Canon T90 – After a few rolls of film…

High level, the T90 is a top of the line manual focus and motorized SLR, with a long eye point viewfinder, multiple auto-exposure and metering modes, on the film flash metering, and a very fast (1/4000 sec) shutter. Besides auto-focus, the only major feature missing is matrix metering.

Canon T90 – the ergonomics of an EOS camera with an FD lens mount

Launched in 1986 (one year after the Minolta 7000), the T90 did not stay under the spotlights for a long time. A very innovative camera, it was probably expected to stay at the top of Canon’s line of FD mount SLRs for a decade, but the success of the Minolta 7000 (and the failure of their first auto-focus SLR, the T80) forced Canon to change their plans in a hurry. They decided to abandon the FD mount, and somehow derived their first two successful auto-focus SLRs (the EOS 650 and 620) from the T90. Less than 12 months after its introduction, the T90 had been relegated to a niche – a camera for well heeled enthusiasts and conservative pros refusing to throw away their FD lenses  to upgrade to the new auto-focus product line.

Designed for demanding photographers, the T90 had an impressive specifications sheet, and  very few real competitors in its heyday:

  • Nikon had nothing approaching its capabilities until the Nikon F4 and N8008/F801 were launched in 1988. But both were autofocus cameras with matrix metering, and sold for much more than the T90.
  • the Olympus OM-4Ti had similar capabilities for metering and its flash system was even more elaborate than the T90’s flash, but it was miles behind when it came to shutter performance and its short eye-point viewfinder was rather small for photographers wearing glasses.

Contax and Leica R cameras of the early to mid nineties also had approaching characteristics,  but when they came to the market, most of the photographers already had adopted auto-focus cameras, and the T90 had been retired for some time.

The T90 was also extremely expensive:

At approximately $500.00 body only in 1986, it was priced in the same ballpark as the Olympus OM-4T, which means it was:

  • more expensive than any other 35mm manual focus camera, except for modular professional bodies (Canon’s F-1, Nikon’s F-3 or Pentax’s LX), and of course the Leicas.
  • more expensive than any autofocus SLR camera, including Canon’s own EOS 650 and 620 – until the launch of the Nikon F4 and the EOS-1 at the end of the eighties.

Buying and using a T90 now

You may prefer a smaller, simpler, lighter and quieter manual focus camera, but if you want a long eye point viewfinder, multiple automatic modes, multiple metering options and support of Canon FD lenses, there is not much choice.

  • Probably because of the bad reputation of old electronics cameras, and specifically of potential reliability and maintenance issues (risk of sticky shutter failure, lithium battery soldered on the circuit board), it can be had for relatively little money (less than $100.00 for a very nice one on auction sites)
Canon T90 – the commands used less frequently are at the bottom of the camera’s back, and behind a door at the right of the body.

The user manual is fairly large for a camera of that era (126 pages) but apart from all the metering and exposure compensation options which can be fairly complex, the T90 is very simple to use, and benefits from very good ergonomics:

  • All the major settings are visualized on a single top plate LCD – very clear and very informative
  • The essential settings (exposure, metering) are accessed through two big buttons  and the control wheel.
  • Great viewfinder – very clear and fine focusing screen, just enough information, and for a photographer wearing glasses – like me –  it’s the perfect compromise between a reasonably long eye point and a reasonable enlargement level.

I did not like a few details  – the control wheel is vertical – I’m used to horizontal on Nikon or Fuji bodies –  in some modes, the viewfinder display is only active if the shutter release button is half pressed, and when you lift your finger from the shutter release to turn the control wheel with your index, the viewfinder display turns dark.

