Canon T-Series Cameras: The Bridge to Contemporary

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I received my Canon T50 as a birthday present from a parent who knew little about photography. But what I surely didn’t know at sixteen was that this camera would mark the beginning of my photography career and also the beginning of the end for Canon’s FD mount.

A sentence like that could only float by on a pillow of sentimental hindsight, but it is true that my first photo exhibit was of images taken with the T50 and, also fact, that in 1987 Canon introduced the “Electro-Focus” EF mount and EOS system, which was soon to make the FD mount, introduced in 1971, obsolete. However, from 1983 to 1991, Canon released five different T series cameras for the FD mount. The cameras occupied professional and amateur ranks, were the vehicles to introduce important Canon technologies, and are remembered fondly by working photojournalists of the era and by the many of us who made their entrance to 35mm photography with one of these easy-to-use yet technically forward cameras.

From a 1998 series on bike messengers in New York City, “Still Passing BY,” shot with the Canon T50

Let’s start with my camera, the T50. It was introduced in 1983 as the first T-series camera, intended to be an automated 35mm camera for those who wanted Program auto-exposure, simple controls, and a relatively compact form factor. At the time, the manual AE-1 was still king of the Canon hill, although the AE-1 Program had been released in 1981 and the Canon New F-1 was the flagship “professional” model. Overall, SLR systems were losing sales ground to the increasingly automated and affordable point-and-shoot cameras and the T50 was an attempt to pull some of that business back to the SLR side of the ledger. Interestingly, the T series evolved over four years from the user-friendly T50 to the T90, a top professional system, not the flagship perhaps, but leapfrogging the New F-1 to become many photojournalists’ favorite.

T50: Simplicity

The Canon T50 with the FD 50mm f/1.8 lens

The T50 would feel familiar in the hands of a young photographer today. A similar size and weight to contemporary mirrorless offerings from FUJIFILM and Sony, automatic TTL program exposure and a motorized film advance system would take almost any confusion out of a first-timer’s experience. The only setting one needs to make is to correspond the ISO/ASA dial to the film in the camera. Loading the camera is relatively simple, just align the film leader with the sprockets, pull to the red line, close the camera’s back, and press the shutter button to advance the film around the pick-up spool. The few other settings on the camera’s one dial were Program Auto, a 10-second self-timer mode, a shutter lock mode, and a battery check. It was this easy-to-use approach that Canon hoped would pull beginner and enthusiast photographers back to SLRs.

The Canon T50 beside a Sony a6500 Mirrorless Camera with Sigma 24mm f/3.5 lens

While my birthday gift also included the very affordable 80-200mm f/4.5 lens by Hanimex and a Sigma 28mm f/2.8 Mini-Wide lens, neither got used much. I kept the jack-of-all-trades FD 50mm f/1.8 lens on that camera almost always and my first vacation photos (Alaska), first street and documentary photos (New York), and first journalistic photos (Serbia) were made with that camera and lens combination. With manual focus, and often focusing while riding a bike or walking, this combo sparked a love of photography that continues to grow today.

The T50 has an eye-level pentaprism viewfinder with a microprism/split combination rangefinder, which aided focus by aligning halves of the image within the viewfinder’s center circle when focus was achieved. Also visible in the viewfinder are a few electronic signals indicating mode, underexposure, and flash readiness. It really is a hassle-free camera: I can’t remember the film ever jamming, and its polycarbonate body never faltered despite the beatings it received.

The basic control settings of the Canon T50

What made the T50 different from the Canon A series was the shutter movement. As opposed to a horizontally traveling cloth shutter, the T50 used vertically traveling metal blades, which allowed for faster shutter speeds and higher flash X-sync speeds. This design, along with the camera’s power winder, enabled 1.4 frames-per-second continuous shooting, and ultimately, it was this new shutter design that helped future T cameras become the rapid-fire system that enticed professional journalists and sports photographers.

T70: The Leap

Canon rolled out the T70 a year later, but this camera took the user-friendly advances of the T50 and added some very advanced controls, putting it in a “professional” trajectory, setting the stage for things to come. While not much bigger than the T50, the T70 immediately presented itself as a forward-thinking camera with a topside LCD panel and rubber buttons for settings changes (no dials). It also has a fully automatic film loading and rewind system (no cranks) and, unlike the T50, leveraged advancing technology to provide eight exposure modes, including three auto-exposure modes, two being optimized for either wide-angle or telephoto shooting. It also supplied Shutter-priority and Manual exposure control and had two metering modes—center-weighted average and partial metering—which read from the center 11% of the frame.

