Canon T80 Review – A Canon Fan Shoots Canon’s First Autofocus SLR

Canon T80 Review – A Canon Fan Shoots Canon’s First Autofocus SLR

2800 1866 Chris Cushing

Back in mid-December James asked if I wanted to review the Canon T80. When I responded enthusiastically (and in the affirmative), James seemed to think I was being facetious. His reponse to my apparent excitement at shooting this glorious flop of a camera? “I was sure a big NO was coming!” Right at that moment I should have been suspicious.

His assumption was based firmly in reality. Even among the Canon-loyal, the Canon T80 does not have a good reputation. It was the brand’s second attempt at adding autofocus to an SLR camera (the first was simply an autofocus lens to mount on their existing manual-focus SLRs), and it was the first time they paired an automated camera with an autofocus lens to create a cohesive package. But the first isn’t always the best, and the T80 has a reputation for being slow to focus, bordering on unusable. I was prepared to deal with this in trade for the chance to shoot it. Just look at it, do SLRs get any more 80s-tastic?

The fully-automated Canon is pretty far out of my wheelhouse, and at the time of this review it is the only auto-focus camera in my house, other than my brand new Fuji X-T3 and my wife’s micro-4/3 Olympus. Being a bit of a control freak, I don’t like cameras that try to separate me from the shooting process. I knew the program-mode-only T80 was going to infuriate me at some level, but the novelty proved impossible to pass up. 

Despite EOS’ imminent arrival, Canon was not ready to say goodbye to the FD mount that had won them so much acclaim, and the T80 would be the venerable mount’s last and most bizarre evolution. Launched in April, 1985, the T80 came equipped with a modified version of the FD mount, known as AC, and three dedicated autofocus lenses (the AC 50mm f/1.8, the AC 35-70mm f/3.5-4.5 used in this writeup, and the AC 75-200mm f/4.5). For Canon and the FD mount, these new lenses proved to be a leap to nowhere. Just two years later the world would be introduced to the functionally superior EOS cameras and their new EF autofocus mount. 

When Canon launched the EOS system in 1987 they pulled a remarkable coup- the brand’s first autofocus camera system didn’t just work, it worked well. While the EOS system wasn’t all new technology, it was the brand’s first all-new lens mount since FL launched in the early 1960s. It eschewed all mechanical connections between the camera body and lenses in favor of electronic ones, and forced dedicated FD users to completely rethink their brand loyalties.

But for me, a committed FD user more than three decades after the mount’s obsolescence, I simply could not look away from the Canon T80. 

For fans of 80s-chic, the T80 has it all. The camera even has “80” in the name, forever cementing its connection to the decade of legwarmers and the stale fog of Aquanet. The T-Series represented a dramatic shift in Canon ergonomics; manual controls were out, and both buttons and LCD screens were very, very in. 

The entire series moved away from the traditional arrangement of shutter knob to the right of the prism, exposure compensation to the left, and advance and rewind in the industry-standard locations. Instead, all four T-Series cameras feature automatic advance, automatic rewind, LCD displays on the top plate, and new body materials. 

By the standards of this new family of cameras, the Canon T80 was incredibly minimalist. The top plate boats a small LCD display, a sliding switch, and just four buttons. And one of those buttons is the shutter release. For the habitually fidgety, the T80 offers virtually nothing to play with. Beyond the five controls on the top plate, the only other items on the body are the back release, rewind switch, and on-off switch.

I appreciate a simple camera, but the T80 is truly sparse.

Compared to earlier Canons, even plastic Canons like the A-1, the T80 feels exceedingly retrograde. Where the A-1 could almost fool users into thinking its body was metal under thick lacquer, the T80 is an unabashed celebration of the synthetic. The dark grey plastic has a faintly textured finish that is more 1987 Hyundai Excel center console than F-4 Phantom control stick. 

Despite its material faults, the Canon T80 is very comfortable in the hand, with well shaped grips and a thumb rest on the back plate. Unlike an all-metal camera, the T80 is comfortable to shoot in cold weather; you can do so without freezing your hands. And when it gets that cold, the T80 still works – even through the haptic deadening of a fleece-lined winter glove I had no trouble using every control on the camera. 

So, take that, F-1. 

The peculiar asymmetrical lens follows the same material and ergonomic trends as the body. For fans of manual-focus FD lenses this autofocusing behemoth is the most alien part of the T80. For EOS users, it feels like some primordial beast that clawed its way out of the ooze, unfinished. 

