Mini-review of the Ricoh XR-M 35mm camera

Historical notice: this page was originally written in 1996, when on-line reviews of any kind of equipment were extremely rare. I sold the camera soon thereafter, and thus I cannot expand it to the level of detail expected form camera reviews today. I hope it still serves the rare enthusiast or historical camera collector, especially since I am not aware of any more detailed on-line description of this camera model.
 
 
Photo of the camera, with lens removed
Preface
 
In the late 1980's, Ricoh made a pretty decent line of manual-focus cameras and related accessories. I used to own the top of the line model of that day, the XR-M, for about seven years, and took thousands of pictures with it. In my opinion, this was the top of Ricoh's achievement in the SLR market, as they never really improved over that.

Positive

The XR-M is a nice manual focus auto-exposure SLR camera, packed with features that most of the competition (in the same price range) lacked at the time it was introduced. Here is just a partial list of what this camera has:
  • Program, aperture-priority, shutter-bias, and full metered manual exposure.
  • Three programs: normal, action, and depth.
  • Three metering modes: average, spot, and auto-backlight compensation.
  • Full metal body inside, surrounded by plastic on the surface.
  • Full information display in the viewfinder, backlit in low light.
  • Customizable 'reset' button: you tell the camera what to reset to.
  • AE lock, depth of field preview, double exposure.
  • Shutter speed range from 1/2000 sec to 30 sec, with some trickery up to one hour(!).
  • Self-timer delay settable from zero to one hour in increasing increments.
  • Intervalometer.
  • Exposure compensation up to +/- 4 stops in 0.3 stop intervals.
  • Special exposure modes for taking pictures of TV and CRT screens.
  • 2.5 fps built-in motor drive.
  • Accepts standard Pentax K mount lenses.
  • Uses standard AA size batteries.
  • Very usable and understandable manual.

The camera, together with the Rikeon P 50mm/2.0 and Sigma 28-200mm zoom lenses which I bought with it, handles rather well. It might be too small for people with large hands, but the grip is rubberized and I never had trouble holding it, even with the heavy Sigma zoom attached. The viewfinder is packed with information, some of which (e.g. number of frames remaining on the roll) are nowadays only available on the "pro" cameras. In manual mode, for example, it would display both the selected and measured shutter speed at the same time (on a linear scale).

The light metering is accurate (with the exception of the "shilouette mode", explained below), and the algorithm of the "auto backlight compensation" is well explained in the manual, so that its limitations can be conciously taken into account. The three programs (normal, depth, and action) actually function like a program shift feature, biasing the exposure towards faster (action) or slower (depth) shutter speeds.

Negative

As any camera I have seen so far, it also has its problems and shortcomings. Here is the list of things I disliked most about the camera:
  • There is no true shutter priority mode: the 'shutter bias' will not allow you to set an arbitrarily long speed and have the camera pick a (small) aperture. It does allow, however, to set a small shutter speed, and the camera will pick a (larger) aperture then.
  • Some buttons (DOF preview, shutter speed up/down) are hard to press. This limits its usability in manual and shutter-priority modes.
  • Measured exposure times longer than a second are not displayed in the viewfinder (neither on the top LCD panel). Just a blinking "LT" (longer than one second) mark is all you get.
  • The DX-coded film speed can not be overriden by the user. One can, however, tape the DX codes on the cartridge and then set one's own speed if one likes.
  • For all the AE modes to work, the 'Ricoh modified' K-R mount lenses are needed, which may be hard to find. Standard K, KA lenses work in aperture priority and manual only. I modified the Sigma zoom myself, which was not hard given some mechanical and electronics background.
  • The strap attaches to the right side of the camera, making carrying of it with bulky lens somewhat inconvenient.
  • In strongly backlit situations the camera 'thinks' that you wish to get a shilouette and that is what you get. This is a documented feature. Spot metering can be used to override the problem.

Ruggedness

During the seven years, I never had a malfunction on the camera. After about five years of use, a plastic decorative part of the lens-release mechanism fell off. This part is not mechanically important, and I glued it back with super glue. The whole system (in the camera bag) was dropped once, while it was some months old. The fall was from shoulder height (about 1 meter / 3 ft). I did not find any damage caused by that. While travelling, it has been exposed to hours of vibration and shocks, which also did not cause any observable damage.

The Flash System

With the camera, I bought two flashes - a Ricoh Speedlite PX, which is designed to work only with this body (and its close relatives), and a Vivitar 550FD. They are both visible on the photo on the top of the page.

The Speedlite PX is a small flash that attaches to the left hand side of the camera, thus becoming an integral part of it. With a GN 12 meters (36ft) it could be inadequate for many situations. It becomes indispensable, however, when you wish to travel light. By attaching the 50mm lens and the tiny flash, you get an almost pocketable point-focus-shoot camera. I got the PX as a bonus from the manufacturer. The flash runs from the batteries of the camera, and is fully dedicated with TTL (Through the Lens light metering), auto-fill, etc.

The Vivitar 550FD can also be bought fully dedicated to the camera (specify "Canon/Ricoh"), and can do TTL and fill-ins. It can also be swithced to manual mode, which I almost never did. With a GN 24 (80ft), it is reasonably powerful and can be tilted towards ceiling for beautiful light (ISO 400 film preferred). There is no swivel, though. It seems to cover the lens at 28mm setting adequately, although it is not rated for any specific focal length. The manual has some degree measurements which seem to be underestimates (50mm lens maybe).

Different from some 'modern' systems, the two flashes can be used together, delivering a nice illumination with full TTL control, and a combined GN of about 30 meters (100ft).

Conclusion

If you are looking for an inexpensive manual-focus camera with a good array of features, you may be able to pick one of the Ricoh's up on the used market for a good price. I sold the body, the 50mm lens, and the Speedlite PX flash in 1996 for US$175. It also makes a good second body for those who have an array of Pentax K mount lenses around.

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