I knew that at some point I would have to add this iconic camera to my collection, and in 2023 I finally made good on my intention!
The Canon T90 is perhaps the archetypal example of a truly paradigm shifting camera. Before the Canon T90 pretty much every 35mm SLR camera looked one way, and almost every 35mm SLR camera that came after looked like the T90. I'm exaggerating a little, but not by much!
But most importantly, the T90 introduced a brand new user-interface element, the electronic command dial, that survived the transition to digital photography and still dominates the world of camera design today nearly 40 years after it was launched in 1986.
The 1970s & 80s was a time of increasing electronification of the camera. Canon themselves were at the very forefront of this process with the introduction of the Canon AE-1 in 1976, one of the first cameras to use a central micro-computer to control its metering and automatic exposure system. But The AE-1 still used the familiar shutter speed dial as it's main user-interface element, even though the AE-1's electronics made a shutter speed dial unnecessary. The hunt was on for a modern alternative!
A variety of manufactures tried alternatives to the shutter speed dial: Pentax was the first company to introduce a camera with manual control over shutter speed, but no shutter speed dial. That camera was the Pentax ME Super, launched in 1979 with up/down buttons to control shutter speed. That worked reasonably well, and indeed it was copied by several other manufacturers (including Canon on the T90's predecessor, the T70), but buttons didn't really provide the kind of tactile feedback that most photographers like. Although quite popular for a while, ultimately up/down buttons proved to be a dead end. Minolta tried rocker switches on the Minolta 9000 of 1985, but that was even less popular. I don't recall any other manufacturers copying that idea!
And then in 1986 Canon gave us the T90 with the electronic command dial. And suddenly the entire photographic world said, of course! Why didn't we think of that?! This is how it should be done!! You will find an electronic command dial (or two!) that is virtually identical to the one on the T90 on virtually every advanced camera ever since, even into the digital era.
But of course the T90 wasn't just about the electronic command dial. It also introduced a new aesthetic based on soft curves that became almost as dominant as the electronic command dial. But the original is always the best, isn't it? And the even today the T90 isn't just a camera: it's a piece of modern sculpture. And Canon were clearly proud of their piece of sculpture: the Canon T90 brochure, from which the banner image above was taken, contains dozens of images clearly designed to elevate a mere camera into a piece of fine art.
The Canon T90 isn't just about a revolutionary user interface and beautiful aesthetics: Canon packed every single piece of advanced technology available to them into this camera (except autofocus… we had to wait until 1987 for Canon to launch their first modern autofocus camera in the shape of the Canon EOS 650). And they combined that technology with superb build quality to create a truly professional camera! Here is the specification:
|Type||35mm focal-plane shutter SLR camera with built-in motor drive and multi-mode AE|
|Normal lens||FD 50mm f/1.4, others|
|Lens mount||FD mount|
|Shutter||Vertical-travel, focal-plane electronic shutter. With multi-program AE and preset aperture AE: B, 30, 20, 15, 10, 8, 6, 4, 3, 2, 1.5, 1, 0.7, 1/2, 1/3, 1/4, 1/6, 1/8, 1/10, 1/15, 1/20, 1/30, 1/45, 1/60, 1/90, 1/125, 1/180, 1/250, 1/350, 1/500, 1/750, 1/1000, 1/1500, 1/2000, 1/3000, 1/4000 sec. X-sync at 1/250 sec. Second-curtain synchronisation enabled. Built-in electronic self-timer (with blinking LCD). Shutter speeds settable in whole-or half-stop increments.|
|Viewfinder||Fixed eye-level pentaprism. 0.77x magnification and 94% coverage. Laser Matte with micro-prism/new split combination rangefinder. Eight interchangeable focusing screens including standard Type E.|
|Viewfinder information||AE lock display, shutter speed, aperture, manual, flash ready, exposure compensation, correct exposure, remaining-frame count, exposure scale, multi-spot metering, FE lock, partial metering circle and spot metering circle at center, H/S control, and other indications.|
|Metering & exposure control||Composite SPC for TTL full-aperture metering (centre-weighted averaging, partial metering at center, spot metering at center, multi-spot metering) with shutter speed-priority AE, aperture-priority AE, variable shift program AE (7 modes), manual, TTL preset aperture AE, and aperture-set. AE lock provided. Exposure compensation range of ±2 EV (in 1/3-stop increments). Metering range at ISO 100 and f/1.4: EV 1 – 20. Film speed range from ISO 6 to 6400.|
|External LCD||Picture-taking modes, film-loaded indicator, film transport, exposure compensation, bulb time, multiple exposure setting and count, self-timer countdown, and other indications.|
|Power source||Four 1.5 V size-AA batteries (Ni-Cd batteries also compatible). Lithium BR-1225 or CR-1220 for memory backup power.|
|Film loading & advance||After aligning film leader at mark, close camera back for auto loading. Continuous shooting at 4.5 fps (H), 2 fps (L), or 1 fps (S).|
|Film rewind||Auto rewind with built-in motor. Mid roll rewind enabled.|
|Dimensions & weight||153 x 121 x 69 mm, 800 g|
As befits a top of the range camera with professional features, the Canon T90 had interchangeable focussing screens with a total of 8 to choose from. Slightly annoyingly my T90 came with a Type C all matte focussing screen which I find really difficult to focus with. Fortunately these focussing screen are not too difficult to come by, so I bought 2 more. One was the standard type E focussing screen which has both micro-prism and slit image focussing aids which came in a Type C box (appropriately enough as it now contains the type C screen that was fitted in my T90 when I first bought it!) and the rather unusual Type L screen. This L screen has a split image focusing aid but with both vertical and horizontale divisions to split the image into 4 parts. This makes it easy to focus on both horizontal and vertical lines in your subject.
