1st Impressions of R-D1

Over the past week, I took the R-D1 out to shoot. After seeing some nice shots using RAW during the tests, I decided to shoot exclusively using the native format.

I took the camera to church and to an extended family gathering and took pictures of people doing their thing. When I take photos, I usually observe and try not to participate in whatever is going on. Watching the people and taking photos as the frames pass by tend to reward me with nicer pictures than posed ones. Also, my first serious exposure to photography was a class in photojournalism and it made an impact on me. As time passed, I learned to shoot when my gut feeling tells me to.

Each person has their own style, way of shooting and the subjects of their photos are different. As such, other than the basics of lighting, focusing and shooting, there is probably no “ultimate” photography. Some people like a certain kind of photos and others like another kind.

A Different Experience

I have mentioned previously that the R-D1 is designed to function like an mechanical camera and using it was a refreshing experience.

Shutter Lever

At first I thought that cocking the shutter will be a pain, but after a few minutes, it became 2nd nature. I just wind the shutter lever automatically after every shot. In my kind of shooting, there is no real need for a high speed motor drive. Just shoot like you did when you were using the Nikon F/F2/F3/FA/FE/FM etc series.

The “Rewind” Dial

On the left side of the camera (if you are holding it in shooting position), there is a “film rewind” dial. I believe that this kind of dial was used on Leica film cameras.

Down Position:

Up Position:


This dial is used to select menu items and scroll among different photos. It can be raised to scroll to view a photo after it has been zoomed in. I like the feel and the little clicks it makes when I rotate it. Instead of using the usual directional pad at the back of the camera, this method of manipulating the menus and photos is pretty nice though it is slower. However, if you wanted a fast camera capable of getting every shot, you would not be considering this camera.

Status Meter

The “rewind” dial also controls the quality selection and white balance via a toggle switch at the back of the R-D1.

White Balance, Image Quality Toggle Switch and Exposure Lock Button (left button):

By toggling the switch to white balance and rotating the “rewind” dial, the white balance settings are changed and reflected on the clock like status meter. The “Q” position combine with the “rewind” dial allows one to change the image quality settings from RAW to High Quality JPEG and Low Quality JPEG.

The meter is part of Epson’s effort to complete the mechanical illusion. It shows the White Balance Setting, Battery Status, Image Quality Setting and Number of Shots Left at a glance.

Status Meter:

I find it very charming and like it.

Exposure Compensation

However, one still had to set the aperture and shutter dial manually. When I was shooting with my D200, I almost always set it to aperture priority and used the rear control dial to set the aperture and the +/- button with the rear control dial to adjust the exposure compensation. This way, I find that I can adjust the exposure quickly as my camera points from one direction to another.

Though one can set the shutter dial to A (aperture priority) on the R-D1, I have to use the same dial to compensate plus or minus up to 2 stops. This is not the fastest way in my opinion. The problem is that there is a little button that I have to depress before I can turn the dial from the “A” position. This slows down the exposure compensation in A mode. In addition, it is difficult to adjust the compensation by feel as I tend to overshoot the number of “clicks”. This necessitates me to look up and manually adjust the compensation.

All this means that I have to change the way I set up the camera for a shot. As I survey a scene and noticed a shot that I want to take, I would now have to set the exposure compensation first and then raise the camera up to take the photo. It does slow down the shoot.

Another way is not to use A and manually adjust the shutter speed and to take into account of any compensation. This, I believe, may be a faster way if I am constantly compensating the exposure. However, it my be less accurate as shutter speeds are in single stops.

Focusing

Manual focusing was relatively easy. It is much easier than my old FE’s split screen if I remember correctly. I just need to position my eye so that the focusing patch is bright and clear and concentrate on the HORIZONTAL overlap. There is a tiny misalignment vertically, so its better to judge focus accuracy horizontally. And also to focus the lens from 0.7m position instead of from infinity (due to backlash maybe). With this method, I got a lot of in focused shots.

