Canon T90 Film Camera Review
Canon T90 rear view
There is a little more on the back of the Canon T90 than there is on the back of the Canon A1, which has nothing apart from a slot for a piece of cardboard from the film box showing information about your film.
The T90 has a little window in the back so you can see the part of the film canister that has information about the film.
The On-Off switch is at the bottom and follows the standard Canon convention 'A for On' and 'L for Lock/Off'. Next to that are the ISO, SAFETY SHIFT and EXP. COMP. buttons, which I have described below.
Next to the viewfinder is a little lever to black out the viewfinder so that stray light doesn't enter the camera during long exposures when the camera is on a tripod. Many modern cameras no longer have this feature.
Instead, the manufacturer gives you a piece of rubber attached to the neckstrap to put over the viewfinder. This is fiddly and the piece of rubber can get lost. The old lever idea was much better, but no doubt this was a cost-cutting exercise.
At the top on the right-hand side is a button and two little arrows. The button is for previewing exposure and performs the same function as holding the shutter release button halfway down. Keeping it pressed in will also lock the exposure.
The arrows are for shadow/highlight correction and can only be used with spot metering. Put the camera in spot metering mode and press the small spot metering button just behind the shutter release button.
When you look in the viewfinder there is a vertical scale on the right-hand side. Pressing each arrow will make the indicator on the scale move up or down. This is simply a refined exposure compensation adjustment for when you want to decrease highlights or bring out more detail in shadows.
Canon T90 battery magazine
The T90 uses four standard 'AA' batteries that can be obtained anywhere in the world.
Canon T90 front view
The Stop-Down lever is on the bottom right. In normal circumstance the camera meters at the maximum aperture before adjusting the lens aperture.
If this lever is pushed in the camera meters at the aperture that is set on the lens, which entails adjusting the aperture ring on an FD lens away from the A (automatic) position.
Using the lever is also necessary when using non-FD lenses, such as FL or R lenses. This is a feature that I don't think I ever used.
With no AF you may be wondering about the small red LED. This is for the self-timer and flashes when the self-timer is operating. It flashes slowly at first and then rapidly just before the shutter releases.
Unlike the Canon A1, there is no PC sync socket on the Canon T90 for an off-camera flash unit. This upset some people and I believe that some small companies offered to add the feature if you were brave enough to let a stranger start drilling holes in your prized T90.
Canon T90 top view
I have explained below how to use the MODE and METERING buttons on the left in conjunction with the Electronic Input Dial on the right. The shutter release button is on the right at the front and the little button just behind it is the spot metering button.
Canon T90 LCD display panel
For many years every SLR and DSLR camera has had an LCD display on the top like this, but when people were used to old style mechanical cameras the T90 design was quite revolutionary.
There are no dials on the camera with values written on them, as there are on mechanical cameras. There are just plain buttons and dials and all camera setting values are displayed on the LCD.
Canon T90 palm wing controls
On the right-hand side of the camera are some lesser-used controls inside a small flap that Canon refers to as the 'Palm Wing'. To be honest, when I was using the T90 regularly I can't remember adjusting any of these controls.
At the bottom is a small orange button in the middle of a rotary switch. Put the switch on the S-C position to control film winding speed. Pressing the button cycles through Single Shot, High Speed continuous shooting (4.5 frames per second), and Low Speed continuous shooting (2 frames per second).
When you put the switch on the self-timer position and press the orange button it alternates between 2 seconds and 10 seconds.
The FINDER switch at the top has three positions. One position is to turn the viewfinder display off and the middle position turns it on. The third position with a light symbol seems to illuminate the right hand scale in the viewfinder.
Beneath that is the battery test button. There are three bars consisting of three dots each on the LCD display. When you press the battery test button you will see 'bc' on the display along with 1, 2 or 3 bars.
If you see 2 or 3 bars there is sufficient power. If there is only 1 bar you should change (or recharge) your batteries.
Below the battery test button is the Manual Film Rewind button. Press this if you wish to rewind the film before the roll has finished.
Canon T90 bottom view
There is nothing on the bottom of the T90 apart from a threaded tripod socket. On the A1 the bottom of the camera is designed so that a Power Winder or Motor Drive accessory can be added, but there was no need for this with the T90 because the camera has an excellent built-in film transport mechanism already.
When Canon released the Canon T90 in 1986 it was the best camera that Canon had ever made. It was ground-breaking, revolutionary, a complete tour de force. It made the A and F series cameras that it replaced look prehistoric. It had some wonderful new features (that I will describe below), it was perfect ergonomically, and it was built so solidly that it acquired the nickname 'The Tank'. It was so much fun to use that a 36 frame roll of film got used up in minutes. Luigi Colani did an amazing job with the design.