Virtually everything familiar about Canon lenses for three decades prior to the T80 was thrown away. There is no aperture ring. The focus ring is hidden. This lens screams “no gods, no masters” through the pantheon of Canon lens design, before tripping over its own feet at the altar of EOS.

It boasts just three obvious controls; a selector switch for shooting modes (which curiously switches between single shot, multi-shot, and manual focus), a switch for approximating focus distance, and a larger slider for zoom. While the lens can be used in manual focus, the focus ring can only be accessed through a pair of narrow slots that double as a lens cap mount index. The implication being that you can focus for yourself, but you probably shouldn’t.

Despite all the quirks, the T80 has a peculiar clarity of purpose. All of the controls have a common feel, and the layout is incredibly sensible. The T80 can easily be operated single-handed, both thanks to its low weight and the minimalist controls. The viewfinder, in classic Canon fashion, is clear and bright. 

Unfortunately, that is just about where my praise for the Canon T80 ends. 

In practice, the T80 is the most thoroughly uncommunicative SLR I’ve ever used. The bright viewfinder contains a double-split prism focusing aid, which looks more-or-less like a crosshair, and precisely four lights. From top to bottom these lights are M, indicating manual mode; P, indicating program mode; a small diamond, indicating a mode warning; and a flash symbol, indicating that an attached flash is charged and ready to use.

On this wholly automated camera there is no indication in the viewfinder of shutter speed or aperture value, which is just as well, as the shooter only has control of the former in just one of the five shooting modes. In most situations you are simply supposed to trust that the camera has achieved a correct exposure by whether or not the P in the viewfinder is flashing. 

The four automated modes include Program, deep depth of field, shallow depth of field, and stop-action; which prioritizes higher shutter speeds. The fifth mode, which the manual refers to as “flowing mode,” allows the user to select from four shutter speeds for use when shooting moving subjects. 

In effect, the T80 is point-and-shoot software running on SLR hardware. The autofocus system detects contrast in the focus area using a linear CCD, much like contemporary compact cameras. This system also serves as a focus aid for non-autofocus FD lenses on the T80, which is novel but not particularly helpful in practice. Even new shooters would do better to trust their eyes rather than the T80’s supposedly useful electronic beeps.

Using the T80’s autofocus in all but the best light is an exercise in futility. Around midday the system works remarkably well. As the shadows lengthen at 3PM on a winter day, it comes unglued, forcing the shooter to find patches of bright light and high contrast to have any hope of the camera achieving focus. 

When the autofocus gets lost, it simply hunts up and down the full focus range until it finds some measure of acceptable contrast. This futile search is accompanied by a sad, electronic whine; like some sort of obsolete robot searching for meaning from the bottom of a scrap heap. 

The lens itself is fairly unremarkable. In terms of sharpness and contrast, it’s very par for the course for the FD system. In certain conditions it proved to be very punchy and contrasty, but the lack of control offered by the T80 made it a challenge to get exposures that made the most of its virtues. Even in the middle of Manhattan the whole system felt rather lost in the wilderness. The quirks of the body meant I couldn’t put the lens through any real tests, and the lens’ very design made it unusable on my digital camera.

Compared to the much more sophisticated EOS system that debuted the following year, the Canon T80 feels utterly backwards. Where EOS felt polished from the beginning, apart from its clever ergonomics, the T80 feels unfinished. Functionally it’s only halfway to where it needs to be, and it falls behind both its manual focus ancestors and its autofocus successors. It’s like Caress of Steel sandwiched between Fly By Night and 2112. 

As a Canon aficionado, I feel my excitement at getting to shoot it was wholly justified. It’s like getting the chance to drive a Yugo; I knew it wasn’t going to be good, but it would be foolish to deny myself the opportunity. 

Perhaps even more annoyingly, I wanted to like the Canon T80. I had hoped that its reputation stemmed from snobby professionals looking down their nose at what was then new technology, or modern spoiled photographers dismissing it as slow, old tech. I hoped that in practice the camera would be fun and easy to use. What I found instead was a gross misstep stuck between two long eras of great Canon cameras. 

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Chris Cushing

Chris Cushing is a freelance writer, pedant and photographer who still plays with cars. Based in Albany, New York, he can often be seen aimlessly wandering the Northeast with a camera twice his age slung around his neck.

