Epson R-D1 Digital Rangefinder Review

by Larry Greenhill
In March, 2004, Epson leapfrogged over Leica by introducing a digital rangefinder camera body capable of using all of Leica's rangefinder M interchangeable lenses. The R-D1 is a joint venture between Seiko Epson and Cosina in Japan, and thus resembles Cosina's Voigtlander Bessa R3A, uses the same 6 Megapixel Sony CCD sensor found in the Nikon D-70, and incorporates electronics and software from Epson.

Price: Approximately $3000 US

  • Rangefinder digital camera body that uses Leica M and Voigtlander 35 mm rangefinder interchangeable lenses
  • RAW mode, superb histogram, and excellent RAW file processing software
  • Images are very low noise and highly detailed, especially for 6 Megapixel camera
  • Viewfinder has 1:1 magnification
  • Auto parallax correction for focusing on both near and far objects
  • Wide range of ISO sensitivities between 200 and 1600
  • Intuitive controls during picture taking and editing
  • Very high price for 6 Megapixel camera
  • No continuous or burst mode
  • 1.53 x crop due to sensor size limits use of Leica wide-angle lenses
  • R-D1's rangefinder is harder to focus in low light than with Leica M7
  • Epson phone support polite but less than effective
  • No TTL Flash control
  • No option to change JPEG compression (fixed at 1:4)
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Epson R-D1 - Front and back

The Epson R-D1 is a very compact, 6-megapixel, digital rangefinder that accepts all the interchangeable Leica M and Voigtlander 35mm rangefinder lenses. Like the Bessa R-3 platform it was built on, the R-D1 features a vertical focal plane shutter with speeds from 3 seconds to 1/2000 of a second. It has a small 1.8-inch (diagonal) rear LCD display that can only be used for reviewing images. It is powered by a proprietary, rechargeable lithium battery and uses SecureDigital (SD) memory cards for up to 1 MB of storage.

Epson R-D1 Key Features
Epson states that the R-D1 design embodies "a reminiscent look at the past, while delivering the revolutionary rewards of the digital age." This is a nice way of explaining the R-D1's fiercely retro design -- its single-shot, quick-wind, shutter charge lever for cocking the metal focal plane shutter before each shot; the flip-out LCD screen that can be concealed by inverting it against the camera body; and a faux 'rewind knob' which serves as a "jog dial" to scroll through pictures and different menu options. Analog needle gauges, reminiscent of those found on the pricey Nikon 35ti auto focus point-and-shoot camera, indicate battery level, white balance choice, picture quality (low or high resolution JPEG or RAW files), and shots remaining. These gauges alone are said to account for one-third of the camera's $3,000 price.

As mentioned above, the R-D1 bears close resemblance to the Voigtlander Bessa R3A, featuring the same shutter speeds of 3 seconds to 1/2000 second, the same aperture-priority operation, three viewfinder frameline options for 28/35/50mm lenses (the R3A has 40/50/75/90 framelines), and a 1x magnification viewfinder that allows the photographer to focus with both eyes open.

Other Features
The Epson R-D1's most pleasing operating features include a black and white function with the option to use built-in red, green, and blue (digital) filters. The LCD screen can be set to come on in histogram mode, which I found very helpful in judging exposure. The magnification on the screen was very good in JPEG mode - up to 9x - but it only zoomed to 2x in RAW mode. Since I mostly used the RAW mode, I would have preferred a larger zoom ratio there.

Epson R-D1 Design

The Epson R-D1 has been designed to feel and operate like the Leica M7 rangefinder. It approximates the look and feel of the Leica M-7, being only 9mm taller, 1.5mm deeper, 4mm wider, and weighing about an ounce less. However, there are subtle differences that make me favor my Leica M7 over the R-D1. The Leica has a smoother finish and a more solid feel. The M7's shutter release, rewind lever, and shutter-cocking lever operate more smoothly with a definite, but mild resistance. The Epson R-D1's shutter-cocking lever, without the tension from a roll of film, feels loose. I had difficulty changing lenses on the first R-D1 I owned. It took about 10 lens mountings before the stiffness in the R-D1's bayonet mount began to lessen. The Leica M7 was much smoother and the lenses locked into position with a satisfying click.Comparing the R-D1 and Leica M7 finishes.
Comparing the finish of the R-D1 to the Leica M7.

