Sunday, 7 July 2013

Ricoh 500 ME: I Disconnect From You


Today we're going to have a look at a compact rangefinder camera from the 1970s. Back in the 1970s, if you wanted something more capable than an Instamatic, but you couldn't spring for an SLR, you were probably looking to buy a compact rangefinder. There was a glut of them on the market, and they all had a broadly similar specification - a 40mm f/2.8 lens attached to a rectangular body, with some kind of programmed automatic exposure system that used a battery-powered CdS metering cell mounted inside the filter ring. Sometimes the lens was 38mm, sometimes 42mm, although I suspect they were all the same basic design with some fudging of the numbers.

The 500 ME was the last of Ricoh's Mark II 500-series rangefinders; the original Mark I Ricoh 500 had been launched in the late 1950s, but the 500 ME used the body style of the 500 G and GX, which had been introduced in the early 1970s.


Konica popularised the format in the late 1960s with the Konica C35 - "the grab-shot camera", according to the adverts - and its heirs went on to dominate the middle of the camera market for a good ten years or so, roughly between Neil Young (1968) and Everybody's Rockin' (1983). The Ricoh 500 ME seems to have been discontinued in 1984 or thereabouts, by which time it was an anachronism.

Here's what the camera looks like:

It has a 46mm filter ring - in this shot I've reversed a 49mm filter and slotted it over the lens barrel.

In its day the 500 ME was a budget alternative to the new Olympus XA capsule cameras and autofocus Canon Sure Shot point-and-shoots that replaced it. It has an unusually capable specification, with shutter-priority automation and manual control over the shutter and aperture. The "ME" stands for "Multiple Exposure", which was the camera's big gimmick; the other gimmick was a spring-loaded film winder that screwed onto the bottom of the camera and is apparently naff (too slow, too noisy). My thumb is better.

Alan Myers is dead, but we are all devo

The 500 ME wasn't at all famous when it was new, and it seems to be a rebadged OEM design, possibly from Cosina. As Matt's Classic Cameras point out, the late-period Konica C35 clones were almost identical, and I surmise that they shared the lens/shutter unit (at the very least).

The 500 ME's manual exposure control sets it apart - most of the other pocket rangefinders were fully-automatic, or they had an EV system whereby the shutter speed and aperture were linked together - and furthermore the camera will still take a shot even if the automatic exposure system goes out of range. A lot of its competitors locked the shutter button instead. On a physical level the design has aged well. I'm old enough to remember when the 500 ME would have looked dated and naff, but that was the 1980s, and people had some odd ideas back then.

The preview display screen is the little glass hole in the top-left corner. It has a very high resolution and is updated in real time. Focus is silent.

Ricoh is one of the world's leading photocopier and office equipment manufacturers, essentially a Japanese analogue of Xerox. As a camera company it has long been a non-entity, although it jumped up a notch in the 1990s with the GR1, a tiny but well-made compact camera with a sharp 28mm f/2.8 lens. It was part of a wave of posh 35mm compacts that were popular at the time, although unlike the Contax T2 and Minolta TC-1 (for example) it didn't look posh. It had a modest, well-made magnesium alloy body and was, yes, the non-entity of the 35mm posh compact world, albeit that it was apparently a fine camera.

Kodak Portra 160

The GR series eventually made the transition to digital (as the "GR Digital"), but based on the reviews I have read the cameras were hobbled with a unimpressive, noisy image processing system. Ricoh seems to have fixed this with the recent, slightly confusingly-named Ricoh GR, which is apparently very good indeed. If the company had any sense it would tie up with Kellogg's, and run a series of adverts with Tony the Tiger proclaiming that the GR is GR-r-reat! It can't hurt.

In 2011 Ricoh bought famous camera manufacturer Pentax, and for a short while the company called itself Pentax Ricoh. In 2013 it became Ricoh again, with Pentax as a Ricoh brand name, although Ricoh still releases cameras under its own name as well. There's something profoundly melancholic about the thought of Pentax being turned into the plaything of a major photocopier manufacturer, but it's better than vanishing entirely, I suppose.

