Canon T-90

Canon, a name synonymous with quality photography, produced an iconic piece of photographic history with the T90 – in my humble opinion at least! Launched in 1986, the Canon T90 was a remarkable combination of design and technology that made it one of the last great manual focus cameras before the age of autofocus and digital dominance. Indeed, the design was to shape the appearance of cameras from then on. I think it fair to say that any photographer used to modern digital cameras would have no difficulty in adapting to this masterpiece from the era of film with, perhaps, it’s lack of autofocus.
I will put my cards firmly on the table and say, that the Canon A1 has always been my favourite 35mm format camera to shoot … until now. The more that I use the T90, I think that it could well surpass my love affair with the A1!

This review aims to delve into the intricate features of the T90, shedding light on both its strengths and its shortcomings.

Good Features:

  1. Ergonomics and Design: The Canon T90 flaunts an innovative design, a result of Canon’s collaboration with German industrial designer Luigi Colani. This design clearly influenced the subsequent EOS line of cameras along with those of other manufactures. The body is ergonomic, fitting naturally into the hand with controls placed intuitively for ease of use. Its size and weight earned it the nickname of ‘The Tank’ in Japan. I think that this was totally unfair as it is a really comfortable camera to use. There are many heavier machines from that period!
  2. Advanced Metering System: The T90 was revolutionary for its time with its multi-spot metering system. This allowed photographers to take up to eight spot readings and average them for accurate exposures in tricky lighting situations, giving a new level of precision. This facility is now available on many digital cameras.
  3. Viewfinder Information: Another of the T90’s outstanding features is its comprehensive viewfinder. The display provides information about shutter speed, aperture, exposure mode, metering mode, and other vital details, making it convenient for photographers to adjust settings without taking their eye off the scene. The multi-spot metering is reflected in the viewfinder.
  4. Variety of Exposure Modes: The T90 offers a range of exposure modes – Program, Shutter-priority, Aperture-priority, and Manual. The flexibility allows photographers to have as much (or as little) control as they desire over their shots. In practice, the T90 performs admirably in Program mode in all but the most extreme lighting conditions or if a high shutter speed are essential,
  5. Built-in Motor Drive: A built-in motor drive enabling continuous shooting at up to 4.5 frames per second was another forward-thinking feature. This made the T90 suitable not only for landscapes and portraits but also for fast-paced action shots.  The camera has three motors, each designed to serve a specific function. They are:
    Mechanism charge motor: This motor is responsible for winding the shutter and charging the camera’s electronics;
    Film transport system motor: This motor advances the film and rewinds it after exposure; and
    Film rewind motor: This motor rewinds the film back into the cartridge after it has been exposed. The use of three small coreless motors in the camera’s drive operations helps to consume less power.
  6. Robust Build Quality: Canon ensured the T90 was durable with a blend of polycarbonate exterior and a solid metal frame. This meant that the camera could endure the rigors of professional use. However, I would draw attention to item ‘5’ under ‘Questionable features below.
  7. LCD Panel: The top LCD panel displayed crucial settings and exposure details at a glance. This was a modern touch in an era when many cameras were still heavily mechanical.
  8. Shutter speeds: range from 30 seconds to 1/4000th second plus a bulb setting. Flash synchronises at 1/250th second.

Questionable Features:

Note that I have decided to refer to these features as ‘questionable rather than ‘bad’. These are my subjective views and I accept that some will consider these as bad points whereas others may not.

