The Epson R-D1s is the second of the bizarre R-D1 series of cameras from Epson. They teamed up with Seiko to produce a true gem and oddity of the camera world. It was the world’s first digital Rangefinder with a 6.1 megapixel Kodak CCD Sensor, manual shutter advance and analog dials across the top in a sort of odd-ball watch face configuration.
It’s a true oddity, something that seems like it was created by the Epson & Seiko partnership simply to say that they could. Or the odd couple was trying to beat Leica to market with a digital rangefinder – who knows! EIther way, what was born was a kind of weird, hybridy-film-digital-leica-bessa-analog-watch-thing that’s pretty neat.
Built off the Voigtlander Bessa R platform and maufactured by Cosina Camera Japan, in this weird collaborative effort Epson shoehorned a digital CCD sensor in it and Seiko shoehorned a custom analogue display into the top it sort of like what Nikon did with Seiko on the equally as odd Nikon 35TI back in the 90s.
The analog face on the top displays white balance which is changed via the dial on the left (where the film rewind knob would be on a Bessa), file quality (Raw or JPG), remaining shots and battery consumption. Surprisingly, it’s super useful to have all of this detail in such a small package right on the top of the camera – it’s really useful for changing settings on the fly. The dials are easy to read in good light, OK in moderate light and mildly difficult in low light: there’s no backlight but the dials are a very bright shade of white against a solid black background making them pretty readable in most situations. It’s pretty surprising just how many dials and switches they crammed into such a small body.
Additionally, changing the essential settings is a breeze. File quality (R, H, N on the right) and white balance (usefully coded suns on the left) are really all you need to change and they are altered via the “film rewind knob” master menu knob-thing on the left and the switch on the back respectively. Other key settings such as ISO and shutter speed adorn the familiar looking Bessa-ish dial to the right as well as the frame selector switch on the left. The killer feature of the shutter speed dial is that it has the old film rise-to-select-iso function in the same dial which is neat.
The battery indication is a bit hard to read at first at the very bottom of the analogue display and kinda looks like a fuel gauge, additionally I have my concerns as to the accuracy of this meter (the rest I’m fine with) as I’ve seen it go from full to half to near empty in a few shots on a new, fully charged battery. Maybe it’s more the old style battery than the battery meter itself. But by far, the most difficult meter to get used to is the remaining shots meter which is the outside wheel of the clock-face that begins at 500 at about 11 O’Clock and moves down to Empty at 12 O’Clock. This will take many days of shooting to get used to but once you’re used to it it’ll become very easy to review on the fly, it’s clear it was designed for much smaller memory cards than what we are used to these days! Essentially, the camera is designed for settings to be changed manually with no need for the user to look at the LCD to the point that it articulates and closes so you can’t look at it (sorry chimpers).
The LCD itself in modern terms is rubbish and to be honest it was likely rubbish for 2006 too. It’s barely usable for reviewing photos at a later stage let alone chimping after each shot, I typically turn the instant review off and have the LCD turned around facing the body. This saves precious battery life too!
The menu system is unreal though, it’s a doughnut style menu that is navigated with the film rewind knob on the left and the menu buttons that are next to the screen. Honestly, it’s probably the best designed and best looking menu system I’ve ever used in any camera ever. There’s not many items within the menu that need changing as most essential settings are changed manually on the top side of the camera. It won’t get in your way or slow you down, only essential setting need apply – which is perfect for a simple camera like this one.
Technically, Epson have included a smooth 6.1 megapixel CCD sensor from Kodak, which most photographers would sneeze at due to it being considered tiny by today’s standards. But there are many out there who prefer CCD to modern CMOS sensors, of which I am one. There seems (not scientific in any way, mind you) to be a bit more life to the photographs taken, when taken well. They appear smoother, dreamier and more lifelike in many cases, but that’s based on personal experience and preference.
The Epson R-D1s has a crop factor of 1.5x which means 40mm lenses become 60mm, 50mm become 75mm and so on.
