[T]he Epson RD1 was released in 2004 making it an 8 year old camera, a dinosaur by today's standards. I always wondered how the Epson RD1 in 2012 would fare in a street setting, because it is still used today by loyal devotees and still fetches a premium price for a 8 year old camera.
Every now and then comes a camera that breaks boundaries, a camera that innovates and makes history, like the first Sasson digital camera or the Epson RD1. The Epson RD1 is a history making camera, it's the world's first digital rangefinder and the only camera that I have that is in Todd Gustavson's book Camera. While researching for another project of mine, I found that there is nothing quite like the Epson RD1, even when compared to other digital rangefinders like the M8 and M9. This camera has reached cult status, with fans still using it actively to this day and are hard to separate themselves from it.
The prices for the camera are still very high for an 8 year old camera ($1200-$1500), and it is a testament to the quality of the camera itself. What I really like about this camera it is that it produces the same attachment people use to have with film cameras, when you get it it's like you know you are going to use it for a long time or until it breaks, unlike nowadays cameras where you know it's going to the ‘bay when something better comes up. I personally got mine for less than a X100 (a steal I know) and it is my main workhorse with my fresh Ricoh GRD IV…. and they ain't never leaving my side 🙂
I tend to brush of the other camera's image quality because I believe that they are all good enough, and prefer to focus on photography rather than pixel peep and nerd out on too much moiré or something. But the Epson RD1 did intrigue me, how would an 8 year old 6MP fare with new sensors? To be truthful, I expected the RD1's files to be a muddy mess compared to the new stuff, by they are actually very good compared to the others. Here is two full size Jpgs:
There is a psychological effect of having a camera that you know is “only” 6MP on a 8 year old sensor, but after doing the comparison (in part 6) I have faith in the IQ of the Epson because it holds it's own very well. Of course it shows it's age but it still packs a punch and can handle some good enlargement up to A3 as many report. I still can't shake the psychological effect but the Epson absolutely rocks with great files and nice grain. ISO1600 has this nice organic grain that gives you a Tri-X feel.
You know the gut wrenching feeling you have when you shoot with film? The feeling that you have when you don't know if you have the shot or not? This camera produces the same effect, because you can fully operate it without looking at the back screen. Needless to say this is a fun, fun, fun camera for a photographer, so much that I did not want to use any of the other cameras when I was out shooting. This camera is a film camera with a sensor in it. You can forget that you are actually shooting digital because the whole film experience is so well replicated, film knob included.
Cameras are not innocent, they produce psychological effects on their user. When you have a digital camera, you can always double-check your exposure and other settings, if you screw up you simply play back the last frame and adjust the settings, it tends to make you careless sometimes. I have caught myself NOT looking at the histogram and simply adjust by looking at the last frame, and that's bad. But this is not so with film, you know you can't mess up your exposure because you do not have instant feedback, and you know your shots are very limited. Film cameras forces you to be aware of your camera, and the Epson RD1 has that same effect: the back screen can be rotated so you can forget about reviewing and focus more on shooting; you shots are limited both by the battery and the 200 raw files limit (2gb cards max) encouraging you to discriminate and turning the LCD on less.
The camera is build like a tank, and feels very comfortable because you have a good grip on it. The back of the camera is raised a bit and creates a reverse grip where your thumb's main muscle's go so the front doesn't really need the raised grip. The top plate of the Epson RD1 has a gauge where you can know by a glance your remaining shots, WB, Battery and image quality a ingenious design unique to the RD1. The shutter dial is absolutely great and feels like a real solid dial (unlike the Xpro's plastic look and feel) and it has 3 functions: ISO, Shutter speed and EV compensation.