  1. Weight: Despite its robust build, the T90 was on the heavier side when compared to some of its peers. Some users might consider it cumbersome during prolonged use. I must say that I am not one of those users but then I am used to handling both heavy and dare I suggest cumbersome medium format cameras. Okay! if the user was transitioning from a compact ‘point and shoot’ camera to a T90, it may come as a bit of a shock!
  2. Battery Dependence: Some may consider this a bad point. I tend to look upon it as a fact of life! The T90 is totally reliant on its batteries. Without it, the camera becomes totally non-operational. Given its electronic nature, if the batteries die in the middle of a shoot, photographers could find themselves in a tight spot if they are stupid enough not to carry spares!
    This brings me to a further point that I guess should have posted as a good point! The T90 is powered by four AA batteries which must be the most readily available batteries on the planet. They are cheap and can be purchased almost anywhere.
  3. Non-Interchangeable Screens: Unlike some other cameras of its era, the T90 did not allow users to swap focusing screens. This limitation could be problematic for those used to customized screens tailored to specific tasks, such as macro photography. Okay! this is probably a bad point.
  4. Noise: The built-in motor drive, while a boon for rapid shooting, was notably noisy. This could be disruptive in quiet environments or situations demanding discretion. It would not be my choice for street photography in all but busy and noisier areas.
  5. Electrical Faults: The T90 has been around for quite a while and electronics have progressed considerably since its production. It has a reputation for occasionally failing with some of these failures being terminal unless one has access to a proficient camera repair specialist and deep pockets! On the plus side a replacement body will not prove too expensive at the time of writing this review!

I think that, in its way, the production of the T90 was somewhat sad. Its production lasted about a year and it was the precursor to the modern designs found in the EOS line. It marked the end of Canon’s commitment to the FD lens mount. Canon’s subsequent EOS series introduced the EF mount, rendering FD lenses incompatible without adapters. For those heavily invested in FD lenses, this transition was a significant drawback and particularly contentious.

However, its innovative features were ground-breaking for the 1980s, made it a favourite among professionals and enthusiasts alike.

Regardless of its imperfections, the Canon T90 remains a testament to Canon’s innovative spirit, merging design and technology in ways that left an indelible mark on the photographic world. For those looking to experience a piece of camera history or simply appreciate the craft of manual focus photography, the T90 is a worthy companion.

A manual is available for the Canon T90 here.

Specifications (Provided by Canon Camera Museum)

Type35mm focal-plane shutter SLR camera with built-in motor drive and multi-mode AE
Normal LensFD 50mm f/1.4, others
Lens mountFD mount
ShutterVertical-travel, focal-plane electronic shutter. With multi-program AE and preset aperture AE: B, 30, 20, 15, 10, 8, 6, 4, 3, 2, 1.5, 1, 0.7, 1/2, 1/3, 1/4, 1/6, 1/8, 1/10, 1/15, 1/20, 1/30, 1/45, 1/60, 1/90, 1/125, 1/180, 1/250, 1/350, 1/500, 1/750, 1/1000, 1/1500, 1/2000, 1/3000, 1/4000 sec. X-sync at 1/250 sec. Second-curtain synchronization enabled. Built-in electronic self-timer (with blinking LCD). Shutter speeds settable in whole-or half-stop increments.
ViewfinderFixed eye-level pentaprism. 0.77x magnification and 94% coverage. Laser Matte with microprism/new split combination rangefinder. Eight interchangeable focusing screens including standard Type E.
Viewfinder InformationAE lock display, shutter speed, aperture, manual, flash ready, exposure compensation, correct exposure, remaining-frame count, exposure scale, multi-spot metering, FE lock, partial metering circle and spot metering circle at centre, H/S control, and other indications.
Metering &
Exposure Control
Composite SPC for TTL full-aperture metering (center-weighted averaging, partial metering at center, spot metering at center) with shutter speed-priority AE, aperture-priority AE, variable shift program AE (7 modes), manual, TTL preset aperture AE, and aperture-set. AE lock provided. Exposure compensation range of ±2 EV (in 1/3-stop increments). Metering range at ISO 100 and f/1.4: EV 1 – 20. Film speed range from ISO 6 to 6400.
External LCDPicture-taking modes, film-loaded indicator, film transport, exposure compensation, bulb time, multiple exposure setting and count, self-timer countdown, and other indications.
Power SourceFour 1.5 V size-AA batteries (Ni-Cd batteries also compatible). Lithium BR-1225 or CR-1220 for memory backup power.
Film Loading & AdvanceAfter aligning film leader at mark, close camera back for auto loading. Continuous shooting at 4.5 fps (H), 2 fps (L), or 1 fps (S).
Film RewindAuto rewind with built-in motor. Midroll rewind enabled.
Dimensions & Weight153 x 121 x 69 mm, 800 g

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