Ricoh 35 Flex

This is a Japanese leaf-shuttered SLR a la Contaflex or Bessamatic from Germany or Mamiya Korvette from Japan. For some reason, the German leaf shuttered SLR cameras did not have automatically returning mirrors. There was no great technological reason for this as both Copal (as in the Korvette) and Seikosha (in this Ricoh) produced leaf shutters with automatically returning mirrors. This does not really matter as far as taking photographs is concerned but I do find the Contaflexes and Bessamatics disconcerting in use.

Ricoh 35 Flex

lens: Ricoh
focal length:  50 mm
apertures: f/2.8 to f/22
focus range: 0.8 m to infinity
lens fitting: fixed
shutter: Seikosha
speeds: 1/30 to 1/300 seconds
flash: PC socket
film size:  35 mm

To look at, this Ricoh 35 Flex looks pretty standard for a 35 mm camera from Japan in the early 1960s (this particular model was introduced in 1963 according to the Interweb). Because this camera has a leaf shutter, all the exposure controls are on the lens barrel rather than on the top plate.

 Ricoh 35 Flex

The film advance lever is on the right at the junction of the top plate and body. It moves through 130º to advance the film one frame. The lever is not on a ratchet and must be moved in one motion. It is made from folded metal with no plastic tip. Above the film advance lever is the frame counter. This resets to ‘S’ when you open the camera back – ‘S’ is actually ‘-2’: you have to wind the film on three times to get to ‘1’. The frame numbers are in silver on a black background. ‘1’ and every fifth number are there as digits with the intervening numbers there as dots. Frames ‘S’, ’20’ and ’36’ are in orange (these were the standard film sizes when this camera was made). The frame counter counts up to ’37’. You can advance the film beyond this but the frame counter will not move any further.

At the front of the top plate, near the pentaprism hump, is the shutter release button. This is chrome plated metal and is threaded for a standard cable release.

Almost centre of the top plate is the pentaprism hump. Behind the pentaprism hump is the viewfinder eyepiece. This measures 10 by 14 mm. This is quite generous (compared to many cameras in my collection) and quite easy to use. The eyepiece surround has a groove to take the optional accessory shoe. As this is removable (and not present on my camera) it cannot be a hot shoe.

The image in the viewfinder is bright enough. In the centre are two focus aids – a ring of micro-prisms and a split image centre. On the right of the viewfinder image is the light meter needle. This needle does not point to anything usable – you cannot use it to take photographs in manual mode. At the top and bottom of the focus screen are red areas. So long as the needle is somewhere between the red areas, the automatic exposure system can produce a good exposure. The top red area is actually two areas. The lower of these signifies that there is insufficient light for films slower than 200 ASA and the upper part signifies that there is insufficient light for films faster than 250 ASA. The bottom red area signifies there is too much light for the automatic exposure system.

On the left side o0f the viewfinder image is a circular red flag. This pops up after the shutter has been fired to indicate that the film needs to be advanced. This flag is lowered out of sight as the film is advanced. As I always advance the film immediately after firing the shutter, as I assume most people do, I cannot see any great need for this flag.

To the left of the pentaprism hump, at the rear of the top plate, is a line in a circle to indicate the position of the film plane. I am not sure as to when a user of this model camera would find this useful. At the left end of the top plate is the folding rewind crank. When closed, this measures 17 mm and when opened for use, it measures 30 mm. This crank pulls up to facilitate removing the film cassette – it does not double-up as a catch for the back.

Behind this, on the back face of the top plate, is a small toothed wheel. This sets the speed of the film in use. The set film speed is displayed on the top between the rewind crank and the left edge of the top plate. Film speeds are in both DIN and ASA (no ISO on a camera of this age). DIN speeds are in red and ASA speeds are in white.The range is from 15 DIN/25 ASA to 27 DIN/400 ASA. This is not a very generous range but does reflect the range of film speeds available in 1963 – the newly introduced Kodachrome II film was 25 ASA.

The front of the camera has a rather thick black lens mount. The lens/shutter housing sits on this. The lens is not exchangeable. The shutter is made by Seikosha and is the same complicated design as the German Contaflexes and Bessamatics (and Hasselblads and Bronicas). As this is an SLR with a between-the-lens shutter, the shutter must be open while the photographer composes and focuses the image. When the shutter release button is pressed, a complicated sequence of events occur:

  1. leaf shutter closes
  2. mirror rises
  3. secondary shutter rises
  4. leaf shutter opens and then closes
  5. secondary shutter lowers
  6. mirror lowers
  7. leaf shutter opens

This all works very smoothly and is a lot less clunky than either my Contaflex or my Bessamatic.

