Meet TED, the ergonomic disaster.
TED is a 1990s vintage Ricoh Mirai. It was the answer to the question of ‘if we want to put a decent-sized zoom lens on a camera, what could we do to make it less like a brick on a stick?’ So what they made was a large, heavy and awkward point-and-shoot that looks like the Millenium Falcon’s chunky brother. It was a badge-engineered clone of the Olympus AZ-4 Zoom, which at least had the distinction of appearing in a Batman film.
I didn’t want this camera in particular; I wanted a cheap camera for the Sunny 16 Podcast cheap shots challenge. This is a great idea: camera plus film to cost less than £20 and submit two images for each themed stage. So I searched eBay for cameras starting at 99p. The Mirai was accurately described as difficult to use and lacking a manual. This seemed to scare the punters, so it was mine for 99p and postage. Add a couple of squids for a battery and I was still well within the limit. In went some expired colour print film left over from an ancient holiday and we were in the running.
Which brings me back to describing the camera. What were they thinking? It’s fine to rethink the shape of something, but there should be some consideration to placing the controls where one might expect to find them. When the original Mini came out the driver didn’t have to learn that the clutch pedal was on the passenger side and the ignition key went in the boot.
Some of the controls are obvious. Holding the fold-down handgrip puts the shutter button and zoom controls under your right fingertip. You have to ask though why the handgrip can be locked in a series of small angular increments. At anything less than fully down, with normal hands, you’ve just got an awkward bulge rather than a grip. It’s like someone sticking their elbow out for you to help them down the stairs. Just to the rear of the shutter release are a couple of arrow buttons that adjust the automatic exposure. Over time you probably learn where they are, but without practice you have to take the camera away from your eye to look for them. Right next to them is the button that removes any current settings and returns the camera to its default. That’s commonly known as a gotcha. Oh, and there’s an lcd screen on the top of the camera that shows all the current settings and frame count. It’s cunningly placed on the top and front of the camera, so you can’t just glance down at it. Instead you have to tilt the camera back, like reading the spine of a book. When the lens is focussing it re-uses the frame counter symbols to tell you at what distance the lens is focused. That might be useful if you had a third eye to read it with. The alternative might be as a form of shoot-from-the-hip feature (very lomo), where you can guess if the autofocus is about right before capturing your candid masterpiece. Except that there is a panel on the top of the camera that lights up when the camera is on and blinks off when you press the shutter. It’s the still-image version of the red recording light on video cameras.
Those magic buttons to adjust the autoexposure are set to control the shutter speed and aperture combinations. You can bias it to fast/open or slow/wide with the exact combinations decided by the camera based on zoom focal length and film speed. If you want to force a bit of under or overexpousre you have to open the Creative Control door on the left side of the camera, hold down a button and use the arrow buttons next to the shutter release. Not exactly quick. The Creative Control Panel hides a few things you might find useful. Basically, if there is a function that you may not use often, but when you do you want it quickly, it’s hidden here so that you have to take the camera away from your eye and fiddle with it. So here you will find the controls for continuous shooting, metering spot or average, manual rewind, bulb mode and exposure compensation.
You can switch the autofocus to manual, but the switch to do this is on the bottom of the camera (so be careful how you put it down and don’t accidentally move it with your left thumb). There is even a homage to the Hitchhiker’s Guide with a black button marked in black that lights-up black. This is the one that switches between direct and fill-in flash modes. It is, of course, on the top of the camera near the dedicated hotshoe. It controls the built-in flash that pops-up violently when you slide another unmarked switch on the top of the camera.
Basically this thing is a booby trap of features that the designer sneezed onto the plans.
In use it’s heavy and awkward compared to a point-and-shoot or an SLR. The folding handgrip makes it awkward to carry when deployed and one more thing to fiddle with when you want to use it.
The lens seems sharp though, even if the aperture is a bit limited. The filter size is 52mm which matches my 135mm Takumar lens. The difference is that the Takumar opens to f2.5 and not the f5.6 of the Ricoh. Still, the Ricoh zoom has 15 elements in 13 groups, so it must be good, right? It’s not bad. Compared to what else I could have got for the money it’s brilliant.
The autofocus hunts a bit. In dim light an IR focus assist light comes on, which of course sets the focus on the window you are shooting through or whatever is nearest. I had a right job trying to get it to focus through a hole to what was beyond. The whole zoom and focus thing is a bit slow, but that might be the age of the camera. I would not use it to shoot action, or certainly not if the action varied its distance from me. But on the whole it probably does what it set out to do, which was to explore the bridge camera space with a more capable point-and-shoot that wasn’t as scary as a full SLR. Even if my SLR, which is ten years older than the Ricoh, is way easier to use. So is my digital SLR, which has more modes and features than I have digits. But whatever this weird little diversion was , I certainly got my 99p worth.