All stories by:Chris Cushing
27 comments
  • I’m imagining a shootout between the T80 and the Pentax ME-F, to answer the burning question: which is more frustrating?

  • I think Canon released this camera because they did not take autofocus seriously and underestimated the speed and extent to which it would take over the camera market. I would have hoped that this camera would have been successful, since I was pretty heavily invested in the Canon FD system at the time. Instead, they came out with the EOS system a few years later, which rendered the FD system obsolete. The T-80 at least superficially seems to be a T-70 with autofocus. I had the T-70 for a while but eventually traded up to the T-90. The T-70 was not a bad rig but it was outclassed by the T-90 in features and the AE-1 and A-1 in build quality.

    • Armand- I’m actually looking for a T90 now. After all the frustration the T80 caused me, the groundswell of adoration for the T90 intrigues me. It looks like an early EOS with the FD mount, and I’ve heard nothing but good things about it.

      • I had and used the T-90 for about 10 years and enjoyed the camera a lot. It has an excellent metering system with a spot meter option. My only complaint was that the camera was rather large and heavy. Your instinct is right; Canon based the EOS cameras on the T-90. If you buy a T-90, make sure the shutter fires every time you press the shutter release. The T-90 is noted for shutter issues. Mine started to develop a shutter problem after about eight or nine years. A repairman told me that it was repairable but at that point Canon stopped supporting the FD system. The writing was on the wall. I did not want to invest any more in an orphan system. So, I traded in my Canon gear and got a Nikon FM2n, which is still going strong after 20 years with no issues.

  • “When the autofocus gets lost, it simply hunts up and down the full focus range until it finds some measure of acceptable contrast. This futile search is accompanied by a sad, electronic whine; like some sort of obsolete robot searching for meaning from the bottom of a scrap heap.”

    OK, this made my day. Thanks for making my morning coffee include a good laugh!

  • The T50 and T70 are nice. The T90 is very nice.

  • “..and the stale fog of Aquanet..”

    LOL

    The quality of writing on this site really separates it from everything else out there.

  • Strangely enough, I actually like the T80’s body styling, kind of reminds me of those Minox folding 35mm cameras like the GT-E, with smooth plastic and rounded, chamfered edges. But the hump on that lens (Marty Feldman in Young Frankenstein: “What hump?”) is downright “fugly,” looks like a tumor growing under the plastic skin!

    Thanks for the review, keep up the good work.

    • I do think the T80 is a good looking camera, I just had issues with nearly everything else. It has the same sort of 80s charm as a Nissan 300ZX Turbo or a Super Nintendo.

      • Sega Genesis is better.

      • But, if one wants mediocre auto-focus and and beautiful 80’s aesthetic, why no go for the Minolta Maxxum 7000? It looks and works better tbh

        • I agree, personally. I think the Maxxum 7000 and 5000 are great.

        • I was thinking the same thing, a Maxxum 7000, or a Nikon F-501/N2020.

          Either one would be flawless for sitting on the dash of your ’85 Toyota MR2. (They could also be used to take photographs.)

          • There is an 80s/90s themed car show series called Radwood, and I’ve been making a point to bring 80s cameras to the events. My A-1 is my go-to, and it’s a good match for my ’87 944S that I take to the shows.

  • Shubroto Bhattacharjee January 21, 2019 at 6:19 pm

    Fascinating write up, Chris!
    That “shooting mode” switch on the lens barrel — could it be for selecting the focus mode — one-shot, continuous (servo) or manual?
    Despite being a Nikon devotee, I worship the T90 and its remarkable flash-control system. 😂

    • Confusingly, the first two settings on that switch control shooting mode- single shot or continuous. As far as I can tell (and from what the manual indicates) the continuous mode doesn’t engage a tracking/continuous focus mode. The third setting, manual, is for manual focus.

      The other switch helps the lens by narrowing the range of distances it can focus within. IE, if you know you’re shooting close, you can limit it to 0m-0.8m. If you won’t be shooting close, and want it to ignore nearby things, set it to 1m-infinity. I didn’t find the latter setting very useful, and generally left it in 0m-infinity unless I was shooting at very short range.

  • I wish had gotten into the world of canon fd. I never owned a canon slr till about a year ago I bought a canon Eos 1n just to use canons 35mm 1.4l that I had used in college with the news paper staff. I had forgotten how loud canon pro Eos film bodys are and sold it immediately. I would like to try out a t90 and 24 1.4 fd combo though. (random thoughts)

    • Apart from the L glass, FD is still a pretty affordable system to get in to. You could be in to a really nice FTb with a 50mm lens for under $100, it’s a really enjoyable system to use!

