The Digital Journalist
Field Test: Epson R-D1
March 2005

by David Alan Harvey

David Alan Harvey takes the world's first digital rangefinder to Tuscany. Here, the veteran Magnum photographer tells American Photo and The Digital Journalist what it's like to shoot the old-fashioned way-and get digital pictures.

More than any other documentary photographer we can think of, Magnum's David Alan Harvey always seems to be a part of what he is shooting. His pictures, which have appeared for over 30 years in National Geographic magazine, don't feel as if they were made by a detached observer. In fact, a big part of the photographic process for Harvey is to get to know his subjects until they "forget" about him. That's one luxury of the Geographic's long-term assignments, which have taken the photographer from Vietnam to Brazil's Bahia region. "I make a life there," says Harvey in Magnum Stories, a new Phaidon book that profiles all the photographers working for that legendary agency. "Then I photograph that life." The result is that Harvey's images have an extraordinarily natural quality.

Photo by David Alan Harvey
To help him become one with his subjects, Harvey has always shot with a 35mm Leica rangefinder. The camera's low profile and quick, quiet operation allow him to do his work without distracting his subjects. So when American Photo needed a photographer to field-test the new Epson R-D1, the world's first digital rangefinder camera, we thought of Harvey first. The photographer was on his way to Italy to receive a lifetime achievement award from the University of Pisa, and he took the new camera along. On the following pages, Harvey describes what it was like to shoot the Tuscan scene with a trusty manual-focus rangefinder-and get digital pictures.

I bought my first Leica rangefinder when I was 12, with money from my paper route. A camera store owner in Virginia Beach, where I grew up, realized how passionate I was about photography and let me pay for it in weekly installments. He said, "Here, take the camera home, and after you do your collecting bring me 10 or 15 bucks." It was a Leica IIIf, and when he first gave it to me he told me to go next door to the drugstore and shoot some pictures. My friends were hanging out there, and once I tried the camera-up to then I'd been using a borrowed 4x5 Speed Graphic-I said, "That's it for me." The Leica just seemed like the right thing.

I got interested in photography really early because, being in a small town, my main sense of the outside world was through magazines and books-the printed page. At the local library I got into Robert Frank and Henri Cartier-Bresson, and then all the photographers at Life and Look and National Geographic. I devoured everything with and about photography that I could get my hands on. I took pictures of my family constantly, printing them in a darkroom that my mom built me and putting them in albums for my grandparents. I also used the pictures in a family newspaper that I "published." So the rangefinder just became part of the way I see and relate to the world, and simplified my photographic life beyond belief.

Photo by David Alan Harvey
Everything in my last book, The Divided Soul, was shot with a Leica and basically the 35mm lens, occasionally the 28mm. For what I do I don't need a lot of different lenses. I don't shoot news, I don't shoot sports. I shoot the world as it exists from about four feet to about 15 feet in front of me. A rangefinder is the perfect camera for that, and I think I'm really one of the few professional magazine photographers who use it pretty much exclusively.

Being such a hard-core Leica guy, I felt really comfortable when I picked up the Epson R-D1. There was an incredible feeling of familiarity. I didn't have to read the instruction manual to figure out how to use it. All the controls are where you expect them to be and operate smoothly. It's a Leica down to the fake film-advance lever-which really only cocks the shutter-except that it captures images digitally. It was especially nice to be able to focus the way I'm used to. I've used AF SLRs, digital included, but there's nothing like that solid rangefinder focusing, where you really know you're right on the mark. The R-D1 is a sweet little camera, very rugged and well put together.

I worked with the camera mostly in the Tuscan town of San Quirico, where I teach workshops every summer. Just about everything I shot was at night, at effective speed settings as high as ISO 1600, in JPEG. There was a festival there that week, and I saw a couple of guys with accordions playing from house to house. I followed them around and took pictures of them, and we became friends. Soon I was hanging out and drinking beer with them.

Though I was most influenced by Frank and Cartier-Bresson, as a photographer I'm different from them, and not just because I shoot color instead of black and white. Neither of those guys went inside people's homes or inside their lives. They were both stand-back, fly-on-the-wall photographers. I'm a participant; I get inside. I'm usually sitting at the same table with the people I'm photographing, so they sort of forget that I'm there to take pictures. It's a different way of getting a natural photograph.

