Canon's T90 - A Most Influential SLR
Updated Sept. 13, 2021
Canon the innovator...Canon the boundary pusher...Canon the...wait just a minute! Are we talking about the same Canon that moves today at what appears to be a less-than-glacial pace? Nope, we are talking about the Canon of over three decades ago...the vintage Canon ;-). A Canon that, while still the market leader, was determined to meet a declining SLR market with more than retrenchment. From an all-time peak of nearly 7.7 million SLRs sold in 1981, by 1983 sales for all brands of SLRs had fallen by over 30%. Sound familiar DSLR users? Canon had wrung the last drops from their A-series of SLRs (1976-84), the most successful line of manual focus SLRs ever, and the catalyst to the SLR boom of 1976-81. The question now facing Canon (along with very other SLR maker) was: Where to go from here? Their first response would be the T-series of SLRs (1983-1990). So how did that work out for them? From a sales perspective, the T-series failed to accomplish Canon's goal of revitalizing the SLR market. Each model seemed bedeviled by at least one Achilles' heel. But one thing was for certain, the problems came down to execution and timing, not a lackadaisical attitude on Canon's part. And ironically, out of the (relative) failures of the T-series would come Canon's greatest period of success, the seeds of which were sown by the most tragic of the Ts...the T90.
A Summary of T-Minuses
T50 (1983) - The T50 was Canon's first attempt to stall their sales fall. The biggest decline in the market was in the bottom-end consumer sector, a category pioneered by Canon. Clever advertising and affordable pricing with the AE-1 and its even lower-end progeny had sucked in many buyers during the boom times. However, for the vast majority of consumers, such models were still too much camera and required more user input than they wanted to give. (This is why you can easily find AE-1s and the like in near-new condition, as so many of them were banished to drawers and closets after their owner's initial enthusiasm wore off.) Users still had to manually load the film, manually set the film speed, manually wind and rewind the film, have some idea of the relationship between shutter speed and apertures, and last but not least, manually focus the lens (there's a theme here...I just know it ;-)). The T50 would redress some, but critically, not all of these issues.
In operation and control layout, the T50 was by far the simplest Canon SLR, yet. It had four basic controls:
This made it by far the least-demanding Canon SLR yet. The user did not need any knowledge of shutter speed vs. aperture (the camera took care of that with Program, the user only had to set the lens aperture ring to "A"). To load the film, all you had to do was pull the leader to the orange index mark and close the back and the camera would automatically wind the film onto the take-up spool and advance it every frame after that until the roll was finished. To make sure you were aware of the ease with which the T50 could be operated, Canon emblazoned the prism housing with: "Programmed Automation" and "Automatic Film Transport".
The big problem for the T50 was the simultaneous arrival of the completely automatic auto focus (AF) 35mm compact camera. Not only auto focus (a major hangup for consumers had always been manual focus, something the T50 still required), but auto film loading, winding, and rewinding. Auto ISO setting was also taken care of by most 35mm compacts from 1984-on with the introduction of Kodak's DX-coding system. No such joy with the T50. Sales of such easy-to-use cameras sky-rocketed. T50 sales did not. In Canon's own marketing materials, they saw the T50 as a "bridge" between compacts and more-fully-featured SLRs. Unfortunately, this middle ground turned out to be a no-man's-land. The T50 lacked the complete automation to appeal to full-blown consumers and failed to provide any sort of manual overrides for more advanced users. Not a lack of effort on Canon's part, but a failure to perceive the market correctly was what doomed the T50.
T70 (1984) - Canon knew as well as any manufacturer that the most stable part of the SLR market was the enthusiast. Photography for the serious amateur is just that...serious business. It is not just a passing fad, but usually a lifelong passion. Fickle consumers need not apply :-). The T70 was Canon's placeholder in the enthusiast sector. It had to bring new and meaningful features in order to encourage upgrading from older models. So what did it bring to the table?
