Here in Vintage Digital we celebrate digital cameras that were once innovative and outstanding, but somehow didn’t get the popularity they deserved, were ignored by the big crowd and long forgotten ever since.
Now relegated to the digital camera graveyard, they shall nevertheless stand proud as true digital classics.
Vintage Digital is my tribute to these true heroes from days past and, this time around, I’m going to introduce a masterpiece called Epson R-D1.
I. First things first
First thing you need to know is that the Epson R-D1 was released in 2004 as the world’s first digital rangefinder camera. This was even before Leica’s first digital M camera, the M8, was launched. And, to add insult to injury, the R-D1 even used Leica’s own M-type lens mount.
Now that you know Epson beat Leica in its own turf, I can hear you asking: How the heck did this happen?.. Epson, as is, the same Epson from digital printers and scanners?
Exactly, that same Epson produced the world’s first digital rangefinder camera.
II. Jam session with Epson, Cosina, Voigtländer & Seiko
Exactly how it happened or who started this I’m not sure, but basically somebody put all those guys jamming together and the R-D1 was born.
See, Epson had the expertise in image processing as they were in the digital printing and scanning business since God knows how long. Apparently, they were eager to apply their know-how in some exciting project.
Cosina is a traditional Japanese camera maker, had the skills in camera making and fine optics. Most importantly, Cosina acquired Voigtländer in 1999.
A long established camera and lens manufacturer with roots in Germany and Austria, Voigtländer had a popular rangefinder called “Bessa” and produced a vast collection of their own M-mount lenses as well.
Seiko… Well, Seiko sold watches and happened to be a parent company of Epson.
III. So what is the Epson R-D1?
Perhaps the quickest way to describe the Epson R-D1 is to call it a Voigtländer Bessa film camera retrofitted with a digital sensor.
Epson made the minimum possible adjustments to add a 6.1 megapixel CCD sensor to the Bessa – and then called it the R-D1 for Rangefinder Digital 1.
Most obvious changes to the Bessa’s film body included moving the shutter dial to the side to add that funny analogue gauge from Seiko (who else…); and, at the back of the body, the addition of a flip-screen for the digital interface.
This camera offers no live view, so the only purpose of the flip-screen is to actually hide it so the whole thing looks like a film camera.
Everything else was left untouched – or simply reconfigured to suit the now digital operation. A good example is the very clever rotating knob on the left, where the film rewinder of the Bessa used to be. In the Epson R-D1, this dial is now reconfigured to navigate the camera menu.
Even the film advance lever on the right was kept. In the R-D1 there is obviously no film to advance, but since Epson didn’t even care to motorize the shutter which remained mechanical, you have to wind it up and cock it every time you take a shot.
IV. Why is the Epson R-D1 so special?
In the early 2000s we were on a digital photography space race. Things were evolving from film to digital, the market was gaining shape and consumer needs were not so clear. Camera brands were competing on an “I have more buttons than you” kind of war.
It was under this scenario, where every brand was launching cameras with new techno gimmicks to attract the crowd, that Epson announced this bare bones, basic and simple digital camera. In the digital era, this was as close as you could get to the film photography experience.
This alone made the Epson R-D1 remarkably innovative and totally out of the box.
V. The 10-year production run
Strange enough, this unusual camera had an unusual 10-year production run: from 2004 to 2014. According to some sources, Epson produced a total of 10 thousand R-D1 bodies.
Over the years, Epson updated the R-D1 with the introduction of minor changes. Essentially the camera remained the same.
There was the R-D1s in 2006, which was basically the R-D1 with a firmware update, now adding JPEG + RAW and some other minor functions, plus allowing the use of higher capacity SD cards.
Then the R-D1x in 2009, which ditched the original 2 inch flip screen and introduced a fixed, larger 2.5 inch screen with the same resolution. And finally the R-D1xG, with a removable grip. Both R-D1x and R-D1xG were available in Japan only.
VI. The experience
I guess I’m one of the few lucky bastards on Earth who can really write about this camera from own experience. I happened to find an R-D1x in mint condition from an online store based in Japan and I didn’t think twice.
Build quality is excellent and the whole thing is very solid. The shutter is quite loud for a rangefinder: you hear a “klung” with an unmistakable metallic tone. But there is no subsequent sound from a motor winding up the shutter. Remember, the R-D1x is mechanical so you have to wind up and re-cock the shutter manually.
Some people enjoy the rhythm it adds to your photo shooting as it slows you down. If you ask me though, I have mixed feelings about this.
Having to re-cock the shutter before every shot is romantic and reminiscent of the film days. It puts a smile in my face. Yet, in some occasions, I just want to keep shooting without removing my eye from the viewfinder. Having to re-cock the shutter kills my flow.
The interface of the R-D1 is very simple. It’s refreshing to use a camera that has no bells and whistles at all. The back screen is obviously outdated, but still usable.