Photo by David Alan Harvey
Digital photographers go on about how useful it is to be able to review pictures you've shot on a camera's LCD screen. The R-D1's screen is nice to have, but if you work the way I do you need to be wary of it. If you stop to look at what you've got so far you can lose the rhythm of your shooting. But there's usually a little moment when you can share the pictures with your subjects. And I found that this can actually be helpful because so much of what I do is about being with people, public relations with people. You just don't want to spend too much time doing it.

Though at six megapixels the R-D1 is on the low side by cutting-edge D-SLR standards, its image quality looked great to me, especially considering that I was working in the dark with slow shutter speeds and high ISOs. I maxed out the pictures on a big 30-inch monitor, and they totally held up. I think I can easily make big prints from the files.

The rub with the R-D1 is that unless you want to put an auxiliary viewfinder on the hotshoe, and frame and focus through two different windows, the widest lens you can use is a 28mm. And because of the R-D1's smaller-than-35mm chip, this gives you the equivalent of a 42mm lens in 35mm terms. The narrower angle of view can be restrictive, but it does force you to discipline yourself; you have to jockey for position a little more. I'm a one-film, one-lens guy anyway. The 21mm Leica lens would be ideal on the R-D1, about equivalent to 32mm, if only you didn't have to compose with the separate finder.

Even though I'm totally used to it with my Leicas, I felt odd using the R-D1's so-called film-advance lever. True, it does cock the shutter and maybe save a little on battery life, but Epson might want to eliminate it the next time around. The camera is a rangefinder to its core, but every once in a while you remember that you're not shooting film-and you feel a little silly flipping your thumb out after every shot! -AS TOLD TO RUSSELL HART

Epson R-D1

Epson R-D1: Pros and Cons

Pros

Combines the intuitive operation of a classic rangefinder camera with high-quality digital capture; solidly constructed

Cons

1.5X focal-length conversion factor limits widest angle of view to 42mm (35mm-equivalent) unless an external accessory (hotshoe-mounted) viewfinder is used

Bottom Line

Dream camera for range-finder-using documentary and street photographers who want to go digital

At A Glance: Epson R-D1

  • World's first coupled-rangefinder digital camera
  • 6.1-megapixel (effective), APS-C–sized CCD sensor
  • Two resolution settings: 3,008x2,000 pixels and 2,240x1,488 pixels (2:3 aspect ratio)
  • One JPEG compression ratio, plus RAW
  • Accepts over 200 L- and M-mount Leica-type lenses, including Voigtlander optics made for 35mm Bessa-series rangefinders (adapter required for L mount)
  • 1.5X focal-length conversion factor (to 35mm equivalent)
  • 1X (life size) viewfinder; manual focusing only, by superimposing dual subject image in rangefinder patch
  • 28mm, 35mm, and 50mm viewfinder frame lines set manually with switch on top deck; automatic parallax correction when focusing (due to smaller-than-35mm sensor, 35mm-equivalent focal lengths are 42mm, 53mm, and 75mm respectively)
  • Accessory hotshoe-mounted D-series finders available for 12mm, 15mm, 21mm, and 25mm lenses
  • Effective speed range from ISO 200 to ISO 1600
  • Aperture-priority and manual exposure control
  • Autoexposure compensation in third-stops up to +/- two stops; exposure lock button
  • Vertically traveling focal plane shutter with speeds from one to 1/2,000 second, plus bulb (flash sync 1/125 second)
  • Two-inch, 235,000-pixel tilt/swivel color LCD screen for picture review, histogram inspection, and menu setting (no live image feed); can be turned face-in
  • Stores images on Secure Digital memory cards
  • Top-deck analog display shows image quality setting, shots remaining before memory card is filled, remaining battery life, and white-balance setting
  • No USB, FireWire, or video-out ports; files on card must be downloaded and/or displayed with Secure Digital card reader
  • Black-and-white mode with digital "filters"
  • Supports Print Image Matching (PIM) II, EXIF Print 2.21, DCF 2.0, and DPOF 1.1
  • Traditional PC socket and threaded mechanical cable-release socket
  • Comes with Adobe Photoshop plug-in (version 7.0 or higher, Elements 2.0 or higher) and stand-alone application for Epson ERF (RAW) files
  • Magnesium alloy exterior, die-cast aluminum chassis
  • 5.6x3.5x1.6 inches; 1.3 pounds with Li-ion rechargeable battery
  • About $3,000

© David Alan Harvey