  • vintagefilmhacker January 31, 2019 at 8:58 am

    I’ve picked up a smattering of early AF SLR’s, including this T80, the EOS 650, the Maxxum 7000, the Nikon N2020, the Pentax SF1, and a Chinon CP5 with a self-contained AF lens. I’ve found that all of them are actually quite enjoyable cameras to pick up and use with the exception of the T80. I’ll admit I was hoping that your write up might somehow encourage me to bring this bulky monster along with me one day soon, but alas, you’ve confirmed my fears and suspicions. Eventually I’ll take the T80 out, but no time soon – thanks for the write up!

  • I am a big fan of the T70, I own three of them. The T80’s humped auto focus lens inspired Vivatar to release a similar looking auto focus lens of its own. My wife bought me the Vivatar lens as a Christmas gift one year for my T70. I actually worked quite well in well lit areas. I still use it occasionally on my AE -1P and T-70’s.

  • vintagefilmhacker March 13, 2019 at 6:54 pm

    Picked up one of these a few months ago on the cheap, and sort of quickly sidelined on account of the pretty basic mode controls. Later had some Canon FD bellows fall into my lap and after a little trial and error, I discovered an “Easter Egg” I didn’t see mentioned here. When the bellows or an FL lens are attached and put in M, the mode options change between 60, B and an Iris symbol that lets one shoot in an Aperture Priority type mode. Sure you could do this on many Canon FD bodies but the 4 quadrant center split prism makes focusing really easy.

    So curiously, the T80 is really well suited to doing the very thing it sold itself on avoiding!

  • I just got a T80 used because I too found some inane attraction to shooting something that many said is the worst SLR ever made. After a day, I too agree that the AF system just…SUCKS! Shooting on a bright day like yesterday did not give it too many hiccups unless the area was heavily shadowed. But in handling, it did OK. I got the camera specifically for use with black and white film to do urban architecture and street photography. Although I am rather street smart where to take a camera, if the T80 gets swiped, I’m not out much. I’ll use it where I do not wish to take my 6D or my EOS 620 or 1n.

    But save for the finicky AF, it was not bad to use. The cross split rangefinder works very well. For quick grab shots, I have no problem shooting program only. If I accept its limitations, I think I will be happy with it for the purpose I wanted.

    There is one really annoying issue with the AC lenses. They take the 52mm filters but I don’t have any; I only have 55mm filters. Use my 52-55 step up ring, right? WRONG! The diameter of the step up ring causes the lens barrel to be obstructed by the shroud. And since the barrel obviously retracts when focusing towards infinity…I cannot use 55mm filters with the AC lenses… 🙁

    Anyway, great honest review, Chris. I’ll pop in from time to time and give updates and give my thoughts on image quality as I sent my first roll out for processing. I can say that the T80 would be great for somebody considering a T50. They’ll gain power rewind as well as multiple program modes along with the cross split focus aid.

    • WSell, my first outing with the T80 went well. Sure its AF system stinks compared to even the EOS 650/620 of two years later, but for simple grab shots such as street/urban photography, it worked well. Prints were well exposed (though I should have rated Tri-X at 320 rather than 400 per the box) and the AC lenses I used were quite sharp.

      Chris, I used the 50mm f/1.8 lens for most of my shooting. I actually did get a little better performance due to it being a faster lens. And in roomlight provided by two 60W equivalent LED light bulbs, the 50mm, albeit slowly, locked on to objects that the slower 35-70 lens never did. But then, that does not absolve it of its flaws.

      It’s an OK camera that does it’s job as a program only SLR relatively well. It’ll make for a good street photography camera that, it swiped, will not upset you. Although if one wants a program only SLR with autofocus, the EOS 750 or EOS 850 make for a better choice.

      • Just rediscovered my Canon FD collection including the T50, T7, T80, T90, AE Program, F1 and lens assortment, I do agree that the T80 is not the best, but the T90 is one of the best and still working , unfortunately theydont get used much due to conversion to Nikon FX and Digital

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Chris Cushing

Chris Cushing is a freelance writer, pedant and photographer who still plays with cars. Based in Albany, New York, he can often be seen aimlessly wandering the Northeast with a camera twice his age slung around his neck.

All stories by:Chris Cushing