I have to admit I got the Type L screen just to see what it was like, never having used a similar focussing screen before. In all honesty I think the combination of split image and micro-prism focussing aids in the standard Type E screen achieves similar functionality in, perhaps, a slightly more usable way. But still, the Type L screen is a nice little technical curiosity for a vintage camera geek like me!
Rather amusingly the Type C box had the original hand written price label on it. In 1986 it cost £12.69. I paid £15 for these focussing screen second hand in 2023, so the price has gone up slightly . But then again, adjusted for inflation £12.69 in 1986 equate to around £46 in 2023, which makes £15 sound not quite so bad.
Canon T90 in use
The first thing that struck me about the T90 is that it's one big and hefty camera! The 800 grams quoted in the specification doesn't include the 120 grams for 4 AA batteries. Complete with the 50mm f/1.4 lens and batteries it weighs in at a shoulder wrenching 1160 grams! Not much fun to carry around if you're used to, for example, the 680 grams that a Pentax ME Super weighs when outfitted with a similar 50mm f/1.4 lens.
And you are going to need the instruction manual to work this camera out, regardless of how much experience you have with cameras! The electronic command dial itself will be very familiar to modern camera users, but many other things will not be. Just as an example, the camera has two fully automatic program modes, one is called "Program" and the other is called "P". Would you know what the difference is without looking at the manual? (In case you're wondering "Program" is the standard fully automatic mode, and "P" is the same but with a limited form of program shift.)
Another problem is that many of the controls are unlabelled. Again, just as an example, see that small button next to the next to the command wheel? What do you suppose that does? And again, how would you know without the instruction manual? (It's the spot metering button… so it does nothing at all until you have switched the camera into spot metering mode!)
Fortunately you can download the Canon T90 instruction manual easily from butkus.org.
And it's worth noting that this is an old camera… that means the main display in the viewfinder is LED rather than LCD. LEDs use much more power than LCDs so they are only turned on an visible when the shutter button is half-pressed or the exposure preview button (another unlabelled button) on the back of the camera is pressed. This can lead to some rather awkward grips when you need to see the LED readouts while making adjustments at the same time.
To put it shortly, and despite have waxed lyrically about how beautiful this camera is, this isn't a camera I find particularly enjoyable (and certainly not easy) to actually use! I'm still looking forward to running some film though this camera, but I doubt the T90 is ever going to become my go-to film camera.
The dreaded EEE error
If the first thing you see when you switch on your T90 with the lens set to the 'A' setting is 'EEE' on the top plate LCD display where where you would normally expect to see the shutter speed displayed, the first thing to check is that you don't have the depth of field lever engaged. The depth of field lever on the T90 is unusual in that it is designed to stay engaged until you disengage it, so it's quite easy to engaged the depth of field lever and then forget about it!
Once you have ensured the depth of field lever is disengaged, if you still see 'EEE' or 'HELP' then you have a more serious problems, and there are several common issues with the T90. There are plenty of videos on YouTube about the T90 EEE error that have various fixes, so that's probably the best place to start. But when it finally happens to my T90 I'll probably just put it on the shelf and admire it as a beautiful piece of sculpture!