All cameras are not made equal. Sure, there’s a bunch of interchangeable DSLRs out there, but for every 20 Nikon D842 Something there’s always one camera that stands out and has staying power. These are often referred to as cult cameras.
One of the blessings of having had Gear acquisition syndrome, is that I shot many cult cameras. One of the curses of G.A.S on the other hand…is that I let most of them slip away. So let’s look at the cult cameras that I have loved before, or some that I’ve always wanted and simply still have no equals, but first we must ask ourselves…
What is a cult camera?
A cult camera is a camera that is held in high regard/admiration. While you can always find an exception, these have initially been shunned upon release, only to be sought after when they have been discontinued. Or these are simply cameras that refuse to die: photographers still continue using them and can’t find a replacement. Also these are cameras without any alternatives.
These cameras have no equal upon release, and pretty much nothing has been released afterwards that tick all the right boxes. So these are technically outdated but not so in the hearts of photographers.
Also, I will avoid most Leicas on this list. Why? Because Leicas hold their value real well and even the 1984 Leica M6 is still sought after. Let’s face it too, they pretty much all have cult status so no Leicas here (but we will see an exception below). I will also keep the film cameras for another list.
Top 5 Cult cameras
Now that we have determined what a cult camera is, let’s look at the first one…
This is the camera I regret the most. The Epson RD1, aka the most beautiful camera I have ever owned. Between me and you I sometimes fantasize of selling all of my gear just to get it back again. It’s now much more expensive then it was years ago when I sold it. Ask any photographer who ever shot it, and you’ll only hear them gush about the camera and having the thought cross their mind to maybe get another one.
There’s so many reasons why the Epson RD1 is so great. First is the fact that it is one of the most beautiful digital cameras ever. It’s basically a Bessa rangefinder body but it had two things that makes the head of photographers spin: The little gas-tank like needles on top indicating your remaining shots and dammit there was a stupid crank that you needed to crank every time you make a shot.
That crank. That frikking crank. It is brilliant. There was a genuine reason for it to be there (unlike the Leica M10D’s crank that’s just for show) as it charged the shutter. But even if it didn’t do anything, the placebo effect would still be there.
It was a close as you could ever come to shooting film. It was one of the first cameras I can remember that could flip the screen completely so you could technically shoot without ever looking at the screens. It could take Leica M lenses (but the sensor isn’t full frame but APSC), and was simply a zen-like experience when it came to shooting.
The 1:1 viewfinder was a thing of beauty too. You could have both eyes open and you could at the same time see the viewfinder and the world outside of it. The downsides were that the rangefinder tended to go out of alinement and there were prone to dead pixels.
That sensor tho. You might laugh at the 6 megapixels (on the latest Rd1x version) but there was something film-ic about it. And it’s not just wishful thinking, under the right conditions this thing could make stunning images. I lost my images in a hard drive crash but I remember a photograph of bush leaves I made.
I simply toned it in black and white and this was one of the most stunning nature shots I’ve made. I have tried in vain to recreate this shot but the exact feeling and mood, I could never replicate. Even after all of these years, this is the one camera that shortcuts all of my logical processes and I often feel like selling all of my gear just to get it back.
Should you get it? Nah. If the sensor dies, servicing might be a problem. Epson probably don’t have sensors left, but there might be some genius capable of replacing the sensor for a fee.
Years ago I think I had up to 4 Ricoh GXRs, one of the most unique cameras ever made. Sadly it was never fully developed as the modular system could do much more than have different mounts. The GXR was simple, on one hand you had the screen and battery compartment, and on the other hand you had lens and sensor that you could attach to it. Yes, it was a modular camera
So the same camera could be your point and shoot, and if you wanted something more serious you could put in a 50mm APSC sensor in there. What I loved was how small and how great this little camera felt in your hands. The little viewfinder that could go up 90 degrees was awesome and could transform the way you shoot.
I had the 50mm, 28mm but I didn’t like them too much because I always felt like they wasted sensors. Why have two lenses AND two sensors? But everything changed when Ricoh introduced the GXR M module. It could take Leica M lenses and correct them, plus it had no AA filter making it tack sharp.
It was one of the best ways to shoot M lenses on the cheap. The small lenses with this body were just a joy to use and while I don’t miss it occasionally like I do the Epson RD1, as soon as I see it I breathe more heavily.
I expected an upgraded body and other module but it never came. The possibilities were endless. You could have had a Pentax K mount in there, or have a module that was a projector, or a hard drive. So many things could have been done but ultimately it was shelved.
Years ago, because I shot Ricoh GXRs, I met this other fellow online who loved them too, and we would later create Inspired Eye Street Photography Magazine and create a street photography course. So yeah Inspired Eye would have never existed without my Ricoh GXR.
