Canon EOS 650 Camera Review – The Autofocus Revolution Arrives

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.

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11 Comments

  • Reply
    Simon
    June 9, 2017 at 9:49 am

    Nice write up, I was worried I would feel the same disconnection with my f90x, but happily the only issue I have is that is wastes so much film on loading. I imagine the Canon does the same thing. I’ve been curious about these early EOS cameras so your article is much appreciated. The lack of backwards compatability totally killed canon as a potential system for me. That was a seriously gutsy move on their part and I doubt there is anyone at Canikon with that kinda vision and nerve these days.

    • Reply
      Jeb Inge
      June 9, 2017 at 11:21 am

      I worried about the same thing with my N8008, but I have a much tighter connection to that one. It just has more personality for me.

    • Reply
      Huss
      June 13, 2017 at 1:26 am

      Yeah the dumping of the FD mount killed any interest I have in Canon AF cameras. I much prefer Nikon’s take, where you can use pretty much any lens going back to the 1960s on their current and not so current film and digital cameras.

      I totally get Jeb’s point of picking the XD over the 650. Even though I have an F6, I often use a Nikon F, with the plain unmetered prism head, instead. The involvement is just so much more, umm, involving…

  • Reply
    mmarquar
    June 9, 2017 at 10:24 am

    Nicely said. I appreciate your sentiment about these cameras being too easy to use, but still they are quite nice and nearly worry free.

    • Reply
      Jeb Inge
      June 9, 2017 at 11:22 am

      Thanks, being worry-free is probably the 650’s best attribute!

  • Reply
    Jim Grey
    June 9, 2017 at 10:50 am

    I think I still have one of these tucked in a box under my bed. It’s a competent camera. I reviewed it here: https://blog.jimgrey.net/2015/04/13/canon-eos-650/

    But later EOS bodies were smaller (the consumer versions anyway), and focused faster, and had controls that match the modern idiom. And you can pick up semi-pro bodies for a *song*. I got an A2e last year for $27. Twenty seven bucks! Holy cow!

    So my recommendation right now when people ask is: to satisfy your EOS curiosity, get a later semi-pro body, or at least one of the non-Rebel consumer bodies. (The Rebels had failure-prone shutters.)

    • Reply
      Jeb Inge
      June 9, 2017 at 11:24 am

      Competent is a good word for it, Jim. I think I picked up my 650 for less than 20 bucks, which is pretty awesome for a camera with that level of consistency.

  • Reply
    Neilson
    June 9, 2017 at 11:40 am

    I enjoyed this article; I’m always interested in the history of technological advancements in photography. I also totally get why the camera bores you. I have a Nikon N90s, which if I remember correctly, has superior autofocus to the EOS 650. I have a great lens for it, the Nikkor 35-70mm f/2.8 zoom, and the metering and autofocus are flawless. I bought this camera in the late 90’s and didn’t use it for a long time, due to both getting out of working in photography and dabbling with digital. After the 2016 election I started shooting the frequent protest marches in NYC and quickly realized that the N90s was the perfect camera for this. For crowded events with a lot of people in motion a camera like the N90s or EOS 650 with auto focus, metering and film advance is definitely the way to go, in my opinion. However, most of the stuff I shoot isn’t events and there’s something just too clinical about the N90s, not to mention the fact that you can’t be discreet with it since it’s so big and noisy. So while the N90s comes out for events, my camera for daily use is almost always my Nikon FM2n.

  • Reply
    musickna
    June 9, 2017 at 1:41 pm

    Good article. I picked up an EOS 650 fairly early on in my return to film photography that began three years ago, largely to make use of my existing Canon EF lenses. I certainly second every thing you wrote about it. As a manual setting shooter, configuring the 650 is a pain and certainly the autofocus is slow and tends to hunt much more than you’ll find in more modern cameras. That said, I enjoyed photographing with it and took some pleasing photographs. Since then I’ve upgraded to to EOS 1N and 1V film cameras that offer a much improved shooting experience but I didn’t get rid of the 650 (after all, I only paid $16 for it) and every once in a while take it for I guess might be best described as historical reasons.

  • Reply
    Philip Dygeus
    June 14, 2017 at 6:15 pm

    The EOS 650 is a great camera. I used it as my main camera for years before getting the EOS100. I certainly cannot relate to the sentiment that halfway through a roll I would have felt bored to death but then again, to me, photography is more about the photos than the equipment.

  • Reply
    chopsphoto
    July 10, 2017 at 11:59 am

    My 650 was my first film camera. Actually bought it because i wanted the lens with it for my T5i. Countless rolls later I’m still happy with it. Great first film camera

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