Nothing can quite prepare you for the experience of using the R-D1, a digital camera with a distinctly ‘film’ feel. The R-D1 uses a combination of full manual controls gleaned from the camera’s adapted and jointly-developed-with-Epson Cosina/Voigtlander ‘Bessa’ film rangefinder body. And this is all spiced with core-to-the-camera digital elements that create a pretty unique camera indeed.
The camera has an EM lens mount meaning it will accept rangefinder optics such as Leica M and L mount lenses; the latter with an accessory adapter making it something of an one off. Specification is pretty paired down compared to what many might be used to on a modern digital camera, with full manual focusing and aperture control, shutter speeds ranging from 1-second to 1/2000th second and exposure compensation to +/-2EV.
A quintet of needle displays on the top plate are reminiscent of an old fashioned speedometer from a vintage car, all housed in an attractive circular display and providing information on the number of images left on the memory card, white balance, image quality settings and the battery level.
Sensitivity adjustment runs from ISO 200, through 400, 800 and 1600. Although noise levels become fairly apparent above ISO 400, you do get noise suppression systems built-in and although it prolongs the already fairly slow image processing time when in use it helps reduce noise in low light and high ISO shots.
You also get four image parameters, a Standard setting which is provides nicely neutral results but quite soft images. Then you have three ‘Film’ modes in which you can adjust elements such as edge sharpness, contrast, tint and the amount of noise reduction each tailored to suit the scene you’re shooting.
As for controlling the camera, the shutter release has a mechanical cable release thread built in and is surrounded by the shutter speed dial, lift-up-and-turn ISO speed adjustment. The Auto Exposure mode selector with its +/- 2EV exposure compensation settings all helpfully placed on a single dial adjacent to the on/off switch. Behind these retro controls sits the most retro control of the lot, a mechanical ‘film wind’ lever, which is used on the R-D1 to cock the shutter ready for firing, which you must do each time you want to make a shot.
A large, flip-out-and-turn high-resolution (235,000-pixel) LCD screen sits on the back plate, which when turned to face inwards creates the impression of a fully film camera look thanks to a crafty little lens focal length field of view adjustment table, more of which in a moment.
One of the camera’s standout features and perhaps rightly so given the fact it is a rangefinder, is the viewfinder. It is a twice-reverse Galileo finder with three bright line viewing frames for 50mm, 28mm and 35mm lenses. It has 1.0x magnification so that when up to the eye (and used with both eyes open) there’s appears to be no difference in the field of view. It’s clear and only very slightly murky with a central split image area used to assess focus accuracy by the superimposition of the two 'rangefinding' images.
For my test, I used a stunning 35mm, F2, Carl Zeiss Biogon T* ZM lens and with the 3008x2000-pixel sensor’s aforementioned field of view adjustment of a 1.53x crop, it provided the equivalent focal length of 53.55mm, nearly a ‘standard’ focal length for film use.
However, while the whole point of this camera is that it lacks some of digitals bits and pieces and hails a more traditional usage ethic, it also has a few very odd omissions. There are no interface ports for example, no USB or FireWire and there is no mains power socket either. You have to use the supplied rechargeable battery all the time, which thankfully is actually very good in terms of longevity in use - but I’d still advice the purchase of a spare. You’ll need a memory card reader to offload images to a PC, which are stored on the camera using SD removable storage housed under a neatly hidden flap.
Finally while you get a hot shoe attachment for off camera flash, there’s no built in flash unit, so you’ll need to buy a compatible accessory flashgun to get flashing.
In terms of image quality, the R-D1 has plenty of poise, the colours are natural and images with the Biogon lens I used are extremely crisp indeed. The camera’s TTL screen surface direct actual-aperture metering is slightly biased to the underexposure side of things but all my shots, RAWs and all were duly satisfying.
Expensive but unique, the Epson R-D1 is a true enthusiasts must have camera - or an almost perfect professional back up tool for the more spontaneous shooter. Superb.