Looking through old issues of Popular Photography it seems that the 500 ME was sold until 1983-ish. In January 1983 Midtown Foto of New York listed it for $66.50, versus $79.95 for an Olympus XA2 or $104.50 for an XA. For an extra $100 or so Mister 1983 could have bought a Nikon EM with a 50mm f/1.8, or for just $50 on top of that a Canon AE-1 with a 50mm f/1.4. No doubt lots of people in 1983 spent hours of their time making the same mental calculations, wondering if they should spend a little bit more money and get the next model up. If only they had waited thirty years! They could pick the stuff up for next to nothing on eBay.

Operational-wise, shutter priority automatic is odd, although it's easy to change the shutter speed on-the-fly, in which case you can open up the aperture by shifting it to 1/500. The lens specification is classic and conservative, not-quite-wide and not-quite fast, not in the same league as the f/1.7 and f/1.9 lenses of the faster Canonets, the (much larger) Yashica Electro, and the Olympus 35SP, for example. You'll struggle to get background blur, although it can done, and the bokeh is very pleasant and slightly swirly:

The 500 ME was originally designed for the 1.35 volt PX675 mercury battery, which was banned in the 1990s. I substituted an SR44 cell, although LR44 cells should work as well. They have a higher voltage, 1.55v, and checking the camera against a handheld meter I need to set the ISO a couple of clicks higher than box speed in order to compensate (ISO 80 for 50-speed film, for example).

The shutter makes a quiet click noise - not as quiet as the electronic XA, but basically inaudible outdoors, so if you want to follow around behind people and take pictures of their bottoms go right ahead. An autowinding camera is a better option for that kind of thing, and of course a digital compact is an even better option, because you can shoot hundreds of shots and / or video. On the other hand if the police catch you taking upskirt shots with a Canon GL17 they'll assume you're a photographic artist and let you go - they might even help you - whereas if you try the same thing with a digital compact you'll be arrested. That's my theory anyway. Some kind of belt-mounted video camera is probably the optimal solution, or perhaps a modified briefcase with a hole in the front.

There's no SLR mirror, so you can shoot at slow speeds if you have a steady hand, viz:

Ergonomically the only problem is the small focus ring, which Ricoh should have extended out to the end of the barrel. Apart from that the camera is lightweight and no problem to carry around, and it looks chic enough that the people of Milan completely ignored it, which is a good thing. Probably. The only major drawback is that the camera doesn't fit into a pocket, it's roughly the size of a Canon G-series compact, but lighter. This is one of the things that killed off the 500 ME and its brethren - the XA (for example) easily fits into a trouser pocket, the Sure Shots and Nikon L35 etc will go into a larger jacket pocket, and they feel more robust. I would be wary of chucking a 500 ME into a car glovebox.

Not pictured - Born to Run

The rangefinder diamond was faint on mine but usable, although the aperture readout was almost totally gone. Fixing the interior apparently involves taking off the top of the camera and removing the shutter unit, so I'm not going to try that.

Tinseltown in the rain

On an emotional level I enjoyed using it. It's no bother to carry, it looks cute, and it's nice to have proper manual focus in a compact camera. With 400-speed film the lens is fast enough for most situations, and optically the lens seems to have no obvious deficits - vignetting and distortion are very mild, I couldn't detect any CA. On the other hand it's not much smaller than an Olympus OM or Pentax ME SLR, and on a retro level it suffers from the same problem as a lot of cute old compact cameras - the image quality exists on such a level of optical competence that it doesn't have a distinctive signature. For this reason the 500 ME doesn't stand out from the other rangefinders of its ilk, although on the other, other hand it was one of the last of its kind, so used examples are slightly less worn than the competition. As far as I can tell mine had never been overhauled, but the exposure system was still consistent. The light seals looked a bit ropey, but the design of the back door is such that there are no obvious light traps, and cross fingers I haven't had any light leaks. If you see one cheap, snap it up.