Back to my roots with the Epson R-D1

The Epson R-D1 Digital Rangefinder Camera

A little update, as there are some things I missed out of the initial post – which was written in haste before heading out to teach:

1. The Viewfinder on the Epson is 1:1, which is significant to anyone who knows what a joy ‘both eyes open’ shooting is with a rangefinder. The viewfinder on a rangefinder is at the extreme left-hand end of the back of the camera. Therefore it’s perfectly suited to having to your right eye whilst keeping your left eye open. Focusing in this way is just as simple as when having both eyes closed and just takes a bit of practice to get right; jiggling ones’ eye into precisely the right spot so that you can see the focus patch well enough. But it’s a joy and much more of a joy than with the Leica M9, which has a less than 1:1 viewfinder – at around, I think, 0.8 which results in a smaller version of the world through your right, viewfinder eye than through the left, open eye. This feels odd shooting with the Leica. Not so with the Epson.

2. The wind-on lever: WTF, I hear you say? Why does a digital camera need a film advance lever? Well, it doesn’t need the winder to advance the film and in the Epson’s case it isn’t, obviously. It isn’t just cosmetic though: it primes the mechanical shutter for the next shot, winding the blinds up and back into place for the next actuation of the shutter. But, much more than that, it has put the ‘gap’ back in between two photos for me. Remember that creative ‘pause’ one made in between taking two shots on a film camera? It’s back. Plus, having the wind-on lever is a very useful tool in convincing someone this is a film and not a digital camera; useful in the rare circumstance someone gets miffed you’ve taken their shot and asks you to delete it. ‘I can’t. It’s a film camera’. Showing them the Epson [wind-on lever, no screen – cos I shoot it folded away all the time – hmm, yeah, ok, film].

3. The Film Settings: there are four ‘film settings’ available through the menu, where you can change colour, contrast, saturation, noise-reduction and edge sharpening. Not as much control as I have with the Nikon D700 and its Picture Controls, but a handsome set of parameters to tweak and change the look and feel of the shots.

4. RAW+JPEG: as I don’t have a piece of Epson software to do what Nikon ViewNX does for my ‘see it exactly as I have shot it’ experience with the D700, this is a good halfway house: shoot a RAW to mess with in Capture One later but get a JPEG with all the Epson’s film settings embued in it. And the colour rendition is nice, reminding me of some varieties of slide and print film my dad used to shoot in the 60s and 70s.

5. The controls and handling: a dream. Enter the on-screen menus with buttons on the fold-away screen unit and the round dial at the extreme left-hand side of the camera [as you have it in your hand] becomes navigation through pictures or the menu items. There’s a beautiful feel to this control and all the other controls on this camera, which all fall well to the fingers. Something I don’t get using the M9 either: that silly four-way arrow and surrounding dial thing on the right-hand end of the back of the M9 is awful, IMHO.

6. There is a post on this site, streamed in from my Google Plus pages.. with lots of comments from people which are good to read. Find that here.

After spending three days being one of the teachers at the recent Eric Kim Tokyo Street Photography Workshop, I got the bug for shooting with a rangefinder camera again. Eric shoots a Leica. My mate Charlie – who was also teaching at the workshop – shoots and does great things with his Leica. Bellamy, the third pal teaching, shoots one too. This and the fact that there were some Leica M9’s generously loaned to the workshop by Leica Japan meant I got exposed to a lot of Leicas over the weekend.

I liked the M9. Apart from the terrible quality of its LCD screen, some odd control layouts and usability it’s a beautiful camera. But it’s way beyond what I can afford right now. I shot with an SLR for work and photography has to pay the bills for myself, my home and my wife and three kids. I have to make my cameras pay for themselves and I couldn’t shoot more than 10% of my client work with a Leica so it’s hard for me to see my way clear to justifying the enormous outlay for the body and even one good lens.

I learned the earliest lessons in photography with a Russian Zorki-4, Leica copy, rangefinder, with a 50mm f/2 lens; given to me by my father when I was seven years old. So, after Eric had left Tokyo and after I’d thought for a few days of how nice it would be to have a digital rangefinder in my hands, I contacted my buddy Jeff Laitila, who I knew had an Epson R-D1 which he wasn’t using so regularly… as he has an M9.

