Spell it Out: The Ricoh Five·One·Nine

Camera model designations are a curious mix.  There are numbers, combinations of letters, names, and amalgams of any and all of these.  There is also the occasional camera model that actually spells out a single digit number, such as the Olympus Six.  However, I've never seen any other camera model that spells out a multi-digit number than the handsomeness that is the Ricoh Five·One·Nine.

Adorned with a lovely script face for it's logo, this camera has one of the more unusual model names among cameras, and is said just how it is written.  This is not a "Ricoh Five-Nineteen."

This lovely model popped onto my radar around the same time that I picked up the Ricoh 520M CDS.  A search through various Ricoh made options revealed the Five·One·Nine as one of the most appealing of the early era rangefinders.  A premium version of the Ricoh 500, the Five·One·Nine's main upgrade being a faster f/1.9 (the origin for the One and Nine in its moniker, the Five being shorthand for the fastest shutter speed of 1/500 of a second) lens.

I tried to engage on a few of the auctions I found for the Five·One·Nine but always got outbid, sometimes narrowly.  I elected to be content with the pickup of a "parts" Ricoh 500, which was a great camera, but had some issues with its shutter release and the linkage with its novel "Triggermatic" film advance that tended to fire the shutter upon winding on every other shot. Eventually. this camera just gave up on me, and despite my attempts to do a partial tear down, I've never been able to fix this camera.

I kept my eyes open for another Ricoh 500, as I really was fond of its rangefinder compared to the vast majority of my other rangefinder camera, but the prices always seemed to exceed what I was willing to pay.  Still, I'd occasionally look around to see if a Five·One·Nine would happen to surface, and even put one on my watchlist that was slightly above my comfort threshold, only to have been snapped up the next day as I'd slept on the decision to pull the trigger (pun intended).

The Ricoh Five·One·Nine presents a near symmetrical look when seen in a head one view.  The camera is very nicely balanced and fits neatly in the hands.  The "tabs" on either side of the lens are paddles for focusing, and are easy to locate when hoding the camera to one's eye.  Below, settings on this Ricoh are pretty straight forward, with aperture and shutter settings easily selected, either with LV linkage (the red numbers on the ring) or independently.  

Then, one day I ventured out to a nearby antique store and stumbled across a live in the metal Five·One·Nine available for $25 with 20% off.  It seemed to good to be true, and upon having a chance to hold it, it was a bit too good to be true.  The focus was frozen stiff.  More worrisome was that the Triggermatic advance lever on the bottom would fire the shutter upon completing its stroke.  I definitely didn't want another problem camera, so I left it there, and picked up the Tower 60 instead.

Still, I left the camera there not entirely sold (or unsold) on my decision to pass it up. During the next week, I pondered what I could do to this $20 camera to get it functional.  The focus was hopefully just a matter of using naphtha and elbow grease to get it moving again.  The advance issue was troubling, but I eventually came to conclusion that I'd journey back to this store the next weekend, and if the camera was still there, I'd snap it up.

This camera must have been mine to have, as it was still there waiting on my return.  I took a deep breath and told the clerk that I'd purchase the semi-functional camera.  I took it home and began to take a deeper look at it.

The good news is that I didn't have to look as deeply as I feared.  For starters, the shutter seemed to work pretty well, and the aperture ring opened and stopped down as it should. From this good start, the news only got better. A quick 5 minute application of Ronsonol and some firm pressure to the focusing "handles" and the ring eased itself into being fully functional, and even pretty fluid.  Now, I could check the rangefinder's alignment, and I was pleased to see that it worked just fine!

In a completely unexpected bit of icing on the cake, I discovered that the shutter release and wind mechanism were properly synced again, alleviating the last, and prospectively most complicated issue of the camera.  In short, I had before me a completely functional Ricoh Five·One·Nine!

The "Triggermatic" advance can be seen in the image above, and while atypical of most advances, is easily adapted to.  This feature leaves the top deck to be a very uncluttered design consisting of just an advance wheel, accessory shoe, shutter release, sight-glass style frame counter, and of course the stylized logo. 

So thus it came as a surprise to me to realize that I now had a camera that was apparently ready to go.  Given how shockingly this camera had rebounded, I elected to throw caution to the wind and toss in a roll of some of my most cherished film, one of my last  two rolls of Agfa Ultra 50.  It was Springtime, and I wanted a vivid colorful film with a nice slow speed that would allow me to open up this camera here and there to see what it was capable of.

Having used the Ricoh 500 before, the operation of the Five·One·Nine was nothing new to me, and was quite reassuring.  The rangefinder is among the better of Japanese rangefinders of its era.  A decently sized square provides good contrast to the overall scene, though I seem to recall the contrast on my 500 as being better.

Selecting the shutter speed and aperture are generally easy, though in extremely bright light, the flashy chrome of the shutter speed dial can be a bit blinding.  Focusing is VERY easy by use of a pair of twin "paddle" handles on opposite sides of the lens barrel.  The shutter sound is extemely quiet and discreet, making this a great choice for street photography.

The big selling point of the Ricoh 500 series cameras of the era was the bottom mounted film advance lever, known as the "Triggermatic."  The logic behind this feature is that it allows the photographer to be able to shoot continuously without having to move their eyes from the viewfinder, making it easier to capture action or other precise moments.  As I rarely shoot sequences, this advantage was of little use to me, though it worked fine in practice once I'd "fixed" it after purchasing.

While the contrast on the rangefinder of the Five·One·Nine wasn't stellar, the superimposed portion of the image is still easily detectable. 