It was this camera that made me shelve DSLRs for good, previously I owned a bulky Pentax K20D, a wonderful camera (and don’t get me started on those limited lenses now!) but it went out the window once I go the GXR.
Should you get it? Yeah. The good news is, it is still one of the best Non Leica M cameras you can find. It’s not modern with crazy high buffers and megapixels but still viable.
Ricoh GRD IV
Yes, two Ricohs on this list. To be honest Ricoh are quite obscure outside the comfy street photography circles. Ask anyone about them and the answer is most likely “The printer manufacturer?”. The GR definitely changed all of that though, as I see reviews of that camera in mainstream websites.
Anyway, I am not here to talk about the Ricoh GR (Or Ricoh GRD V as we expected it to be called back in the day) but the cult camera Ricoh GRD IV. There’s still no replacement for this baby as the GR has an APSC sensor. Just like there’s a certain look to the Epson RD1 images, under certain conditions there’s a definite small sensor Ricoh GRD look.
There’s a grit, especially with black and white street photography that you can’t get anywhere. And there’s a general feel about the black and white themselves I have yet to see replicated. Turn on color and it’s a joke, shoot in black and white and the images come alive.
While it might look like the GR, it handles nothing like it. This is probably the best ergonomics of a pocket camera, period. One handed operation means you can be stealthy and change settings on the fly. And this baby can output raw files that have a LOT of wiggle room.
Every single time I have stepped away from my Ricoh GRD IV, my photography suffered. Things aren’t the same without this small camera in your pocket. I actually had the GRD III and sold it. The regret was so instantaneous that I had to purchase another, but I opted for the GRD IV. I’ve had it for years now and still shoot it to this day.
I’ve tried many times to replace it like with the Panasonic LF1 and CM1 but it just ain’t the same. I’ve actually given up on finding a Ricoh GRD IV alternative and just accept that it’s the only one that will ever be. Nothing compares to the handling and the files that come from this little beast. Most photographers have moved on to the newer and bigger sensor GR III, but for some like myself this cult camera is for keeps.
Should you get it? Yes if you are into hardcore street photography. It’s way too old for anything else. Video is laughable. Snag one up if you can, these are getting rarer by the day.
Contax TVS Digital
Contax ain’t much of a brand name nowadays, but back in the day? Contax T2 and T3 are some of the best film cameras ever. The TVS were more affordable and there was also the only digital T available: The Contax TVS Digital.
It’s slow as heck, only 5.2 megapixels but it makes up for it with charm. Champagne titanium body, amazing little viewfinder, it is just a joy to use. It feels like on of those older film premium point and shoot cameras but it’s digital.
Did I mention the top has an LCD screen just like those more modern film cameras? It’s one of those unneeded things that add to the charm. But if you want a real reason for this camera tho, it’s the Carl Zeiss lens and the image quality.
It’s not that it has great image quality, it’s just that there is a little “something” about the images. Again, it’s not in every image but under the right conditions (forget night street photography) the images feel film-like. If there is one big common point between all of these cult cameras it’s probably that many of there images come out a little “special”, even tough it would be something hard to prove.
It’s something that is more emotional and out there, but trust me from someone who’ve shot a lifetime’s worth of cameras, when you see it, you see it.
Should you get it? Nah. This camera is definitely a cult camera, but the prices on ebay are bonkers.
Leica Digilux 3
Yeah, I said no Leicas, but this isn’t really one. And trust me when I say this is quite a forgotten cult camera. Faced with competition like the M6, M9 and more, it’s very far from the minds of Leica shooters.
But what a little gem this is. It’s a rebranded Panasonic DMC-L1 but of course with the Leica branding. It’s not really a rangefinder, but a 4/3 camera, and it was before the smaller micro 4/3rds. So it’s quite chunky for the sensor size but it had that Leica look and above all you shot it like a rangefinder.
The camera itself is a solid shooter. 7.5 Megapixels and larger sensor, plus since it had intercheangle lenses you could potentially put in M mount lenses in there for a poor man’s Leica (But you would had the crop factor to contend with).
By modern standards this is a slow beast, but just like the TVS Digital, there’s a charm about this particular camera that has yet to be replicated. One of the latest incarnations of this camera is the Leica D-lux7, but while it is a solid camera (see my Panasonic LX100 review) it just doesn’t evoke the same feeling as the Digilux 3.
I’ve had my fair share of cameras for a decade or so, and what trips you isn’t necessarely the ones with the best lenses and specs, it’s the ones with charm and that are a joy to use. This is something that is hard to convey trough text but you get the idea.
Should you get it? It’s still a fun shooter that can take 4/3 lenses. A maybe.
There you have it, a list of the best 5 cult cameras that still have no equals. For some reason or another, they have no sequels that followed into their footsteps so photographers still gladly shoot them to this day. Some are still worth it, some aren’t but one thing is for sure: They’ve left a mark on the hearts of the photographers who shot them.