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The last Canon EOS

Avtor:Matjaž Intihar
19.11.2007 14:31

 

The last EOS

 

Tokyo, 20 December 2007. “In May 2007, Canon celebrated its 70th anniversary. It’s been 50 years since the European office was opened. And it’s been 20 years since the EOS 650 was introduced, which, along with the EOS 620 ushered in a new era. In a few years, EOS cameras became a favourite of both amateurs and professionals. In these 20 years, 30 million EOS cameras were produced, of which 10 million are digital.”

 

It’s a lovely occasion, isn’t it? I’ve been a very happy EOS user for the last 20 years. So what’s all this nonsense about the last EOS?

In these last days before the PMA, when just about every photographer, from the lowliest camera geek to the most distinguished pro, is bursting with anticipation like a small child on Christmas, we’re all expecting great things to happen. Personally, I’m hoping for nothing short of a revolution, the kind that will place Canon at the very peak of the photographic Mount Olympus (I am going to get shot, in the face, for such horrible puns).

 

After all, Canon do take pride in being the second most innovative company in the world, judging by the number of patents awarded. Yet, for the past few years, they’ve shown nothing revolutionary.

I know, I know. They introduced two new flagship cameras. The EOS 5D still has no competitors - it’s still the only affordable full-frame camera, though it’s more of a Chelsea tractor rather than a Land Rover, if you get my drift. The 400D and 40D are selling well.

So what’s wrong?

 

Let me put it this way - they pay their PR bunnies to spin every minor improvement as if it were the second coming of your favourite messiah, while their brilliant engineers are busy trying to figuring how to fit an ever larger display into an ever smaller body, rather than work on something really innovative.

 

On the other hand, the DSLR market is extremely immature - the customers are prepared to pay through their collective noses for every new camera. Let’s just take a look at Nikon D200 and D300 - there are few enough differences, and even fewer differences that really matter, yet the D300 is selling like AK-47s in Iraq. Still, it’s a shiny new toy and people want it.

 

Qui bono? Well, the camera industry, that’s who. While there may not be an official agreement between the companies, the old boys must have got together for a spot of lunch and decided not to go about this whole digital business too quickly.

 

I suppose it’ll be 2009 before there are any real revolutions in photography. And it’ll be even longer before photographers will get used to the fact that it’s just not worth buying every new camera that comes on the market.

 

Up to now, most new EOS cameras were small evolutionary steps rather than huge revolutionary leaps. Perhaps Nikon’s aggressive new strategy in the pro area will shake them awake, with Nikon doing their best to reclaim the pro market they held from 1959 to 1996.

 

Let’s just hope they do.

 

 

So what’s the problem?

 

Look, Canon have been selling us old camera technology with new (and really rather excellent) electronics. AF, IS, metering, shutters, lenses - few enough innovations here. New, faster processors, huge sensors with excellent imaging capabilities? Oh yes, they did really well here. But digital photography is still photography, despite what most film virgins think.

 

The cameras sell well, making the shareholders happy and the CEOs popular. On the other hand, quality control has been going down the drain, and as mentioned before, there’s been no real innovation.

 

On the other hand, it would seem that the EOS system has reached its peak - Nikon have at least caught up with it, and in many areas, they’ve overtaken them by a country 1.6 kilometre. Light metering, flash metering, and autofocus are just a few of these areas where EOS is no longer the leader. Every evolutionary branch reaches its dead end sooner or later, just ask the dinosaurs.

 

The EF mount was a revolution in 1987, but now, it’s old news. The competition has lighter, brighter lenses, improved lens coatings and advanced algorithms to correct all those pesky optical design flaws in-camera.


The Canon Pellix camera (1965) used a semitransparent mirror. It (gasp!) didn’t move - it just reflected half the light into the viewfinder and half of it onto the film. In 1999, I tested the Canon 1Rs. Tremendous frame rates, with none of the “OH DEAR GOD IT’S A TERRORIST ATTACK!” racket the 1D III makes when shooting at maximum fps. Sure, you lost half a stop of light, but with modern sensors, that’s nothing.

