Have you ever taken a trip to a distant city and deliberately avoided the favored tourist destinations in exchange for quaint alleyways and lesser-known pathways? If so, you’ve probably come away with some of the most surprising and rewarding experiences of your life. Often times, turning away from the popular can lead directly to something special. It’s the same with cameras. Every now and again an unfamiliar camera makes its way into my hands, surprises me with its performance, and subsequently makes me question why I lust after all those other over-hyped and over-priced machines.
Let me introduce you to my new favorite fixed-lens compact rangefinder – the Ricoh 500 G. While it may appear plain, somewhat slow, and with no significant advantages over its competition, this little rangefinder has captured my attention as well as my affection.
On paper, the Ricoh 500 G (also brought to market as the Sears 35 RF) is nothing to write home about. Released in 1972, it’s part of a series of compact Ricoh rangefinders (GS, GX, GX-1, ZF, FM and ME) that all share a similar design ethos and the same 40mm lens. They mostly mirror equivalent rangefinders of the day; humbly sporting a mechanical Copal leaf shutter capable of 1/8 to 1/500 plus Bulb, a lens-mounted CDS meter adept at accurately reading light from 25 to 800 ASA, standard X-sync flash hot shoe, a self timer and a mediocre viewfinder. By the specs and in the hand, it’s a camera that feels nearly identical to cameras like the Minolta 7sII (reviewed here) or Vivitar 35es. And while that may sound humdrum, The 500 G brings a handful of important characteristics that make it something of a dark horse of the genre.
The camera operates in both semi-automatic and manual shooting mades, which makes it a great choice for veteran and new shooters alike. For those who want a streamlined experience, shutter-priority shooting is available. Simply set the camera’s ISO dial and the desired shutter speed and the Ricoh will automatically select the correct aperture to make a proper exposure. The viewfinder is simple and sports an “always on” needle reading across the aperture range. Values are displayed vertically on the right hand side of the frame.
Shooters who rely on this automation should take note that the 500 G does not prevent the shutter from firing when the aperture needle hits the red zone on either end of the scale, like some other cameras. If the scene is too bright or too dim for the selected shutter speed, the camera will still fire, resulting in an incorrect exposure. Some may prefer the omission of this forcing function and others may not. As I’m generally a manual shooter and know my light, this methodology doesn’t bother me.
What’s more useful is the fact that unlike the more expensive Canonets and Hi-Matics, the 500 G displays its light meter reading even when shooting in manual mode. Simply turn the aperture ring away from Auto and a little “M” appears in the viewfinder letting the photographer know that they are in full control. Now set aperture and shutter speed directly, and the meter’s there to hint at the proper settings.
The light meter is powered but a single, now obsolete, PX675 mercury cell battery. But since a standard 1.55V LR44 or SR44 cell works just fine, there’s little reason to worry over batteries (note that the battery bay, like the one found on Minolta’s 7sII, is not large enough for an MR-9 adapter, so don’t bother). An added perk, the camera still fires without battery power at all speeds and apertures when shot in manual mode.
The 500 G sports the Zeiss Tessar-based 40mm f2.8 Rikenon lens. Made of 4 elements in 3 groups, there isn’t anything overly complicated or advanced happening here, and in the time I’ve had this camera, my expectations for its lens performance have been well met.
Most 40mm fixed-lens compact cameras are mildly soft at wide open apertures, and the 500 G is no exception. With a max aperture of f/2.8, and a close focus distance of three feet, it isn’t a portrait machine by any stretch. The leaf shutter blades form a pudgy diamond-like pattern, so out of focus elements can get a bit swirly and bokeh highlights end up looking like little kites flying around in the background of the scene. However, stop the lens down to f/5.6 or f/8 and the detail is pretty darn great. Images made at all apertures will easily go toe-to-toe with any one of this genre’s more well-known alternatives, such as the Canonet and the previously-mentioned Minolta.
Ergonomics are mixed, but the lens barrel itself also holds advantages over the popular players in the space. Focus is achieved by turning the ring on the lens (not a paddle lever as in the case of the QL17 or the 7sII). This will be more comfortable for some shooters, less so for others. The throw is slightly longer than other cameras in its class, but the benefit is that the lens doesn’t move back and forth when focusing. Instead, the elements move within the lens barrel, keeping the camera’s profile uniform and compact. Distance markings are color coded in both feet and meters, and spaced well enough to make out at a glance.
The knurled rings for shutter speed and aperture are quite close to one another, but are stepped just enough to make finding either one a breeze. And while the aperture ring sits flush against the body, it’s easy enough to grab and twist without removing one’s eye from the finder. The same can’t be said for pricier compact rangefinders, such as the Olympus 35RD.