Canon T90 – Vivitar 135mm f/2.8 – Jules

Metering

  • Generally speaking, the camera is easy to use, but understanding the finesse of the metering options requires to go back to the user manual – and experiment.
  • The camera offers 3 metering modes, but on the T90 the center weighted average mode I’ve been using on manual focus SLRs since my formative years is not usable except in the most straightforward lighting situations: the “average” metering mode does not support exposure memorization, and the second best option to control exposure in complex situations on other cameras – switching to semi-automatic exposure  – only works with stopped down metering on the T90.

    untitled shoot-0519
    T90 – Very informative viewfinder. It combines a LCD bar graph display on the right with a LED display at the bottom. Here the camera is set to semi-auto mode – stopped down. Correct exposure – (cursor and triangle aligned on bar graph, “oo” message)
  •  As a result I kept the camera set to Partial metering  most of the time. Think of Partial as a form of spot, with a very large metering area at the center of the frame.  Partial metering has been available in Canon  SLRs since the early seventies (on the the FTb, for instance) and is still an option on current EOS digital SLRs. On the T90, this mode supports exposure memorization. By the looks of my pictures, it seems to treat equally the lower and the upper portions of the scene, often resulting in a slight under-exposure of the picture if a portion of the sky is included in the metering area.

    untitled shoot-0516
    T90 – Viewfinder when the camera is powered off. The “partial” metering zone corresponds to the largest of the circles at the center of the viewfinder.
  • I wanted to test the Spot, Multi-spot, and High Key /Low Key modes.
    The scenes I exposed in Spot ended up being exposed correctly.
    I played with Multi-spot and the Hi key/Lo key corrections, but shot very few pictures in those modes: those options leave the photographer totally in charge, but require time, as well as a serious knowledge of the theory of exposure (the 18% gray charts and all those sorts of things). To make the matter worse, the implementation of High Key/Low Key is not novice friendly: even the OM-4t is simpler: on the Olympus, the Hi and Lo buttons provide a constant level of correction +2 EV and -2 2/3 EV respectively. On the T90, it’s up to the photographer to adjust the correction, by steps of 1/2 EV. It’s more flexible than the Olympus, but the photographer will have to remember to push the HI button 4 times when shooting a white dog sitting on white sofa.
  • The main constraint, of course, is that film offers no immediate feedback. In order to learn how to take advantage of the advanced exposure modes, you  have to perform systematic tests, take notes, and when you finally receive the processed negatives, go through your notes and try understand what you did right and where you went wrong.  Who has the patience for that?
Canon T90 – Canon FD 24mm f/2.8. Kodak Ektar. The beach in the morning – Peñíscola, Spain.

Lenses

  • I tend to shoot a lot with wide angle lenses (24mm, 28mm), but I need longer focal lenses from time to time, and don’t like carrying too many lenses at the same time.
  • Trans-standard zooms are supremely convenient. But in the mid-eighties, very good trans-standard zooms – lenses that could be at the same time sharp, distortion free, compact and reasonably fast (f2.8-4 for instance), simply did not exist. Nikon introduced their first 35-70 f/2.8 AF zoom with the F4 camera, Canon only launched a 28-70mm F/2.8-4L auto-focus zoom in 1988, and neither of them are light or compact.
  • Therefore, the options in the FD mount are limited: no “L” zoom, a few sliding aperture entry level zooms, a huge 35-70 f/2.8-3.5 from the early seventies, and two large and heavy constant aperture zooms, the 35-105 f/3.5 and the 28-85 f/4. I bought the 35-105 f/3.5 a while ago and did not like the pictures it delivered at all (maybe it was a bad copy – on the forums the lens has the reputation of being the best of its class when it’s in top condition).  I’m not inclined to buy the 28-85 f/4, which looks very similar to the 35-105 and is not as highly rated.
  • I will have to explore the world of independent lens makers, or bite the bullet and buy a sliding aperture Canon zoom – the 35-105 f/3.5-4.5 may be better than its reputation.
  • As mentioned above, the T90 does not offer full aperture metering in semi-auto exposure mode. But its semi-auto mode is very well implemented if you accept to work with the lens stopped down. Interestingly, the T90 not only supports older Canon FL lenses, but, with adapters sold by Canon in the sixties and seventies, it also accepts 42mm screw mount lenses,  Exacta, Leica Visoflex and even Nikon F lenses. I could find one of those screw mount adapters recently, and there are a few very luminous Pentax screw mount lenses that I’d like to try on the T90.
Canon T90 – Canon FD 24mm f/2.8 – Ilford FP4 film. Peñíscola, Spain

My conclusions:

