The late 1980s brought big changes and a moment of decision for every camera maker in the world. And the harbinger of that change was a thing called autofocus. But the adoption of this technology, so ubiquitous today, didn’t happen overnight.
There are a lot of cameras that could claim to be the first to offer autofocus – Konica’s C35 AF, Polaroid’s SX-70 Sonar, the Pentax ME-F and Nikon’s F3AF – but it’s generally (and correctly) agreed among historians and camera geeks that the birth of true and successful autofocus first came in 1985 with Minolta’s Maxxum 7000.
The 7000 was the first to feature both integrated autofocus and motorized film advance within the camera body, and the first to sell in massive numbers. Now that a camera body had the ability to determine focus and move the lens to achieve it, the game had changed. This was a paradigm shift in photography, but one that many companies were reluctant to embrace. Leica had dismissed autofocus a decade before the 7000 hit shelves, and even as late as 1987 the consensus was still out on whether this technology was relevant for professional photographers.
In the Big Camera Maker game of poker, the going bet was that serious photographers with a ton of money (and pride) invested in their manual lenses wouldn’t make the switch to an unproven system that required another massive monetary investment. Canon decided to call that bet. Their call became the EOS line of cameras, a product line that would eventually make them king.
To appreciate how important this decision was to the brand, and to photography at large, it’s helpful to remember where Canon was positioned in the market at the time; sitting amongst Minolta and Olympus as the runners up to Nikon’s unquestioned dominance in the professional photographer market. EOS was Canon’s long-play gamble to take on Nikon as the premier choice of professionals.
To create EOS (Electro-Optical System), Canon went back to the drawing board to create an entirely new system based around autofocus cameras using lenses with internal motors. The EOS camera body would determine the proper focus and electronically communicate the information to the lens, whose motor would focus on the subject.
In March 1987, along with a lineup of 13 new EF-mount lenses, the Canon EOS 650 debuted as the first of Canon’s new camera range.
From a design perspective, the 650’s got 1987 written all over it. Its black plastic body exudes the anonymous formless aesthetic that has come to distinguish autofocus cameras of the era. These much-rounded edges and the bulbous body create an almost completely forgettable design. Aside from the oddly angled bottom corner, evocative of some sort of tug boat, there’s little here to distinguish the 650 from any other plastic-fantastic late-‘80s or ‘90s machine. Still, looks aren’t everything, and the body does feel sturdy and robust in the hand.
Contrary also to the convoluted professional bodies of earlier days, with their abundance of knobs, dials, and switches, it’s obvious that the 650’s designers preferred simplicity. It’s actually rather amazing how few buttons are on this camera.
On the right hand top are the two dials used to control shutter speed and aperture, and an LCD information screen. Underneath those is a smaller button to control spot metering and AE lock. On the left hand are buttons to change the exposure mode (manual, program, shutter and aperture priority, and depth-of-field priority) and exposure compensation. Underneath the film door is a hidden flap, which when pulled down reveals buttons for film rewind, adjusting ISO (it does read DX coding), battery check and timer.
And that’s pretty much it.
This scarcity of buttons and the great fit in the hand translates to intuitive use. When I pick up the 650, my instinct is to just raise it to my eye and start shooting. And shooting is what this camera does wonderfully. Just load film, pick an aperture, and go to town. Metering in all modes is fantastic. The 650 uses a very accurate 6-section evaluative meter, and it’s never let me down. While I haven’t really tried to trick the camera’s meter, in a number of situations where light was a real challenge the 650 always seems to deliver. In the big viewfinder is information on autofocus, aperture and shutter speed information and an indicator to let you know compensation is engaged (but not by how much).
If there is a frustration to be found on the 650, it just may be with its former greatest selling point. This is early autofocus, and compared to today’s machines, it can be slow. Faster glass can help mitigate this -the camera is much more competent focusing with a 50mm F/1.2 than it is with a 28mm F/2.8, for example. When shooting slower glass it can often take multiple attempts to achieve focus, and in low light it’s often faster to just switch to manual focus.
