Nostalgia isn't what it used to be, but that hasn't stopped several photographic manufacturers bringing various 'retro' models to the table that look as if they've been brought back from a bygone age.
On most of these, the vintage styling has been largely cosmetic, and inside they boast all the latest features. That said, the latest camera to join this old-school clan goes one step further, by combining digital capture with a classic rangefinder design. It's the R-D1.
What's most surprising about this new retro camera is the company behind this initiative. You might have expected it to come from Leica, a manufacturer with enormous pedigree in this area, or even a longestablished brand such as Rollei. But no. The R-D1 comes from Epson, a company which, although enormously successful when it comes to printers, has yet to get a serious foothold in the camera market.
The rangefinder design has been around since the 1920s and, although technology has come a long way over that period, it still has a loyal following, particularly among photographers who favour a lightweight, unobtrusive, go-anywhere camera.
But not everything about the past was great. This is particularly true when it comes to exposure. Most modern digital cameras feature some kind of multi-zone metering system that takes readings from several parts of the scene and integrates them to maximise accuracy. Like many traditional cameras, the R-D1 only features a centre-weighted metering system - and it shows.
Hit and miss
Most of the pictures we took with the R-D1 required some tweaking on the exposure front, and a handful were so wide of the mark that it was impossible to salvage them. Virtually every picture taken towards the light was severely underexposed, and any scene with large areas of brightness caused moderate underexposure.
Those with sufficient knowledge and experience will know how to overcome this limitation - by tipping the camera down and using the exposure lock button with landscapes, or giving up to two stops more using the exposure compensation system. This system, by the way, is straight out of the 1970s and involves lifting and turning part of the dial on the top of the camera. It's a similarly cumbersome process when you have to change the ISO setting.
The same dial also selects your shutter speed, and the R-D1's only automatic mode, aperture-priority. In this mode, you select the aperture using the ring at the front of the lens, and the camera sets the corresponding shutter speed. There are large gaps between the stop settings on the lens, making 1/2 or even 1/4 stop adjustments possible.
It's the focusing system, though, that really defines a rangefinder camera. And here we're talking about 'manual' focusing. To render your subject in focus, rotate the barrel of the lens until the two images you can see in the viewfinder coincide. Although the R-D1 captures images digitally, there's no 'live' image on the LCD - you can only use it to review the pictures you've taken.
Not everyone takes to rangefinder focusing. Most find it fussy and slow compared to autofocus, though the more you use it the easier it becomes. There's also a danger in fast changing situations that you forget to focus, and don't realise your mistake until after the event, when it's too late.
While it's cute having a digital camera with rangefinder focusing, you might wonder what's the point, when even with candids and 'street' photography - areas where rangefinders established their reputation - auto-focus now does it more quickly and more accurately.
And it's not just the focusing on the R-D1 that's unusual, the layout and handling are also different from most other digital cameras. For a start there's no hand or palm grip, so the R-D1 is not particularly comfortable to hold for long periods of time, and has a tendency to slip.
Look at the top plate and you'll see a collection of needles and dials which give an analogue indication of various aspect of the camera's status, including the resolution selected, the white-balance setting, the number of exposures remaining and how much battery power is left.
The needles are quite a change to the LCDs we're used to, but they work and are certainly more eye-catching. The strangest thing on the camera - and surely the first time it's appeared on a digital model - is a film advance lever.
Although there is, of course, no film in the camera, there is a lever you have to wind forward with your thumb after each shot. Retro charm or a pain? Should you forget to advance it, which is easy to do, you'll find you can't take the picture, and will sometimes miss it. This makes it difficult if not impossible to shoot a sequence.
The sense of this being a digitised film camera is reinforced by the flip-out-and-twist back. On this you'll find a small field-of-view converter diagram - with '35mm' written on it. Reverse it and it looks much more like a digital camera, with a 235,000 pixel two-inch monitor and five push-button controls.
These buttons are well designed but poorly marked. It takes a while for you to get the hang of what they do, since operation is not as intuitive as many other cameras.
Images can be captured either as 10Mb RAW files or one of two JPEG compressions - high (3,008x2,000 pixels) resulting in a 3Mb file, and Fine (2,240x1,488 pixels) yields a 1.5Mb file. A TIFF option would also have been useful. The recording medium is an SD card, in capacities up to 1Gb. This is housed under a discreet flap.
The image quality of film rangefinder cameras is legendary so we had high hopes for the R-D1, but the results were a tad disappointing. Despite the 6Mp sensor, the pictures seemed to lack detail - certainly compared to SLRs and top-end compacts with the same resolution.
Even shots taken in sunny conditions sometimes looked soft, when we would have expected them to be punchy. Colours were often muted instead of vibrant.
Some of these problems can be remedied in your image editor by increasing contrast and applying sharpening, but there's little that can be done about the lack of detail.
Surprisingly, the slowest ISO rating is only 200, with just three other sensitivities; ISO400, 800 and 1600. The quality at ISO200 and 400 is acceptable, but slightly lacking in detail and punch compared to other 6.1 million pixel cameras. The 800 and 1600 settings are best avoided, because noise and magenta fringing becomes more of an issue.
One of the R-D1's major selling points is the EM lens mount. This enables Leica M-series bayonet lenses to be fitted, along with L-series screw lenses via one of three adaptors. The R-D1 comes bundled with a Voigtlander Ultron 35mm F1.7 lens - a tried-and-tested design using aspherical elements, and a solid performer.
Out of date
The 35mm lens was the standard wide-angle until the 1970s when it was overtaken by 28mm and then 24mm. And using the 35mm lens it's easy to see why it went the way of the dinosaur. It's neither wide enough to capture dramatic perspective nor long enough to crop in on details. Zoom lenses might lack the crispness of these 'prime' lenses but they're not far behind and are much more versatile.
The suggested price of the R-D1 including the lens is just shy of £2,000 and even if it gets trimmed by the time it hits the streets, you're still looking at a substantial investment. For the same money you could buy a Canon EOS 300D or Nikon D70 plus a couple of lenses, a flashgun and a bag to put it all in.
But the R-D1's appeal will surely be to traditionalists who already own a rangefinder and would like to use their existing lenses on a digital camera. Right now, Epson's rangefinder is the only one of its kind available and it may be on that basis - and the fact that sales will inevitably be small - that the price is pitched so high.
While one could easily imagine enthusiasts forming a long queue to spend two grand on a digital rangefinder with the famous red Leica logo embossed on it, Epson could find it harder going. An interesting camera though. Steve Bavister