I’ve never really been into Canon cameras – and I only started using Canon SLRs recently because I was given a few bodies and lenses. Logically, I should have felt little affinity with the T90: it is pure Canon DNA, combining some characteristics originating in the FTb and AE-1 generations with the ergonomics of modern EOS cameras. But the truth is that I love this camera. It’s one of the most satisfying film cameras to use, with no real equivalent:

  • The Canon A-1:
    • the A-1 is a good camera, but I like the T90 much better (better viewfinder, better shutter, better ergonomics, better build quality, more metering options for the day I want to think hard about the exposure).
  • The Nikon SLRs of the mid eighties
    • Nikon has no equivalent to the T90. The F3 is a heavy, conventional, aperture preferred auto camera, with a viewfinder even larger than the T90, but far less informative; it’s rock solid and will quietly get the job done, but it feels much older than the T90. Another generation.
    • Compared to the T90, the FE2 is a simple, light and compact camera  with a very fast shutter. Like the F3, it only offers aperture priority auto-exposure in conjunction with center weighted average metering, and in most situations, it’s going to be good enough. Its viewfinder is very bright, it offers one of the best implementations of semi-auto exposure I know of, but with its very short eye point, it will force photographers wearing glasses to look left and right to see the entirety of the focusing screen.
  • The Olympus SLRs:
    • Even if it has some characteristics in common with the OM-4 (the multi-spot and hi-key/lo key metering modes or the flash control options), the T90 looks like the polar opposite of the OM-4. The design and the ergonomics of the OM-4 are deeply rooted in the early seventies. On the other hand, the T90 introduced a way of interacting with a camera still followed today by Canon, Nikon or Sony for their top of the line dSLRs.
      I’ve not been convinced of the usefulness of the multi-spot and hi-key/lo-key modes of the T90 – too slow, too complex, not better than operating with spot metering on a good semi-auto camera – and I suspect that my opinion would not be very different if I tested those features on the OM-4. But if you don’t use those metering modes, why bother with an OM-4? An OM-2 or an OM-2 Spot Program will do a similar job, and are simpler and cheaper cameras.

If you consider the camera’s characteristics – its specs sheet – it is very telling that the closest Minolta or Nikon cameras – motorized, with a  long eye point viewfinder, multiple auto-exposure options, multiple metering options including Spot –  came a few years after the T90 (with the Maxxum 8000i or the N8008/F801). But with auto-focus and matrix metering, they clearly belonged to another generation and offered a different user experience.

Despite the apparent similarity of their ergonomics, shooting with the T90 is to a large extent the opposite of shooting with a modern auto-focus/matrix metering  SLR or dSLR. The T90 leaves you in charge of the focus and the exposure. Focusing is not very difficult (the viewfinder is large and bright), but getting the exposure right requires some effort – in particular because Canon decided to limit what the photographer could do with Average metering. The T90 is a camera for perfectionists, who believe that with the right set of tools and some effort, they can get better images than what a modern auto-everything camera would give them.


More about the T90:

Cameraquest: https://cameraquest.com/t90.htm


Canon T90 – Canon FD 24mm f/2.8 – Fujicolor 400. “La Maison aux Bambous”, Vinay, France

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The Canon T90 – first impressions

The Postal Service just delivered a Canon T90 at my door step. I opened the box, inserted batteries, mounted a lens, and swiched it on. The T90 is a disconcerting camera, and I was in for a few surprises.

Why a T90? 

Recently I’ve been looking for a manual focus camera with a larger viewfinder than my Nikon FE2, and a bit more feature rich than the austere Nikon F3. I wanted to play with more metering options (spot, multi-spot, highlight, shadows) than what the FE2 and the F3 have to offer. And at the same time, I did not want to spend money on a new family of lenses, which excluded Contax, Leica, Minolta and Pentax, and limited my choice to Canon, Nikon and Olympus. I could have splurged on an Olympus OM-4T, but $200.00 is a minimum for a working copy in so-so condition sourced in Japan, and the beautiful ones are many times more expensive. Nikon had no manual focus SLR that interested me (I have used the FA and the FG in the past and did not like them, and the N2000 and N6000 are just mid level autofocus cameras deprived of autofocus).  That left us with Canon, and the T90.