This non-metered version of the Five·One·Nine, like the 500, is decked out with an LV exposure system upon its dials. The execution of these can be hit and miss across camera models, but Ricoh's usage of it is excellent.  Moving the shutter speed dial keeps the LV linkage engaged (so that a shooter can quickly change from f/2.8 and 1/500 to f/8 and 1/60 in one quick motion) while moving the aperture dial does not change the shutter speed accordingly.  The result of this is that moving the outer ring on the assembly doesn't change the amount of light hitting the film even with changing settings, but moving the aperture ring allows one to readily disengage the existing LV linkage when the amount of light in a scene varies from shot to shot.

My one lingering worry about the Five·One·Nine regarded image quality.  In the brief time when I was able to improvise the 500 into working, I remember the resulting images as seeming to lack a bit of sharpness and contrast, so I had some lingering concerns that the f/1.9 Rikenon would provide images of excellent quality.  The few reviews I had read of this camera though had spoken very highly of its lens, so despite my worries, I held out some high hopes.

Upon developing and scanning its inaugural roll, I was greeted with some very good images from the Ricoh.  Sharpness was quite good, color rendition was excellent, and in the right instances, I actually got better bokeh from this camera than any other rangefinder camera I'd tried to date.

Returning to one of my favorite scene spots from my days in Columbia, the Five·One·Nine did a great job of recording a vivid scene on the Agfa Ultra film.  

When focusing on scenes using as little depth of field as the 1/500 shutter speed could muster, the Ricoh did a great job of nailing focus right where the rangefinder specified.

Yet again focus was right on point with the Ricoh.  I'm very pleased with the out-of-focus rendering of the Rikenon lens. 

Even at intermediate distances the Ricoh could pull out good focus and shallow depth of field rendering. 

A little bit of flare to this later afternoon shot but wonderful bokeh on this spring time rendering on the Five·One·Nine.

A quick stopover allowed me to get a shot of the Bennies Hill Road bridge as an out of focus backdrop for some spring time foliage.  

I tended to use this camera a lot at or near the wide-open apertures, and in nearly all cases, it rewarded me with a nice rendition. 

Interestingly, the Ultra 50 rendered some very hyper greens with a slight rosy hue in spots.  This is an example of the camera at a more intermediate aperture of f/5.6. 

Though troubled by a rosy cast, the Ricoh does show just what it is capable of doing, giving off a crisp exposure here. 

A distant scene shot taken at about f/2.8 renders softly, one of the few less than crisp shots on the roll. 

Focused a bit closer, the results are certainly better.

And when focused even more closely, the results are nothing short of excellent. 

The Ricoh's bokeh has some excellent character, giving off a smooth swirl that isn't overly distracting. 

Fortunately, not all of the sunny shots suffered the rosy hued issues with color balance.  The Ultra 50 gives off a more neutral rendition here. 

Focused at the nearest focusing point of 3 feet, the Five·One·Nine gives off a nice sharpness while diffusing the backdrop with a wonderful effect.

Just barely prominent enough to be noticed, the one bough has good sharpness, while the backdrop has a nice soft pictorial muting. 

The camera and film did a good job of portraying Spring time in Baker Park. 

Just a snapshot, but a decent example of the Ricoh in action. 

Yet again, the Ricoh pulled out the perfect focus on the subject and quickly softened the backdrop as the distance increased.

Though shot with a fairly wide aperture of f/4, the results on the brick wall are still quite crisp. 

As Spring dawns in Frederick, the Ricoh made for an easy camera with which to capture the scenes. 

The maximum shutter speed of 1/500 left me having to stop the lens down more than I sometimes desired in order to avoid overexposing the image, even on slow film like this.  

A fast grab shot of the #51 bus was pretty easily accomplished with this camera, and came out decently despite shooting into the sun.

Parallax error wasn't excessive.  I tried framing the spire within the curves of the awning and it more or less did just as I had hoped. 

I took a bit of risk with this camera when I bought it, but quickly rewarded me with some excellent images made through a very fulfilling shooting experience.  In the three months I've had it, despite sitting much of the time, the Ricoh has shown no signs of freezing up again.  It actually seems happy to be loved and is responding in kind.

And while this is something of a review, and most reviews will typically provide the balanced view of the cons of something, even when the overall review is favorable, I'm hard pressed to think of much about the Ricoh Five·One·Nine that didn't measure up nicely.  The camera feels nice in the hands and is a pleasure to handle.  It is a bit larger than some later rangefinder models, but it still doesn't feel obnoxious.  And sure a meter would be nice, but this particular variant of this model doesn't include one - but read on. 

Despite fairly low production numbers, and somewhat limited availability on the usual online outlets for used cameras, the Five·One·Nine has a few variants available.  A metered version, called the "519M" will occasionally surface, as will a CDS metered version marked as a "Five·One·Nine" but officially known as the "Five·One·Nine Deluxe." Oddly, the 519M variant is built off a slightly later version of the 500 with a slight step in the top plate and diamond shaped RF window.  Finally, a few all-black versions of the Five·One·Nine appear from time to time, but usually priced at a significant premium over the $50 or so at which a silver and black Five·One·Nine will be priced.

All told, the Five·One·Nine makes for a really nice shooting experience that is also pretty unique among rangefinders due to the novel film advance method.  Beyond this feature, the rest of the shooting mechanics of the Five·One·Nine are well thought out and easy to use, making for a very endearing shooting experience wrapped up in a nicely finished package that is every bit as nice to use as it is to gaze upon.