Compared to the Leica M7's 49mm rangefinder base -- the distance between the two clear rangefinder windows in the front of the camera -- the R-D1's is substantially shorter at 37mm. These windows are what make the rangefinder's twin-image focus system work. The shorter distance on the R-D1 makes it harder to achieve accurate focus with longer focal length lenses.

Epson R-D1 details
Left: Difference between the rangefinder windows on the R-D1 and the Leica M7.
Right: Epson R-D1 gauges - frame counter, white balance, battery, etc.

The R-D1's viewfinder is not as bright as the one in my Leica M7. The double image is harder to see under good conditions, and can vanish when in bright sidelight. I also found that I had to use my glasses, because I could not obtain a satisfactory Nikon diopter screw-in lens as I had with my Leica M-7. With my glasses on, I have to carefully center my eye in the eyepiece so the double image of the R-D1's rangefinder can be seen in a small central window. The glasses also made it difficult to see the 28mm framelines in the viewfinder.

Although very attractive, the frame counter analog needle covers up the white balance needle gauge. In addition, I found the white balance symbols on the analog dial so unfamiliar that I had to repeatedly consult the owner's manual.

A Few Problems
The R-D1's AE-lock button, situated on the upper back of the camera, is hard to keep pressed while simultaneously focusing the lens and pressing the shutter-release, to actuate the meter. My fingers seem too big to manage all these controls at the same time. I also have difficulty pushing the top panel lock-release button to change shutter settings, as the shutter-cocking lever gets in the way. Some looseness in the Epson rangefinder mechanism makes accurate focus difficult. Focus ring adjustment doesn't completely match movement in the rangefinder's double-image. The R-D1 does not have TTL flash metering so output must be figured the old-fashioned way - by handheld meter, or trial and error. All these R-D1 design issues are subtle. But they make me prefer the Leica.

Camera Experience: Performance
I was able to take highly detailed, vivid, noise-free images using Leica and Voigtlander lenses with the Epson R-D1. The camera's wide (ISO 200 to 1600) sensitivity range gave me a lot of flexibility in different lighting situations. The viewfinder's 1:1 magnification is very helpful when focusing, as it seems to use the entire eye-brain system to get the best convergence of images. The R-D1's 1x magnification viewfinder allowed me to concentrate on the scene rather than on the camera. I could also see the framelines shifting for auto-parallax correction while focusing on both near and far subjects. If I relaxed, kept both eyes open, and let myself enjoy shooting, I took sharper pictures. The R-D1's controls are intuitive so I didn't have to refer to the camera's manual. Most of all, I could use it to photograph people in the same unobtrusive manner I can with my Leica M7. That's proof the camera's designers knew what they were doing.

Epson R-D1 hawk photoEpson R-D1 american bittern photoEpson R-D1 Infinity FX-35 photoEpson R-D1 burrowing owl photo
Click on thumbnails to view sample photos.

I used a group of seven Leica M-mount lenses with the R-D1, including the 21mm Elmarit-M, 75mm Summilux-M f/1.4, 50mm Summicron f/2.0, and 135mm Apo-Telyt-M f/3.4. All focused well and rendered sharp, contrasty images. All images were captured in RAW mode using aperture-priority, adjusting the exposure compensation dial so the histogram curve just missed touching the right edge of the scale. The digital sensor's 1.5x crop factor gave my Leica 135mm telephoto lens an effective focal length of 202mm. That allowed me to take frame-filling RAW pictures of rare birds in the Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in Naples, Florida. The enhanced telephoto effect also helped with informal portraits I took with the Leica 75mm Summilux-M f/1.4 lens, which effectively functioned as a 105mm lens on the R-D1. Pictures taken at my daughter's wedding impressed me with natural skin tones and fine detail in the skin and hair.

Epson R-D1 bride photo with fill-flashEpson R-D1 backlit bride photoEpson R-D1 informal wedding portraitEpson R-D1 B&H salesman photo
Click on thumbnails to view sample photos.

While visiting B&H Photo, in New York City, I borrowed a Leica 50mm Summicron f/2.0 lens (effectively cropped to 75mm by the 24mm sensor) and took a picture of one of their salesman. The R-D1's white balance had some trouble with the fluorescent light. But the detail on his face and glasses is excellent.

