Ricoh TLS 401


So, yet another 1960s 35mm SLR camera. There were many of these, and most were much of a muchness. The 35mm SLR cameras that I add to my collection either have historical interest or an interesting quirk. This Ricoh has a definite idiosyncrasy and is also a descendant of the Nikkorex F. The Nikkorex F was designed and made for Nikon by Mamyia and Mamyia subsequently sold the design to Ricoh who called the design the Ricoh Singlex. This Ricoh Singlex was refined to the Singlex TLS and then to this TLS 401. The Nikon F mount is now an M42/Pentax/Universal mount but the ground breaking Copal Square shutter is retained.

This is not my only Ricoh camera. I also have the Ricoh 35 Flex and the Ricoh SLX 500.

The camera body is made from die-cast aluminium. The top and bottom plates seem to be made from pressed aluminium alloy – at least, the metal is white and softer than my steel penknife. The body and hinged back are covered with black leatherette. The top and bottom plates are bright metal.

I am going to use my usual technique of describing the camera – starting at the right hand end of the top plate. The layout of the top plate is mostly ‘standard’ for a 60s or 70s 35mm SLR camera. On the right is the film advance lever. This is angled cut metal with a plastic slab along one side. There is no ratchet so the film must be advanced with one motion. The lever moves through about 130/140º. When the camera is not in use, the lever sits over the edge of the top plate but in use there is a stand-off position which makes it easier on then user’s thumb when feeling for the lever.

In front of the film advance lever is a window on to the frame counter. This counter is reset b y opening the camera’s back. Reset is to a red S which is actually -3. The even frames are represented by numbers in white and the odd numbers by white dots. Frames 20 and 36 are in red – 20 exposures used to be the standard length of film when this camera was made (1970).

At the front of the top plate, to the left of the frame counter window, is the shutter release button. This is chromed metal – almost certainly brass – and is threaded for a standard cable release. There is a chrome plated collar around the shutter release but this has no functional purpose.

Next along is the pentaprism hump. This is one of the idiosyncrasies of this camera. In the main, this is a standard SLR pentaprism hump. Inside, though, is not a pentaprism (so I shouldn’t really call it a pentaprism hump, I suppose) but a pentamirror _ an arrangement of mirrors which has the same effect as a pentaprism. This usually has the effect of reducing the brightness of the image in the viewfinder – Canon use this system in their modern cheaper DSLRs – and this camera is no exception, the viewfinder image is noticeably dimmer than I would expect.

The focus screen is basically plain ground glass. In the centre is a disc of micro-prisms to aid focusing. With the dimness of the viewfinder image, I do not find these micro-prisms very useful. A split image rangefinder spot would have been much more useful but these require a minimum level of illumination to work and this focus screen might have been just too dim for the split image rangefinder to work. Around the micro-prisms is a barely visible ring – this is the area where the light meter measures the light when in spot meter mode (more later).

On the right hand side of the focus screen, near the bottom, is the light meter display. This consists of two angled lines and a moving needle. Exposure will be good when the needle is centred between the two lines.

On the left of the focus screen, again near the bottom, are the two letters ‘S’ and ‘A’ together with a green pointer. ‘S’ stands for spot and if the green pointer points at ‘S’, the meter measures the light within that central ring mentioned earlier. ‘A’ stands for average and if the green pointer points at ‘A’, the light meter measures the light over the whole image. Selecting between ‘S’ and ‘A’ is done by a slider on the rear of the camera.

On the rear of the ‘pentaprism’ hump is the viewfinder eyepiece. This gives a slightly reduced view of the image. On the top of the ‘pentaprism’ hump, there is a standard Barnack accessory shoe – no contacts here so a cold shoe. In front of the Barnack shoe is the idiosyncrasy mentioned earlier. This is a ‘waist-level’ viewfinder. I put ‘waist-level’ in quotes because you cannot use it at waist level as the image is just too small and the amount of the image you can see reduces the further your eye is from the ‘waist-level’ finder. To use this finder, you need to bend over the camera with your eye right against the finder, looking down. The instruction manual has a photograph showing this. In addition to being awkward ti use, the image is seriously cropped compared to the other , eye-level, finder. The only (slight) advantage over other waist-level finders that I have (Exakta, Exa, Ikoflex) the image is entirely the right way around.

To select between the two viewfinders, there is a knob on the right hand side of the ‘pentaprism’ hump. This requirement to switch between the two finders is why Ricoh went for a pentamirror rather than the more usual solid pentaprism.

Left of the ‘pentaprism’ hump is the usual folding rewind crank. As was usual in the 1960s and 1970s, the rewind crank doubles as the catch for the camera back – pulling up the crank opens the back. Around the crank is a film type reminder. The options are colour, B & W, or Empty. That last is useful for those of us with many cameras that only get used occasionally – it is not unheard of for me to open a camera to load it with film only to discover a (now fogged) film in place.