I do find it difficult to focus when I am shooting vertically, so what I do is to focus in the normal position and rotate the camera for the vertical shot later. Not a big problem.

It is a little more difficult to focus in low light but not a big problem if I concentrate. As long as I position my eye so that the patch is bright and I decide the focus point (usually the eyes or eye of the subject) and concentrate, it is not difficult.

Moving subjects are not too difficult either as long as they are moving at a slow walking pace. I’m sure that there are photographers who can track focus with their R-D1, but this is the area where the D200 with its continuous focus system excels.

View Finder

The viewfinder is 1:1 which means that what you see in the viewfinder is “full size”. You can open both eyes to shoot if you want to.

It is possible to focus with 2 eyes open and when the focusing patch comes into focus, the images in both eyes will be in focus. I have not tried shooting extensively with both eyes opened yet. I just need to be able to trust this focusing method enough before I try to shoot important pics with it.

Waking from Sleep Mode

The R-D1 will go to sleep mode if I do not press the shutter release button for about 3 minutes. This is to conserve energy.

I have been caught out a few times as the camera did not wake up with a half press on the shutter release button like the D200. It was only after some time that I realised that I needed to give it a full press before it woke up. If I were to give a full press to the D200, the camera would like taken the shot. Just something to remember and get used to on the R-D1.

The battery does not give many shots. I can get about 100-150 shots per battery if I do not view the LCD after every shot. If I view the photo and zoom in and out, the number of shots per battery goes down quite significantly. It could also be the fact that my batteries are old.

Size and Weight

The R-D1 is smaller and lighter than the D200. My R-D1 has a half case with a bump on the right front side. The material and the bump makes hand holding the camera quite easy. It is easier to hand hold the camera for longer periods due to its lighter weight.

Leica reviews that I have read wrote that it is possible to put a Leica inside a coat jacket. I don’t know about that but I don’t wear a jacket. So have not tried putting the R-D1 inside a coat. Still, it fits nicely in my camera pouch with space to spare.

Neck Straps

This is not R-D1 specific but I find camera neck straps a bit of an irritation. It is the same with the R-D1. I don’t like hanging the camera around my neck but that is probably the safest place. I feel very insecure with the camera over one shoulder. One way is to wrap the strap in one hand but I don’t really like that either. I have kind of given up on straps and so just let it dangle where it will.

I have been thinking of removing the strap from the R-D1 and just use it without any strap. Let’s see how it goes.

Speed

Shooting in RAW needs some patience.

More specifically, if I want to check out the focus accuracy of every shot after shooting, I need to wait for the magnification function to load and to zoom in. It is this process that takes a bit of time. It takes probably about 2 seconds for the zoom in function to work. In JPEGs this process is rather fast.

After shooting for a time, I just turned the LCD screen towards the camera and just shoot. I only check if there were some critical shots that are important to me.

The Voigtlander 35mm f1.4 MC

The lens that I used with the R-D1 was the Voigtlander 35mm f1.4. This lens comes in 2 flavours – the single coated version and the multi coated version. The single coated version has a “S.C.” printed on the rim of the lens while the multi coated version does not. Mine is the multi coated version.

This is the only M mount lens that I have at the moment and after the focusing issues with the R-D1 has been solved, I really enjoy using this lens. I don’t have a Leica to compare with, so my observations are just on the Voigtlander.

The lens is a little soft at f1.4, but still usable. In dimmer places, if shutter speeds are not excessively slow, I would use f2, but even at f1.4, it is good. Perhaps, I am used to the Nikon 35mm at f2, so I find the lens at f1.4 acceptable. If I shoot in RAW and add a bit of sharpening, I don’t see why the images can’t be used. However, as with big apertures, focusing must be accurate as the depth of field is very shallow.

My initial impression is that the lens performs best at f2.8. It is razor sharp. I did not do an extensive test, but thought that it is better than at f8. Maybe I will do a proper comparison in the future.