The Canon T70

Of course, this was still a manual focus camera with a microprism/new split combination rangefinder, but its impressive metering, display, controls, and hybrid auto and manual exposure controls brought mixed reviews, some suggesting that it was too advanced for the enthusiast crowd while Canon praised it as “entering the computer age.” Indeed, it did have a microprocessor with “12 x 2 kilobytes of ROM and 8 x 16 bytes of RAM” and is rightfully considered an important camera in the evolution of the modern SLR/DSLR. All that ran on just two AA batteries.

An advertisement and catalog for the Canon T70 camera

T80: Autofocus

While the T80 was introduced in April 1985 and discontinued a year later, it holds a claim to fame as Canon’s first autofocus 35mm SLR camera. It was only autofocus-capable with three dedicated (and now very rare) lenses, the AC 50mm f/1.8, the AC 35-70mm f/3.5-4.5, and the AC 75-200mm f/4.5, which nowadays would seem so odd with their large bulge, concealing an integrated AF motor. The AF system used a linear CCD array for TTL image contrast-detect autofocus and while this camera’s AC mount and three dedicated lenses were only produced for one year, their lens-based AF system laid the groundwork for the soon-to-be-introduced Canon EF mount.

The Canon T80 with an early autofocus lens

The T80 offered similar metering modes as the T70, an auto film load and rewind system, and an LCD control panel with updated pictographs. Its AF system was its impressive feature, but it was a camera aimed at advanced amateurs and what we would now call “early adopters.” Like its successor, the decidedly professional T90, it offered an optional “Command Back” with an LCD readout to support date stamping and coding of images, time exposures, and time-lapse interval exposure. Two other design elements are worth noting: the soft-touch shutter button that triggered autofocus and the impressive ergonomic grip that had evolved from that on the T50.

T90: The Bridge

For those who used the T90, it is a camera remembered fondly and, in retrospect, even if it was outshined by the EOS system and EF mount after just a year in production, it was an influential model despite being a manual focus camera. In terms of interface and form factor, it seems very contemporary.

The Canon T90, with its body designed by famed German industrial designer Luigi Colani

Like other cameras in the T series, it was released just a year after its predecessor and incorporated features of previous T models, but the T90, even upon a quick glance, was a unique camera, having been designed by German industrial designer Luigi Colani. With electronic camera advances eliminating the need to place a film rewind crank, shutter speed dials, and other mechanical controls, the designers were free to incorporate ergonomic features and create a camera with rounded edges, curves, a big, rubberized hand grip, and advanced LCD readouts.

Nicknamed “the Tank,” the T90 was a large, durable camera made for pros and advanced amateurs that ran on four AA batteries and shot up to 4.5 frames per second. The camera has multiple micromotors to power its functions efficiently, three metering systems to suit diverse shooting conditions, eight autoexposure modes, and two manual exposure modes. Unlike the T80, it remained a manual focus camera and used a microprism/new split combination rangefinder with eight interchangeable focusing screens.

Despite being the last professional-grade manual focus camera from Canon, and the last professional camera to use the FD mount, the T90 offers a glimpse into Canon’s future. Ergonomic design features first used in this model became commonplace on EOS cameras. The T90 was the first Canon camera to support TTL flash metering, and its X-sync speed of 1/250 second was the fastest Canon had achieved at that time. As the culmination of technologies developed across the history of the FD mount and as the testing ground for future EOS technologies, the Canon T90 is rightfully considered a classic.

T60: The Afterthought

The Canon T60 was introduced in 1990, four years after the T90, and three years after EOS cameras had begun to take the market by storm. It’s a T-series camera in name only. Of course, it shared the FD mount with the other models, but it did not share the T series primary concern of pushing forward with automated and electronic features. The T60 did not have an auto film advance, nor Program autoexposure, nor did it share the progressive design approach of its predecessors; it was quite a basic manual camera with dials and cranks and intended to fill the gap left by the major markets’ turn toward the EOS system. The camera was not even sold in Japan and became destined for markets that could not afford the new electronic system cameras, including the student market. In fact, Canon subcontracted the making of this camera to the Cosina company.

The last of the T series cameras, the Canon T60 reverted to manual operation and a traditional form factor.

And so, the T-series and the Canon FD mount lived its last moments in perhaps its least interesting camera, but that does not detract from the twenty-plus years of great FD mount cameras and the five-year flash of innovation that was the Canon T series SLR.

Simplicity and Durability

And what about my Canon T50? After at least fifteen years in a box, I loaded it with two AA batteries and used the very convenient “B.C.” setting to check them. The familiar fast-paced beeps indicating a charged battery gave me hope that the camera would work. How I could ever have doubted it, is the only question I have now—I fed it a roll of Portra 400 film, closed the back, shot a few frames and the manual winder budged, indicating that the film was moving through the camera. No digital glitches or error messages would stop me now, but because the frame counter dial was broken, I was not 100% sure all was in order as I shot through my thirty-six. But isn’t that part of the thrill of film photography anyway, never really knowing that you have a photo until it’s far too late to do much about it?

