Pocket-sized. A lens on par with the Pen F range. Spring motor drive. Full auto metering. And utterly adorable. It’s the Ricoh Auto Half SL.
I’ve previously owned a Ricoh Auto Half E, and it basically never left my pocket. The Auto Half E series use a selenium meter and have an f/2.8 lens and a spring-wound motor drive. They look like a little lunch box and they’re painfully cute. I sold my Auto Half E for the usual reason (desperation) and I was a sad little biscuit. It had been with me for over a year and taken some of my favourite shots, as well as giving me a taste for discovering pleasing diptychs on my rolls.
The Auto Half SL swaps the fixed f/2.8 lens of the E for a mighty f/1.7 capable of zone focusing. It also swaps the selenium cell for a single LR44 to power the meter. Whilst the E series has a fixed shutter speed of 1/125th, the SL has a range of speeds between 1/30th and 1/250th.
I was only aware of the Auto Half SL from one or two forum posts and a couple of dozen shots on Flickr. It’s virtually unknown, and when I searched #ricohautohalfsl on Instagram, there were about 5 hits, from one guy. Aside from staring at photos of the camera and sighing, and following the eBay search term “Ricoh Auto Half SL”, there wasn’t a hell of a lot I could to to track one of these down except perhaps going to Japan.
I ended up doing the second best thing, and found Mr Ryu Itsuki, who repairs film cameras, and specialises in Auto Half models. I emailed him, asked if he perchance had an SL in his workshop and indeed he did! I bankrupted myself promptly and 3 days later the camera was here in England. (Not a typo. Genuinely got here from Japan in 3 days. Maybe they fired it from a railgun.) The camera was fully overhauled and working perfectly. I shot a test roll, and the image quality killed me.
There’s very little info online about the Auto Half SL so I’ll try and compile what I know here in the hope that it’ll be vaguely useful to someone in the future.
- Shutter speeds from 1/30th to 1/250th automatically selected
- Apertures from f/1.7 to f/16 automatically selected. Manual aperture selection for flash use, with weird proprietary flash unit
- ISO from 25 to 400
- Exposure warning flag and bright frame in viewfinder
- Zone focusing 35mm f/1.7 lens. Probably meant to be multi coated but mine is quite worn
- Spring wind motor drive
- Self timer
- Auto exposure powered by 1 SR44 (or LR44)
- Shutter button lock
The viewfinder isn’t the brightest, probably dimmed to brighten the frame lines. But it’s plenty big enough for framing, and I’ve found the frame lines are quite a bit tighter than the actual frame on the negative, so there’s room for parallax errors etc. A yellow dot in the viewfinder turns red when the photo will be underexposed. Also functions as a battery check. I actually masked over the yellow dot on my camera as I found it too intrusive in the viewfinder, and when has a red dot ever stopped anyone taking a photo? Oh, yeah, on the Olympus Pen E series… The Auto Half doesn’t have a bullshit shutter lock to prevent underexposure. Rejoice.
The lens is a magnificent thing, and focuses from 80cm, with click stops at 1m, 3m and infinity. The coating on mine is quite worn, probably from over-cleaning in it’s previous life. Zone focusing isn’t as hard as you might think, and after some practice, you can get a high success rate, even at f/1.7.
The metering of the camera is accurate enough (I think mine overexposes slightly, but that’s not a problem with XP2, the best black and white film there is. Fight me.) The ASA dial and other controls are obvious and easy to use. The shutter button locking collar is quite useful if you’re pocketing the camera, as the shutter button protrudes quite high from the camera body. Speaking of the body, the main bulk of it is thick metal, with plastic parts around the front, holding the extra metering gubbins and battery. It has a nice heft for its size. The chrome around the battery chamber on mine is a bit corroded, so I assume there was a nasty battery in there before it was overhauled by Mr Itsuki.
A couple of things to be wary of when buying an Auto Half of any variety: The spring motor is prone to weakening or breaking entirely. I had an Auto Half that would only get 6 shots from a full wind. My fancy, serviced model can do 20 shots or more from one wind. The selenium meter on the E series are prone to wear out of course, so look for one with a lens cap and case to lessen the odds. The light seals on these basically cover the entirety of the inside of the film door so when they go sticky and gross, it’s very messy to clean out. Make sure you’ve got the tools to clean it out and replace it.
There’s not a hell of a lot more to say about this camera other than I absolutely adore it. It’s beautiful, weird, takes wonderful photos (sharp, but with some vignette and characterful OOF areas). Every camera loser should try a half frame at some point. I generally always carry a half frame alongside a larger format camera, for shooting scenes that perhaps don’t warrant a full size neg. I will say that the Auto Half is a great camera for street photography. It’s tiny and unassuming, and at a glance most people probably assume it’s a digital toy. I haven’t had anyone give me weird looks from using it in a crowd.
It’s super lame, but I also love how rare the camera is. I can easily imagine I’m the only person in England using one of these, and that makes me feel like a smug twat.