A Digital Camera for People Who Love Film Cameras – Epson R-D1 Review

A Digital Camera for People Who Love Film Cameras – Epson R-D1 Review

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I am a casual photophile, and I believe you may be one, too. If I’m right, then the subject of today’s article may pull at your heartstrings. The venerable Epson R-D1 is a digital camera that provides perhaps the most film camera-like experience in photography today. Did I mention that it has a functional shutter-cocking lever?

Introduced at Photokina (rest in peace) in 2004, the Epson R-D1 can claim several world-firsts. It was the world’s first digital mirror-less interchangeable lens camera. According to DPReview’s original article on the R-D1’s release, it was the world’s first rangefinder digital camera. It was also the world’s first digital camera to natively accept Leica M and L39/M39/LTM screw mount lenses, the latter through means of an adapter.

What is probably most surprising is that all these camera world firsts were achieved by Epson, a company known more for their printing, scanning, and projector products, rather than a company like Leica. Epson even beat Leica, the king of the “Messsucher” (or rangefinder for the non-german speakers like me), in delivering the first ever digital M mount rangefinder camera for the consumer market; the Leica M8 arrived a full two years after the R-D1, in 2006.

Because the Epson R-D1 was the first of its kind, it has the distinct privilege, at least in my book and another for that matter (Camera by Todd Gustavson, pg 347), of standing out in photographic history as a monument to beautiful, classic camera design while simultaneously stepping forward into the burgeoning bloom of the digital age. 

Specifications of the Epson R-D1

  • Camera Type: Rangefinder mirror-less camera
  • Sensor: 6 megapixel APS-C CCD (23.7 x 15.6 mm); Max. resolution 3008 x 2000
  • Lens Mount: Leica M
  • ISO: 200, 400, 800, 1600
  • LCD Screen: 2″ 235,000 dots
  • Shutter: Max speed 1/2000 second
  • Storage: SD card (2GB max)
  • Dimensions: 142 x 89 x 40 mm
  • Weight: 610 grams (1.37 lb)


As far as outward appearance goes, if we clad the R-D1 in the legit street photographer livery of black electrical tape over all branding or labels, you would be forgiven for thinking it was a film camera. After all, the body design is based on the Voigtlander Bessa R platform. In fact, the R-D1 was developed in partnership with Cosina, the parent company of the modern Voigtlander brand. So, yes, the Epson feels very much like a film camera.

But once we take that imagined electrical tape off, turn the camera on, see the status dials energize to indicate important details like remaining shots and battery life, and flip that flippy screen around (not for live-view, but to review saved images and adjust menu settings), we realize that this is most definitely a machine with digital innards. 

The R-D1 sports a 6.1MP APS-C sized bayer-arrayed CCD sensor, the same sensor found in the Nikon D100. Its sensitivity tops out at ISO 1600. ISO is selected by lifting the collar of the shutter speed dial, just like many film cameras from the past.

Shutter speeds on the R-D1 range from 1 to 1/2000 second, with a bulb mode labeled “B.” Rotating the shutter speed dial to “AE” allows shooting in aperture priority, which is my favorite automatic exposure mode on any camera, and my preferred method of shooting.

Exposure compensation can be set to +2 to -2 EV with the shutter speed dial. There is also an AE lock button at the back of the camera where the photographer’s right thumb naturally falls. This button also locks exposure so we can be more precise with our metering, but I don’t find myself using it all that often, as I simply trust the center-weighted average meter for most of my shooting.

The camera can capture JPEG images in both normal and high quality settings, but it is also able to record in RAW. The .ERF files can be edited in post and still work in Lightroom to this day. All images are saved to an SD card, but the R-D1 will only accept SD cards that have a maximum capacity of 2GB. The R-D1X is an exception to this as that specific model allows the use of 32GB SD-HC cards.

The R-D1X also forgoes the flippy screen and offers only a fixed screen, making it more akin to a traditional digital Leica M or Fuji X-Pro 1 and/or X-Pro 2. Although I’ve never owned or used the R-D1X, I think I personally prefer the R-D1’s screen implementation because I can flip it away when not changing menu settings or reviewing images. And honestly, that is a good thing, because this screen is not an enjoyable viewing experience. It’s actually quite bad, but it’s hard to fault a 20 year old camera for having a low resolution LCD screen (a whopping 235K pixels to be exact).

There are actually two benefits that I see to closing the screen: 1.) closing the screen discourages chimping, and 2.) closing the screen reveals the awesome focal length equivalence table that is reminiscent of the ASA reminder or ISO selection wheel on the back of Leica M film bodies. For an APS-C crop factor table, it’s quite useful while not looking too out of place.