The sum of these features was...meh...for many prospective users. Now Canon sold a decent number of T70s, but many long-time Canon enthusiasts were not wild about the new control system. The noise of the automated film winding system was unwelcome in certain situations. A lot of the features seemed more like gimmicks rather than actual advances that would push their photography forward. So Canon's imprinted advertising of "Multiple Program AE" and "Dual Metering System" did not budge the needle much with serious amateurs. While other brands were pushing forward with more advanced shutters, flash capabilities, and overall speed, the T70 felt like a facelift with much of the AE-1 Program still underneath. And if the push-button interface was not your cup of tea, the T70 was even more of a turn-off. Canon was very proud of their new interface, but they again had misread what people wanted (or needed). As a matter of fact, in their own words, they were "groping for clues" as to what the market wanted. In 1985, they found out.
T80 (1985) - The failure of the T50 to reignite the consumer SLR market had sent Canon back to the drawing board. Realizing that they needed even more automation to appeal to the unwashed masses ;-), they looked at what was missing from the T50 and set about rectifying it with the T80. The biggest problem with the T50, in Canon's mind, was auto focus, or rather, the lack thereof. They, along with the other manufacturers had underestimated the appeal that AF compacts would have to consumers (Canon's own Sure Shot/Autoboy compacts sold like crazy). With their runaway success, in the consumer's mind, AF had become a necessity rather than just a nice feature. The T80 was firmly targeted at giving the average consumer access to AF in an SLR. Canon was not letting go of that "bridge" philosophy quickly.
The T80 was a mashup of the T50, T70, with AF thrown in, and the first "scene" modes that have become ubiquitous on bottom to mid-level SLRs and DSLRs to this day. It stuck with Program-only operation, but with the ability for the user to select between five different modes: Shallow Focus, Deep Focus, Stop Action, Flowing, or Standard Program. Three specialized AF lenses were provided for the T80: a 50/1.8 and two zooms, a 35-70/3.5-4.5 & a 75-200/4.5. Canon again thought they had finally found the key, imprinting "Auto Focus System" and "Picture Selector" on the T80's prism housing as the main selling points.
There was a problem, however. In fact, there were three successively larger problems. The first was that AF still cost more to build into an SLR system than an equivalent manual focus system, and so the cost of the T80 was pushed out of the mass consumer level. That put Canon behind the eight-ball even before the second problem arose: the AF of the T80 was lousy. It was SLOOOWWW and rapidly lost effectiveness as light levels began to drop. It was no better than (and worse than a couple of) already-existing and still-primitive AF systems on the market. The third problem was the fact that there was an AF competitor that was significantly more advanced and that debuted two months before the T80...the Minolta 7000. The frame of reference provided by the Minolta caused Canon to kill any further AF development for their existing FD-mount and they began a crash program to build a completely new AF SLR system from the ground up. This happened a month before the T80 was introduced in April 1985. That was definitely the lowest point of the T-series program.
In the case of the first three T-models, Canon was throwing mud at the wall trying to find something that would stick. In all three cases, they misread the market, acted too late, and/or simply failed to execute a good design. The cameras themselves, while capable enough for their intended audiences (aside from the T80), did not appreciably accelerate the evolution of the SLR, and they failed to resonate with users to the extent of revitalizing the market. The T90, on the other hand, would push SLR design forward significantly, would strike a chord with its users, and yet...(here's old Achilles, again), fail in the marketplace. This time it would be a case of the right camera...in the right place...at the wrong time.
