July 6, 2017

The Canon T90 – first impressions

Filed under: Canon cameras — Tags: , , — xtalfu @ 11:03 pm

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.


User reviews of Canon bodies and lenses: Canon Classics

An interesting take on the design of the T90: (and good links too)

The Canon T90 Performance Book. It was sold for $9.99 by Canon dealers:

Easy to read reviews of the T-90 and other T-series cameras by Lewis Collard:

In depth description of Canon’s R, FL and FD lens mounts:

And as usual, MIR’s exhaustive analysis:

Canon T90 on a tripod and black dog.


March 23, 2017

The most expensive manual focus SLRs of the 1980 generation

Film cameras are interesting objects. They appeal to collectors who will desire them for their historical importance, their pleasant esthetics, and for their scarcity, and to active photographers, who make their purchase decisions based on the feature set, the availability of good lenses, and the quality of the user experience.

The least desirable cameras (and therefore the cheapest) are characterized  by an abundant supply of working but unremarkable bodies with a meager selection of lenses, the most desirable by a limited availability of cameras in working order, combined with an interested set of features,  a pleasant user experience, and a broad selection of good lenses: in other words, cameras of great systems (Canon, Contax, Nikon, Leica, Olympus, for instance) that are scarce because they sold in small numbers, and/or because they did not age gracefully, with few of them surviving in working condition.

Let’s focus on the 4 Japanese brands I know best.


Manual focus Canon cameras were mass produced (Canon was the constant best seller except for a few years when Minolta took the lead), and generally reliable. Because the autofocus EOS product line is totally incompatible with the older manual focus cameras, users of autofocus Canon film cameras (and of modern digital EOS models) were not tempted to carry an old manual focus SLR in addition to their modern autofocus camera, and the offer of second hand manual focus cameras from Canon has always seemed to exceed demand. As a result, prices have tended to be low.

    • There is one glaring exception, the F-1, with nice copies proposed above $400.00 (Canon also produced limited editions to commemorate events like its  50th anniversary that command prices above $1,000). Another interesting Canon camera is the T90.

Canon T90 – LCD and control wheel – Source: Wikipedia

  • T90: the poster child of a second hand camera which checks all the marks, but is penalized by its lack of reliability:
    • On the plus side, it’s  very interesting from a historical point of view : it was designed with the input of Luigi Colani’ studio, and its ergonomics study is a precursor of the Canon EOS cameras and of almost all camera currently sold
    • Its sales volume was relatively limited  (for a Canon camera): it was an expensive high end camera, only sold for 2 years, when Canon had no autofocus camera to propose and was getting a beating from Minolta and Nikon on the marketplace.
    • The T90 was part of a very broad camera system, very popular with professional photographers. There is large supply of very good lenses, for cheap. Historical interest, relatively low sales volume, broad system – it should command high prices.
    • But on the other hand, the T90 did not age well: some of the components deteriorate if the camera is not used frequently, others have a limited lifespan, and Canon stopped servicing those cameras a long time ago – in fact, a lot of them display an “EEE” error and simply don’t work.
    • Therefore, there is not a strong demand for the T90. It commands prices starting in the $150.00 range for a tested model, which is less than what is asked for an  A-1 or even a AE-1 Program.

Fujica (the AX bayonet mount line) 

Fuji’s screw mount cameras sold in respectable numbers in the 1970s, and aged relatively well.  They were replaced in 1979 by a new generation of bayonet mount cameras  that did not sell very well and had reliability issues. A Fujica SLR such as the STX or the AX-3  in working condition is not as easy to find as a Canon AE-1 or a Nikon FE, for instance, but at the same time it does not qualify as exceptionally difficult to locate. The truth is that those cameras don’t seem to be interesting collectors (lack of aura) or active photographers (lack of lenses). Except maybe for the AX-5.