Even with the screen closed, it’s possible to easily adjust and understand our settings. The R-D1 has a cleverly designed interface that utilizes a lever near the user’s right thumb in conjunction with a jog dial on the top left hand side of the body where a film rewind knob would be on a traditional film camera. By using the lever to select either White Balance or Image Quality size, it’s possible to use the jog dial to make those adjustments without having to dive into the menu. Bravo, Epson! It’s these kinds of small yet intuitive details that impress me and make me grin.

The R-D1 is in my mind the perfect amalgamation of three important characteristics that make for an authentically analog experience for enthusiasts who wish to shoot digital: vintage mechanical precision, tactile handling, and digital workflow. 

[Some of the links in this article will direct users to our affiliates at B&H Photo, Amazon, and eBay. By purchasing anything using these links, Casual Photophile may receive a small commission at no additional charge to you. This helps Casual Photophile produce the content we produce. Many thanks for your support.]

Vintage Mechanical Precision

The R-D1 feels like a proper camera. It is a “modern” image making tool that embraces a tried-and-true (if not very popular) focusing system which gives reliable results in the field.

To some, the rangefinder may seem like a vestige of a by-gone era, but its continued use in the current Leica M offerings, and even the Pixii camera, shows that there are some photophiles out there who appreciate a more mechanical approach and process to connect them to their photography. For people who have never used one, it may take some time to get used to rangefinder focusing. However, once practiced, this focusing methodology can become a very fun and engaging way of capturing photographs. In a world of phase detect autofocus, computational AI subject detection, and myriad tracking options for both animate and inanimate objects, the rangefinder can serve as a pleasant departure from such state of the art conveniences.

The viewfinder magnification of the R-D1 is notably nice. It uses a 1:1 magnification viewfinder, and although that is not unique in the world of 35mm film rangefinder cameras, it might be the only digital rangefinder camera to have one.

It’s often said by Leica shooters that the best way to use a rangefinder is to look with the right eye in the viewfinder and to keep the left eye open to look out into the world. But if the camera in question has a viewfinder with 0.85x or 0.72x magnification, like so many Leicas, doesn’t that confuse things? We’d be seeing the real world in a normal 1:1 magnification in one eye, and the same scene in a completely different magnification in the other (through the viewfinder).

Call me crazy, but I’m not a chameleon, and two different magnifications is hard for me to even think about without getting optically confused.

If you’re a “proper” right-eye dominant shooter, then the R-D1 will be an optically pleasant experience because both your eyes will be seeing the world in the same magnification! Just think, your rangefinder patch will be floating in the center of your real-life view of the world. It may not be the Apple Vision Pro level of augmented reality you were looking for, but a floating rangefinder patch is still pretty nifty if you ask me.

Just don’t ask me; I’m left-eye dominant.

In addition to the coupled rangefinder mechanism, the analog status dials on the top plate are another area where this camera oozes retro cool. For the watch enthusiasts out there, I think it is worth noting that the full company name of the Epson brand is the Seiko Epson Corporation. Yes, that’s correct. Seiko, as in the timepiece manufacturer. That’s probably why it is so satisfying to watch (no pun intended) the gauges snap to position. It’s like watching movements on a quality wristwatch. The dials actually remind me of those found on the Nikon 28ti and 35ti, which just so happen to be also designed by Seiko. 

There are, however, some parts of the R-D1 that might not feel as precise as, let’s say, a Leica.

There’s a tendency for the rangefinder patch to fall out of vertical alignment. My copy’s vertical alignment is slightly off, and I’ve lived with happily. But it’s not perfect.

Then there’s the manual frame-line selector switch. It doesn’t feel loose per se, but it doesn’t give me the same kind of clicked-in confidence as when mounting the same M-mount lenses on a Leica M body. Leica M cameras automatically snap to the appropriate frame-lines when different focal lengths are used, but with the Epson, we have to make sure we select the correct focal length for the right frame-lines to show up in the viewfinder. I can be forgetful every now and then, and have been known to leave the frame-line selector switch on 35mm when I actually had a 28mm mounted. I guess it’s not the camera’s fault, since I’m the one who forgot.

And lastly, the battery door can be a little fiddly. It does the job of housing the Fuji NP-80 style lithium ion battery, a battery that’s luckily still available from third party manufacturers on Amazon.

[Some of the links in this article will direct users to our affiliates at B&H Photo, Amazon, and eBay. By purchasing anything using these links, Casual Photophile may receive a small commission at no additional charge to you. This helps Casual Photophile produce the content we produce. Many thanks for your support.]

