Throughout the 1970s, camera makers everywhere were surging forward on a wave of technological advancement. The continually improved designs of SLRs coupled with perfect marketing practices created astronomical retail success for Single Lens Reflex makers. To meet demand, the big Japanese camera firms continued to produce SLRs in unbelievable numbers for the duration of the decade. By the start of the 1980’s, however, this feverish production had led to market saturation. Sales of SLRs began to drop precipitously in the following three years, as most photographers who wanted an SLR already owned one.
It was obvious that camera makers needed to court new shooters, but new shooters were more often intimidated by the complexity of SLRs. Sales indicated that new photo hobbyists were looking ever more towards the newer and simpler-to-use point-and-shoot cameras. These point-and-shoot machines were stylish, user-friendly, and flaunted greater automation over their SLR ancestors.
By the end of 1983 the SLR camera’s fall from grace was a sad reality, and camera makers all began vying for a larger slice of the growing new-user market. Canon was one of the first to take the usability and automation of a point-and-shoot camera and adapt it into an SLR body, and in 1983 they released a camera that would be one of the simplest SLRs of all time, the Canon T50.
Aesthetically the T50 is polarizing. It doesn’t have the classically beautiful lines of a German rangefinder or the rugged purposefulness of countless SLRs before it. It’s a mix of strange angles and odd curves, moulded from matte-black polycarbonate with mustard lettering. It’s a bit too large, and the hand-grip looks more like a tumor than a well-sussed design element. The strap lugs are out of balance and placed oddly on the front of the body, and the rest of the shell is visually barren. 1980’s fetishism aside, it’s a pretty ugly camera.
When looking at the blank slate that makes up the top of the T50 one is immediately underwhelmed. There are nowhere near the amount of knobs, dials, and switches that photophiles expect. Beyond the shutter button and ASA dial there exists only one other dial. This sad, little knob changes the mode from Program to Self-Timer, and rotates for a Battery Check. Most conspicuously absent is any kind of shutter speed selector. That’s because the T50 has an entirely automated shutter. Because of this, it would be easy to cast the machine aside as an excessively simplified and handicapped tool; a toy camera for amateurs.
Of course Canon did develop this machine for amateurs, but they also developed it to be a real SLR. This is most evidenced by Canon’s decision to equip the camera with their ubiquitous FD mount, allowing the use of their full range of SLR lenses. The FD range is fairly massive and can stand against any other brand’s contemporary lens range. Couple the T50 with Canon’s rather wonderful FD 35-105mm F/3.5 and you’ve got a completely capable manual focus zoom camera. For standard lens sizes the 50mm F/1.8 is perfection, producing extremely sharp images and great bokeh (when the T50 allows it). Color rendition is also fairly incredible with the 50mm F/1.8.
Important also is the fact that each FD lens offers fully manual aperture control. This means that mounting an FD lens on a T50 gives the photographer some control over depth of field, one of the most important aspects of artistic photography. The caveat with using FD lenses in this way on the T50 is that whenever the lens is set to a manual aperture (not “A” mode), the T50 locks the shutter speed at 1/60th of a second. So while some artistic control is returned to the shooter, the T50 is in no way a fully manual camera. Think of it as a point and shoot of any focal length with impeccable image quality.
Even with this limitation on creative control, the T50 is a pretty fun camera to use. It create a kind of freedom that’s difficult to find with the more “serious” machines, allowing the photographer to focus less on the science of exposure and more on producing the desired artistic effect through framing and composition. Additionally it’s possible to change your exposures a bit and compensate for the locked shutter speed. To trick the T50 into over- or under-exposing your shot, simply estimate available light and raise or lower the ISO (ASA) value.
The viewfinder, admittedly lacking in useful information, is amazingly bright and massive. The microprism and split-image rangefinder focus assist makes using the manual focus only FD lenses an incredibly simple task. To the right of the image window there’s an LED display showing “P” or “M” mode. “M” denotes that the aperture ring on the lens has been set to any other aperture outside of “A”, for automatic. Beyond this, the only information is that when the light meter has set a shutter speed slow enough to produce image shake, the “P” blinks slowly. When the light parameters have been judged to exceed the capabilities of the camera (too much or too little light for proper exposure) the “P” flashes rapidly and the shutter will not release.
When considering everything about the T50, it’d be natural to think it’s a stinker. With its combination of bland to ugly looks, the arguably handicapped performance, and the totally sparse viewfinder, there doesn’t seem to be a bright-side. But oddly enough, the T50 is a remarkably fun camera. It’s solidly built, and when paired with FD lenses it’s capable of producing outstanding images. The rather cumbersome design actually lends itself very well to shooting, with the camera staying perfectly balanced on a strap or in the hand. The bulbous hand-grip does its job better than countless more attractive machines, and the oddly angular texturing on the back facilitates perfect one-handed operation.
With the T50, the moment of zen occurs when the photographer accepts the camera’s limits and embraces the vision that its designers intended. With the lens set to “A” the camera slips into Program mode, and every single shot will be technically perfect. The shooter doesn’t have to think about anything beyond composition, framing, and perspective. This provides a remarkable sense of freedom, and if the T50 had been invented in the 1950’s it would be regarded today as the most important camera of all time. As it was released in the 80’s, it’s mostly regarded as an irrelevant and obsolete machine.
But this may be the wrong perspective. Yes, the T50 limits the shooter, but don’t limiting forces have a way of bringing out the very best in an artist? These limits allow the shooter to concentrate on the heart of the image being created, while letting the T50 do the math. In the right hands there’s no reason the T50 can’t create jaw-dropping images.
The ultimate test of any camera is whether or not its fun to shoot. In this regard, something about the T50 just works. Whether its the clanking shutter coupled with the abrupt and eager winding motor, the charmingly ugly looks, or the rather excellent lens choices, something about the T50 makes one want to keep shooting. Couple this intangible thrill with the fact that a pristine example of this 1980’s high-tech wizardry can be purchased today for somewhere around $20 and the T50 becomes even more of a winner. For that kind of money it’s worth adding another quirky gem of a camera to the collection, and getting some excellent photos out of the deal isn’t half bad either.