A belated introduction

 

It was 1974. Half an eternity ago. I picked up my dad’s Smena 8 and tried my hand at photography. We’re talking hard-core photography here - insert the film, make sure it catches the little sprockets, cock (cue schoolboy giggling) the shutter, set the focusing distance, set the aperture, set the shutter time, frame, and shoot. None of that newfangled point and shoot nonsense, oh no. It was the gentleman’s way of making photographs. (Your humble translator might be overdoing it a bit here. But you get the point.)

 

A mere 20 shots later, it was all over. I was scared excrementless. I mean, how the hell am I supposed to explain why I wasted all that expensive film? In just under an hour, I have added 20 of my shots to 16 family snaps already on the film. Today, I’d just press delete and that’d be the end of it.

 

Though I wasn’t showing any particular interest in pursuing a formal education, I did read a lot about photography. So, let’s see. There was about 170 cm (I’m not converting this into your archaic units. Just learn the metric system, for Pete’s sake.) of film in that cartridge. My 20 shots were on the last 100 cm of it. So, I pulled an arm’s length worth of film out of the camera. My shots were destroyed in an instant, while my father’s shots were protected by a few layers of film that was spooled around them, causing them to escape relatively unscathed. A few months and 20 shots later, my father brought home just 14 pictures out of 36 shot roll. Nothing too unusual about that in those days, and I got off without anyone knowing.

 

I was getting a severe case of camera lust, so on 1 January (we didn’t have that Coke-guzzling fat b-stard in those days - we had a proper Commie mythological figure who preferred more potent stuff) I got my first camera, a Beirette. First, I learned how to take pictures. Then, I learned how to develop them. Then, I learned how to take the camera apart. Unfortunately, I never learned how to put it back together, so I spent a few months without a camera, but I was so fascinated by all the bits and pieces inside the camera, I didn’t really mind.

 

A few years later, much to my parents’ relief, I actually got into a secondary school. I was learning all about the technology of photography, which, amazingly enough, means that I’ve been in digital imaging since 1976. Nevertheless, I didn’t get much joy out of this - I preferred reading the magazines, salivating over sales brochures and going to flea markets. It took my first SLR, a Praktica PLC2, to really get me going. Again, I wasn’t aware that I was at the cutting edge - the camera had a built-in light metre.

 

I learned about that soon enough, when at a meeting of a local photography club, I was rather unceremoniously informed that I’ll never make a good photographer. “A real photographer doesn’t need any stinking metering!” is what they told me, more or less. Masochists.

 

However, working with an SLR was just amazing. Soon, I started looking at what other companies were offering - there was the Canon EF, the Fujica St801, the Minolta SRT-303, the Nikkormat ELW, the Olympus OM-1, the Pentax ES, and so on. Canon EF already had aperture priority and built photo-resistors, and in many ways, it was positioned similarly to the 5D today. Soon afterwards, I decided to sell the very useful praktica PLC2 and wait for a few months to buy the Canon AE-1 (very much the same class as 400D today) that had - gasp! - them darn new microprocessors. This meant less moving parts and easier operation, so I was completely over the moon.

 

I quickly go familiar with the AE-1, and it was a very useful camera, too. Back in those days, “real” photographers would rather commit seppuku than do auto anything.

 

I had my own opinion on that, of course, but ... I mean, those were experienced people. They must know something, right. Well, no. All manual works if you’re perfect. I’m not.

 

You see, I had this wedding to shoot. First we shot outside - I set the shutter time to 1/250. Then, we went inside. In those days, maximum sync speed was 1/60 s. Everything was going quickly, I was taking shots left and right, and those were the important shots. The kind of shots that make the bride kill you if they’re not good. So, the pace lets up, we get outside for a few external shot, and I felt my heart take a giant leap upwards in the general direction of my throat. The shutter time ring was set to 1/250. If you don’t get it yet - this meant that all the pictures I took inside would be useless. Not artsy weird shots of the ceremony, but useless black frames with a strip of light somewhere. Anyway, back in those days, there was always the official photographer employed by the city, but nobody really wanted his pictures, because, well, he was basically a civil servant. Nevertheless, with my tail between my legs, I walked up to him and asked him to sell me the pictures. He agreed, and all was well. At least I’d get a few shots.