Tactile Handling

The R-D1 utilizes true and accurate film-era haptics and movements for user operations that don’t feel gimmicky. If you’ve ever used a 35mm film camera from the latter half of the 20th century, you’ll feel right at home with the stand out feature of this camera – the film advance lever, or rather, as it is more accurately labeled in the user manual, the “shutter charge lever.”

Indeed, if there was one feature to highlight about the R-D1 in this article, it is the shutter charge lever. Although it does not advance any film through a transport system, as this camera does not shoot film, it’s necessary to actuate this lever to cock the vertically traveling focal plane shutter for each exposure.

For me, this lever is what makes the camera so fun. In a word, it’s fantastic! I don’t think there’s another camera like it, and I don’t think there ever will be again. True, there are other options for cameras with digital sensors that incorporate shutter cocking mechanisms, but they are usually in the form of digital backs that are added to film bodies, making them larger and slightly more unwieldy, and not to mention significantly more rare and expensive.

Off the top of my head, the Leica R8/R9 with Leica DMR back and the Hasselblad 500 series with the CFV digital backs come to mind. But to my knowledge, the R-D1 was the only camera designed from the ground up with a manual shutter charge lever integral to the camera’s function and operation.

Let me put it this way: if you’ve ever shot a Leica M film body and craved that tactile experience but in a digital format, then I think the Epson R-D1 is as close as you’re going to get to that film-like shooting experience. At one point in my photography journey I purchased a used Leica M9 (with an updated non-corroded sensor) and it was a wonderful camera to use for the season that I owned it. And even though it had a wonderful full frame 18mp Kodak CCD sensor that produced beautiful files, I ended up selling it to get the R-D1 instead. I made that decision because I wanted that film feeling when shooting digital.

I admit that I haven’t used any of the other digital Leica M offerings, but in my hand the M9 felt, for lack of a better word, chunky. It just didn’t feel like a Leica M film body (I own an M4-P for reference). The M10-D looked pretty cool when it was announced, but to hear about the shutter lever just being a thumb rest was a major let down.

But I digress. Let me get back to the subject camera.

Smaller design details hearken back to the days of analog cameras. The jog dial, which I mentioned earlier, is able to be pulled up to a raised position for accessing secondary directional functions when reviewing images in a magnified view. It’s probably not something you’ll be using very often, but since this camera lacks a directional pad or any command dials, this small decision to have the jog dial work this way is really cool, without being cheesy. It’s something with which a film shooter would be familiar, too,  since this is a movement was commonly used for opening film backs. 

The main point I wanted to make here is that for photo geeks, like me, who really enjoy how a camera feels and operates in the hand, the R-D1 provides a truly unique analog experience in the digital realm. It authentically feels like a film camera.

And yet, in some ways, it feels better than a film camera.

Digital Workflow

As much as I love analog photography and using film cameras, there are times when I simply want to have a digital image immediately.

Sometimes, I just want to have the photograph right away, instant gratification and all, ready to be viewed, enjoyed, consumed, or shared with someone without having to wait for lab processing turnaround times or home development and scanning sessions. And after our fourth child, the dev and scan sessions have definitely decreased in our household. Also, I think my wallet would like me more if I shot just a little less film and a little more digital. Don’t get me wrong, I still really enjoy film photography. But since I am a casual photophile who wants that same analog experience yet with a digital workflow, the R-D1 scratches that itch.

I believe that there is a place in the market for vintage/retro inspired cameras. The recent release and sales success of the Nikon Zf is a testament to that. And over the years, I’ve been blessed to have been able to use some notable models that exuded that same aesthetic.

I’ve had the privilege and pleasure of owning a Fuji X-Pro 2, the aforementioned Leica M9, and even the Olympus Pen-F. Each of these models are all very wonderful and enjoyable cameras in their own right, but I don’t own any of them anymore. And I think this is why I hold the Epson in such high regard. As great as each of those cameras were, the R-D1 is in my opinion the only digital camera that gave me the most authentic feeling of shooting film without having to shoot film. And I think, for that one reason alone, it has remained in my stable.

Final Thoughts on the Epson R-D1

And this is perhaps where I should conclude my rather verbose sentiments on this singular camera.

The Epson R-D1 makes for a user experience unlike any other. For some photographers, the process and experience of capturing the photograph is just as important as the photograph itself. The act of looking through a real optical viewfinder, composing within parallax-corrected frame-lines, triangulating the distance between the lens and subject, pressing the shutter release, and that ever-so-satisfying flick of the thumb to actuate the shutter charge lever for the next frame – it’s all these little things put together that bring me pleasure. And there’s no other camera that does it all quite like the Epson R-D1.