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Images from downtown Manhattan, taken with the Canon T50 in January 2021

With other cameras in the T-series line, you could at least know that your settings were accurate, but with the automated T50, there is no way to control shutter speed or to know exactly your exposure settings. Using the camera again, I remembered judging an appropriate shutter speed by the sound of the exposure and now, another familiar sound: the auto advance “putch-errring,” truncated quickly by that oh-so recognizable set of beeps indicating that the roll had completed. With that sound I felt an excitement, an anticipation, like I hadn’t in many years. Let’s roll this film back and get it processed. While the images I took with my old T50 may not be worth a brag, they are all in focus, exposed properly, and hey—the T50 still works!

Let us know about your experiences with the Canon T series cameras, or any classic film camera, in the Comments section, below.

10 Comments

Karl my parents brought my T50 as a Christmas present in 1985 when I returned home form college my freshman year from Consumers in Pelham, NY replacing my Canon Snappy S point and shot.  I stil have the camera today along with  the Canon 244 Speedlight that offered only two settings 100 or 400.  I truly credit the T50 for furthering my love for photography and Canon cameras.  After my college days I stopped taking pictures seriously for nearly 20 years owning a couple of supper zoom cameras along the way.  About thirteen years ago my passion for serious photography resurfaced. Wanting to relive my experience with an interchangeable lens camera system I purchased the Canon 50D (my first digital camera was the Kodak Z980).  Over the past 13 years I have also owned the Canon 7D, 5DIII & IV, 1DX, R, M3, M6 and Sony 7R II (intrigued by auto eyefocus).  The Canon T50 is where it all started for me a no fuss camera that took decent pictures.

Thanks Andre for the great comment... we're about the same vintage and I bet there are many of us for whom the T50 was a starter.  I also had that same flash!!

I bought my daughter a T50 as she struggled a little with my AE-1P. As you noted, except for setting ISO there isn't anything beyond composition to think about. I don't own or shoot any T series as I never really understood the appeal. For manual focus FD lenses I would rather shoot the A-1 or AE-1P. If I want bells and whistles and motor drives/film advance I can shoot an EOS 3 or EOS Elan. I'm sure that the T70 and T90 are excellent cameras but...

That's a good comment about the options on either side of the T series, but how did your daughter do with the T50?  Also, the idea you mention about composition is interesting and, while learning on an "auto" camera may put you behind in terms of understanding exposure control, etc., it might help to learn composition skills. Thanks Christopher

I miss my T90, what a perfect camera to hold and use.

Thanks for the comment Jeffery...    It was fun using the T50 again ...and while I just checked the B&H used department and there's none currently available, they come in every fairly regularly if you get the itch again...

https://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/browse/Used-Equipment/ci/2870/N/4294247188

Thoroughly enjoyed your article about the T-Series cameras.  My CANON experience goes back even further.  During the Vietnam conflict there was a catalog of gifts that could be purchased & sent called the PACEX catalog, which stood for PACific EXchange.  In the Photography pages, they featured a CANON PELLIX QL for $110.  Also featured the companion body FT QL.  I got the PELLIX and a 50mm 1/4 lens.  As time went on, I bought other "FL" lenses both from CANON & TAMRON.  I still have both the PELLIX & the FT. They used the 1.3v mercury batteries, no longer available, but it was only for the metering, so not a huge problem. Both cameras are still in pristine condition, and the pellicle mirror has no wrinkles, a common problem for CANON in the late '60s, early '70s.

  I moved on to the EF & the F1 w/ the "FD" mount, and then got a T90 with the CANON-published T90 inspiration book.  This was a full-size book, loaded with photos, showing the dynamic captures that could be made using the advanced featured of the camera.  I was so completely possessed with this body that I bought a 2d one, and shouldered both practically everywhere I went, opting for a TAMRON SP 28-105/2.8 lens on one body & a TAMRON 60-300 lens on the other body.  I also carried a SIGMA wide angle zoom in my vest pocket.  I can't recall how many rolls of KODAK & FUJI slide film I used, but I enjoyed that T90 model immensely. When I got my first EOS camera, the 1N, I was surprised to see that my T90 was so similar in operation.  The only thing I didn't have to do is to focus.