You can also change WB and Image size on the fly without looking at the screen with the left “film rewind” knob… genius design IMHO. The shutter clocking knob doubles as thumb rest and your thumb and index have quick access to the shutter dial for quick adjustments. What I really like with the Epson RD1 is its philosophy that less is more. What do we need besides ISO, Shutter speed and Aperture control? That's the Epson RD1, a straightforward camera without the bells and whistles, any photographer can pick it up and use it (took me less than 3 minutes to master it)
Remember the good old camera where the viewfinder had nothing but maybe shutter speed indicators? So does the Epson RD1, the viewfinder is simply Zen and takes you in that photographic zone where you only focus on the image without distractions. The only thing you see in the 1:1 viewfinder is the framelines (you can choose between 28-35-50), the viewfinder patch and the red shutter speed (you have to look a bit under the viewfinder to see it), the blinking shutter speed is the suggested speed and the non blinking one is your own settings, so you don't even need to look at the dial. We need more cameras with less stuff.
Rangefinders use a triangulation system where you align the two images in the viewfinder to focus. If the rangefinder is well aligned it beats EVF any time and 1.4 focus is very easy. Since this is a real rangefinder, only rangefinder coupled lenses will work, non coupled glass will not move the rangefinder patch because there is no connection between the lens and the camera. Besides focusing on static subjects you are basically left with range focusing, and it is a bit tricky because there is no preview of the depth of field. So you can only rely on the lens markings and getting used to the amount of image splitting to judge depth of field (pretty hard).
The Epson RD1 is a joy to use in the streets, and the handling is nothing short of perfect. The camera fits well in your hands and everything you need to know is on the top plate, the viewfinder is simply about the frame and the shutter speed. The other cameras viewfinders then to be distracting even with the most basic information. On the top plate you know your shutter speed, ISO, Shots remaining, file quality, White balance and battery status. So when you are out shooting, you focus more on the frame because it's stripped of everything. The real treat, not found in any of the other cameras (even X-pro 1 to my surprise) is the 1:1 viewfinder. That means you can walk with both of your eyes opened and keep the camera to your eye. In some situations you will have to zone focus, but nailing 1.4 on something you know you want to be sharp is easily done with a rangefinder. But the advantage of an optical viewfinder is that you can walk and focus on somebody and reasonably trap them with f/5.6, even without dof preview, something that is hard to do with the EVF's because any of them are not high-resolution enough that you do not quite know what is in focus or not. One hiccup with the RD1 is that it is ONLY has a spot meter, so you must know what you are doing to get images right. The epson RD1 produces a whole experience in the streets that is normally reserved for people with “Buy film not megapixels” t-shirts, and is definitely NOT for everybody, can I dare say it's a photographer's camera?
Sample RAW files
Forgive the dirty sensor! 4th image is underexposed, for you to play with exposure and recovery.
Taken with Epson RD1
We all previsualize photographs, but I must say that previsualisation on a 1:1 OVF and getting the image you wanted is pretty darn rewarding.
The photograph below was a breeze, simply aligned the rangefinder on the man, f/8 I think and snapped a shot. Would be hard with EVF because I would not be sure if the man was in focus or not.
I saw the driver putting his head out and simply zone focus and waited for the next stop and jumped out.
Strengths / Weaknesses
+ Great files for 6MP
+ Stands the test of time (it's an 8 year old camera)
+ 1:1 viewfinder
+ Real rangefinder
+ Full film camera experience
+ Film like ISO 1600
+ Analog controls, film knobs
+ One of the rare few digital rangefinders
– Dinosaur LCD
– Bad night image quality
– High price for 8 year old camera
– Limited frame lines (28-35-50)
– Limited ISO for digital (200-400-800-1600)
– Limited battery life (enhances film experience tho)
– Limited SD capacity (enhances film experience tho)
– Since it's a real rangefinder, it can get misaligned
There is no describing what joy this camera is to use, but rangefinders are not for everybody! I can only recommended it if you are a photographer and know what you are getting into, but if you want ease of use get the GXR M and NEX7.
[Where to get it]
If you can get a cheap RD1 that says that the rangefinder is misaligned or that the gauge needles is off, jump on it! Misalignment is a quick DIY fix and gauge needles can be compensated for in the menu.
Here from Amazon
Sometimes the Rangefinder forums classifieds