Ricoh 35 Flex

This camera is really meant for automatic exposure but can be used manually. Shutter speed and aperture are set by levers on the underside of the shutter housing. To use this camera in full auto mode, set the aperture to ‘A’ with the right hand lever. Doing this will also set the shutter speed to ‘A’. In auto mode, all you need worry about is ensuring that the light meter needle is between the two red areas in the viewfinder – it does not matter whereabouts exactly.

Ricoh 35 Flex
Shutter speed and aperture levers on underside of lens barrel

It is also possible to use the camera in aperture priority mode. To do this, use the left hand lever to set the shutter speed to ‘A’ and use the right hand lever to set the required aperture – the camera will use the appropriate shutter speed to match your aperture.

Finally, to use the camera fully manually, use both levers to set the required shutter speed and aperture. In manual mode, the light meter and its display do nothing.

Shutter speeds in manual mode are 1/30, 1/60, 1/125, 1/300 and B. Apertures are from f/2.8 to f/22. Only every other aperture value has a number on the scale, the missing values being represented by a line. There are no click stops on the aperture scale so you could potentially use intermediate values.

Ricoh 35 Flex

The lens is a Ricoh 50 mm lens. Curiously, this is marked as a 5 cm lens which was very old fashioned by 1963. The Interweb tells me that a this is a four element lens (and presumably a Tessar clone). The iris diaphragm has a miserly four blades which produce a square aperture – this will impact on bokeh (if this bothers you).

There is a wide, black plastic, focus ring which is very easy to find by feel. This ring moves through 90º to move the focus from 0.8 m to infinity. This is probably too short a throw for critical focusing but then the buyers of this camera probably did not require critical focus. There is no depth of field scale on the lens barrel but the manual does have a depth of field chart if you are happy to carry the manual around.

Above the lens/shutter assembly is the light meter sensor. This is larger than the sensors on most cameras. As the electric current generated by this sensor is running the automatic exposure system without the benefit of a battery, such a large sensor is probably required. This is a selenium sensor which have the ability to deteriorate over time if kept exposed to light. This camera came to me in an ‘ever ready’ case which kept the light away from the sensor when the camera was not in use. My test film will show how well this light meter is working.

To the left of the lens/shutter housing (as in when using the camera) is a PC socket for attaching a flash gun. As this is a leaf shuttered camera, electronic flash will work at any shutter speed. For flash bulbs, it would be necessary to set the shutter to 1/30 or 1/60 seconds. This is to allow the flash bulb time to burn to maximum brightness before the shutter closes.

The base of the camera is plain – there is a standard tripod socket (1/4 inch Whitworth thread) and the button to enable rewinding of the film.

Ricoh 35 Flex

The inside of the camera is pretty much what you would expect from a 35mm camera apart from the film gate. On viewfinder cameras, I would expect the film gate to be just a 24 by 36 mm hole leading to the lens. On rangefinders or SLR cameras with exchangeable lenses, I would expect a focal plane shutter to cover the film gate. Here, as with other leaf-shuttered SLR cameras, there is the secondary shutter which is basically sloping at the same angle as the mirror.

Test film:     I shall be testing this camera shortly to see how it performs. I will post the results here when I have them.    

OK, test film has been shot, developed and scanned (thanks to Snappy Snaps in Lincoln). I cannot fault the operation of this camera. The lens is at least reasonably sharp and has decent contrast. I used the camera’s automatic mode for the first 20 shots and then went to manual for the last four. All are well exposed. It does not show up on the scans, but the negative density is around what I would want on all frames. This tells me that the exposure system is working well and that both aperture and shutter are working well. One image, shot into weak winter sun, has significant flare but in general the lens is behaving well. Here are a selection of images – the first two were shot with manual exposure and the rest with automatic exposure.

Ricoh 35 Flex
manual exposure
Ricoh 35 Flex
manual exposure with some flare
Ricoh 35 Flex
Automatic exposure
Ricoh 35 Flex
long automatic exposure in my poorly lit front room
Ricoh 35 Flex
Automatic exposure
Ricoh 35 Flex
Automatic exposure
Ricoh 35 Flex
Automatic exposure

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