By 2010, the mirrorless camera had become a model on the rise, with Sony, Olympus, and Panasonic each pushing their new compact interchangeable-lens systems on the world. But the very first mirrorless camera came years before, made by a company known mostly for printers.
Epson announced the RD1 digital rangefinder in March of 2004, making it the first digital interchangeable-lens camera to hit the market. It contained a 6 megapixel APS-C sensor, took leica M-mount lenses, and ran a whopping $3000.
The RD1 was meant to mimic the traditional rangefinder style cameras—a style that was unavailable in digital form until then. It was lauded for it's bright 1:1 optical viewfinder, it's small size and weight (compared to digital SLRs), and the ability to use the wide range of M-mount lenses with hyperfocal distancing intact. People loved its handling and familiar feel of an analog rangefinder. It even had a lever to "cock" the shutter as if you were advancing film through the camera! On top of it all, it had terrific image quality.
(image: Flickr user hillary.hc.chang)
Retro design has come to characterize many of today's mirrorless cameras, such as the Olympus OM-D EM-5 and Fujifilm's X-series. But the RD1 was modeled after the Voigtlander Bessa 35, a camera only introduced in 1999. Epson wasn't trying to cash in on style trends as much as trying to give a new digital life to much-beloved mode of photography.
As much as seasoned photographers enjoyed using the RD1, it wasn't destined for widespread success. It did not include the user-friendly features like auto-focus and fully automatic exposure, which were already standard on DSLRs and point and shoot digicams. The RD1 survives as a cult classic, still sought after by some seeking a true mechanical rangefinder housed in a digital body. The only other mirrorless camera with a true mechanical rangefinder came by way of Leica, which released the M8 in 2006. Aside from minor upgrades in the RD1x, Epson never followed up with further models.
The mirrorless cameras of today retain some of the rangefinder aesthetic, but lack the mechanics to truly duplicate the experience. The only option is Leica's prohibitively expensive M series, the latest of which costs about $7000. It may be unlikely that camera makers besides Leica will ever tackle a true digital rangefinder ever again due to the niche appeal and high cost. Epson clearly took a chance on a bold move, and the RD1 will remain a true classic among digital cameras.