Updated Nov. 10, 2022
Canon. The bane of the 35mm purist's existence. Has any other manufacturer done more to suck the soul out of these beautiful machines with microprocessors, green rectangles for grubby-fingered greenhorns, and punished us with a plethora of polycarbonate, penta-mirrored, pale imitations of a proper SLR? And worst of all, to dominate the market for the past four-plus decades while doing so?! Ugh, there will be copious amounts of antacids and Gravol needed to make it through this one ;-). But if Big C had been such a force since the mid-1970s, why would they need to "catch up"? Read on...if you dare...bwahahahahaha...
From Cute to Colossal
For their first dozen years in the 35mm SLR market, Canon was the junior member of the Big 4 Japanese manufacturers (Asahi Pentax, Minolta, and Nikon being the other three). Minolta and Pentax dominated sales throughout the 1960's and the Nikon F had the cachet of being the SLR of choice among professionals. Canon was still heavily invested in the 35mm rangefinder genre and so their progress in SLR development trailed the other three companies. But they slowly built momentum through the '60s, and by 1970, with the introduction of their updated FD-mount that allowed for full-aperture metering and also automatic exposure capability, they were prepared to make a real push. By this time, Canon was also more diversified in their product line than their competitors, having gotten into business machines (copiers and calculators) among other things, and soon they began to cross-pollinate their hard-won knowledge in these areas into the camera side of the business. Long story short, when the AE-1 debuted in 1976 as the first SLR sporting a microprocessor (courtesy of the calculator division) and plastic top and bottom plates at a price point previously unheard-of, the stage was set for Canon to not just hold their own, but to blast past the other members of the now-Big 5 (Olympus joined the party in the mid-'70s). By 1981-82, Canon held over a third of the 35mm SLR market. But that market was now shrinking and they were desperate to find something new to revitalize sales.
Their answer was the T-series of SLRs, with their overt '80s styling (no counterfeit chrome in sight, just acres of charcoal-painted plastic and rubber on the T50, T70, and T80 models), and more automation than you could shake a transistor at. Having created a whole new consumer market segment with the AE-1 and its descendants, Canon now sought to expand downward to try and get compact point & shooters into the SLR fold with the T50. The only problem was, ironically, a lack of automation in a few key areas: focusing, film speed setting, and rewind. The T50 was going up against the first mature autofocus (AF) 35mm point & shoots that did everything for the user. AF was huge for plain-vanilla consumers in the early-'80s, and a manual focus SLR was not even close to meeting that need. So Canon went back to the drawing board and came up with the T80, which was basically a hybrid between the lowly T50 and the more advanced T70 (the replacement for the AE-1 Program) with AF thrown in. There were two problems with the T80, however. First, adding AF pushed the price up considerably higher than the T50 into mid-range SLR territory, and thus far beyond the high-end AF point & shoot market that it was targeting. Second, the AF of the T80 frankly...sucked. And particularly when compared to its nemesis, the Minolta 7000, which was introduced two months before the T80. The 7000 was so much better than the T80 that Canon made a fateful decision one month before the T80's introduction in April 1985: they would scrap any further FD-mount AF development and start completely from scratch. The plan was to have a competitive, if not class-leading, AF SLR in time for Canon's 50th anniversary in the photography business in the spring of 1987.
This decision was to have far-reaching effects: Canon was basically gifting Minolta nearly 24 months to solidify their position as the market leader in AF 35mm SLRs; and any other manufacturers that could get their own competitive models up and running during that period would also get a foot up on Canon. On the surface, giving their rivals that much time would appear to be a poor decision. But Canon had some sound reasons for their deliberate approach. First of all, although they were certainly feeling the effects of the latest SLR bust, Big C had greater margins to withstand the downturn than did other members of the Big 5, particularly Minolta and Nikon, both of which still relied upon their photography divisions for the majority of their profits. Canon's diversification into other technologies had made them far less reliant upon photographic sales for overall business success, making them less vulnerable to market fluctuations. They thus had the luxury of more time to craft their response to Minolta. Second, they had justifiable confidence in their designers and engineers to stand toe-to-toe with anyone in the SLR business. Canon had led the way in the automation of the SLR from the mid-'70s onward, and this would hold true with the development of their preliminarily-titled Entirely Organic System. This would eventually morph into the more-descriptive Electro Optical System thus retaining the EOS acronym with an admitted loss of esotericity ;-).