The front of the camera is, as always, dominated by the lens mount. This is a M42 threaded mount (also known as the Pentax, Praktica, or Universal mount). Looking inside the mount, at the bottom, is a bar which comes forward when the shutter release is pressed. This bar presses on a pin on the lens and closes the iris diaphragm to its preset aperture value. Above this bar is the reflex mirror. This is coloured a reddish brown which I have never seen before. I assume that the light meter photocells are behind the glass of the mirror and impart this colour.

To the left of the lens mount (while looking at the front of the camera) are two items. Towards the bottom of the camera is a rotating lever. This is the self-timer lever. If you rotate this 180º anti-clockwise and then press the shutter release there is an eight second delay before the shutter fires. As well as using this for the intended function of allowing the photographer to include themselves in the picture, you c an also use this to lock-up the mirror eight seconds before the shutter fires to reduce camera vibration in critical applications.

Above the self-timer is the combined shutter speed/film speed selector dial. This is usually on the top plate with SLR cameras and this is the only time I have seen one here. The film speed is adjusted by lifting the dial and turning it until the required ASA value is visible in the window. This is in ASA only but there is a conversion chart in the instruction manual to convert ASA to DIN “if you are using German films”. Note: ISO had not been invented yet in 1970 but it is functionally the same as ASA and DIN. The available film speeds range from 10 ASA to 800 ASA which is pretty much the range of amateur film speeds around in 1970. Shutter speeds are selected by rotating the dial without lifting the dial. Shutter speeds are from one second to 1/1000 second plus B. Speeds from 1 s to 1/125 s are in red and speeds from 1/250 s to 1/1000 s are in white. B is in green.

The rear of the camera has the viewfinder eyepiece just left of centre. On the rear of the top plate to the right of the eyepiece is a selector slider. When slid to the left, the letters ‘Sp’ are exposed. This sets the light meter to spot metering. When the slider is slid to the right the letters ‘Av’ are exposed. this sets the light meter to average metering. This setting is repeated in the viewfinder. 

On the left hand end of the top plate are two PC sockets – one marked ‘X’ and one marked ‘M’. The X socket is for electronic flash or fast flash bulbs and the M socket is for all other flash bulbs. For electronic flash and most flash bulbs, the shutter speed must be between 1/30 and 1/125 seconds. For some flash bulbs, 1/30 to 1/60 seconds is required. this is academic now as the flash bulbs concerned are no longer made.

The base of the camera has a 1/4 inch Whitworth (or UNC, I am not sure of the date of the change over) tripod socket in line with the lens mount.There is also a battery compartment which takes an EPX 625 battery. This was a mercury cell which is now banned but an alkaline version, EPX625G, is available. The battery powers the light meter – the rest of the camera is entirely is entirely manual. Also on the base is the button to disengage the sprocket shaft to allow the film to be rewound. Once pressed, there is no need to hold the button pressed in.

On pulling up on the rewind crank, the back is released and opens on a right hand hinge – none of this back and base coming away in one piece malarky. On the inside of the back is the usual pressure plate to keep the film flat against the film gate. There is also a sprung steel strip to keep the film cassette snug in its chamber.

The inside of the body is dominated by the film gate. The surrounds are nice and large which helps to keep the film flat. The actual film gate – the hole the light comes through – measures 34 by 23 mm which is a bit smaller than the standard 36 by 24 mm. The surround measures 35 by 80 mm. Left of the film gate is the chamber for the film cassette. This is just a plain space – no DX electric contacts for another 13 years.

On the other side of the film gate is the sprocket shaft. This rotates as the film is advanced and counts the holes in the film – eight holes equals one frame. To the right of the sprocket shaft is the take-up spool.

The camera came with Ricoh’s standard 50mm lens which they call the Auto Rikenon. The Auto part merely means that the camera closes the iris diaphragm just before the shutter opens. There is a slider near to the mount end of the lens whjich allows you to select between ‘A’ (Auto) and ‘M’ (Manual). If you select M, the iris diaphragm closes or opens as you adjust the aperture ring. Switching to M allows you to preview the depth of field that your aperture setting will produce. It will also allow the lens to be used with a camera without the auto bar in the lens mount (such as the Soviet Zenit E). Normally, you would keep the lens set to A as this gives you the brightest possible image in the viewfinder.

The lens is quite a fast lens which means it has a large maximum aperture (which is the smallest number) which is ƒ/1.7. The minimum aperture (largest number) is ƒ/16. The aperture ring has click stops so you cannot accidentally change aperture.

The focus ring has two distance scales – metres in green and feet in white. The lens will focus down to 0.5 m which is fairly close for a standard lens. To move from 0.5 m to infinity (or the other way) needs the focus ring to move through around 250º which means that fine control of focus is easy.

Collection Appareils suggests that the lens has six glass elements arranged in five groups. It would appear that all glass surfaces are coated.

Author: John Margetts

I am a keen photographer who also collects cameras. I am retired with about 50 years photography experience.

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