Swings and readouts

07 November 2007

My colleague Lars has just bought an Epson R-D1. If you’re not aware of it, it’s a digital rangefinder (roughly modelled on a Voigtlander) that takes Leica M Bayonet lenses, is hard to find, and noticeable cheaper than a Leica M8.

Epson R-D1

It’s obviously a niche camera: M lenses aren’t common nor cheap, the rangefinder is hardly a mass-market camera paradigm these days, and it’s largely manual – aperture priority, manual focus.

One thing that really caught my eye – and that I initially dismissed as ersatz Japanese retro-fetishery – was the readout on the top. Which looks like this:

To explain: the largest hand, pointing straight up, indicates how many exposures are left on the current memory card. As you can see, the scale is logarithmic – 500+ is the maximum, and as it counts down, the number of remaining exposures is measured more accurately.

The E-F gauge at the bottom measures not fuel, but battery power.

The left-hand gauge indicates white balance – either auto or one of several presets.

Finally, the right-hand dial represents the image quality: Raw, High, or Normal.

Once you know what it means, it’s a wonderfully clear interface: your eye can scan it very quickly. It’s also hypnotic watching it update. To alter the image quality, for instance, you hold the image quality lever with your right hand and move the selection knob (positioned where the film-rewind would be on a Leica) with your left. As the quality alters (and the rightmost needle flicks to the appropriate setting), the exposures-remaining needle swings around to reflect the new maximum number of pictures.

You can’t always see the benefits of analogue readouts in still photographs; this one is a case in point. Once it starts moving – and you start having a reason to check that readout – their clarity becomes immediately obvious.

So whilst I may have thought this kitsch to start with… it turns out to be one of my favourite features on the camera.

(As for that manual “film advance” lever… I’ll write about that in another post. It’s something I found similarly kitschy to begin with, but understood in the end.)