other Ricoh cameras in my collection:
1960 - Ricoh Auto 35
1966 - Ricoh Super Shot 2.4
1970 - Ricoh Hi-Color 35 Viewfinders
1972 - Ricoh 500G Rangefinder
Ricoh TLS 401 [1970 - 1976*]
I have never paid much attention to Ricoh SLRs. Although sold from the early 1960s onward, they were always an obsure second-best option, and didn't become common high street stock until the early 1980s (when my interest in photography took a backseat to work and domestic life). Ricohs always appeared, along with Chinons and Cosinas, to be uninspired designs, with out-dated specifications (typical Dixons offerings). I had largely dismissed Ricohs as not worth collecting ... until I discovered the TLS 401, which - love it or hate it - boasts some novel features.
This model was introduced in 1970 as a successor to the Ricoh Singlex TLS. I cannot establish the duration of production, but guess it could have been made up until 1976*; when the TLS EE was introduced. Manufacturing had almost certainly ceased by 1977, when Ricoh abandoned M42 lens mounts and adopted the new Pentax K mount.
Its most distinctive feature is a combined eye-level and waist-level finder (with an often missing sliding cover), which is contained within a bulbous prism housing. A large knob on the user's right-hand-side of the housing switches between the viewing options. Some examples are marked with the settings 1 and 2, while others have the options EL (eye-level) and WL (waist-level). There are also two version of the instruction manual, which reflect the variation (the EL/WL in English, French, German, Italian and Swedish, and the 1/2 in American/English). I suppose the EL/WL came first because an addendum to the EL/WL user manual proclaims -
f/2.8 55mm lens is now available with TLS 401 camera, while the 1/2 manual includes this lens in an unexpanded list of available options.
The two viewing options are made possible by the use of a
penta-mirror, which is a hollow prism with the reflective surfaces made of moulded plastic. This allows a mirror to articulate inside the empty void, and so create the second waist-level finder light path. The term
waist-level finder is a misnomer; it's an eye-piece, rather than a view screen, and it doesn't suffer from left/right reversal of the image - like a TLR. The use of a penta-mirror in place of a pentaprism became common in lower-end cameras of the 1990s, since it offers significant weight reduction and lower manufacturing costs. Generally, it produces a less bright viewfinder image, and is more prone to dust build-up.
A very useful article on cleaning the prism and focusing screen can be found at Favorite Classics, since Ricoh clad their hollow prism with lots of foam buffering, which degrades and collects within the penta-mirror. This narrative also addresses another common TLS 401 problem, which is mixed metal induced corrosion of the power supply wiring.
The TLR 401 has switchable average or spot (about 10%) metering patterns, with an indicator for the selected mode visible in the viewfinder. There are two CdS cells, located behind the mirror, which is semi-silvered glass. The averaging cell covers the entire mirror, while a second provides the central spot metering. The metering pattern selector switch is on the back face of the top plate - next to the wind lever arm. The exposure meter is activated by a sliding switch on the left-hand side of the mirror housing, which additionally stops-down the lens to the selected aperture. The film also has to be advanced to activate a second micro-switch before the meter registers, and the meter is turned-off automatically when the shutter is tripped. In other words, there are two operations to turn on the meter, and the user manual recommends that the camera is stored with the film unwound, and the meter switched off to conserve battery life. A helpful little
traffic light indicator window (behind the shutter release) shows green when the film has been wound, which changes to red after the shutter has been fired.
The shutter speed selector is on the front of the camera, and combined with the film speed selector.
This is a tall chunky camera, and despite the lack of a solid prism, has some heft to it. The styling details lack continuity, with the front edges chamfered, while the backside is square, but it does have a distinctive overall appearance. The model came in a chrome or black finish, and was also marketed as the Ricohflex TLS 401. I've read that there was a Sears branded version, but I haven't been able to confirm this (I suspect someone has confused it with the Singlex TLS). It appears to have originally been sold with a Rikenon f/1.4 55mm or f/1.7 50mm lens.
Back in 1970, the average UK monthly wage was about £150. According to a dealer advertisement in a 1971 edition of
Amateur Photograher magazine, the Ricoh TLS 401 was offered for £99.95.
Lens mount: M42 Screw.
Focus: Pent-mirror, fresnel screen with micro-prism centre and ground glass collar. DOF Preview by depressing meter switch.
Shutter: Vertical running metal focal plane Copal Square. Speeds from 1 sec to 1/1000th sec, plus bulb. 8 seconds self-timer.
Meter: Stop-down, TTL, centre-weighted averaging metering or 10% spot metering. Behind the mirror CdS cells. Meter activated by switch plus film advance.
Exposure: Manual centre-the-needle.
Film Speed: 25 to 1600 ASA.
Flash: Standard F and X synch at 1/125 plus cold shoe.
Film Advance: Single stroke of about 160° including a 20° offset.
Frame Counter: Automatic count-up and reset.
Rewind: Via crank and release button.
Size: 146 X 105 X 63.5mm (W x H x D).
Weight: 780g (body only).
Battery: 1.35v Eveready EPX 625, Mallory RM 625R or equivalent.
The TLS 401 is not in short supply, but they do seem to be consistently expensive (or maybe it's just the same unsold cameras getting listed week after week?). Anyway ... they are certainly not worth big money, since their appeal is largely down to weirdness. My TLS 401 cost £33.10 (a fraction of what most sellers currently expect to achieve) in September 2017 ... but I cashed-in some Nectar points to reduce the actual price to £15.60.
Mine came with a non-standard Soligor f/3.5 35mm lens, which doesn't go with the camera due to the lack of an automatic diaphragm coupling, but I'm fine with that. It's actually a type of lens I haven't seen for many years. It has a semi-automatic diaphragm; as found on the 58mm Helios lens of a Zenit B/E. There are two aperture control dials. One is click-stopped and sets the f-stop the diaphragm will close to by determining the limits of travel of the second unclicked dial. The second is used to close the diaphragm to the selected f-stop immediately before exposure, by a feel-only spin of the dial.
My camera is a EL/WL version. I've read moans about the viewfinder(s) being dull and blue-tinted, but I don't see it. The view may not be the brightest, or biggest, but it's OK. Similarly, I don't agree than you need to be shooting from basement level to use the WL finder: it feels quite comfortable in a normal standing position, however, I have a dominant left eye, so the tip of my ample nose almost touches the shutter release (haha). The WL finder cover has been reversed, so that it slides into the space in front of the cold shoe when opened, which is perhaps why it hasn't been lost (why didn't Ricoh think of this?). I find the appearance of the camera aesthetically (but inexplicably) pleasing, while it has all the ingredients of an ugly. It sort-of reminds me of a metered Nikon F, whilst not actually resembling that camera: I think it's down to the meaty prism housing. So ... not too many grumbles from me, but there is no way I'd choose the TLS 401 over a Spotmatic (then or now).
Aside from the easily fixable (good clean, new seals and mirror damper), the condition is good. The viewfinder has some prism-side speckles, but they are not obtrusive. Everything seems to work, except the spot meter, which is photophobicly over-responsive, and indicates most light levels are too bright.