I think it’s the unique nature of the camera’s form and function that lend to its unicorn-like status. Current market value is somewhat reflective of this, with used prices now looking awfully close to the range of a monthly mortgage or rent payment. Thankfully, I was able to buy mine for a good deal from a domestic seller. Though I had to wait a long time for that good deal to come up.

But there really is no other camera like the Epson R-D1, and I don’t think there ever will be again. The R-D1 was born in a time when digital photography was becoming a real feasible alternative to film, and since many photographers of its time were familiar with the mechanical nature of tactile camera operations, I believe Epson made the right move in incorporating these familiar movements and interaction points into the design of the R-D1. It may not have been a commercial success, but it was the perfect camera for a niche community.

As a photo geek, husband, and father (a dad-tographer if you will), the Epson R-D1 is perhaps my quintessential casual photophile camera. For me, it is the camera that most connects me to the act of documenting the moments that will become my family’s memories.

Our guest author articles are sent in by amazing photographers and writers all over the world. Today’s guest author is…

Nio Gomez is a husband and father of four hailing from the commonwealth of Virginia. His other occupations include audio/visual technician, bottle preparer, diaper changer, freelance DP, wedding photographer, and all around camera geek. But he is at heart a dadtographer.

More from Nio can be seen on Instagram.

If you’d like to contribute an article to Casual Photophile, please introduce yourself and send a pitch to contact@fstopcameras.com.

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[Some of the links in this article will direct users to our affiliates at B&H Photo, Amazon, and eBay. By purchasing anything using these links, Casual Photophile may receive a small commission at no additional charge to you. This helps Casual Photophile produce the content we produce. Many thanks for your support.]

Guest Author

In addition to our staff writers, we accept articles from passionate and knowledgeable photo people. If you have an article idea that you'd like to publish on Casual Photophile, please submit it to our email address for articles - Casualphotophilearticles@gmail.com

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  • Nice article on a nice camera.

    “the most film camera-like experience in photography today”
    Not true of course – the most film camera-like experience is when you shoot a film camera 😉

    But, I get it. Digital has great advantages, and the author summed it up perfectly…
    “since I am a casual photophile who wants that same analog experience yet with a digital workflow, the R-D1 scratches that itch.”
    A much more satisfying click of the shutter, I’m sure, than the latest digital cameras offer.

  • Just beautiful photographs! You could never change the ISO of a roll of film half way through anyway. It’s not what you’ve got, it’s how you use it! Well done and a truly warming article. Thank you.

  • I’ve never been a 35mm photographer – give me anything between whole-plate down to 2.25″sq any day, and I have to admit, I’ve really struggled with digital over the years as I’ve not been able to reproduce the range of apertures, shutter-speeds, “do” with digital what I once did with analog cameras – and yet I do use Digital, but primarily because up to recentlyish, film has not been available to “the [wo]man in the street” – yet now it is!
    A great article by someone who writes so much like myself I honestly wondered whether it had been myself (albeit a younger version) writing it! – but no it wasn’t
    The Epson R-D1 sounds as though it’s something missing from my life, although however much I’d like to try that camera, use all of its analog facilities, be reunited with ASA film speeds, fantastic range of6 shutter speeds and ditto apertures, there’s something still missing within my longing for the past, and that is the interchangeability of not so much lenses, but film/digital “backs” that before digital took over, were available for the majority of formats (Think Hasselblad, Bronica, Sinar, to start).
    Now, if a film attachment could be made for my mobile phone, that would be a great start, and an amazing way to introduce the masses to film and to everything that that medium is cable of doing – the most vital part being that one would have a physical negative from which prints can be made, irrespective of whether electricity – or rather, the lack of that necessity – means digital images no longer exist.

    (Now retired, the author was an Industrial and Architectural Photographer working out of London, UK in the 1960s, and later was Works Photographer in a Cable Manufacturers in Swansea, Wales, UK. Working mainly with cut film, used in dark-slides on Gandolfi and MPP cameras, or roll-film in Rollei and Leica cameras, he is now a young 77, but nowadays works in the holiday accommodation trade, where, with a very capable partner, they run a very successful STR / holiday let in one of the world’s most desirable locations; the Gower Peninsula, South Wales, UK)

  • Great camera with eqally brilliant review.

    Reminds me of the days when I used a Leica, Zeiss Contax IIA, and also Voigtlander Prominent and Vitessa range finder cameras.
    Later, migrated to SLR’s.

  • This was such a well written article! It was a pleasure learning more about the unique gravity this camera seems to have.

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Guest Author

In addition to our staff writers, we accept articles from passionate and knowledgeable photo people. If you have an article idea that you'd like to publish on Casual Photophile, please submit it to our email address for articles - Casualphotophilearticles@gmail.com

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