Why couldn’t I just go and get a cheap Bessa film rangefinder? It’s film, that’s why. I loved learning on film. I loved shooting it for so many years. I loved processing and printing it. Loved: past tense. I love digital. Present tense. And would find it hard to give up the immediacy of digital for some retro love-affair with film. Plus, I left 35mm film behind me a long time ago, shifting in 1988 to medium and then large format. Film for me ended large, very large… 20x24inches large to be precise. Going back to film 36x24mm small is not on my to-do list for 2012.

So Jeff has lent me the Epson and I will be buying the body and one lens from him as it is the affordable way for me to shoot rangefinder and get some fun out of it. That’s the main reason for me to have it. I shoot for a living and having a hobby from photography as well means doing something different to what I do every day with my DSLR. It could have meant film. In fact it still might, as i want to get my hands on a large format film camera again at some point. But, for now, it means a rangefinder and that means the Epson.

I currently have these lenses for it:

  • Canon 50mm f/1.2 RF [serial number puts it at about 1958 vintage and the pictire of the camera above has the exact same lens on it].
  • Canon 35mm f/2 RF [from around 1965]
  • Canon 85mm f/1.9 RF
  • Avenon 21mm f/2.8 – made in Yokohama, a beautiful lens to shoot on the Epson.

So I’ll take the Epson’s DX sensor. I’ll take its 6-megapixels, because that’s what I have to play with right now until someone plops a better rangefinder in my hand for a sensible price. I’d thought that Fuji might deliver on that but their X100 is not a real rangefinder and the manual focus on it is diabolically bad; the AF laggy and slow.

Then Nikon promised a mirror-less camera and for a brief moment of daft optimism I thought they might try and go one better than Fuji and give us a digital S2: looks retro, is a proper rangefinder. Instead we have the V1 and J1. So much for my moment of optimism which, now, looks even more daftly naiive than I’d thought it was at the time.

Fuji’s new X1-Pro promised, on first rumour, a light at the end of the tunnel and I would have found the $1700 for the body if the camera would have had a lens mount that allowed me more choice than just Fuji’s own lenses. That’s what I love about the Epson, too: M and l-mount compatibility and a vast range, therefore, of affordable and interesting lenses.

The X1-Pro will, by 2013 so the rumours go, have a range of around 10 or 12 lenses. Let’s hope that this range differs from the three lenses that Fuji are launching with the camera, to include distance and zone-focus markings, which the three launch lenses don’t have. This is yet another reason for discounting the new Fuji as anyone who has shot a rangefinder – pro or enthusiast – would know that one of the real joys of such a system is the ability to use hyperfocal/zone/distance markings on the lens to set up a very rapid shooting behaviour.

The 21mm Avenon lens I have for the Epson will, at f/8, focus from 1metre to infinity. I set 1m to the left-hand f/8 marking on the lens and read-off ‘infinity’ on the right-hand f/8 mark. Simple. Now all I have to do is to make sure I keep my shutter speed and ISO balanced to maintain a decent exposure at f/8 and no focusing is required. I just put the viewfinder to my eye to frame and then hit the shutter release.

Not having distance markings on their new lenses for the X1-Pro is a major fail for Fuji, IMHO.

Epson brought out the R-D1 before the mirror-less fad hit town. Shame. If they were releasing the same camera body now, with a full-frame sensor, they would – I think – clean up. It’s a great body, basically a Bessa R4 with digital insides and a screen on the back which conveniently folds away.

There are many people talking about mirror-less as the ‘3rd generation’ of digital cameras. It might be. But it comes from the 1st generation of 35mm cameras. Leica did mirror-less in 1928. It’s quiet, it’s slimline. No wonder it’s taken off again now.

I’m still learning how to get the best from the Epson R-D1; from the RAW files, from the narrow band of ISO performance where it’s 6mp sensor doesn’t really show its age. But I like it for all the reasons I loved my first camera, that old Zorki-4….

  1. Quiet
  2. Small
  3. Looks cool
  4. Focuses like lightning once you get used to it
  5. Loads of lens choices, from the old Canon RF to Voigtlander, Bessa and even Leica when you are feeling flush.

I’ll live with the 6-megapixel for now, until something better comes my way.  I’ll just enjoy shooting with what I have.. not a bad maxim in this day and age where too many people seem to be permanently sitting on the edge of their seat waiting for the next best, brightest thing to come through the door.

Here’s a selection of shots I’ve made recently with the Epson. It’s just a few right now, I’ll add some more in shortly.

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Japanorama is run by British professional photographer, Alfie Goodrich, and provides practical photography teaching in Tokyo. Weekly workshops, group and one-to-one lessons bring together photographers of all ages and abilities.

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