Good morning you awesome war torn camera geeks! Today we take a look at what time has proven to be one of the most unique and enduring digital cameras ever produced, the Epson R-D1.
The Epson R-D1 is a digital rangefinder camera introduced by Epson in 2004. It is the world’s first digital rangefinder camera.
The R-D1 sports a 6.1 megapixel, APS-C sensor with a 1.5x crop factor. The camera has a Leica M mount. The body was built by Cosina and is based on the Voigtlander Bessa R series of film cameras.
My Experiences With The R-D1
I bought my R-D1 in 2006. Before that, I had been using a Voigtlander Bessa R3a. While I loved that camera, it was also the first camera that I learned to repair in some way.
Specifically, the rangefinder was way off on my copy and while inquiring with repair shops about getting the rangefinder fixed, I decided to try and adjust the rangefinder myself. Credit should be given to all the great tutorials I found in the photo forums. Remember, YouTube was not around in 2005-2006.
Sadly I sold the R3a shortly thereafter to fund something else. Looking back now, I should have kept it, not only because I was really proud of how well I adjusted the rangefinder but also because the camera now commands twice the price on the used camera market.
Anyway on the the R-D1! When it was introduced in 2004, I remember that the introduction took the camera world by surprise primarily because almost no one saw it coming. Everyone expected that Leica, the company synonymous with the rangefinder camera, would be the first to come out with a digital rangefinder. As history has played out, Epson did it first and Leica came in second with the M8 in 2006. The R-D1 will always be remembered for beating Leica to the punch!
Funny enough, when I had the Bessa R3a film camera, I thought it was a great camera but not something special like the Leica M bodies I had handled. Now even though the R-D1 is based on the earlier Cosina built Bessa cameras, the R3a is close enough to make this comparison. And what I can say is while the Bessa R series film bodies did not feel particularly special, somehow in the digital form of the R-D1, it feels extraordinary!
Perhaps this is because it actually feels like a film body with a digital sensor in it, which in essence is really what it is especially considering the R-D1 was introduced in 2004. At that time, some camera companies were still producing digital cameras built around or inspired by their film counterparts as opposed to later on in the decade when they started building digital cameras as pure digital cameras.
I got my R-D1 as part of a trade plus cash deal. I responded to an ad in photo.net one of the internet’s first photography sites. The seller had an R-D1 listed in excellent condition and I offered a trade with my Canon 70-200mm f/2.8L IS which was my first L lens.
I can’t remember exactly but I think the total value of the deal was close to $1600. The R-D1’s introductory price in 2004 was $2999. Thank goodness prices dropped sharply by the time I got my R-D1 in 2006.
As with many of the cameras I have bought over the years, the R-D1 was a camera I lusted for but never seriously thought I would ever acquire due to its high price tag. But somehow, some way I got the camera.
Also, contrary to several comments people have left me on YouTube, I didn’t actively seek out many of the cameras I’m reviewing now because they were legendary. Most of the cameras I have reviewed were the hot cameras of their day when I bought them, just like the R-D1. But in the case of the Epson, it should have been easy to predict this camera would be a future Camera Legend as it is the world’s first digital rangefinder.
For a much more dynamic experience here’s my 16 year in depth review video!
Epson R-D1 Key Features & Issues
While there are many things that make the R-D1 so appealing I would identify three key features as the most alluring. The analog dials, the film winder/shutter cocking mechanism and the large, bright 1:1 life size viewfinder.
The analog dials were made by Seiko, Epson’s parent company and they’re not just there to look pretty, they serve a purpose.
The large hand is the “shots remaining” indicator. It goes from 0 to 500. Please remember the R-D1 and R-D1s can only take 2gb SD cards. The R-D1x can take 32gb. Otherwise they are all the same cameras.
The “R-H-N” indicator on the right is for RAW, High and Normal image quality selection.
The area on the left that starts with an “A” and has symbols below is the white balance indicator.
The main issue I have seen on the R-D1 is the loose, peeling, or missing rubber grips. While it may not look pretty, it is purely cosmetic.
On my copy, the rear LCD has begun to fail after sixteen years and the rangefinder has had to be fixed twice for going out of alignment. I sent it to Steve’s Camera out in California, a well known shop that fixes the rangefinder on the R-D1. I’m not sure if he’s still fixing them but here’s his contact if you want to investigate:
Steve’s Camera Service Center (310) 397-0072
Please check my YouTube video for a visual accounting of these issues as well as the R-D1’s most alluring features.
The photos below represent a small fraction of the images I have taken during my sixteen years with the R-D1 but hopefully they will give you an idea of the images the camera is capable of producing.
DIFFERENCES BETWEEN THE R-D1, R-D1s, AND R-D1x
Epson produced a couple of upgrades to the R-D1. The R-D1s included a JPEG + Raw mode and a quick view function. The original R-D1 could be upgraded to have these features via firmware update.
Is It For You?
