I first became interested in Canon cameras after I purchased my first DSLR, a Canon XTi/400D in 2007. Somewhere along the line I learned it could be tinkered with through the CHDK project, and along the way I became interested in Canon history. At the time I didn’t see myself eventually gaining an interest in pre-EF Canon cameras. I was aware they existed of course, and my Nikon friends would make fun of the fact that they could use old Nikon lenses, while I could not use old Canon lenses. No matter, I loved my Canon.
Somewhere along the way I read more and more about Canon’s history. Many websites came back again and again to this evolutionary oddity, a camera which looks like a modern EF camera, yet had the mount of the old incompatible lenses, which I now know as FD or FDn lenses. Some story about some crazy German designer with an Italian sounding name and insane curvilinear prototypes. I read a bit about it, and thought it was a neat design, but relatively high prices and the use of a lens mount for which I had no lenses reduced the appeal. There are also plenty of horror stories about this camera locking up and not working, ERR errors and other problems with a ~30 year old camera had me hold off.
And eventually as my collection grew and I happened upon other T series cameras I began to search for opportunities to add a T90 to my collection.
I ended up purchasing two or three over the years, though today I only have one, which was fully CLA’d by the excellent Steve Swerington of the Camera Clinic. The T90 is obviously his favorite all time camera from Canon. According to Steve the reason we have problems with T90s today is that it was a one off with a relatively short shelf life. Canon came out with the completely incompatible EF 650 less than a year later, building on the design and layout ideas while adopting a completely new lens system (EF) and abandoning all prior Canon lens mounts. There is plenty of information out there on this HUGE bet by Canon which obviously paid off long term. But nevertheless the fact remains Canon abandoned all prior lenses in this process. Thus the T90 was the last serious effort by Canon to create a FD based camera, and is a significant bridge between the past and future of the company.
As per Steve, the T90, while successful, was nevertheless a version 1.0 product and there never was a follow up. As such, the few bugs in the system were never resolved. Most notably the shutter mechanism, which is driven by electro magnets, needs to be exercised regularly or it gums up and freezes and you get an EEEE error. All three of my T90s suffered occasioning freezing, some worse than others. The CLA process eliminates this problem but I also fire a bunch of blank frames on this camera every month just to keep if fresh. Steve tells me contrary to what you might guess, well worn T90s are more likely to work than ones in mint condition, because of this issue alone. He also warned me that even after the CLA I would need to massage that shutter regularly.
Pro tip: I found that exercising the stop down button once or twice will sometimes unfreeze the T90 shutter so that it can be further massaged by running a few dozen continuous frames (obviously with no film in it). IM NOT RESPONSIBLE IF YOU BREAK YOUR T90 TIP: I found that a sharp whack against my hand – or more aggressively against the carpeted floor, would also sometimes unstick it. Basically I’d hold the camera normally in my right hand and smack the left/bottom corner hard against my left hand… or the floor – carpeted is important here! /END TIP. Actually that last tip is a bad idea. Send it to Steve instead and get it fixed properly.
Another problem: the camera doesn’t work right without a working button cell battery, which is almost impossible to replace by a normal user. This battery is internally housed above the pentaprism, but there is no access door, and no way to get to it without partially disassembling the camera. Steve installed a new one for mine! For braver souls with some soldering experience this can be done by yourself – see resrouce links below.
I also have a Command Back 90 for my T90 – and my LCD is in perfect functional condition. It is an absolutely tiny LCD, and others I’ve seen have LCD bleed. I guess I’m lucky – when I did my CLA Steve told me he hadn’t seen a T90 databack without LCD bleed.
What’s So Special?
The Canon T90 was a test-bed of sorts. The first camera with three separate motors: film advance, film rewind, and shutter winding. Along with Canon’s early auto-focus T80, and earlier focus assisted AL-1, the T90 is part of an interesting story of Canon’s camera development in the 1980s. Most of their innovation from the mid 1970s until the release of the EOS 650 in 1987 can all be traced to the development of the EOS/EF system.
Notably the Canon T90 was the first SLR with a multi function control wheel. Whether you use Canon, Nikon, Sony, Panasonic, Pentax or just about any other significant DSLR you probably have a variation of the same little wheel on your camera right next to the shutter button. This was the first camera of any brand with this innovation. Other cameras had combinations of push buttons, and there where plenty of wheels, but this was the first time a single wheel could mean different things. If you’re in aperture priority mode, the wheel sets aperture and the camera does the rest; in shutter priority mode the same wheel sets the shutter speed, and the camera does the rest… and so on. It can also be used to select ISO speed, all depending on other settings/buttons pushed on the camera.
Note the curvilinear, almost organic design? This was all to make the camera easier to use, more comfortable and a better extension of the photographer’s body. Yup, the first real attempt at what we might consider modern camera ergonomics. Gone were the clunky shapes of all prior cameras. Much like in video games of the 1980s, camera designers seemed to be going out in many different directions at once to see what would stick long term. With the T90 we have a revolutionary body design, from a company more known to be evolutionary.
Just about every DSLR today owes something to the T90. The idea of pushing and holding a button and rotating the control wheel to change a setting? Yeah that started with this camera. Having the camera conform to your hand, rather than your hand conform to the boxy cameras of old? Yeah that started here too. Advanced plastics and manufacturing techniques which led to what we have today all started here. This camera is immediately obvious to use, and shares much in common with the Canon 1 series cameras. A clear lineage to the current $6k 1Dx2 body is evident.
- Arguably the best camera body ever made for FD/FDn lenses
- Wonderful feel in the hands, nicely balanced
- Much lighter than contemporary EF cameras such as the EF 650, largely due to the smaller FN lenses (as there are no autofocus motors)
- Uses standard and easily available AA batteries
- Electronically controlled exposure – not affected by battery drain
- Must exercise that shutter or it will gum up, once gummed up it can be a pricey repair
- Heavier than much later EF Rebel cameras
- No multiple exposure option (but there are hacks for this)
- Off balance with lens attached, but thats really just a factor of the AA base raising the lens mount
- Revolutionary design, evolutionary dead end
- Throws an error if try to meter in stop down mode
- Manufacturer: Canon
- Country of Origin: Japan
- Made in: Japan
- Introduced: 1986
- Camera Type: Film camera
- Lens Mount: Canon FD/FDn
- Format: 35mm / 135
- Battery: 4xAA
- Dimensions (cm):
- Additional specifications on MIR
- Eyecup: Canon unique, current Eyecup EF works well
- Strap: Standard Canon 1980s
- Extended Grip: none available
- Suggested Flashes: T-series flashes, such as the 300TL or 244T
- Command Back 90 (with storage case) – adds functions for timer
- Data Memory Back 90 – with computer interface – stores data on captured frames
Both advanced backs allow for the printing of date etc info on the frame
- Canon Camera Museum
- Additional T90 resources on MIR
- How to use a Canon T90 on WikiHow
- Short history and another manual writeup
- Wikipedia article on the T90
- T90 shutter problem discussion on Flickr – I just sent mine to the Camera Clinic