  • AX-5 – it was the full featured top of line, and was proposed at prices higher than the Canon A-1 it was supposed to compete with.
    • On the Plus side, it’s really a scarce camera. At any given time, no more than two or three are offered for sale on eBay, worldwide
    • On the Minus side, it’s not a very “interesting” camera: it’s a me-too product largely inspired by Canon’s A-1, with a toned down and more “feminine” design
    • the whole Fujica “X” product line has a reputation for being fragile (electronics)
    • there is very limited supply of lenses (good or bad), and the ones you can find are seriously expensive.
    • the market of second hand AX-5 cameras is too small – and there is not enough sales volume to establish a price of reference: I’ve seen working copies proposed above $150.00 but actual sale prices seem much lower.


Nikon FA detail of the shutter speed knob and PSAM selector

Multi-Mode Automatic models tend to scare the active film photographers – they tend to prefer simpler models (here, the Nikon FA – which does not sell for more than the simpler FM2).

Very few Nikon cameras qualify as “scarce”. Nikon cameras generally sold in high volumes (within their class of products)  and are extremely reliable – a lot of them survived. Some of the cameras designed for professional photographers (the F3, the FM2) had production runs of almost 20 years. You will have to look for specific variants of a mainstream model such as the F3p or the F3AF to reach the level of scarcity that commands high prices (above the $1,000 bar). That being said, Nikon cameras of that vintage are very pleasant to use (they ooze build quality), they benefit from a huge supply of lenses and accessories (Nikon have been using the same bayonet mount since 1959, and the current flash system is downwards compatible down to the FE2 of 1983), and they take great pictures. They have a great usage value, but a limited collector’s appeal. A few exceptions:

  • F3: a regular F3 camera is becoming expensive – $200.00 to $400.00 for a nice one. The  F3P (a derivative for Press Photographers) sells in the $400.00 to $500.00 range, and the AF models of 1983 (with their dedicated viewfinder and lenses) can easily reach $1,200.00.
  • FM2 – the workhorse (or the perfect backup camera) of generations of Nikon photographers. Usable models are available below $200.00, while models popular with collectors (the FM2/T with a titanium body) start at approximately $500.00 to reach up to $1,500.
  • The FM3A was only produced for a few years, in small quantities. It’s a recent product with a high usage value (it’s an automatic which can also operate without a battery at any shutter speed) and it commands prices between $300.00 and $600.00.


The Olympus OM-4 exposure controls – Source Wikipedia

In the 80s, Olympus had a line of low end “two digit cameras” (OM-10, OM-20, OM-30, OMG..) for amateurs and a line of single digit cameras (OM-2s, OM-4) for the discerning enthusiasts. The two digit cameras are extremely abundant, but unremarkable. The OM-2s and OM-4 are relatively easy to find, but are plagued by lousy battery management issues that limit their attractivity. At the end of their production life, the “single digit” cameras were upgraded to become “T” or Ti” models, which solved the electronics issues of their predecessors, and switched their brass top-plates for Titanium ones. Those T and Ti cameras are highly attractive for the active photographer (small size, unique light metering capabilities, broad system of lenses and accessories) and for the collector – they’re beautiful and are in limited supply. The OM-3Ti – the semi-automatic version- was produced in very limited quantities (6,000 units according to and was selling at the same price as a Leica M6. The OM-4t and Ti had a long production run, but they were launched in the middle of the autofocus craze, when the large majority of the enthusiasts were busy converting their equipment to Minolta Maxxums, Canon EOS or Nikon N8008.

  • OM-3ti – proposed for any price between $1,200 and $4,000.
  • OM-4ti – proposed for any price between $250.00 and $800.00

Except for commemorative models (they often never leave the box they were shipped in), Leica SLRs models of all generations typically sell in the $200.00 to $800.00 range (the R4 are the cheapest, the R6.2 the most expensive). Contax models benefit from the aura of the Zeiss lenses, and sell in the same range as the Leicas.

Jules – French Bouledogue – Nikon F3 – Nikkor 135mm f/2.8 AI lens – Fujicolor 400




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