The final piece of the puzzle is consumables. This beast only takes 2GB SD (that’s right “original” SD) cards! I found the best way to operate was to purchase a handful from eBay for a few dollars each and travel around with 2-3 of them as you can chew through them super fast when shooting RAW. Don’t worry about speed on the card, the write speed of the Epson is incredibly slow and the buffer is tiny making the SD cards the least of your worries. I mean, the Epson Raw Files (.eps) aren’t massive by today’s standards but they’re big enough to warrant keeping a few cards handy.
Batteries are even more sparse. The battery is inserted through a flap on the bottom like APS film. The R-D1 uses the weird and tiny grey Fujifilm NP-80 Li-Ion batteries which a few digicams of the 2006-7 vintage used. In 2017 they are available but most suck, don’t buy used and don’t buy stock that’s been sitting for some time if you can help it. Let me save you the trouble: I spent months messing about with older used batteries from Fuji and other manufacturers like Ricoh and other various dodgy manufacturers with unknown names. Don’t. They’re all rubbish. If you want new and reliable batteries order the Akku/Accu brand from Germany. They can blast out several hundred shots on a single charge and can be had for around $15, well worth buying three. The used battery your R-D1 will come with will hold charge for about fifteen minutes due to its age and the fact that these little NP-80 batteries have a finite charge life making them true consumables. Buy new AKKU batteries for the Epson R-D1 and save yourself months of hassle swapping between dead batteries like I did.
In the hand the camera has the same footprint as a Voigtlander Bessa and as such is quite small, it’s a little thicker than your usual Bessa due to the addition of the LCD screen on the back. But for an every day carry, the camera itself is quite light coming in at about 600g without the battery loaded and not much more once the battery is inserted.
Holding the camera in the hand it feels like a chunky Bessa with respect to the LCD screen but even then it’s quite a small camera. It’s sleek, the sides are covered in nice supple leatherette which feels soft to the touch and is comfortable, unlike Leica’s on the M9. It’s not pocketable, but it’s not far off.
The shutter has a nice, satisfying *ca-clink* to it but it is quite loud, when shooting street photography subjects can clearly hear the clank of the shutter from many meters away – it’s clear that you’ve taken a photo to anyone in a five meter radius from you. I kind of like that though, it kind of announces that you’re there and making photographs as you walk without the need to speak to anyone. It’s also very satisfying to hear the shutter slam and feel like you’ve actually made something more than a digital file as compared to today’s near silent shutters in more modern cameras. It’s a bit reminiscent of film camera shutters, I’d say it’s easily much louder than my Pentax K-1000’s shutter when used on the street.
I guess the one “super cool retro” feature that everyone is immediately attracted to with this camera is the manual shutter cock. I was! I used this camera as my go to while travelling around the USA and Canada in early 2017, to which most people assumed I was shooting film. The manual shutter cock is fun, it makes you feel very “film-like” and retro-hipstery. I found that having to re-cock the shutter after each shot slowed me way, way down and forced me to think more about each shot to the point that I would say I got more keepers per session or trip out of the little R-D1s than other digital cameras.
After 12 months with this beast though, you do get a little tired of manually setting the shutter after each shot as you start to realise that for all intents and purposes: you’re not shooting film. You can edit the RAW file when you get home and there is no real wait time that’s usually tied to developing film. Additionally, for those not used to film the learning curve is steep, if you forget to re-cock the shutter you can’t make your next shot and this can lead to missed shots in the first few weeks of ownership.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s a super fun feature but ultimately an unnecessary annoyance for a digital camera in the modern era.
This camera does not do great in low light situations in terms of 2017’s expectations, for 2006 I’m sure it was a great to maybe a so/so performer. It will only perform ‘well enough’ up to about 800ISO in my experience or even 1600 for Black & White, some users have been able to push it to 6400 and have been impressed by the results. I just kept it locked to below 1600 ISO (I usually kept it to around 200-400 ISO), keep your eyes on the light and it will perform excellently.