What stroked me initially was the lack of a D-pad. Navigation is by using the “film rewinder” knob on the left hand side of the top plate. Turn it clockwise or anticlockwise to navigate through the menu. Additionally, pull it up and you will access other functions.
Is it user friendly? No, not really. Is it smart? Yes, very much indeed. Epson went minimalist with this camera and once you get the hang of it you actually appreciate their ingenuity programming all these knobs and buttons to work together.
Then there is that analogue display. You are right to think of it as a gimmick. But you know what, it actually works very well and I find it very useful.
Modern cameras offer digital displays, but as one camera reviewer put it, there is a reason why car makers still stick to analogue gauges nowadays. Just a quick glance and by the positioning of the pointers you know the status of the camera – same as checking your speed when you are driving on the highway.
This is a camera from the days when accurate Auto white balance was a challenge even for advanced DSLRs. So even though I shoot in RAW, I change the White Balance quite often because the camera offers direct controls and it’s so easy to do it. Press the WB spring lever, turn the “film rewinder” and there you are, changing the settings. Seeing the analogue pointer moving as you turn the knob is a satisfying experience in itself.
I’ve been shooting the R-D1x with a Leica 35mm Summicron which effectively provides an equivalent 50mm focal length with the 1.5x crop factor of the APS-C size CCD sensor. I noticed some focusing imprecision wide open at f/2: the rangefinder mechanism seems to be inaccurate. Stopping down to f/2.8 helps nail the focus.
In terms of image quality, the R-D1 is obviously no competitor to my Leica M-E. So let’s be very clear on this. I don’t get the same punch, the colours, the sharpness or the micro contrast from my 35mm Summicron lens.
Contrary to the CCD sensor on the Leica M-E, this one has an AA filter. In addition, I’m dealing with the limitations of the R-D1’s older sensor. In fact, its 6.1 megapixel resolution is so low for our current standards that a full-scale 100% size image doesn’t even fit entirely my 21.5 inch iMac screen.
This is not to say the image quality is not good. In fact, it’s quite unique. Going back to 2004 technology brings the same kind of fun you get shooting old film negatives.
There is some oldness in the photos I’m getting, the result of less vivid colours – a brownish tint in fact – and an overall softness. The photos do have some character indeed.
All in all, I can tell you this camera really feels like shooting film. It reminds me of my Voigtlander Bessa R2A film camera. It feels the same and it’s refreshing shooting with a camera that feels like a camera, not an electronic device.
VII. So what went wrong?
Was the R-D1 a business disaster? Nobody really knows as there was no official statement from Epson. However, I bet this camera didn’t sell that well for a couple of reasons.
Firstly, a digital rangefinder belongs to a niche market, even more so back in 2004 when Leica was still working on the M8. Therefore, the R-D1 could only appeal to those who had a collection of M lenses locked on the closet and willing to give them a second life by shelling out $3000. Yep, that was Epson’s asking price.
Secondly, coming from Epson? This alone raised many eyebrows in the worldwide photo community, mine included. Branding-wise, a Cosina R-D1 or Voigtländer R-D1 would surely sound better, no?
Lastly, the R-D1 was really ahead of its time. Back in 2004, the very concept of a small and light system camera without compromising image quality was not even born. There was no market for this, so the R-D1 came out too early.
A classic, mechanical and no-gimmick digital camera that is ahead of time. The world is full of ironies and this is definitely one of them.
VIII. The mystique of a classic
You will not find much information about the R-D1, which in a way adds to its mythical status.
Camera reviews are scarce.
To start with, buying an R-D1 was no easy task. This was not a camera you could find in the regular photo store. In fact, I had never, ever, seen an R-D1 in a store during its lifespan.
Now that it’s been discontinued, it’s even more of a rarity. Every so often you will find a used one online, but not that frequently.
On the other hand, Epson kept a very low profile along the years. This camera was such a break through back in 2004, but somehow the very limited marketing material from Epson feels underwhelming in every single word – nothing close to the fanfare we see in Leica’s digital M announcements.
It feels like Epson wanted to make a statement by lying low and keeping things quiet, a bit secretive even: consistent with the R-D1, which is simple and discreet.
Then, after that abnormal 10-year production run and with the same unassuming attitude, in 2014 Epson announced the R-D1x was discontinued.
There were no talks of a replacement, not even a rumor.
One wonders why Epson did not consider a successor. It wouldn’t be that difficult a task: all they had to do was to simply replace the old CCD sensor with an updated one, and install a new LCD back screen.
Everything else could remain the same. And we could potentially have a competitive alternative to the digital Leica M cameras that are overly priced and not accessible to everybody.
Could have, would have…
Instead, Epson just pulled the plug.
The R-D1 vanished from the market forever, leaving no trace but the memory of its unexpected appearance at the wrong time of the digital era.