Camera Experience: Epson R-D1 Image Quality and Software
The Epson R-D1 delivers great image quality with both JPEG and RAW files. Compression is minimal so JPEG files reach 4.46 megabytes for outdoor scenes and RAW files are about 9.6 megabytes. The R-D1 image files have impressive color accuracy along with great highlight and shadow detail. Skin tones in the pictures of my daughter are right on. Noise levels are extremely low at ISO 200 and 400. Checking the histogram after each shot helped me avoid clipping the highlights or shadows, which would result in increased post-processing noise. There is noticeable noise at the camera's ISO 1600 setting, but that is to be expected. Sharpness was incredible as long as the camera was steadied on a tripod (see: close up of totem statues) or windowsill (see: license plate in the red Infinity FX-3 car image).

To put things in perspective, the R-D1 images have the color-depth, contrast, and razor sharpness of my 5-megapixel Leica Digilux II - but with less noise. And most of the photos are as vivid and sharp as the RAW files produced by my Canon EOS 1D Mark II. So as far as image quality goes, the R-D1 is in excellent company. However, the R-D1 photos didn't have the intense colors I get from color print film with my Leica M7. While R-D1 images are rich in color, have good tonal gradation and impressive dynamic range, the punch and depth of color achieved by the Leica M7 on color film puts the Epson R-D1 in second place.

The Epson PhotoRAW software is flexible and helps extract the best quality images from the R-D1 RAW files. However, the standalone RAW processing program is currently only available for PC users. Fortunately, there is a Photoshop plug-in that works with both Windows and Macintosh operating systems. The PhotoRAW program and plug-in can adjust for vignetting from wide-angle lenses, as well as adjust the light levels. The stand-alone version can batch process RAW files, whereas the Photoshop plug-in cannot. Unfortunately, all the instructions to run the standalone program are buried in a sluggish and poorly finished help file.

I preferred the Adobe Photoshop plug-in filter in Photoshop CS for processing my Epson RAW files. The latest version allowed me to use Photoshop's RAW control screen for my normal workflow, so I could separately set "Exposure," "Shadow," "Brightness," "Contrast," and "White Point" before importing the RAW file into Adobe Photoshop CS for final work using "Curves." For me, this workflow produced the most satisfying files for printing.

Other Epson R-D1 Observations
With the exception of the pesky AE lock button, I enjoyed using the R-D1 with its intuitive menu system and simple controls. While the camera took excellent photographs when wildlife was close, I was reminded of the limitations of rangefinder cameras for nature photography. The lack of auto focus zoom, super-telephoto, and macro lenses, as well as no burst mode to capture birds in flight, reminded me just how "retro" the rangefinder design is compared to the modern computerized, professional SLR. The R-D1 is no exception to normal rangefinder limitations, which make them difficult to impossible for sport, action, wildlife, macro, wedding, and landscape photography.

I also had quality control problems, as the first R-D1 I purchased had a very stiff lens mount, a ghost frameline at the 28mm setting, and a badly misaligned rangefinder. Epson service was polite, but manned by "first-level support" who didn't know anything about the camera, and put me on indefinite hold four times. As a result, I returned my first R-D1 to the dealer for a replacement. I strongly recommend those who buy the camera get it from an authorized dealer to obtain the oh-so-necessary one-year warranty support, which only applies to the first owner and is not transferable.

In summary, I loved the picture-taking performance of the Epson R-D1 digital rangefinder camera body, but was perturbed by its misaligned rangefinder and frustrated by Epson's support staff. However, the Epson R-D1 is the only compact digital rangefinder camera body on the market that can utilize my Leica-M and Voigtlander 35 mm interchangeable lenses. I bought it because of my considerable investment in Leica 35mm M lenses and my fondness for the rangefinder design.

Who Should Buy The Epson R-D1
The ideal R-D1 customer must be someone who won't be put off by the preternaturally high price. The camera will make a good tool for photojournalists, advanced amateurs, serious camera collectors, or pro photographers who already own Leica and Voigtlander rangefinder lenses. The photographer who puts a premium on seeing the "decisive" moment as well as the picture in the frame and the action happening outside the frame, will appreciate this camera. People who value a smaller, quiet, unintrusive camera body will also appreciate the R-D1. Those doing nature photography, landscape photos, or wedding work may find the R-D1 frustrating to use.


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