Despite all this, it was a dead product almost from the time it was announced.
The Canon T90 worked with Canon FD manual focus lenses and at the time of its release autofocus lenses had already started to appear.
The Canon T80 that preceded could use FD lenses, but there were also three special AC lenses available, which were very early autofocus lenses. The AF efficiency and accuracy of these lenses may not have been very good, but those in the industry knew that AF was the future.
Shortly afterwards Canon abandoned the FD mount because it couldn't be used for AF and introduced the EF mount, which is still extremely popular today. This decision was the death knell for FD lenses and bodies.
Nonetheless, the T90 left quite a legacy. Its basic design was the inspiration behind may SLR and DSLR cameras that followed and some of its features still live on.
I didn't use my T90 for very long, but I absolutely adored it. I bought a used one in the same year that I acquired my first P&S digital camera. The T90 was infinitely better to use, but I could see the potential with digital.
Just as AF technology killed off the T90, digital technology was about to kill off film cameras.
The Canon T90
Whereas Canon A and F series cameras had evolved since the early 1970's, the T90 was a complete revolution. The design was radically different, there were far more electronics and less mechanics, and the top mounted LCD design introduced the way that cameras would be designed from then on.
It's quite a heavy camera, but it feels absolutely solid and the grip and overall design is perfect. It's just feels so 'right' when you hold it.
Whereas the A1 and F1 had quite a lot of accessories to make the camera right for an individual photographer, everything was built into the T90.
In short, if it was digital and had AF I'm sure it would still see today.
The Canon A1 was primitive in comparison. Film had to be threaded for loading, the film was advanced manually with a lever, and when you had finished a roll of film it had to be wound back into the canister by hand. You could buy a Power Winder or Motor Drive to automate some of these processes, but it wasn't ideal.
The T90 had a very advanced computerised three motor control system. When loading the film you just put the film canister in the back with a little leader protruding. When you closed the cover the film loaded automatically.
The film is advanced automatically after each shot (up to a rate of 4.5 frames per second) without the need to buy an accessory, and once the roll of film is finished it winds back into the canister automatically.
Instead of using one large motor to provide all these functions, the T90 uses three smaller motors which are all optimised to perform specific functions using the minimum amount of power. The mechanism works supremely well.
The A1 was mostly mechanical and its battery lasted a very long time. The T90 uses more electrical power, but its power comes from 4 'AA' batteries. These are available wherever you are in the world and thus very convenient.
The batteries fit into a battery magazine at the bottom of the camera that can be removed to change batteries.
Back in the day, Canon recommended either Alkaline or Carbon-Zinc batteries. However, technology has now moved on and I find that rechargeable Eneloop batteries work very well.
Previous cameras, such as the Canon A1, had quite basic light metering systems. The Canon T90's metering system was a lot more advanced and the photographer could choose between centre-weighted average metering, partial area metering, or spot metering.
To change the metering method, press the METERING/CLEAR button on the top left-hand side of the camera and turn the Electronic Input Dial to cycle through the options.
There was also another little feature that I really liked. In spot metering mode it was possiblt to meter different parts of a scene up to eight times by pressing the spot metering button located just behind the shutter release button. The electronics would then average out all of these readings. This is a great feature when you have a scene with a high dynamic range.
You can lock the exposure by pressing down the shutter release button halfway, but you can only do this with partial area metering or spot metering. You can't lock the exposure when using centre-weighted average metering.
When the exposure is locked you will see an asterisk on the LED display in the viewfinder.
Naturally, when using film cameras the image quality is dependent on the film that you use. There is no internal sensor and the camera's only purpose is to allow light coming in through the lens to fall on the film.
However, my experience using exactly the same type of film and lenses was that the image quality of photos taken with my Canon T90 was markedly better than photos taken with my Canon A1.
I can only put this down to the Canon T90 having a more accurately metering system resulting in more accurate exposure.
Shooting Modes And How To Use The Canon T90
The shooting mode can be changed by pressing the MODE button on the top left-hand side of the camera and turning the Electronic Input Dial to cycle through the options.
The options are P, Program, AV, TV, BULB.
AV mode is aperture priority. Select the aperture you desire using the Electronic Input Dial and the camera will choose the appropriate shutter speed.
TV mode is shutter speed priority. Select the shutter speed you desire using the Electronic Input Dial and the camera will choose the appropriate aperture.