The key to EOS was that it was intended from the start to be fully electronic, meaning that not only the camera's shutter and focus, but even the aperture in the lens would be activated electronically. This would be a first for the industry as all of the other manufacturers retained mechanical activation and stop-down of the aperture until well into the 21st century. Canon also differed from their competitors, who all basically copied Minolta's motor-in-body AF lens-drive system, by promulgating the motor-in-lens focus drive configuration. This enabled Canon to eliminate another mechanical coupling in favor of simpler electronic contacts for AF operation, while also granting them more flexibility in sizing the motors to suit each lens. The sum total of all this innovation was that EOS was at the beginning of a development curve while all of its competition was at least in the middle with their respective lensmounts (even Minolta's new A-mount). That meant that Canon would have even more room for innovation with the system in the future. The cost of this advancement? The abandonment of the FD-mount and thus the alienation of a number of previous Canon shooters who resented having to change their entire system (cameras, lenses, and accessories) over to a totally new mount (called by Canon Electro Focus). Ticked off with Canon, such photographers decided they were going to show them and so they changed their entire system to...Minolta or Nikon ;-). So again, it might seem upon a cursory glance that Canon was putting their foot in it. Which brings us to the titular EOS 650 & 620 models.
Canon Crashes the AF Party
The EOS 650 was easily a match, specifications-wise, for the Minolta 7000 and Nikon F-501 (N2020) and could almost hold its own with its basic Arc Focus Drive (AFD) EF lenses versus their second-gen AF SLRs introduced in 1988. And with Canon's first Ultrasonic Motor (USM) lenses, it blew them away when it came to AF speed (in light levels above EV 6, at least ;-)) and quietness. The prosumer-level EOS 620 was a solid cut above the three bodies listed above with: a 1/4000 sec. top shutter speed, 1/250 sec. maximum flash sync. speed, built-in Automatic Exposure Bracketing (AEB, offering +/- 5-stops in 1/2-stop increments), Program Shift (the user could shift the aperture and shutter speed combination whilst maintaining the same exposure), multiple exposures, and the first backlit top-deck LCD in the business (think Timex Indiglo five years before it appeared :-)). The only AF SLR that was competitive with the EOS 620, upon its introduction, was Minolta's 9000 professional AF SLR and it required a multi-function back and motor drive (which drove the price even higher) to offer the same features as the 620 and it still could not match the 620's speed of operation and AF speed with large telephotos. The 650 & 620 were the first AF SLRs to feature evaluative metering (6-zone, in this case) while the Minolta 7000 and Nikon F-501 (N2020) both used standard centerweighted patterns. There was also a 6.5% "partial" metering mode which acted as a "fat" spotmeter for occasions where the photographer wanted more direct control of exposure. It was available in any exposure mode except full auto (when the main switch was set to the GREEN rectangle :-O). The AE lock was also automatically activated anytime the partial metering button was pressed. Both cameras were primarily intended for autoexposure usage, as Manual mode was fiddly with only one control dial available at that point.
The EOS 650/620 combo drew heavily from Canon's ultimate T-series model, the T90, which was introduced halfway into the development of EOS (Feb. 1986). The T90 was a seminal SLR. Its control layout, hybrid construction, and ergonomics set the tone for the next 30 years of SLR design. The only thing that held the T90 back as far as market success was its lack of AF, just as that segment was exploding. But the experience Canon had gained in its development and production was to provide a solid foundation for the debut of EOS and their subsequent domination of the 35mm AF SLR market to the end of the film era and on into digital. While the EOS 650 and 620 were styled more conservatively than the T90 (about halfway between it and the T80), the family resemblance was unmistakable.