The T90 - A Product of Collaboration
In the wake of the SLR bust, Canon did some serious soul-searching in concert with their mud-flinging exercises with the first three Ts. They looked at all aspects of their SLR design, engineering, and manufacturing processes. Now, Canon already boasted the most efficient manufacturing of any of the SLR manufacturers, and their engineering was on par with any of their competitors. But in their process of self-examination, they determined that they needed help in the design department, particularly when it came to ergonomics and user interfaces. At Canon, as with their competitors, for decades the form of the SLR had followed the functions required by the components and mechanisms making up the camera and also the shapes that were most efficient to stamp or draw from metal. Straight lines and boxy shapes had heretofore dominated. It was engineer-driven design. Ironically, staid and conservative Nikon had been the first Japanese camera maker to bring in an outside industrial designer, Giorgetto Giugiaro, to liven up their SLRs in the late 1970's. His first designs were the Nikon EM and F3 SLRs, both of which were appreciable but still safe steps forward. The changes were quite subtle, with the rounded corners and the small finger grip of the F3 being the most noticeable. Over the coming decades, Giugiaro would succeed in moving Nikon forward in design and ergonomics, but it would not be without some help from the man that would fashion the T90 for Canon.
In 1983, Luigi Colani was commissioned by Canon to produce five concept designs for cameras of the future. Colani drew heavily from aquatic animal shapes in these designs. The concepts were shown at the 1984 Photokina tradeshow, and were a hit. So much so that Canon requested him to collaborate with their in-house design team on the T90, which had been organized in March of that year. Canon took the novel approach of having Colani's design team and their own team both produce designs, both coded as T99. The Canon team started with the T80 as their basis and added a much more ergonomic grip and rounded a few corners. But the pentaprism housing was still very traditional in shape and the push-button control system of the T70 & T80 remained. Colani's concept was far more daring and went beyond a few two-dimensional curved lines. Compound 3-D curves and aggressively sloped shoulders produced a much more organic shape and followed Colani's philosophy of "biodesign". There was also a notable addition to the Colani T99: a nested dial with only the top edge showing behind the shutter release button. This would prove to be a pivotal point in the development of the T90. Long story short, the production T90 ended up being an amalgam of the two prototypes. But it was Colani's flowing curves and that nested dial that would come to define the T90 as a trendsetter. Hiring Colani as a consultant was the single most important decision Canon made in the development of the T90.
So what was so special about a few swoopy curves and a dial? Well, the fact that those curves were purposeful as well as stylish, for starters. The T90 nestled into the hands like no SLR before it (and not a few that came well afterwards). While its weight was a not-insubstantial 900 grams (almost 32 oz) with batteries, it was less fatiguing to hold and use because its shape allowed for a more natural grip with the fingers and thumb. The styling in itself didn't hurt, either. Most mid-'80s SLRs looked like their 20-year-old forebears with tacky grips added on. They weren't anything special to look at...kind of...well, meh. With the T90, there was no room for "meh". Whether you loved or hated it, it was distinctive. (And most people were impressed with the styling, which has held up very well, in my mind at least :-)) But the proof was in the reactions of Canon's competitors. Within a couple of years, Nikon, Minolta, and Pentax had all gone for more organic shapes for their SLRs and T90-style dials were propagating everywhere. Speaking of dials...
Dial E for "Electronic Input Dial"
From the earliest days of the SLR, mechanical dials were ubiquitous for controlling shutter speed settings and other functions. And prior to the 1980s, when manufacturers began trying to stuff more of everything into their SLRs as they scrambled for those declining market shares, that was a very satisfactory arrangement. In their search for something "new" and "exciting" for prospective camera buyers in the "digital age", Pentax (with the ME Super and their Super Program), and Canon (with the T70) turned to push-buttons and external LCD displays for settings adjustments. While not necessarily worse than traditional controls, they were more of a sideways step than a step forward. Multiple button presses were required for certain operations, which could be annoying and actually put up barriers between the photographer and their tool. It was clear - buttons instead of dials was not the answer. So what about a combination of the two? Enter the T90.
