probably old stock from their revival in a solar recharged bicycle computer. Not that it mattered, we couldn’t get them to work. At least we know what they looked like.
My best guess is that owners of the XR-S probably used the original battery until it pooped out after the first five years or so, and then never bothered to seek out another one: two regular 1.5v cells fit and work fine, but don’t have the tab on them to activate the solar recharging system.
Oh, and by the way, none of the fellow’s three cameras were found in Canada.

~ by windsorphotooutfitters on June 17, 2017.

One Response to “How we learned to stop worrying, and love our batteries”

  1. The Ricoh KR5 was pretty interesting. I’d never seen or heard of a solar powered SLR before.

    It seems like a reasonable way to do it, since there were lots of solar powered calculators around at that time too. You don’t need much power to run the metering system and the shutter timing circuit.

    The problem is that it still needs a user accessible battery compartment, since those rechargeable batteries will fail eventually and need to be replaced. It was smart that they made the battery compartment compatible with both the expensive rechargeable batteries, and conventional batteries.

    At that time, It definitely would have had that cool factor, but in the end there was no practical advantage, and it just drove up the cost and complexity.

    The good news is that nowadays the “cool factor” far outweighs any practical considerations for obsolete 35mm cameras. It’s a neat toy!

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