Life with the EOS 650 & 620 Today
Due to Canon's well-earned reputation for punching out plenty of plasticky Rebel-level SLRs over the past three decades, many people are surprised at the heft and solidity of these first-generation EOS bodies. While they are indeed sheathed in polycarbonate, there is a lot of metal, the chassis et al, under the hood. Weight with a battery installed is in Nikon F3 territory (no, I'm not saying that they are as robust as an F3 ;-)), merely to illustrate that these are not super small or light SLRs. The ergonomics also tend to impress when you pick one up. You can see why Canon grips have been industry-standard for 30+ years. A bonus for EF lens owners is complete backward compatibility whether your lens is from 1987 or 2021, as long as it has full-frame coverage (24mm x 36mm), not APS-C (EF-S or EF-M in Canonspeak). No other manufacturer comes close in the AF era.
Caveats? The most common issue with first & second generation EOS bodies are their biodegradable (figuratively speaking ;-)) shutter blade bumpers. At its worst, this problem shows up as a gooey, smeary mess on the left side of the shutter. Eventually, the shutter will jam, causing the dreaded "bc" error message to appear on the LCD. Solution: careful cleaning with 99% isopropyl alcohol or naptha of the shutter blades and below them where the bumpers have decomposed. Another possible (although not necessarily probable) issue with the EOS 620 (as well as the follow-on EOS 630/600 and RT models) involves a situation where the LCD illuminator can begin draining the 2CR5 battery even when it is not activated and the camera is switched OFF. Speaking of the 2CR5 (aka Duracell 245) battery, it can be a bit pricey depending on your location and they aren't available just anywhere, nowadays. Buying online has been the best option for me. Of course, AF speed and low-light performance are not up to today's standards, but they were the best of any first-gen AF SLR. And you are not buying one of these to be class-leading nearly 35 years after the fact ;-). On more heavily used samples, the handgrip rubber is also prone to loosening and stretching.
Legacy of the EOS 650/620
By May 1987, when the EOS 620 debuted, the EOS 650 (within two months of its introduction) had became the best-selling SLR in Japan and Europe (the North American market is almost always slower to respond ;-)). Two years later, Canon had not just caught up to...but surpassed both Minolta and Nikon to reclaim their market-share lead in the SLR industry, which would grow to 50% by the end of the 1990s. Their decision to play the longer game would prove to be the right one as they set themselves up to have a ready response to every effort of their competitors for the rest of the 20th century and into the 21st. It was only with the advent of EOS that Canon was finally able to rival and then surpass Nikon in market share in the professional realm. More EF lenses have been produced than for any other 35mm lensmount, ever.
So, will one of these elementary EOS bodies stir your soul...plumb the depths of your psyche...and infuse your images with that ineffable je ne sais quois? Ummm...probably not. Canon has pretty much always been about getting the image on emulsion or sensor as efficiently as possible. Some of us get inspiration from our equipment, some of us merely use it as a conduit to capture our inspiration, and some of us fall somewhere in between. And there is nothing wrong with any of those approaches: do whatever works for you. Canon gets slagged regularly for being soulless, and that may well be the case for you personally. But when you look at an image from the past 30 years or so that moves you emotionally, just remember that there is half a chance that a Canon captured it. A lot of great photos have been taken with Canon EOS SLRs and the EOS 650 and 620 were where it all started. Is one worth trying out for you? Well, if your manual focusing isn't where it once was, or you simply are curious, why not give it a try? And if you can't stand the idea of anything good coming ever from Canon, with all their computers and plastic, there's always the F-1 or FTb to be had. Ahhh...the emotional conflict of it all ;-).
1987-1991 Leap Forward with the EOS - Canon History Hall
A Design Revolution The T90 SLR Camera - Canon Camera Museum
EOS 650, EOS 620, T90, T80, T70, T50 - Canon Camera Hall
Canon EOS 650 Sales Brochure @ pacificrimcamera.com
Canon EOS 620 Sales Brochure @ pacificrimcamera.com
Canon T90 Sales Brochure @ pacificrimcamera.com
Canon T80 Sales Brochure @ pacificrimcamera.com
Canon T50 Sales Brochure @ pacificrimcamera.com
Canon T70 Sales Brochure @ pacificrimcamera.com
Canon EOS 650-620 User Manual @ https://global.canon
Fixing Battery Drain in Canon EOS Film Cameras @ michaelwlach.wordpress.com
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.