Outdoors where there is more light, shooting at f2.8 @ ISO200 gives me razor sharp images. I have never seen such sharp images at f2.8 other than from my Nikon 50mm f1.8 (which I hardly used due to my DX format DSLR).

As for bokeh, I think its fine though I did not really look at it. I did notice a little bit of weirdness. There are some weird “seed like” points of lights in the back ground though they are very small. Thought I should just mention that.

The lens is small and can be dropped into a small lens pouch to carry it around. I think it can be stuffed into a pocket if I wanted to.

Voigtlander 35mm f1.4 and the Nikon AF-D 35mm f2:

Conclusion

Overall, I’m pretty happy with the R-D1 after the focusing issues have been solved.

The camera may be old tech and only 6 megapixels but the images from RAW are great. I am enjoying the mechanical feel of the camera and the 1:1 view finder. Also, with the LCD turned in, I am almost shooting like when I was using a film camera.

Battery life is not’t very good. Extra batteries are a must.

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R-D1 Trials

Ok, I got my used R-D1 on a sunny Sunday morning with no M mount lens to try it on. It was kind of an impulsive buy as I was not really prepared to spend money on another camera.

However, I chanced upon a local ad and offered a reduced price. The seller countered offered and I agreed and we met the next day. Oh, and I asked him to bring a lens for me to test the camera with.

BAD Images

I mentioned previously that the seller said that the rangefinder was aligned as far as he could tell, but it was no’t. During the meeting, I used his Leica 40mm f2 to test the functions of the camera and took some shots. Checking via the screen, the shots looked fine to me.

Well, for the next 1 month or so, I was trying to buy a used Voigtlander Nokton 35mm f1.4 multi coated version on the used market (remember, I have no M mount lenses). However, with the prices that the owners were asking, it made more sense to buy it new instead. Also strangely, there were more single coated versions on sale than multi coated ones. In the end, I managed to buy one about a month after I got the R-D1.

After getting the lens and starting to shoot, I realised that the photos were….BAD.

The pictures were out of focused, JPEGs were soft and the pictures had a smudgy feel to it. On top of that there were hot spots in my photos. I was very disappointed to say the least.

Rectifying the Problems

After thinking for a while, I decided to try a few things. First, I used the in camera function to map the sensor and that got rid of the hot spots.

Secondly, I did a few tests to see if the out of focused shots were due to my poor focusing techniques. I quickly realised that the rangefinder alignment was out. The vertical alignment was out and every time I aligned the images horizontally, the focus point was in front of where I wanted.

Rich Cutler has an excellent webpage that shows how to align the R-D1’s rangefinder here. Knowing my “excellent” hands on skills, I decided to send it to a pro instead.

The 1st shop told me that they “don’t have the tools to adjust the R-D1″…I smiled and said thank you, but was thinking “huh? The rangefinder system is the same as a Voigtlander isn’t it?” The 2nd shop took my camera in and did his best to aligned the camera’s rangefinder. He got it accurate and adjusted the vertical alignment as close as possible. It is still out by a little, but it is much much better and I seldom notice it.

Second Try

During the time without my camera, I was looking at some of the shots I took when I was purchasing the camera. Those were taken in the camera’s RAW format instead of JPEG and I was surprised that the pictures look so much better. I was confused. Hmm…can RAW make such a big difference?

So when I got the camera back, I brought it out one Saturday to church and took some pictures in RAW. The results were mixed. I got some really sharp pictures and some rather soft.

The person who adjusted my camera was saying that my lens isn’t that good and I was thinking that he could be right. Well, a Voigtlander will never be as good as a Leica right? Then I thought about Rich Cutler’s comment about backlash and decided to test again.

It seems that the R-D1 tend to give me focused, sharp(ish) images if I focused the lens from 0.7m instead of from infinity.

See the following pictures for an idea. These are 100% crops from intended focus points.

Focusing from Minimum (0.7m):

Focusing from Infinity:

So, please check your camera to see if its focusing better from one direction than the other. It seems to make a difference.