  I do have some critical comments about the T90 though.  The first is that I take exception to your claim that the German industrial designer, Colani, was responsible for the advanced body design.  While I do not specifically remember the name of the person, but in the CANON book on the T90, not only do they show you internal blow-up drawings of the camera, with the placement of the motors, etc., but they also go into a considerable discussion of the origins of the design, including the person responsible for the body sculpting.  The name Colani does not ring a bell to me.  When I sold my 2 T90 bodies, I also included that book, so I cannot make reference to it.

  Maybe it was the peak of my life, but for me I have only very fond memories of the T90, and ironically, when I think about the uncountable thousands of images: chromes, B&W print,  colour print, and for the past 15 years, digital capture, I'd be willing to say that my best work was done with the T90s & the 1N / 1V bodies & compatible lenses.  I know that sounds strange in this ubiquitous digital world, but that's my feeling. While I no longer have any 'FD" style bodies, I still have my two "FL" bodies & one of my 1N bodies & a 1V body, besides the 5D Mk III, the 6D, the 7D Mk II & the 50D.  Go figure!!!! 

Wow. Karl, what a great comment, thanks for that.  Seems Canon owes you a little thank you as well.  So interesting, how you got your first Canon and the memories made with the rest.    

Below is a wikipedia page for Colani, which briefly mentions the T90 but highlights his auto and industrial design legacy. Thanks again!

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luigi_Colani

BOM DIA MEU NOME É SILAS AUGUSTO

SOU FOTOGRAFO A 42 ANOS, COMECEI EM 1979 NO BRASIL AS CAMERAS ERAM MUITO DIFICEIS NESTES TEMPOS, COMECEI EM UM JORNAL COM UMA CAMERA K1000 SEM FOTOMETRO, E COM COM FILMES KODAK 400 ISO  APRENDI NA MARRA A FAZER AS LEITURAS DE ILUMINAÇÃO, NO COMEÇO ISTO ERA MUITO RUIM, MAS ESTA DIFICULDADE ME AJUDOU MUITO POIS APRENDI A TER UM FOTOMETRO NA MINHA CABEÇA, TANTO PARA LUZ DO DIA COMO PARA FLASH, UM ANO DEPOIS FUI PARA A UNIVERSIDADE TRABALHAR COMO FOTOGRAFO, DAI TINHA LA VARIAS K1000 PENTAX E UMA JOIA UMA CANOS AE1 COM MOTOR DRIVE, QUE PASSOU A SER MINHA COMPANHEIRA, EM 1985 COMPREI MINHA PRIMEIRA CAMERA FOTOGRAFICA  UMA CANOS T50 ERA APAIXONADO POR ELA, HOJE QUERO COMPRA UMA PARA MINHA COLEÇÃO MAS NÃO TENHO ENCONTRADO, PASSEI PELAS EOS 620 650 EOS 5D E HOJE AINDA USO MINHA 5D DE 2004 A CANON É UMA CAMERA MUITO ROBUSTA

(DESCULPE-ME UMA TRADUÇÃO VIA GOOGLE)

GOOD MORNING MY NAME IS SILAS AUGUSTO

I AM A PHOTOGRAPH FOR 42 YEARS, I STARTED IN 1979 IN BRAZIL THE CAMERAS WERE VERY DIFFICULT IN THESE TIMES, I STARTED IN A NEWSPAPER WITH A K1000 CAMERA WITHOUT A PHOTOMETER, AND WITH KODAK 400 ISO FILMS I LEARNED IN MARRA TO TAKE ILLUMINATION READINGS, IN THE BEGINNING IT WAS VERY BAD, BUT THIS DIFFICULTY HELPED ME SO MUCH BECAUSE I LEARNED TO HAVE A PHOTOMETER IN MY HEAD, BOTH FOR DAYLIGHT AS FOR FLASH, ONE YEAR LATER I WENT TO THE UNIVERSITY TO WORK AS A PHOTOGRAPHER, THERE WAS A LOT OF K1000 PENTAX AE1 PIPES WITH DRIVE MOTOR, WHICH BECAME MY COMPANY, IN 1985 I BUY MY FIRST PHOTOGRAPHIC CAMERA A PIPES T50 WAS IN LOVE WITH HER, TODAY I WANT TO PURCHASE ONE FOR MY COLLECTION BUT I HAVE NOT FOUND IT, I WAS THROUGH THE EAS 620 650 EOSES USE MY 5D OF 2004 CANON IS A VERY ROBUST CAMERA

SILAS AUGUSTO

Silas: Obrigado pelo comentário ... yes, learning on cameras without a meter is definitely the best way to get a "photometer in your head"... thanks for sharing this history with us... which newspapers did you work for in Brasil? ... I bet you'll find a T50 on some used market and if I ever make it Brasil, I'll bring mine with me...

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