That said, when matched against its contemporaries the 650 is impressive. This machine is downright stealthy when compared to the seagull screech elicited by Nikon’s N8008. That’s really a testament to how Canon tackled autofocus. By putting the muscle inside the lens, the autofocus would exponentially improve with time. As AF lens tech improved, so too did their EOS cameras. Smart.
If you want to use manual mode, you’ll have to press the mode button and switch to manual. The camera then starts at 1/125 and F/5.6. Press the M button near the mount to display the metering in the viewfinder. Unlike almost every other camera using +/- to show metering, it uses “CL” to tell you to close the aperture, “OO” to show correct exposure and “OP” to open the aperture. To manually meter, you have to set the shutter speed, press and hold the M button and then rotate the aperture dial until “oo” pops up. If it’s not an aperture to your liking, release the M button, reset the shutter speed, rinse and repeat.
TL;DR: Don’t use manual mode.
Even stranger is the depth-of-field priority mode, where you record foreground and background distances before taking the photo. This feature was such a success that it lasted all of a few months, until Canon released the 620, which is basically the same camera as the 650 but offered even fewer buttons and increased capabilities like auto bracketing, a faster motor, 1/4,000 sec shutter speed, 1/250 flash sync and the ability to take multiple exposures on the same frame.
I look at EOS like this: I prefer shooting Nikon’s F4 or N8008 because I find them infinitely more interesting than my 650. But if I shoot those Nikons, I have to spend energy determining which lenses I’m using due to compatibility issues. Is the lens manual focus? Do I use the D-series lenses with aperture rings? Or do I go full masochist and use G-series lenses and reverse engineer my aperture via shutter priority? It seems a lot easier to just grab the 650 and slap on the same excellent glass that I’m using on my 6D.
And this is far and away the biggest perk of EOS and the 650; the whole system is compatible with itself, which is especially useful in the field. When I shot my best friend’s wedding, I used both the 6D and my 650, swapping lenses between the two. And Canon’s modern lenses are among the best performers in the world, on any camera, and the ability to use these new lenses on a film camera that came out thirty years ago is not something to be taken for granted.
But there’s no getting around the fact that midway through a roll of film, I’m bored to death. But why is this? The 650 makes great exposures without a lot of fuss, it’s fast to focus, and the feel of the camera is pretty damn good (I love the feel and simplicity much the same way I do the original Nintendo Game Boy). And because of its usability, the 650 makes a perfect companion on a shoot with Canon digital cameras. Yet whenever I’m using it I’m thinking about how much more fun I’d be having with other cameras.
I went back to film photography because of the experience, not the convenience. With the cost of equipment, film and processing, shooting film in 2017 is a labor of love and an undeniable expense.
Twice I’ve gone to Europe and exclusively shot film. Considering how much that experience meant to me, it would seem logical to go with the 650, which would give me nearly fail-safe photos with modern Canon glass. Instead, it sat on the shelf in favor of my Minolta XD, a camera makes me feel more connected to the photo through the simple act of twisting aperture rings and focusing manually. This direct tactile input somehow helps me feel the experience greater – it makes sense that I’d choose the XD over the clinical Canon.
But don’t assume that means the 650 isn’t an excellent camera. It can take great, perfectly-exposed and sharply-focused photographs time and time again. But it makes the process of taking photos nearly forgettable. This camera is simple, bare and clinical. I feel no passion clicking its shutter. It feels like the camera owned by a company and not a photographer. It’s a clear harbinger of where camera producers were heading in the late 1980s, for better or worse.
Canon made a gutsy business call with the 650, and thirty years later they’re at the top of the DSLR kingdom. And while they should be applauded for it, I see other manufacturers gaining ground with cameras that look nothing like a hulking 5D. Smaller, mirror-less cameras from Fuji and Sony are the machines to have, and more and more professional photographers are shooting everything from fashion shoots to weddings with these compact systems.
Maybe it’s time for Canon to make another gutsy call.