In practice out on the streets I found the R-D1 to perform excellently and matched my shooting style quite well. I don’t chimp, I usually set all settings at the beginning of a walk and prefer all manual controls. It’s pretty light and when paired with a small M lens like the 40mm M-Rokkor (making it 60mm with the crop factor) or 50mm Summarit-M (75mm with crop factor) it’s a very lightweight package indeed weighing seemingly half as much as my Leica M9 with lens and battery.
If you want to blast out thousands of shots quickly or in a matter of seconds this is not the camera for you: The R-D1 is slow in every sense of the word.
Not only do you have to contend with a manual shutter cock but you have super slow SD cards (with a 2GB max) and a tiny ass buffer that’ll max out at 2-3 RAW files and about 5-7 JPGs. Most users will fire off two or three shots in RAW quickly only be frustrated that the camera has completely locked up as it struggles to write the files from the tiny internal buffer to the ancient SD card housed within. Initially, the incredibly slow write speed will not be noticeable but once you’ve mastered the settings, dials and the manual shutter you will very quickly notice that firing shots off at pace isn’t at all possible with the R-D1.
There are, from my experience, two distinctive schools of thought from here:
- This camera is old, slow, too manual, annoying and a waste of money.
- This camera is a raw digital shooting experience and forces you to slow down, think and make photos of quality due to the prohibitive nature of the hardware
I fall into the second camp as I love this little camera! If you’re more likely to lean on the first school of thought rangefinders in general probably aren’t going to be your bag.
Files & Results
Surprisingly, the Epson .erf RAW files are fantastic and extremely versatile when you drop them into Lightroom. As I’ve already suggested, the files start to turn at about 800 ISO, so just don’t go higher than than when you’re shooting and the files will remain usable.
The colours are great and I find them very, very easy to work with in Post, even if I do have a tendency to butcher my images with processing, the colours were very easy to deal with. I’m probably in the minority here, but I’ve had a few CCD sensored cameras over the years and I prefer the colours output from them, much more than modern sensors like Fuji’s X-Trans or the Sonys where I find the colours harsher, a little harder to manipulate and a little flatter.
Maybe I’m crazy, but the older Kodak CCD files seem to produce files where the colour ‘pops’ a bit more – but that could just be to my tastes. That little CCD sensor in the R-D1 pumps out some excellent looking files regardless of it’s colour handling, many of the files look well beyond their 6.1 megapixels birthright. Granted, the lenses you slap on the front via the Leica M-Mount will come into play in terms of colours, sharpness and saturation but it’s really difficult to not be impressed by the files you get out of the R-D1.
This camera is CRAZY rare. I was lucky enough to find mine in Japan where it appears that they are in abundance – but really, abundance isn’t really the right word, theres just more of them in Japan. A few occasionally land on eBay (for insane prices, mind you) every now and again but the real treasure trove of Yahoo! Auctions Japan is where the bargains can be found. If you can deal with the Yen exchange rate and pretty slow shipping using a forwarder can yield a pretty rare camera at less than $1k AUD (about $750 USD). As with any old camera purchase though, you do have to balance paying a thousand-ish dollars for a 10 year old digital camera vs the risk of it dying abruptly and repair/maintenance costs. This is nothing new for those buying older Leica digital Ms but something to keep in mind nonetheless.
If you can deal with the fact that there is no support, no warranty, it’s super old and might just die on you and there will be basically no way to recoup that $1k investment then I’d say: “Go for it!” Just know what you’re in for going in. The R-D1s has inspired me to start the hunt for a Bessa R film camera because the form factor really is something!
Long story short: want one? Buy one from Japan via eBay, it’s the easiest and most affordable option.
I loved this camera and only sold it to fund a Leica M9, perhaps wrongly. If given the opportunity I would definitely buy one again. Some might scoff at the “it forces you to slow down” point of view, but I loved it and apply the same thought process to all my cameras because of this gem of a camera. Using the Epson R-D1s changes you, makes you think more and forces you to work harder for your photographs.
It’s a rangefinder. It takes M mount lenses. It’s cheap (ish) and it’s unique. Get one if you can!
All images taken with the Epson R-D1s can be viewed on my Flickr.