The T90 is a very interesting piece of hardware. It’s at the same time a formidable precursor of all the Canon high-end EOS film and digital cameras to come, a shameless copy of the Olympus OM-4 (metering system, OTF flash), the most elaborate of the Canon manual focus reflex cameras, and an evolutionary dead end. It was launched in February 1986, one year after the Minolta Maxxum 7000, and was only manufactured for a few months, leaving the spotlights in favor of the new EOS autofocus product line, presented in March 1987. It is often seen as a test bed for the ideas successfully implemented in the EOS cameras. It’s a way for Canon to finish a long chapter of its history on a bright note, and for its faithful customers, one last opportunity to spend a lot of money on a high-end camera supporting the FL and FD lenses.

A lot has been written about the T90, its genesis and its legacy. There are countless descriptions and reviews of the T90  on the Internets. I listed a few links at the end of this post. I won’t write the nth review here. Today, I’ll share my first impressions, trying to understand how the camera can fit with the way I take pictures. And later, after my  summer vacation, I’ll come back with more definitive conclusions.

LCD display on the right side of top plate, control wheel, shutter release and spot metering buttons at the top of the grip. The ergonomics of a modern camera.

The first impression: it looks and feels like an EOS camera…

The T90 is a camera full of paradoxes. It looks and feels like a modern EOS camera (polycarbonate body and rubber covered grip, LCD display on the right of the top plate, control wheel), and when you bring the camera to your eye, you see the same very bright and smooth focusing screen that you would see through the same long eye-point viewfinder in a more recent autofocus SLR. But press the shutter release lightly, and …

  1. The image in the viewfinder stays blurry. Of course, it’s a manual focus camera…But intuitively, for a fraction of a second, because the camera looks and feels like an EOS, I had expected it would find the focus for me (*)
  2. You press the shutter. It’s LOUD. Really LOUD. More than a non-motorized film SLR of the previous generation, more than a modern dSLR, and of course, much much more than a mirrorless camera. In all fairness, it should be compared to the few motorized SLRs of the same period capable of shooting  4 frames/ second. I remember the racket when I was shooting with a motorized Nikon FA. It was screaming much louder than the T90.(**)
  3. And it’s heavy. Almost 900g with the batteries. You don’t expect that much weight from a camera with a plastic body.

It’s also very large (in the modern dSLR world only the EOS-1d and the Nikon D5 are larger), but because the FD lenses are much smaller than the huge f/2.8 autofocus zooms that the pros mount in their EOS-1d and D5 today, it does not look as big and intimidating.

…but it’s not an EOS-like camera

It’s a manual focus camera. With no matrix metering. In that sense, it’s a camera of the past, already outdated when it was launched. Like the Olympus OM-4, it’s an attempt to put the photographer at the center of the exposure determination process, when the market was rapidly going in the opposite direction and adopting “evaluative multizone” and “matrix” metering.

The default metering mode – center-weighted average – does not permit you to lock the exposure, and unless you’re willing to operate in full manual exposure mode, you need to switch to the  “partial” (large spot) or “spot” (the really tiny spot at the center of the viewfinder) modes as soon as you want to gain a modicum of control over the exposure of your image.

The “partial” setting lets you lock the exposure values as long as the shutter release button is half pressed, and the elaborate multi-spot, highlight/shadow and exposure memorization functions are only paired with “spot” metering. It should give you enough control over the exposure without ever having to switch to the manual exposure mode.

The manual and semi auto modes are weird, but stopped down aperture is surprisingly useful

The other reason to use the T90 in auto exposure mode is that the manual mode is weird. It’s really a manual mode (not semi-automatic), unless you operate with stopped down metering.

  • If you operate the camera at  full aperture (with a Canon FD lens unlocked from the “A” position), the LED display in the viewfinder only shows the recommended aperture value. But it does not give you any indication about the current aperture value, and there is no + or – sign in the viewfinder to tell you whether your image is currently over exposed, under exposed, or just right. The meter of the camera operates as a hand held light meter would, and it looks as if the meter is not coupled to the shutter and aperture commands of the camera. It may work in a studio, but it’s far too slow in the street.
  • However, if you press the “stopped down” lever at the left of the T90, a full featured semi-automatic mode becomes available. Which is fine if you shoot with FL or FD lenses at a wide aperture, but unusable at F/11 and beyond – the viewfinder becomes too dark. It’s frustrating to have to operate FD lenses stopped down, but using FL lenses is surprisingly pleasant. One last gift of Canon to its faithful customers.

