Over the past six months of my Film Photography Journey, my preferences have become apparent: I usually like bringing two cameras with me.* One will be strapped around my shoulder, loaded with black and white film. A smaller compact will be elsewhere (usually in a pouch), loaded with color. I’ve been doing more black and white than color, but I like the flexibility of having both available.
I still love my first new-old film camera, the Minolta Hi-Matic 7s. I appreciate the ability to switch from full auto exposure to full manual, and that classic shutter sound gives me a smile. But man, the Minolta is as big of a fixed-lens rangefinder you’ll find. It’s no wonder that the Japanese camera manufactures switched to more compact rangefinders shortly after that. I still bring the Hi-Matic out from time to time (especially on walks), but I love the idea of a smaller shoulderable camera for bike riding.
I got the Konica C35 EF in April to fulfill that role. It wasn’t exactly what I was looking for, but it was cheap. I’ve used the camera a lot over the past couple months. I’ve gotten some great shots out of it, as the lens is nice and sharp. But I’ve pushed the camera to its limits. It was designed to be a point-and-shoot with zone focus, auto exposure, and a built-in flash to use for low light. With the aperture readout display in the viewfinder and the half-push of the shutter release to lock exposure, I was able to control the aperture somewhat, making it into a pseudo aperture priority camera. But changing the suggested aperture by either pointing the lens to a light source or covering it up with my hand is growing a bit old. And the Konica only has two shutter speeds and no bulb setting.** With a non-functioning flash, low light shots were never good.
So I wanted something a little more, but still little. Something that I could bring out when I wanted something more compact than the Hi-Matic, without sacrificing a whole bunch of control. I started to look in earnest for something that could either fill the gap between the Minolta and the Konica or something that could replace the Konica entirely. I figured that it wouldn’t be that hard of a search, as there are plenty of compact 1970’s era rangefinder and zone-focus viewfinder cameras out there.
The search turned out more difficult than expected.
Sure, there are lots of those cameras out there. The problem was features. Since all professional and most enthusiast 35 mm photographers had moved onto SLRs, most of the remaining 35 mm cameras in that era were increasingly aimed at the novice, the people who wanted a camera for a vacation or their kid’s birthday party. (Leica being the primary exception.) While these cameras still featured some form of manual focus,*** auto-exposure was the norm. This is not what I wanted. I wanted something that offered actual exposure control**** in a package not costing a lot.
Then I found Ricoh. Ricoh was always a second-tier camera maker (they are now best known for photocopiers), but apparently made good stuff. They had a line of compact rangefinders in the 1970’s that were appropriately small but featured a great lens (Rikkenon 40 mm f/2.8) and a mix of manual and semi-automatic controls. While everyone else had pretty much moved onto autoexposure in their rangefinders, even Minolta,***** Ricoh stuck out. Heck, Ricoh mostly didn’t offer fully automatic exposure as an option, just shutter priority!******
There are a few variants of the compact 70’s Ricoh rangefinder. A few of them are badged as Sears models (Ricoh made quite a few of Sears’s cameras) which command fewer dollars than the Ricoh logoed brothers, but they are essentially the same cameras. One particular model caught my eye: the Ricoh 35 ZF. This model, introduced in 1976 and made in Taiwan, is probably the least covetable of these cameras as it is not a rangefinder, rather it’s a zone-focus viewfinder camera! Essentially it’s a Ricoh 500 G sans rangefinder.
Now I know that some folks don’t like zone (or scale) focus cameras because they don’t have the focusing aid of a rangefinder; you are limited to three to five “zones” based on the subject’s distance from the lens. This involves some guessing. But I’ve had two cameras so far with zone focusing and have gotten good results. Plus, rangefinder cameras are more complicated, and their mirrors can get knocked out of alignment. I wanted less to go wrong if I was going to strap the camera to my shoulder while biking.
There were a few reasonable priced specimens on eBay, but they were all untested. James Cockcroft had written up a convincing review of the Ricoh 35 ZF and also had one to sell for about $30, shipping included. $30 is a tad more than I like spending, but this was a tested camera which had its light seals replaced. So I bought it from him.
