I blame it on Chris Anderson. He invited me to go with him to a local camera shop and "look" at a new digital SLR he has been thinking about. The last time I spent significant time in a camera shop looking at hardware I walked out with so much equipment I ended up taking out a separate insurance policy on it. So Chris should know better than to ask me to go.

I was good for a while. After buying the Nikon D1 some five years ago, nothing from Nikon has really got me excited enough to want to pony up that kind of money again. The D1 is great, but its sensor is aging and, well, it is pretty hard to be discrete when you're carying it around. While digital SLR cameras have definitely leapfrogged my D1, the build quality of the non-pro bodies is a step backwards, and the pro bodies really are too big to be practical. Canon is largely in the same boat -- their sensors are more advanced than Nikon's, but to switch I'd have to dump many camera dollars worth of lenses.

Then I saw it. I didn't know what it was, but it was interesting. "It" was an Epson R-D1 camera. But Epson doesn't make cameras, right? Well, they make two. One is a pretty nondescript point and shoot, and the other is the R-D1. The R-D1 is designed to work like an old rangefinder film camera and takes Leica M mount rangefinder lenses. Rangefinder cameras pretty much predate SLR camera design. The viewfinder on a rangefinder does not go through the lens. To focus, the viewfinder is mechanically coupled to the lens and has a small focusing rectangle that lines up with the scene when things are in focus. Rangefinders have no auto focus and don't really support zoom lenses because the viewfinder doesn't change.

I didn't even pick up the R-D1 while at the store, but I spent three concentrated days studying it on the internet. The Epson R-D1 review from Luminous Landscape is a pretty complete review of all the R-D1 details.

Epson R-D1 Details

From the outside, the R-D1 is a manual rangefinder camera, right down to the film advance lever, which charges the shutter but doesn't advance the film because, well, there isn't any. Behind the scenes the R-D1 contains the same 6.3 MP sensor as is used in the Canon 10D. The review screen on the back of the R-D1 even swivels around and can be completely hidden so it is very hard to tell the camera is digital at all.

What makes this camera interesting to me? Well if I had a large collection of existing Leica lenses I could use them and go digital. Of course, given that I had to look up on the internet how one even focuses a rangefinder camera, I don't have such an investment. The R-D1 does have some things that I find very appealing:

  • It is manual. As strange as this may sound, there is no technology you have to interface with in order to use this camera. That is a good thing because technology can easily get in the way of making good pictures. Without auto focus I need to study the scene and decide where I want the focus. Without sophisticated matrix metering I need to pay attention to the overall scene brightness and adjust the center weighted meter accordingly.
  • Rangefinder lenses. Rangefinder lenses have been around for a long time and have evolved nicely over the years. Because there is no auto focus motor or other advanced electronics, advancements in rangefinder lenses have been all about image resolution and quality. The images that come out of the R-D1 are sharper and have more "life" to them than any image from my Nikon D1. Rangefinder lenses are also very fast. Leica makes a 35MM lens that opens up to F1. This allows you to continue to take pictures in dim ambient light without a tripod or flash.
  • It is pretty small. Of course, I'm comparing this to my D1, but even when comparing to the Canon Digital Rebel the camera is pretty sleek and small.
  • The quality. Epson has done a really fantastic job on this camera. The body is all magnesium and all the buttons and dials just have a solid feel of quality to them. Using the camera is very tactile and satisfying.

Using the R-D1

I had my first chance to take some real-world pictures of people last night. The pictures have a nice even quality to them; they're not over contrasty. The R-D1 was also able to capture some shots in really dim light. I took a couple of shots at about 9:00 at night and the only light was coming from a porch light. With my F2 lens wide open and the camera set to 1600 ISO I could take shots in this very dim light at 1/4 of a second. Still very hard to do without a tripod, but the images are actually not that bad and the noise is a ton better than it is on my D1 at that light level.

I did find that in low light I had some trouble getting the focus right. The viewfinder is clear, but I have only been focusing a rangefinder for a couple of days and I'm not great at it yet. My newness to rangefinder focusing also causes me to take more time to compose a picture than I would like, but I'm sure I'll get better.

There is also an interesting bluish halo to a couple of the pictures that I'm not sure about. I read somewhere someone thought this could be caused by UV light hitting the sensor. I'll have to look out for it as I continue to use the camera. The cast did not appear indoors or during my night shots, and was only noticeable next to a piece of clear plastic in the scene.

The R-D1 is a joy to shoot with, although after using an SLR the sound of the R-D1's shutter sounds a little flimsy to me. I'm sure I'll get used to it. I'd say the only problem with shooting with the R-D1 that it will be very difficult to hand the camera to someone else for portraits.