 

Back in those days - it was the early 80s - you usually had to wait for a few days to get your pictures developed. While I was pretty good with colour enlargements, I didn’t really feel confident enough to develop a colour film, because the whole process was just too sensitive.

 

Anyway, I took the films - all of them, including the ruined once - to the lab and waited. When I went to pick them up a few days later, I braced myself. Best case, I get a few useless films. Worst case, the lab guy gives me a thorough roasting for making such a rookie mistake, and tells just about everybody else about it.

 

And then, shock. The pictures came out OK. What the hell was happening? Well, it’s read the fine manual, as usual. The Canon Speedlite 155 I was using back then was apparently nice enough to set the shutter time on the camera to 1/60.

 

In other words, a technological improvement saved my gluteus maximus. It was then that I realised that all-manual operation was just for perfect people. Today, I’m grateful for just about any automatic mechanism in my camera - be it auto exposure or automatic correction of lens flaws. If you don’t want that, turn it off. Or wait for somebody to develop a Linux based camera. You’ll be able to specify just about ever parameter, it’ll work flawlessly for decades, but you’ll have to type in the shutter time using a full size keyboard. In hex.

 

So, I was really happy with the AE-1. But then came the Minolta XD7 with shutter and aperture priority. Then came the A1, which was pretty much equivalent to 40D today. It was an advanced design with a then-revolutionary smaller grip, all sorts of knobs and dials for easy access to settings, and then, oh, the sacrilege, oh the debasement of the truly righteous stuff, oh the abomination! It had full program auto exposure. The P setting. The fully manual brigade were outraged.

In that, they were much like bloggers - outraged by something completely pointless and ignored by everyone with any sense at all. They were about as influential, too - the A-1 set new standards for the amateur market and sold splendidly well. In the pro market, however, Canon’s market share was a bit of a joke. Their pro camera, the F1, was really good, but Nikon’s F2 and F3 cameras (the people who name the cameras must really be a lot of fun at parties) were just too good, and Nikon’s system was far more extensive than Canon’s. All in all, about 90% of all pros used Nikon.

 

Then came the golden era. SLR cameras got more affordable, there were ever more advanced systems to make photography easier for beginners, first motor drives started appearing. Bodies started becoming plastic instead of aluminium, and the whole SLR world underwent a rapid change. Canon’s A-series gave way to the T-series, so in effect, the best-selling SLR got phased out in favour of a new one. Because Canon T50 and T70 both seemed so plasticky, I decided to switch to Nikon F301.

 

The Nikon still gave the impression of a classic SLR camera, but with added electronic features. I was sorry for that, though. Canon introduced the T90, which was a class ahead of its competition. This was pretty much the equivalent of the Canon 5D today, making it a very popular cameras among both amateurs and the pros that were still using the classic, robust F-1. Despite its technological superiority, the T90 had a fatal flaw - no auto focus.

 

As always, Minolta designated their new series with the number 7, which they considered to be their lucky number. This was very much the same for Minolta 7000, the first camera to incorporate autofocus, introduced in 1985. While i was sceptical at first - after all, how’s that computer going to know what I want to focus on? - the apprehension soon turned into enthusiasm. Quickly after that, Nikon F-501 AF and Olympus OM-707 were introduced.

 

This marked a new era. Autofocus meant new lenses. For that reason, I was draw more towards Olympus than Nikon - Olympus had some interesting new features, and furthermore, it had a built-in flash that could work at shutter times above sync speed..

Eos (Dawn)

 

Just when it seemed that Canon got held up in the past, rumours exploded. In 1987, there was considerable buzz (and if the Internet was more widespread than it was in those days, forum wars would have been fierce and bloody). Rumour had it - correctly, for a change - that Canon were working on something completely different. Both Minolta and Nikon used in-body focusing motors, while Canon did something completely different. However, neither the T80 nor the few AF lenses proved to be a big sales hit. They certainly didn’t convince me as I edged closer and closer towards Olympus OM-707 AF.


Canon T80. More of a stopgap than a complete solution. However, it was a clear indicator that in-lens focusing was the future. In 1987, Canon already had a lead.

As I said, rumour had it that the new AF system will be little short of revolutionary. So I waited, holding my breath like a Mac maniac in the presence of his Steveness and eagerly awaited the next copy of Color Foto. Back in the day, they were way ahead of competition, often writing reviews before the products went on sale.