Because there was so much capability packed into the T90 (such as a shutter speed range of 1/4000 - 30 sec. in half steps for manual and shutter-priority modes), a traditional mechanical shutter speed dial would have to be huge to display all 36 available speeds on its surface in any sort of legible fashion. Clearly not a practical solution. However, by adopting an electronic input dial, Colani's T99 prototype showed the way forward. Only the forefinger was needed to manipulate the dial with a simple rolling-over motion. With an LED display in the viewfinder, and the big LCD on the top of the camera, shutter speed adjustments were faster and easier than ever. As an added bonus, because control was electronic, other adjustments could be made with the same dial, requiring only a button press with left-hand fingers or thumb, while spinning the dial with the right forefinger. ISO adjustments, changing exposure modes, metering patterns, exposure compensation, were only a single button press & hold and spin the dial away. Pressing two buttons simultaneously + spinning the dial allowed for up to nine multiple exposures. Control clutter was not an issue for the T90. (This did not mean that the T90 had a perfect control system, as we will explore further :-)) Within five years the "button + dial" control configuration swept through the entire industry and is still standard today on virtually every interchangeable lens camera (even the ones that have returned to physical shutter speed and exposure compensation dials).
Other Advances of the T90
While the influence of the T90 was most strongly felt in ergonomics and user interfaces, that was not the full extent of the innovations that Canon slipped in under its stylish skin.
Ironically, the T90 also was the first Canon SLR to sport what was considered by many to be more of a consumer feature - DX film coding. DX was introduced by Kodak in 1984 to automate film speed setting on cameras. DX would have been perfect for the T50 and T80, but the T50 predated it, and Canon dragged their feet when they could have included it in the T80 (possibly because the T80 was already exceeding their desired price point). When it came to the T90, though, Canon seemed to be going with a "throw in the kitchen sink while we're at it" mentality. Of course, befitting its top-end enthusiast/pro-oriented nature the T90 allowed for manual overrride of the DX setting. About the only thing the T90 lacked was a mirror-lock-up setting. Whoops...there was one other major thing missing for Canon's otherwise cutting-edge camera...auto focus.
Introduced a year to the month after Minolta's moonshot, the 7000, and two months following their second AF SLR, the pro-oriented 9000, the T90 was in tough from the beginning. AF was the biggest SLR innovation in a decade-and-a-half and it was the spark that revitalized the shrinking SLR market. It was the worst of times to be a manual focus SLR, even one as transcendent as the T90. Although lauded by the photographic media, and even nicknamed the "the Tank" by Japanese photojournalists for its rugged capability, the T90 was lost in the AF shuffle. Although officially discontinued in 1991, it stuck around on the mail-order pages in an ever-shrinking box until 1994 when it had seemingly disappeared for good. Until 1996, that is, when B&H must have unearthed some NOS, for the T90 re-materialized for a couple of months at $1,200 USD ($1,915 adjusted for 2021), almost three times as much as it had sold for in the late-'80s. So the T90 finally bit the dust...or did it, really?
The T90 served as the template for Canon's true return to dominance in SLRs, the EOS series of AF SLRs. Remember when Canon halted all further AF development for the FD-mount only a month after the debut of the Minolta 7000? It was then that they decided to come up with a clean-sheet AF mount that would be fully electronic and primed for future development. While the EOS 650 & 620 slid back toward the angular prism housings of the T70 & T80, the grip of the T90 and much of its internal design found their way into Canon's new SLRs. And come 1989, the true EOS descendant of the T90 appeared. The EOS-1 had all of the curves and more refinements to the T90's user interface (the first appearance of Canon's Quick Control Dial on the rear of the camera and three buttons on the left shoulder, making the EOS-1 the first twin-dial + button SLR).
Over three decades-on, the T90 bloodline runs strong in Canon's modern digital SLRs, making it a top contender for being the most influential model in the marque's history. While the AE-1 had brought the microprocessor and modular construction to SLRs (not exactly inconsequential advances ;-)), it had done virtually nothing to advance the user interface or technical capability of the SLR. In fact, Canon's sales department had been adamant that it look, feel, and function like the SLRs of the previous decade. The T90 broke the mold when it came to how an SLR looked and handled, and made more technical advances in one fell swoop than had any previous Canon SLR. And it was not just within Canon that its ripples were felt...within the next decade every major SLR manufacturer had adopted the button + dial interface. While the mirror box is living today on borrowed time, the button + dial interface shows no sign of losing its place as the standard control interface on advanced cameras, even with the rapid rise of touchscreen technology. Not too shabby for an SLR that became "obsolete" a year before its introduction ;-).
