My digicam era

February 7, 2023

Digicams (ie. 2000s digital cameras) are making a comeback. In this entry, I explore how I’ve been navigating this new landscape of old and broken cameras, updating decades-old firmware and learning a couple of new things along the way.

Over the last two weeks, I’ve bought around 30 cameras off people on the internet in an effort to understand what it was like to grow up in booming 2000s digital camera landscape. With an eye for hardware, I was naturally curious about the kind of computing power of these machines and after using a couple for a few weeks, it was time for my first foray into this world.

The camera in question is the Ricoh RR30, a camera released in 2003 for an absurdly expensive price tag of $399. After reading a couple of reviews online, all dated around the release date, I noticed that the camera had several problems and that firmware upgrades had been released that fixed them. The only issue is that it is now 2023 and the last firmware upgrade was also released in 2003. Ricoh’s website still has instructions (woo hoo!) on how to upgrade the firmware to the latest version, 1.18, and it was through this that I managed to even figure out how to check my current firmware version.

By setting the camera to “setup” mode and then pressing the right zoom button + the down key, the camera boots into some kind of system information mode that reveals a few firmware details. To my surprise, I was running 1.03, so evidently the camera was long due for an upgrade. I must admit, I was pretty thrilled with the prospect of being able to update a 20-year old camera to “new” firmware. There were a couple of issues though:

  • the software was packaged for Windows & Mac systems through now-broken FTP links
  • the software was built for 32-bit systems and on the old PowerPC ISA for Macs, not sure about Windows
  • the Mac software was twice zipped in an old proprietary format: hex binaries, and then Stuffit
  • the RR30 expects data to be on a FAT16-formatted SD card (perhaps even with specific block sizes), which many OSes have dropped compatibility for

It took me an evening of tinkering around to overcome these challenges and the joy after seeing a successful firmware rewrite on the camera was simply unparalleled.

To obtain the firmware, I simply googled around and found a couple of websites that still had the firmare available for download, so that was easy enough. Then came the extraction process. The current “archive utility” available on Big Sur cannot unzip Stuffit files anymore, so after “peeling away” the first layer of the hex binary, I was left with a file I could not open. I looked around for an extraction tool capable of opening Stuffit files and so tried the “Stuffit Expander” available from what seems to be the original creators of this format.

After several tries, I was unsuccessful. I kept getting error messages about “implementation required for this operation is missing” so I looked elsewhere. I saw that WinZip was capable of opening these files, but that turned out not to be true. Ironically, the only tool that I succeeded in using was called “The Unarchiver” and it opened these files in no time. Second obstacle overcome. This extraction left me with two files: REFELCT3 and REFLECT 7.

Now came the issue of loading the files onto the camera. Ricoh at one point provided custom software applications that ran on both OSes that could load the firmware onto the camera, but as I outlined before these were for 32-bit OSes with old architectures that no longer work. I tried but failed to open the Mac .app file.

Thankfully, there is a way to transfer the firmware from the SD card to the internal memory of the camera for rewriting that Ricoh subtly hints at in their website. I confirmed this by looking at the manuals of other cameras, brochures about upgrading Ricoh cameras and other Ricoh websites for other camera models, like the R5. The main problem here was that the camera can only read data if the SD card is formatted in the FAT16 memory format, which I had trouble mounting on my Mac and a Raspberry Pi. I tried to mount via GUIs, via the command line, attempted reformats, creating new partitions, I tried pretty much everything I could but any operation I carried out on the computer would render the SD card unusable on the camera and I would have to tell the camera to reformat the SD card for me to begin using it again.

I also found the reformat option somewhat unreliable on the camera: sometimes it would take several reformats for the SD card to actually be reformatted (I confirmed this by plugging in the SD card into my laptop between formats and found no change). I then tried using the Windows machines available in my department, and while it could read the SD card, it would complain and ask me to fix/scan/repair it. If I did this, the SD card was again rendered unusable, so the camera must format the SD card into some custom partition table/block size/something that modern computers don’t like.

I was nearly ready to give up here but then after one scan/repair cycle on the Windows machine, and several subsequent reformats on the camera, I decided to put the SD card into my Mac again. To my surprise, the Mac not only read the SD card but it also showed that the camera had created two folders: DCIM and RICOH100 as is normal for these cameras. This looked promising, and was perhaps because I had tried to take a photo with the camera in between formats just to test out the SD card. Perhaps the issue was that the Mac could not deal with an empty FAT16 card and it had to contain some folders?

I copied over the two rewrite files into the SD card’s root directory and then scratched my head once more. How do I get the camera into this so-called upgrade mode? I looked around a couple of other camera manuals, but these instructions were all for different models with different buttons so they were incompatible with the RR30. One thing was sure though: there was a magic combination of buttons that would reveal an upgrade screen. Since the system information screen was accessible by pressing the down key + macro zoom key with the dial set to setup, I figured that this other mode was accessible by some variation of this. This was complete guesswork at this point and I was really lucky that Ricoh engineers understood common sense.

I tried pressing all the arrow keys in combination with the macro zoom. The right arrow did nothing. The left arrow brought up a window displaying shot counts. Then….miraculously the up key brought up a window with a single word: “execute?”. I was elated. I prompty pressed “Yes” and it began transferring the rewrite software and then after a while (long by today’s memory speed standards) it switched to “rewriting”, meaning that the firmware upgrade was in progress.

I left the camera be and began writing this post in the hopes that future me (or anyone else out there) who has to go through this process again can at least learn something from my experiences. The focus and flash LEDs began blinking in a different sequence and at a different speed, so I knew that I was close to the end, and then the screen switched to the normal setup menu.

To test if the upgrade was successful, I booted into the system information mode, and voila! I was running 1.18 on CPU2! I then reformatted the SD card again and started shooting. I’m not sure whether this will make any measurable difference on the photos I take, but it was a really interesting experience to dig deeper into these cameras and their internals. What’s sure is that I’m going to keep all files I used and even save the Ricoh pages as PDFs in case I lose them to history in the future.

Over the weekend, I also took apart a Praktica TL3 that I bought secondhand. I noticed that the prism in the viewfinder was tilted, perhaps due to age and shaking around, so I resolved to fix it. This was my first foray into 1980s SLRs and I must say it was incredibly impressive to look at East German engineering. I used a video I found on YouTube to make sure that I could piece everything back together and thankfully I managed to do so. Now all that’s left is to test it!