Why I bought the Epson R-D1

Well, I’ve recently bought a used Epson R-D1 rangefinder camera. In the ever advancing world of digital photography, this new (old) toy is ancient history. It was first announced in March 2004. Now that was 7 years ago as of this post.

Seven years is an eternity in digital photography. I understand that it uses the same sensor as the Nikon D100 or Nikon D70. Anybody still remembers those? I had a D70 before and it was a really nice camera for its time (but viewfinder was too small though).

Why the R-D1?

Well I have been using Nikon SLRs and DSLRs since I have started shooting. I thought that they were the greatest, bestest, ultimatest cameras ever made. I do enjoy using them. Currently I have another outdated camera, the D200, and an assortment of lenses.

Like many people, I thought that the greatest outfit to own should include the latest full frame DSLR including the latest trinity lenses and maybe a 50mm f1.4 to complete the collection (must have a 50mm right? Nikon brochures often show a 50mm lens attached to their camera after all). All the zooms are necessary because we want to frame each shot the way we want it instantaneously and we want the nice bokeh from those expensive long lenses. With all these mega expensive super lenses and with superb AF (and not the mention the oh so wonderful high ISO performance from the latest DSLRs), we will be able to shoot great photos. Well, that’s what I thought and thought that’s what I wanted.

The turning point came with a humble Nikon 35mm f2 lens.

Remember poor me cannot afford a D700? So I buy outdated used equipment like the D200, which is a DX format camera. One day, I had the strangest idea that I should get a lens with a 50mm FOV and a bit of low light ability. So the 35mm f2 was the obvious choice. The DX 35mm f1.8 is good too, but I want to use the 35mm on an FX camera if I ever buy the D700 (probably after the D900 comes out…ha).

My second hand D200 with 35mm f2 lens

Well, lo and behold. This little lens is great and I never thought that I would love the 50mm FOV! Small, light and sharp, it became my favourite lens (who would have thought?). At f2, it is usable with a bit of sharpening in Photoshop. I also realised that I get less attention from people around me. That is a GOOD thing.

I think people in their environments are the most interesting things to photograph and being unnoticed is a good thing. Also, I don’t cover events so fast zooms are not necessary. After shooting for a while, I realised that all I need are 2 lenses – the 24mm f2.8 and the 35mm f2 (for a 35mm and 50mm FOV respectively). The 24mm isn’t really “fast”, but beggars cannot be choosers.

Then I realised that for the kind of shooting I like to do, maybe a Leica rangdefinder is the answer….until I saw the prices. S$10K for an M9 and S$7K for a 50mm Summilux? Ok….maybe not.

However, a little research revealed that the Epson R-D1 is also a digital rangefinder with an M mount and its not priced exorbitantly like a Leica. It was also the 1st digital rangefinder ever commercially made (collector item maybe?). Aha…maybe this was it.

Mechanical Illusion

Poor man's M9 and Summilux

When I first saw the R-D1, I thought…”wow…this looks like a totally mechanical camera…very cool!”. It even has a shutter cocking lever. By flipping the screen inwards towards the camera, it could pass off as a Bessa R2/R3/R4 or some old camera to the casual observer. Very nice!

There’s even a very nice clock like dial on the top plate that shows: 1) White Balance, 2) Battery Status, 3) Image Settings, and 4) Number of shots remaining on your memory card. No LCD screen on the top panel completes the illusion.

Purchase

As the camera has been discontinued, I was not able to buy it new (nor could I afford it at the new price anyway), I had to look around for a used one. Ebay is one option, but I couldn’t find one that was priced right or one that I was comfortable buying.

In the end, I bought one locally. It was relatively clean, had a nice half case, extra batteries and everything in the box. Also the owner said that the rangefinder was aligned. Yeah right…I only discovered that it was out of alignment 1 month later when I got my 1st M mount lens. More about that in subsequent posts.