Living With a T90...Today
As a piece of photographic history and an all-time great example of industrial design, the T90 still holds appeal for many 35mm buffs. But what about its practicality as a picture-maker almost two decades into the 21st century? Well, here are a few caveats for potential purchasers:
For many 35mm enthusiasts, the T90 is the antithesis of their idea of a classic SLR. And that is just fine. But its influence is undeniable. Its control interface, ergonomics, and curvaceous design have been the template for professional Canon SLRs for the past 30 years (during which Canon finally displaced Nikon as the market leader in pro SLRs, not a small achievement). Not only that, its effect upon the industry as a whole is arguably unmatched. The button + dial interface was adopted by every one of Canon's competitors and is still used in the latest interchangeable lens cameras on offer. Not bad for a camera that debuted when Bon Jovi looked like this:
If you ask me, the T90's look has aged pretty well ;-).
Various Canon T50, T70, T80, & T90 Sales Brochures & User Manuals
Canon Camera Museum - History Hall: 1976-1986
Canon Camera Museum - Camera Hall: T90
A Design Revolution The T90 SLR Camera
Popular Photography June 1993 p. 164
I discovered the T-90 late, as I started to shoot film again. Though I also have a 'new to me' FTb (which was my first serious SLR), I use the T-90 when shooting Canon.
1/20/2019 12:38:25 pm
Thanks for sharing your experience with the T90, John. And great point about using adapted lenses on the FD-mount. The short 42mm flange distance is a real boon to doing so. Love to hear about people making the most of their equipment.
11/14/2022 11:21:40 am
C.J. that is a great run down of long forgotten hype and facts of the day about that camera, wonderful breakdown, hindsight is 20/20 and you put it into crystal clarity! I started photography in 1975 with friends Minolta 101 ?, shared usage, but he had a B&W darkroom in his garage. Shortly after I purchased a Canon ftb, then added a Canon EF, which I loved, 1st auto exposure with lock up mirror, and in camera double exposure capability, I used a generic 400mm a lot, with that mirror lock up and 30 sec. auto exposure with blinking light to tell you still exposing :), ran that camera several years and then purchased the T90, I always wanted to try a view camera at some point, but the SLR thing was going so well, why switch horses in the middle of the stream :) I made one more purchase before digital, and that was the Canon A2e, probably one of the reasons I was so slow in switching to digital, was how well the film cameras were developing :) Thanks for the knowledge I did not know about that T90, all I knew is I loved photography and these little machines made it so enjoyable. Still a Canon fan today and still using out dated bodies, started 10D, sold that for a 5D,first full frame but no video capability, then added a 7D, all were purchased new and that's where I'm at today. Thinking about a mirror less camera, but I'd have to start all over again, I see they have FD/FL lens adapters, but I need to finish scanning all my film, Nikon coolscan 4000 of which I have not even scratched the surface :) It is so amazing to re imagine those past shots, that's why mirror less is on the back burner for now. What about you? Do you post work to 500px, love to see some of your work, you could probably tell I'm not much of a social media guy, I forgot my flicker pass word, I don't use facebook any more and never wanted to try instagram :) Let me know where you are posting and I'll go their to check it out :) Sorry about the long note, just love the subject you put forth, 1st time here, I be looking at more info!! Take Care, C.J. Odenbach
11/14/2022 04:30:33 pm
Thanks for sharing your experiences Mike. Glad to hear you are still enjoying the hobby decades later. I hear you on the mirrorless front: I sure wouldn't mind having one to use all of my older non-Nikon glass on, but I I feel no pressing need to upgrade from my D300 as I still have not outgrown its capabilities by a long shot.
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Suffers from a quarter-century and counting film and manual focus SLR addiction. Has recently expanded into 1980's AF point and shoots, and (gack!) '90s SLRs. He even mixes in some digital. Definitely a sick man.