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.