Ricoh was one of the dark horses of the film photography world.
Never big enough to shoulders its way into the ranks of the big five – Canon, Minolta, Nikon, Olympus and Pentax – Ricoh nevertheless produced a string of successful cameras during the Japanese camera industry’s post-war boom.
Starting in 1937, Riken Kankōshi KK (理研感光紙 or Riken Sensitized Paper Co Ltd) started selling cameras, initially the Olympic and Super Olympic models produced by Asahi Bussan, which it had bought. During World War II, the fledgling Ricoh produced the Ricohflex, a 6×6 TLR using 120 film, and a number on follow-on models which helped create a TLR craze in Japan in the 1950s.
Ricoh also made 35mm cameras aswell, from M42-mount SLRs like the Singlex and the TLS 401 through to compact, auto-exposure rangefinders such as the 500GX. And in the 1970s, they joined many other camera makers in the quest to miniaturise.
Enter the Ricoh FF-1.
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Looking like a cheaper Japanese take on a Minox compact, the FF-1 was released in 1978, just beating Olympus’s equally diminutive XA into shops. Built around a tiny – and pleasingly sharp 35/2.8 Rikenon lens – the FF-1 was zone-focus compact little more than four inches (100mm) wide and weighing a touch over 200g. While relatively little known today, the FF-1 must have been a success for Ricoh, because it produced a whole family of descendants.
From 1984, Ricoh brought out a whole family of compact film cameras under the FF name, though they had little in common with the FF-1. Autofocus was taking the film camera world by storm and Ricoh was just one of the companies rushing AF compacts into the market. The FF-3 from 1984 set a style the rest of the range pretty much adhered to: a chunky, plastic body with sharp edges, auto-exposure system, a sharp lens with four or five elements and a manually set ISO (useful if you found yourself in low light and wanted to shoot your roll of 400-speed film at 1000).
In 1988, Ricoh released an FF compact that went against the trend. The FF-9 – also called the FF-7 in some regions – smoothed out the sharp corners and offered few attention-grabbing frills. The FF-9 looks like any number of late-80s compacts with primitive autofocus. The plastic-heavy body screams 80s design, though the camera looks decidedly sombre compared to some other cameras from the era.
The FF-9 doesn’t really feel like an 80s camera – it looks like some minimalist statement turning its back on some of the decade’s more garish design choices.
Ricoh’s FF compacts slumbered while film’s second wind plucked some of its contemporaries from obscurity to cult status. I found this FF-9 a few years ago on eBay, just as I decided to start trying out autofocus compact cameras from the 1980s and 90s. The price? Just £9.50 before postage. You’d have been lucky to have found a roll of slide film for that price at the time.
The FF-9’s 35mm f3.5 lens sits behind a small clamshell cover; flicking the switch to “on” opens the cover and activates the camera along with its LCD panel. The four-element lens has a minimum focusing distance of 0.8m, or just under three feet. Like most compacts of the time, the FF-9 has a relatively stress-free loading system, where you feed the end of the film leader toward the take-up spool, close the back and the camera will wind it on to the first frame. Like most cheap compacts of the time, the FF-9’s motorised wind-on is noisy, but certainly not as loud as some. The camera’s body includes some shallow finger grips which allow you to hold it more easily.
Should you want a flash, the FF-9’s flash pops out above the camera when the exposure system believes it needs some help. There’s no way to override this, though if you decide you definitely don’t want flash you can hold the flash down and still shoot the camera, though obviously your exposure might be wildly off the mark.
The camera is DX coded and doesn’t have any way of changing the ISO – no pushing film here. If your film isn’t DX-coded, the camera by default sets the exposure system to ISO 100. The camera’s shutter speeds are a not exactly thrilling 1/400 down to 1/4, but perfectly serviceable for a compact film camera. Should you have a roll of Neopan 1600 in the back of the fridge, you’re in luck – the FF-9’s DX coding handles film up to ISO 1600.
The FF-9 has a few helpful features to tell you whether the film is loaded correctly. It’s not a difficult camera to load – just pull the leader across until it curls around the take up spool and shut the back – but this was a camera intended for casual photographers instead of gearheads. If the FF-9’s loaded properly, the LCD will show a film roll icon and the number “1”. If the film icon is flashing and the frame counter says “0”, the film hasn’t been loaded properly: pop the back open and try again.