I got the camera on June 26 and was quickly impressed. While the Minolta Hi-Matic 7s has brawny good looks and the Konica C35 EF is more “looks only a mother can love”, the Ricoh 35 ZF was downright cute. And it’s smöl, too. Not Olympus XA2 small, but way smaller than the Hi-Matic, and about an inch narrower than the Konica. Weighing in at 13 ounces, it’s about half the heft of the Minolta. But how well does it work?
Like many cameras of this era, it’s fairly simple. The top plate has the shutter release, film advance lever, rewinder, hot shoe for flash, and shots counter. The film speed adjuster is around the front of the lens. The barrel has focusing, shutter, and aperture rings. There are three zones for focusing, the classic head-shoulders-mountain distance scale (about 3 feet for head, 15 feet for mountains). While the focus ring clicks into the icon settings, you can also stop in between them, something not featured on the Olympus XA2 or Konica C35 EF. Alas, there’s no indicator in the viewfinder as to what zone you’re focusing, which would be useful. (The Konica features that.)
As mentioned earlier, exposure can be either full manual or shutter priority by turning the aperture ring to “A”. There is also a bulb shutter setting for long exposures (yes, the shutter release is threaded.) The viewfinder features an aperture exposure readout on the right side. The needle will point to different apertures depending on shutter chosen, the idea being that as long as the needle isn’t hitting the “red” on the top or bottom, the shot should be properly exposed. The metering works both in manual and shutter priority, but not in bulb.
I took the Ricoh 35 ZF a couple times to test it out. The first time I loaded it with color (Fuji Superia Xtra 400) and went on a ride with Emee out to Cedar Crossing, the Portland area’s only covered bridge. (Don’t get too excited, this bridge was built in 1982 for the sole purpose of giving us a covered bridge. Turns out we never had one!) Once I got a hang of it, the Ricoh was fairly easy to use. The shutter sound was in between the nice click of the Minolta and the “shunk” of the Konica. Because the aperture control ring is next to the body, it wasn’t the easiest to use (this is a shutter-priority camera, so they figured you wouldn’t be using the aperture ring much.) But it all worked.
I got the shots back, and they were…okay. Nothing bad about them, besides a couple light leaks. But I wasn’t necessarily blown away or anything. Is that fair? Maybe I was more taken with the pics from the Konica because I didn’t expect much, and there was more expectations with the Ricoh. Also, a bike ride with someone else means I’m taking pics on the fly. It’s not like a solo walk where I have the time to be methodical.
A week later Emee and I along with her kids went on an adventure to the southern periphery of the metro area, checking out new-to-us parks. I mounted a yellow filter in front of the lens (46 mm diameter is common for these cameras, and I had one for the Konica) and loaded the Ricoh with Kentmere 400. The shots were decent, if a bit grainy. (That’s more a problem with either the film or the developing than the camera.) I was unsure about the exposure readings (the battery for the meter wasn’t exactly the right one) so a lot of the shots were metered via the “Sunny 16” rule. Most of them appear well-exposed.
So far, so good. I have gotten the right battery for the camera, so I’ll install that and keep on shooting. I’ll also take a few photo walks where I can test the camera’s abilities more fully. Hopefully it will become my go-to for bike rides!
*And for the sake of thoroughness, my smartphone camera (iPhone 8) is not included in that number. If included, it means I have three cameras on me. Yeesh.
**My version is the first one released in 1975. A later variant (the EF 2) released in 1977 added a third shutter speed (1/250 of a second) to the earlier 1/60 and 1/125 shutter speeds. It also added a self-timer.
***Autofocus wasn’t introduced until 1977, first on the Konica C35 AF, the successor to the EF. It then became common in the mid-80’s. By then point-and-shoot cameras either had autofocus or a fixed focus lens. Outside of SLRs, manual focus was only found on a handful of high-end compacts.
****Meaning: I didn’t want another camera where the only way to change exposure would be either via “exposure lock” like the Konica C35 EF or changing the film ISO setting.
*****The Minolta Hi-Matic 7sii is an exception. It fetches high prices on eBay, as do any of the “nicer” compact rangefinders of that era.
******The one exception I can find is the Ricoh 35 FM, which was basically a zone-focus like the ZF, but lacked any exposure control.