Not everything is perfect though: the manual and stopped down modes come with all sorts of limitations, and the camera displays weird error messages if the aperture ring and the depth of field lever are not set as the camera would expect. I don’t know if the limitations are related to programming of the CPU of the camera, or whether they are flaws inherent to the FD mount, or a combination of both. Obviously the all-electric EF mount of the EOS series is a more flexible design.(***)

Canon T90 with a Canon FD 50mm f/3.5 macro lens. Thirty years later an EOS 1d does not look that different.

The Canon FL and FD lenses: they used to be cheap…

When Canon launched the EOS system in 1987, the FL and FD lenses – which are absolutely non-compatible with the EOS cameras, immediately lost most of their resale value. After the T90, Canon only launched one camera using FD lenses: the T60, in 1990. But it’s a rebadged Cosina semi-auto camera (a precursor of the Olympus OM-2000), not a true Canon. So for a very long time, FL and FD lenses – that could only be used on cameras last manufactured in the mid eighties – remained in the “orphan equipment” category, and were cheap, much cheaper than manual focus Nikon lenses, that could (and still can) be used on many current Nikon dSLRs.

The rise of mirrorless system cameras (Olympus, Panasonic, Sony and Fuji), and in particular of the full frame A7 series from Sony has given a new lease of life to manual focus lenses, and to Canon FL and FD lenses in particular. As a result, fast (wide aperture) Canon FL and FD pro and high end lenses have become seriously expensive (as usual, sliding aperture trans-standard zooms remain on the cheap side).

Canon used to propose a very large selection of FD lenses, with different maximal aperture and different qualities of glass in each category (from the ultra-wide angle to the super-tele), but they seem to have neglected the trans-standard zoom segment:  they never offered a constant wide aperture or pro-quality “L” lenses in that focal range, and  the T90 was never bundled with a zoom, but simply with the conventional 50mm f/1.4 prime lens.

Interestingly, the T90 is a good bearer of FL lenses (the semi-automatic exposure mode only works with the lens stopped down, there is no benefit  using FD lenses if you only want to shoot in this mode), and thanks to an adapter (and to the short flange distance of the FL/FD family), it also supports 42mm screw mount lenses.

More to come in a few weeks…


(*): and it happened repeatedly this week. I never had experienced such a thing before (my Nikon FE2 also has a very bright focusing screen, and I often use it with Nikon autofocus lenses, but I never found myself waiting for the camera to focus on its own).

(**): it’s not as loud when operated in stopped down mode. The iris command mechanism is probably the loudest sub system in the camera.

(***): there has been a lot of speculation on why Canon decided to ditch the FD lens mount in favor of a totally new EF mount in 1987. Some  say that the FD mount was too expensive to manufacture, that it was too small and could not be made solidly enough out of plastic, some say it was too small (diameter) and did not leave enough room for the electrical contacts needed for future evolutions, some say it was too small and made the design of ultra-luminous (or ultra-wide angle) lenses too difficult. Some say that the aperture control mechanism of the FD mount was too kludgy and made basic features offered by competitors, such as depth of field preview and semi-automatic exposure too difficult to implement on multi-automatic cameras such as the A-1 or the T90.


Links:

User reviews of Canon bodies and lenses: Canon Classics http://www.canonclassics.com

An interesting take on the design of the T90: http://www.massmadesoul.com/canont90 (and good links too)

The Canon T90 Performance Book. It was sold for $9.99 by Canon dealers: http://satnam.ca/cameras/Canon%20t90_performance_book.pdf

Easy to read reviews of the T-90 and other T-series cameras by Lewis Collard: http://lewiscollard.com/cameras/canon-t90/

In depth description of Canon’s R, FL and FD lens mounts: http://tinkeringwithcameras.blogspot.com/2008/03/canon-lens-mounts-from-r-to-fdn.html

And as usual, MIR’s exhaustive analysis: http://www.mir.com.my/rb/photography/hardwares/classics/canont90/index.htm


Canon T90 on a tripod and black dog.

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