As cool as the Epson R-D1 is, recommending it as a good buy is harder than you might imagine. Why? Well, the reason is because of what I call the “Nikon D100 Dilemma.”
What is the Nikon D100 Dilemma?
The Nikon D100 Dilemma
What does the Epson R-D1 have in common with the Nikon D100? I know you hardcore camera geeks know this! But for those who don’t, these two cameras share the same 6.1mp Sony CCD sensor. The sensor is also found on the original Pentax *ist D and maybe other cameras? It apparently is not the same sensor as the D70 of 2004.
The Nikon D100 is a digital slr that was introduced in 2002. The 6.1mp APS-C sensor in this camera was considered very good in its day, but was arguably surpassed by the 6mp sensor in the Nikon D70.
So if the Epson R-D1 has the same sensor as the D100 what then is the problem?
Well, whether it’s a “problem” or not is up to you but the main quandary here is that the Nikon D100 can be found any day of the week with prices trending @ $25-50 USD. The Epson on the other hand is trending @ $1600-2500 depending on condition and on the model (R-D1, R-D1s, R-D1x).
Although as a bonafide hardcore camera geek, I would pick up another R-D1 if mine were ever to break and I had extra money laying around, but even for this camera geek who knows the specs and knows the risks, the price difference between these two cameras with the same sensor is hard to ignore.
The R-D1 is unique in everything else in comparison to the D100 except at its heart which is the sensor.
So What’s The Fuss About The R-D1?
The thing that makes the Epson R-D1 so compelling even now in 2022 is the user experience.
The Seiko made analog dials are pretty and they serve a purpose (check out the video for specifics). The analog winder serves to cock the shutter. The 1:1 viewfinder is large and glorious and sort of makes up for the R-D1’s short rangefinder base. The ability to use Leica M mount lenses from Leica, Voigtlander, and other manufacturers is topping on the cake.
All these factors add up to the most film-like experience one can get from a digital camera! And I’m saying this from the perspective of someone who grew up on film and has used digital cameras since the dawn of digital. Even today, with all the great digital cameras out there, no other digital camera gives such a unique film like experience when using it.
My Nikon DF may look retro but I will admit before doing a review that it does not really feel like a film camera to me the way the R-D1 does.
Note, I didn’t say the images from the R-D1 were inherently film like. Sure you can get film like images out of its 6.1mp CCD sensor but it would be disingenuous of me to hype it up and make it more than what it is. If it was the most film like sensor then everyone would be saying the Nikon D100 or the Pentax *ist D produces “incredible film like images” but no one says that about those two cameras.
The R-D1 can make film like images, but it’s more likely the result of the post processing skill of the user and the lenses used, rather than the sensor which is not unique to the Epson.
Is The Epson R-D1 Worth It In 2022?
Whenever someone reviews an older camera, especially on YouTube, the “in” question is “Is It Worth It?”
I’m going to go out on a limb and say that for at least 90-95 percent of the people shooting digital cameras today, the answer would be NO.
A 6mp digital rangefinder from 2004 with a 2002 era sensor with no modern amenities such as live view, focus peaking, or 4k video is hard to recommend, especially when it will cost you nearly $2000.
In a 2022 world where gas prices are sky high, with inflation, with a war in Ukraine, with people starving, etc, etc, where the same money could get you a used Leica M8 or M9 or add a little more and get an M240 or a Sony A9 or Nikon Z7 it’s damn hard to recommend the R-D1 to the general photo enthusiasts.
If it had a unique sensor, that would sway me towards a recommendation.
However, the R-D1 was never about the sensor alone. What makes it unique is the user experience.
If you are a true HARDCORE camera geek who knows the risks and are willing to take it and you know a little something about the R-D1 or if you are an old school film fanatic shooting digital then I can heartily recommend the camera!
In my opinion it is a unique camera and one of the most fun digital cameras, if not the most fun digital camera in my collection.
The Epson R-D1 was an anomaly when it came out. In 2004, no one ever expected Epson, a company known for printers and scanners, to come out with a digital rangefinder. They beat Leica to it. Today, it’s still an anomaly. In my opinion it is one of the greatest digital cameras ever made yet most of the general public and even some photo enthusiasts don’t know it, thus making it one of the greatest cult cameras ever.
But there’s are reasons why it commands high prices on the used market. Many many photographers and camera collectors love this camera! Its uniqueness sets it apart.
Even now, nearly twenty years after its introduction, I feel it’s still the most film like experience one can get from a digital camera.
The Epson R-D1 is a digital Camera Legend that, while having a good but not unique sensor, offers the user a unique experience in the digital camera world.
The experience, the fun factor makes me want to shoot it. That is something that can’t be said for so many of the digital cameras I have used.
And if a camera inspires you to shoot, then it’s a good camera in my book. But the Epson R-D1 is not just good, it’s great!
Since Epson never came out with another R-D series camera, the R-D1 will always be unique as the world’s first digital rangefinder sporting the Epson name and for some people that may be a good enough reason to get it.