 

And then came March 1987. On the front page - two new Canon cameras and a big EOS logo. That was it, the revolution in the way we perceived autofocus. Of course, nobody had any real idea how good the system actually was. While my ignorance of German is almost unmatched, I devoured the article, drawing out useful information. The article mentioned that EOS stands for Electro-Optical System. They also mentioned that marketing came up with the whole “goddess of the dawn” fluff, although they didn’t quite put it that way. The more I read about it, the more I realised that this was a revolution in the making.

 

It wasn’t just the technical features. Oh no. Canon committed what many considered to be a mass suicide - they changed the mount. Holy smokes, Batman! THE MOUNT! The system an sich!

The chagrin was as palpable as a ten foot razor blade and as copious as the horse manure shovelled by the representatives of the people.

Luckily, I sold off my FD lenses before, back when I switched to Nikon, so I didn’t lose much money. Others did. Describing them as livid would be a slight understatement.

On the other hand, it was a sensible choice - why use manual lenses with AF bodies? That’s what Nikon users did, and while they could still focus very well with those lenses, well, it’s not the most practical thing to do, is it?.


The camera that started it all. Until EOS 100 appeared on the scene, it served me well.

So I bought the EOS 650, a 50 mm f/1.8 standard lens and the 70-210 mm f/4 telephoto. I was impressed. Of course, reporters claimed they could outfocus any autofocus system ever made, and the artsy types were of course horrified. No machine is going to focus where my tortured soul wants it to focus! they bellowed sadly, if there is such a thing. Which is pretty much what they said about metering ten years ago.

A few years later, these same people were buying AF cameras and claiming that it was their eyesight that forced them into it. Of course it was..


And then came USM (ultrasonic motors), which gave the whole thing a swift kick in the posterior. Ten years later, and the competition was just starting to catch up.

So this Dawn thing was rampaging like a drunk elephant, smashing competition left and right, producing new lenses, including some monstrous long lenses that really showed off the advantages of the EF mount. Nikon pros were flirting with Canon, lusting over the insanely fast AF system.

 

Then Canon got really vicious and introduced the EOS 1n in 1994, only to outdo itself by introducing image stabilisation in 1995. The impossible was happening - for the first time since the introduction of Nikon’s F-series, Nikon users were switching to Canon like lemmings jumping off a cliff in a Walt Disney movie. Even though both the F4 and the F5 were fine, reliable cameras, they just lacked some important things - USM focusing and image stabilisation.

 

 

Noon

So the dawn turned into noon (and Canon kept doing their EOS=Dawn routine) and at 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Canon really got ahead. Nikon shooters didn’t really like the idea of switching to Canon, but they were acutely aware that it was a matter of getting the shot or not. So they did it, as did many amateurs.

 

Then came the DSLRs. Canon didn’t really believe in hurrying things, so the D30 was only introduced in 2000. And it wasn’t even that good, truth be told. Besides, back then, pros didn’t use digital technology, with the exception of the major agencies who used Nikon or Canon bodies with Kodak digital backs. Nevertheless, Canon went their own way again, using CMOS instead of CCD, which (theoretically speaking) offered better image quality. In 2002, Canon introduced the D60, which used Canon’s DiGIC processor and advanced algorithms. Believe it or not, I still use this camera.

 

Full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes! seemed to have been the motto - first, they introduced their 1D, which was by far the best photojournalist camera back then, and then, they went and killed Leica format film by introducing the 1Ds with its astonishing image quality. And then came the 300D (Digital Rebel), the first truly affordable (and crippled) DSLR, 350D, 400D, 20D, 30D, 40D, 5D ...

 

But that was also the pinnacle.

 

A farewell to dawn

In 2007, Canon were easily the dominant player. But things were already doing a turn for the worse. Photographers - real photographers, not measurebators and armchair pros - started complaining about quality control and build quality of Canon’s top lens line, the L series. Just remember the whole 24-105/4 L thing. People actually had to test a few lenses to get a working one - not a great copy, just a working one.


It happened to me as well, but after repairs, it serves me perfectly well.

