Design Classic: Canon T90 SLR

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The big photography equipment tradeshow, Photokina, is going on in Germany at the moment, and the photo world is abuzz with the various announcements, one of which is a new Canon digital SLR. Though today I shoot with a Pentax digital SLR my first high-end SLR was a Canon, and I still have it: a Canon T90. I’m never going to get rid of it even though it’s film-based and manual focus because it’s a wonderful example of machinery as art object.

There are few products that have had as profound an effect on their category as the T90 had on the modern SLR, not the least of which is the interface paradigm that it introduced and which is copied almost verbatim on every SLR (and many point and shoots) on the market today, 20 years later. Some parts of it interface are common-place on many products beyond cameras as well, such as Blackberries.

The enduring thing about the T90 is its aesthetics. If you look at it you’ll see what Canon SLR’s have looked like for the last twenty years.

colani.jpgChances are you’ve never heard of the T90. It had the unfortunate luck of being introduced right before the EOS cameras, which were Canon’s response to the autofocus Minolta Maxxums, and which basically obsoleted the entire line of manual-focus Canons of which the T90 was almost at the top of the stack. But it was a highly advanced camera, even by today’s standards: 4000th/sec maximum shutter speed, sustained 4.5 frames per second, and sophisticated exposure programs. But boy was it heavy! The T90 was so overbuilt that was called “the tank” in Japan and until quite recently was still found photographing in war zones.

Designed in a collaboration between Luigi Colani and Canon’s in-house ID team, the T90 represented a 180 degree change in the way cameras were operated. A side by side comparison of the T90 and its predecessor, the AE-1 (considered a leap forward in its own right) clearly shows the interface differences.

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On the AE-1 all the controls are done with knobs, and each control (shutter, aperture, ISO, exposure compensation, etc.) gets its own knob. On the T90 the concept of the thumbwheel combined with mode controls was introduced. It was an early example of modal interface, and in some respects they went a bit too far - some fairly frequently used actions were a bit awkward to do as they required two hands. But the thumbwheel was a revelation, located behind the shutter button it allowed rapid control of many different functions in a way that was highly intuitive. Every high-end SLR today uses this same model, as well as many Sony products (a lot of people probably think Sony came up with it, but to my knowledge the T90 represents its first use) and the aforementioned Blackberry.

t90_front.jpgThe other wonderful and enduring things about the T90 are its aesthetics and ergonomics. If you look at it you’ll see what Canon SLRs have looked like for the last twenty years - they’ve basically been playing from that same songbook that Colani composed. In fact I feel they’ve never topped the T90 in the looks department - it has an evocative personality that combines futuristic, menacing and sexy all in one.

It celebrated its polycarbonate goodness in a way that earlier cameras had been embarassed to do for fear of not looking professional enough. Its sculpted form was a massive departure from anything that had come before (though not as far out as other concepts that Colani explored), and while the camera is heavy it is well balanced, the grip is terrific, and most controls fall readily to hand.

There are several really nice details about the T90 that make it a true 360 degree treat to look at and hold, and which reveal themselves in layers over time. I just love the way the back panel hinges and arcs against the side panel door, causing it to open up in unison. It’s got such a great fluid motion to it, and the side panel has a satisfying snap when it springs back closed:

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eos1.jpgThe pentaprism design has become iconic and is still mimiced on the latest and greatest Canon SLRs such as the EOS 1DSII shown here. You’ll clearly see the styling carry-overs from the Colani design done 20+ years ago.

If you’re not bored stiff by now and want to find out more, the authoritative website on the T90 is this Malaysian one.
Canon’s history museum tells more about the development process with some great old pictures of the development process (and for industrial designers educated in the last ten years, you’ll see how it was in the “old” days).

(The dramatically lit detail pictures at the top of the article are from a scan I found of the large glossy book that Canon produced to promote the T90 - it’s something of a collector’s item now and I’m kicking myself for not having kept mine, which I got while I was working at a photo store at the time I bought the camera.)