So far, so few surprises. But the FF-9 does have some tricks hidden inside its minimalist chassis. The mode button on the strap side of the camera allows you to set a number of shooting modes, some of them decidedly unusual. There’s a fairly standard landscape mode and night-time mode , as well as a “TV mode” which sets the camera at 1/30th, just in case you wanted to take a picture of something on television (this is a 1980s camera after all). Then there’s a “continuous mode” which allows shot after shot at the blistering pace of around one every second. The “60 mode” takes a picture every minute, until either the mode is changed or the roll is used up? Ever wanted to take a time lapse over half and hour with a roll of 35mm film? Here’s your chance. The FF-9’s manual suggests this is perfect for sports events or to take pictures of children. The FF-9 has a multiple exposure mode which isn’t exactly common on autofocus compacts of this vintage.
Another helpful feature: mid-roll rewind. Not all cheap compacts from this era had it, but you’ll find the FF-9’s located on the underside. It’s a particularly fiddly little button that will need to be pressed with the tip of a pen.
The FF-9 is powered by a chunky CRP2 battery, still relatively easy to find at specialist battery suppliers but perhaps not at your local corner store. The battery’s power level is always indicated on the LCD screen when the camera is turned on, with the battery icon helpfully showing low power long before the battery is exhausted.
On the face of it, the FF-9’s modest specs don’t exactly paint this camera as a potential cult classic, but two decades of collecting and using film cameras has taught me the technical specs aren’t always the story. Has the FF-9 been unfairly ignored?
(Shot on Kosmo Foto Mono)
The FF-9’s autofocus system is quick and accurate, even though it’s limited to only six autofocus steps. This is a fraction of the 100 found on the hyped Olympus Mju-II, for instance, but it’s never proved an issue with the dozen-or-so rolls I’ve shot. The FF-9 is unlikely to be the camera you reach for to shoot critically focused portraits.
The FF-9’s simplicity is one of its major draws. While it has some useful shooting modes, the chunky Ricoh is a perfectly useable point-and-shoot. The four-element lens might not stretch to f2.8, but you’re unlikely to ever notice.
(Shot on Fuji Industrial 100 film)
As the Canny Cameras blog has noted, the Ricoh’s lens suffers only a little pincushion distortion and almost no vignetting. It’s also well-coated. The lens shows a tendency to flare only with an enormous amount of direct light. The lens is so sharp and contrasty that I’ve loved shooting cross-processed slide film with; the results (like the shots in two of the galleries below) show the Ricoh’s humble four-element lens has contrast to spare.
With every passing year, more young photographers are dipping their toes into film, and compact cameras are proving more and more popular. A camera you can pop in a pocket may be less intimidating than an SLR with mysterious levers, knobs and buttons. I can’t fault this approach, but one side effect is that compacts are being hoovered up to meet demand. The prices of all but the most disappointing models are rising steadily.
(Shot on Lomography CN100 and Kodak Ektar 100)
This makes the FF-9’s budget price tag all the more interesting. This is certainly no Contax T2 rival; the FF-9 is a much lesser camera, in terms of tech specs, and doesn’t have the premium looks to turn it into the next Nikon 35Ti or Minolta TC-1. The FF-9 certainly doesn’t rank among the ugliest compacts of the 1980s, but the best you can describe it is businesslike. But when it comes down to the picture quality, the question I ask myself every time I pick it up is: why is this camera still so cheap?
Here in the UK the FF-9 might not a sub-£10 camera on eBay anymore, but a quick look through recent sold lots find most don’t get above £25: that’s about 10% of the price Olympus Mju-IIs go for. Yes, the FF-9’s heavier, chunkier and with a simpler autofocus system than the Mju. But is it 10% of the camera? Not by a long shot.
(Shot on Lomography Xpro Chrome 200)
Over the past couple of years I’ve been taking the FF-9 more and more on daytrips and photowalks. It’s capable enough to take properly exposed photos in all but the most challenging light and is robust (and cheap) enough not to treat with kid gloves. I don’t know if I’d want to take a £1,000 compact too far from home – but the cheap and cheerful FF-9 isn’t going to cost an arm and a leg to replace.
The FF-9’s AF rarely misses a shot, and even the automatic flash operation isn’t a deal killer – by pushing down on the flash you can over-ride it (though the shot might be underexposed). You can’t do this with a bunch of other similar contemporary compacts, including the mystifyingly popular Olympus AF-1.
The compact film camera craze is turning some models into overpriced status symbols. But the prices of FF-9 could double or triple and I still wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it.
(Shot on Kodak Elite Chrome Extra Colour 100 cross processed)
- Ricoh FF-9 review on Canny Cameras
- Ricoh FF-9 review on 135compact.com
- Ricoh FF-9 review on Camera Go Camera
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