If the only major problem with digicams before was the dust in the lens of Powershot Pro1, in 2007, the A650 IS had a construction defect. If the display was open, light got through to the sensor, which is never a good thing. And then came the Canon EOS 1D Mark III. It really showed off Canon’s prowess. The prowess in making a quick buck, that is. Canon probably rushed the camera to the market to make sure they got there ahead of the Nikon D3 (well, so it wasn’t really announced back then, but what’s a little industrial espionage amongst friends?). First of all, there was the infamous AF failure. And then, to top it off, build quality was appalling, with some reporters being on their fourth camera while they never actually managed to so much as dent their previous 1D series. (Your translator did try to put a few dents into his 1D Mark II N, and failed miserably, despite getting very drunk and falling a lot with the camera in hand.)


It was obvious that Canon were resting on their well-deserved laurels. The A650 IS recall could easily have been prevented if they actually tested the final production cameras.

An acquaintance of mine bought a 5D and had to take it in for service the next day, because the flash worked almost as well as brick airplanes. Then, I got a 1Ds Mark III and bam!, one fried sensor coming right up.

 

Don’t get me wrong. Things fail. And with Canon having the biggest market share, their faults are more apparent. But there’s a certain point where things like that are just not acceptable anymore. Canon really need to get their act together. (If they’re looking for a seriously strict QA consultant, your humble translator might just be available.)

 

They do have one great advantage, though - they produce more patents than just about anyone else. This allows them to stay a step ahead of the competition, but they seem to be focusing more on the DSLR market lately, where margins are still acceptable. On the other hand, they have no real advantage over the competition. USM? Been there, done that. Olympus actually bathed their version of USM in pure amphetamine when it was but a wee lad, producing a seriously hyperactive little bugger. IS? Well, Nikon use it, Sigma sometimes use it, and everyone else just went for the more cost effective in-body stabilisation. Actually, rumour has it that they were forced by the Japanese government to trade USM and IS patents with other camera makers. In other words, the Japanese government apparently employs people with some common sense, which has to be a world exclusive. Just like Nikon got their lesson at the end of the 1980s, so Canon seems to be getting theirs.

 

Conclusion. Finally.

(Your humble translator’s hands are aching, his beer is running out and he’s fantasising about equipping his MacBook Pro with an IBM Thinkpad keyboard. The offspring of this unholy union would be incredibly ugly, but so good it would be borderline tactile porn.)

 

Yes, I’m critical. But are things really as gloomy as an emo’s reproductive prospects? No, not really. I just think that the EOS system is at the end of its line and that something new is needed. Another revolution, if you will. Keep in mind that Canon are not strictly a photo company, they research various technologies in every business they’re involved with and use them anywhere they can. In 2008, the big thing is supposed to be HDTV, bringing photography from the computer to the living room and bringing loads of money to Canon’s shareholders. Does this mean that Canon will go into semiretirement? Perhaps. Pro cameras are expensive to design and manufacture and rarely cover their costs, and they’re never great profit makers. Furthermore, the Nikon D3 is just ... well, it’s just a fantastic camera, a pro’s tool.


This was my last film camera. I keep pestering Canon reps about a replacement for the EOS 3, and at the very least, they should bring back Eye Focus when they introduce the successor of the EOS 5D, which may or may not happen this summer or at Photokina. While it doesn’t have any direct competition, the 5D was introduced in 2005. In digital photography terms, that’s longer than going shopping for new shoes with the missus. Oh, and a purse. And a coat.

 

In 2004, Mr. Takaya Iwasaki told me to expect an EOS 3D. This would mean a new, high quality body, with 1Ds Mk II sensor, a high resolution screen and perhaps even video recording. Oh yes, it’s completely unthinkable, video in a still camera. If Leviticus, that old barrel of laughs, were still around, I’m sure he’d consider it almost as awful as wearing clothes made of different fibres. But it would come in handy, believe me. This would be hardly revolutionary, but it would still show that Canon are innovating. If all they show at Photokina is a 5D replacement, then this revolution is unlikely to come before the Yanks convert to the metric system


Mr. Takaya Iwasaky, Photokina 2004.

 

So, why should Canon abandon the EOS mount?

I’ve been in photography for the past 33 years, and most of the time, I used Canon cameras. I’ve also been in digital imaging for the past 32 years. Digital technology is now mature enough and most people finally accepted the fact that new features are actually useful.