ISO control is handled by a small plastic ring on the face of the lens. Simply place a thumb and index finger on it and twist. Values are visible through a small window, and the ring snaps into its detents with reassurance. This is a welcome feature and another area where the Ricoh flounces its expensive competition; other small rangefinders use a fiddly metal tab to change ISO, which often requires a delicate hand and painful prying of the shooter’s fingernail.
The camera’s short throw film advance (170 degrees) is abrupt, but feels smooth enough to get the job done quickly. As a shooter who clutches cameras against my chest, I found that when cocked, the advance could benefit from a bit more room for my thumb to rest between it and the back of the camera body. When shooting on the street, I tend to rely on that hold for leverage and I couldn’t help but feel as if the camera didn’t quite fit.
The shutter release button on this little machine is well designed, especially when compared to the sometimes tiny and painful buttons of its competition. Its T-shaped profile is sturdy and doesn’t require the use of a soft release. Of course, the release is threaded should accessories be needed.
Loading film is easier than expected, with the take up spool doing a wonderful job of grabbing the film’s sprocket holes and pulling it tight right away. With most cameras, I typically make two advances and ensure things are taut before closing the film bay door, but with the 500 G I found just a single advance left me feeling satisfied that my film was held tightly and ready to make its rounds. As a result, I’ve been able to shoot 39 frames on a 36 exposure roll.
Want to rewind that film quickly? Good luck. You may want to callous up those fingers a bit, because the film rewind crank is about as pleasurable as running your nails down a chalkboard. Not only is the angle of the crank a bit too elevated, the crank itself is surprisingly short; which requires a bit more strength than usual in order to rotate it. Not a deal breaker by any stretch, but it’s certainly my least favorite aspect of the camera.
I’d be lying if I told you the 500 G’s viewfinder was significant in any way. Truthfully, it’s 0.5x magnification and tiny window make it ho-hum at best. The rangefinder patch itself is illuminated via a diamond-shaped window up front, and while small, my copy of the camera is still surprisingly bright and contrasty.
Aligning the 500 G’s patch couldn’t be easier, and since other sources on the good old internet are loaded with misinformation, let’s set the record straight. Contrary to what others say, the rangefinder alignment screws are accessible without having to disassemble the camera. The vertical alignment screw sits inside a small port just under the flash hot shoe (on the left), and is accessed by removing three small screws. The horizontal alignment screw is accessible from the film bay; simply removing a small screw to the left of the shutter box will reveal the adjustment screw underneath it. No need to pull the front plate, top plate, or even the leatherette to perform this service.
With most 500 G’s there’s a high likelihood that the light seals have mutated into some form of hideous meconium. The film bay door design exacerbates this issue due to the way it wraps itself across the entire back of the camera; including the viewfinder, often leaving disintegrated gooey seal residue on the viewfinder glass itself. While the material used during manufacturing doesn’t stand the test of time, resealing the film bay couldn’t be easier with a bit of craft store foam or felt. It’s made even simpler by the lack of complicated corners in the film door. Four strips across the perimeter and it’s light tight.
When James sent me this camera for review, two things popped into my mind; why hadn’t I been interested in this camera before, and how soon could I get my hands on the rest of the 500 series? The cameras good looks, compact form factor, and better-than-average usability make it a very attractive camera at a very affordable price. And now that I’ve put one through its paces, its outsized performance has won me over.
Do I view this camera as being the best in class? No. Do I think it’s lens is better than those of its competition? Not entirely. But at its low price, the Ricoh punches above its weight. If you’re looking for a camera to use for simple family snapshots or as a tiny street weapon, the Ricoh 500 G could easily be that camera. Most of its features are better implemented than its contemporaries, and at f/8, images made with this Rikenon lens and Canon’s fixed 40s are indistinguishable. In fact, if contrast is of value, I’d favor the Rikenon. If a high-speed lens is your highest priority, you’ll have to pay that premium, but I don’t think it’s worth it.
As the film community continues to see once inexpensive cameras skyrocket to insane prices, the tiny Ricoh 500 G is a relatively undiscovered secret. It has everything you need without any of the trendy bullshit. It’s a plain little machine that often gets overlooked by those yearning for a slice of glitz and folklore; and honestly, I understand why it’s been passed by. Most of them need replacement light seals, which probably turns off new shooters, and it isn’t flashy or fast. At first glance, this little Ricoh is nothing special. But if you’re the type who’s willing to try the unpopular and embrace it objectively, then the Ricoh 500 G is definitely worth a damn.
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