Program mode is completely automatic and emphasises nothing. It is the easiest mode to use, but you may not always get the reults you desire. For example, if you are using a very long lens the camera won't recognise this and may choose a slow shutter speed that may result in a blurry image.
P mode is also automatic, but there are 7 modes to choose from depending on what type of lens you are using (wide or telephoto) and what kind of subject you are shooting, for example, portrait or landscape.
Tele modes will choose higher shutter speeds to reduce camera shake and wide modes choose smaller apertures to achieve a deeper depth of field.
For the different P modes first press the MODE button and turn the Electronic Input Dial until you see P. With the camera in P mode, turn the Electronic Input Dial to cycle through the 7 options (TELE 1,2,3 WIDE 1,2,3 and blank).
All of the above functions require the aperture ring on the FD lens to be set to A. For fully manual shooting put the camera into TV mode, select a shutter speed, and then set the aperture you require on the lens with the aperture ring. Whenever the lens aperture ring is turned away from the A position you will see an M (Manual) displayed in the LCD.
It is sometimes desirable to expose the same piece of film several times. To do this with film cameras requires cocking the shutter mechanism without advancing the film. This was a mechanical process with the Canon A1, but electronics were used with the Canon T90.
If you press both the MODE and METERING buttons at the same time the letters will appear in the display along with the number 1. While still keeping the buttons pressed turn the Electronic Input Dial to a value between 1 and 9.
Every time the shutter is released this number will decrease by 1 and the film will not advance. When the preset number of exposures have been taken, the film will advance.
Automatic ISO Setting
On previous cameras it was imperative to manually set the ISO control to match the ISO rating of the film. You could easily forget and therefore all your exposures would be wrong.
Film manufacturers worked with camera manufacturers to devise something called the DX code. When a film had a DX code cameras such as the T90 could read it and set the ISO automatically.
If you were using film without a DX code the ISO could also be set manually by pressing the little ISO button on the back of the camera and turning the Electronic Input Dial.
This is adjusted by by pressing the little EXP. COMP. button on the back of the camera and turning the Electronic Input Dial.
If, for example, you have the camera in TV mode and try to photograph a very dark scene where the camera cannot get a large enough aperture for the correct exposure, the resulting image will be underexposed. This can also happen the other way and a scene will be overexposed.
Some cameras, such as the Canon A1, will warn you by making the viewfinder display flash, but the scene will still be incorrectly exposed.
With the T90 came the introduction of a Safety Shift feature. To activate the Safety Shift feature, press and hold down the ISO and EXP. COMP. buttons on the back of the camera at the same time. SS will appear in the LCD display. Repeating the procedure will turn off Safety Shift.
With Safety Shift on, whenever you attempt to shoot a scene using the exposure settings you have chosen but where correct exposure is impossible, the camera will override the settings and correctly expose the scene.
This is another excellent feature that previous cameras didn't have.
With so much built into this camera it didn't have the same number of accessories that were available for A series cameras, but a Data Memory Back 90 was available.
This was a lot more complicated than the Data Back available for the Canon A1. All that did was add the date to photos.
The Data Memory Back 90 was really the precursor to EXIF data on digital cameras. For each photo it could store exposure information that could be displayed on the unit or transferred to a personal computer. It could also print information directly on to photos.
Its capacity was limited and it must have been quite a fiddly process, but it was a step in the right direction. The problem of how to record exposure and other information wasn't completely solved until digital photography arrived.
A Command Back 90 was also available and from what I can make it provided the T90 with intervalometer functionality.
There was also a wireless controller - the LC-2. I had an LC-1 for my Canon A1, but never used it.
Regardless of how fantastic the Canon T90 was when it was introduced in 1986 the world has moved on.
Old manual focus lenses are still useful and have been given a new lease of life with the advent of mirrorless digital cameras. Used with mirrorless cameras and suitable adapters these old lenses don't have the same focusing issues they have when used with adapters and autofocus SLRs or DSLRs.
However, old film bodies aren't that useful. Where I live in provincial Thailand I can't buy film or get it processed locally. To buy film and get it processed in Bangkok is expensive, slow, and the end results won't be anywhere as good as the images I can get out of my Canon EOS M6. So, what's the point?
I've enjoyed writing this page and it has been a pleasant nostalgic trip down memory lane, but film is now ancient history as far as I'm concerned.
If you want to look at some of the old film negatives that I took with this camera or my Canon A1 and scanned using an Epson Perfection V600 Photo scanner, go to this page and follow the links.
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