 

After the EOS 1D Mark III debacle, Canon should really have taken a good hard look at themselves. A flagship camera with birth defects just isn’t OK, even more so if only about 2000 are produced each month and they cost EUR 8000 each. And when the Canon EOS 1Ds Mark III was delayed, I expected at least a high resolution display like those used in Sony Alpha 700 and Nikon D3. Well, fuggedaboudit, Tony Soprano dicsit. Its only claim to fame is its 21 megapixel sensor. Impressive, but hardly a game changing feature. Sure, there’s no such thing as a perfect camera, and in the 12 years in which I’ve been reviewing photographic equipment, I encountered all sorts of faults, and that’s peanuts compared to a faulty drum scanner which costs about as much as 10 such cameras. The same goes for those really expensive cars - if you want reliability, you buy Japanese, if you want style, you buy Italian, and if you want to show that you’re horribly nouveau, you buy German - they often just don’t work.


So, I took the brand new Canon 1Ds Mark III out of the box, stared at it with somewhat less than purely Platonic admiration, and got the biggest shock of my life. In LiveView mode, the damn thing saw triple. It worked perfectly well in normal mode, but LiveView was borked beyond recognition. I sent it back, and, according to Canon’s response, it was just a bad contact and an isolated occurrence. It’d better be. I also hope they start doing better quality control in the factory.

Along with new cameras, I also expect Canon to introduce new lenses and image processing algorithms. The current EF lenses are film lenses. In other words, their resolving power doesn’t exceed the resolution of a fine grained film. So, Canon need to start working from scratch again in order to get their lenses up to digital. I may be wishing too hard, perhaps the revolution will take some time to come, but I’ve grown used to having great expectations in regard to Canon. On the other hand, I’m only interested in progress, and have been since 1974, when I started using Canon equipment. It’s about time Canon start releasing all that wonderful technology that’s hidden in their R&D department.

 

I don’t really mind using an old, manual focus Praktica with no metering. It’ll still take pictures. But things have changed. Image capture is only the beginning of the whole process.


And I still want that Eye-Controlled Focus thingy in a digital SLR

 

An open letter to Canon

Dear Canon,

(your humble translator barely resisted the urge to add “and Santa”)

 

Stop this whole short term obsession. Release a 1D Mark III N. Doesn’t matter if you just bump up the display resolution and add an N to the designation. Just make sure that your quality control actually works so we can get rid of this bitter aftertaste. Stop sitting on those R&D innovations like they’re a pile o’ gold (yarrrrr!) and start giving people what they want. Megapixels will make for a good marketing copy for a year or two. So will high-ISO noise, if you actually manage to catch up with the D3. But when that’s gone, the competition will be overtaking you left and right. And if you don’t feel like playing in the pro arena anymore, well, just go into the living room and do your thing there. I’m sure you’ll make great products. Just don’t forget that we mainly buy your printers and your projectors because we like your cameras.

 

I’m sure you’ll bring us great stuff in the future. Also, switching to another system is more affordable nowadays. Remember - everything changes, except for fanboys. And even with them, their allegiance, unlike their absurdity, changes


Just like back in 1992, I can still switch to F1n. It may be Spartan compared to the T90, but you can rely on it just like you can rely on running out of fags (“cigarettes” to our readers across the pond) five minutes after the shops close.

So, just give up the EOS system and make a new one. And get me that digital EOS 3 equivalent, for (insert a deity whose name you don’t mind using in vain)’s sake. People are switching and you’re doing nothing. Besides, I’m toying with the idea of going back to film, just for fun. And I just might be serious.

 

(Your humble translator wishes to add that he did in fact switch from Canon - partly due to what he considered to be a user interface designed by a committee, partly due to the fact that Canon’s lenses are horrendously susceptible to flare, and partly because he’s the kind of artsy-fartsy type who actually claims that some cameras have more soul than others. Oh, and because he’s recently grown fond of car similes - no, not metaphors - and considers Canon cameras to be typical American muscle cars - huge horsepower, with handling that’s thoroughly put to shame by a freight train. Nevertheless, Canon make good cameras, they’re just not the absolute leader anymore.)

 
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