In 1987 Canon made a leap of faith, abandoning its popular FD mount cameras and going all-in on autofocus with a new line sporting the now infamous EOS sigil. The first of these Electro-Optical System cameras — yep, if you didn’t know, EOS is an acronym — to hit the market was the EOS 650.
The EOS 650 is a 35mm electronically operated SLR that’s wrapped in an angular black plastic body that just screams the 80s. If Chevy’s 1982 Camaro were a camera, it’d be an EOS 650. But beyond its delightfully retro styling, there’s nothing particularly special about the camera. Instead, the EOS 650 is significant for another reason, it helped Canon’s new EF line of electronically controlled autofocus lenses gain a foothold, in a market then dominated by rival Nikon.
So, why in 2020 would anyone want to buy a now 33-year-old camera?
Beyond the obvious historical significance of the camera, film is having a renaissance. If you’re looking to get into film photography and you’ve already got a bunch of EF glass in your bag, the EOS 650 is one of the cheapest autofocus film SLRs out there that still works with modern lenses.
The age of autofocus
Before I get into the specifics of the EOS 650, I want to touch on some of the market pressures that influenced its development.
By the time of its release, autofocus cameras were old news. In fact, the honor of the first autofocus SLR goes to Polaroid with the SX-70 in 1978. It wasn’t until 1981, however, when Pentax launched the ME-F that autofocus came to 35mm SLRs.
The EOS 650 wasn’t even Canon’s first go at autofocus either. In 1981, the same year Pentax brought the ME-F to market, Canon launched a 35-70mm AF lens for its popular FD mount cameras. The bulky grey lens used integrated sensors to triangulate focus.
Two years later, Nikon launched the F3AF which, like the Pentax ME-F and Canon, relied on specialized AF lenses with built-in motors and focus sensors.
All of these dedicated autofocus lenses were big, heavy and expensive, but it wouldn’t be long before this design would be superseded by an innovation from another camera maker. In 1985, Minolta launched an SLR with an integrated focus motor that interfaced with lenses via a screw drive in the mount.
This design eliminated the need to integrate expensive microprocessors and motors. This also meant the lenses looked like lenses, rather than a creepy night vision scope strapped to a camera.
Both Nikon and Pentax would quickly adopt this screw drive autofocus mechanism, but Canon stuck with dedicated AF lenses, launching three more with the Canon T80 SLR in 1985.
From the outside looking in, Canon was losing the AF race and badly, but in 1987 all of that changed. Canon launched its EOS line with the entry-level 650 alongside a slew of EF mount lenses, all of which featured an integrated focus motor that was controlled electronically.
However, unlike the company’s early autofocus attempts, these new EF lenses were much smaller and lighter. The focus system itself was also much improved and tighly integrated into the camera bodies.
Integrating the focus motor into the lens also offered myriad advantages.
For one, the lens’ motors were generally quieter than mirror-driven bodies used by competitors. And since the motor integrated into the lens, larger more powerful motors could be used in larger telephoto optics, making them much faster to focus.
So with that backdrop in mind, let’s talk about autofocus on the EOS 650.
While the EOS 650 competed with other autofocus SLRs of the time, it also faced stiff competition from less-expensive manual-focus cameras, including Canon’s own A and T series offerings.
The EOS 650 featured a single BASIS autofocus point located smack dab in the middle of the frame.
Even with a single non-cross-type autofocus point, in good light, the EOS 650 actually focuses quite quickly, especially when paired with fast glass, like the original EF 50mm F1.8 released the same year.
Even slower lenses like the EF 70-210mm F4 actually focus fairly quickly and reliably given enough light and contrast.
Problems only start to crop up in low light and low contrast scenarios where it’s not uncommon for the camera to hunt briefly before giving up altogether. According to Canon, the camera can autofocus down to 1EV, which means in tricky lighting conditions manual focus will be your friend.
Compared to the much more expensive EOS-1 released a few years later, there is no comparison. The EOS-1’s much more sensitive cross-type sensor enables it to focus accurately down to -1 EV. Meanwhile, a much-improved microprocessor makes the EOS-1 far less likely to hunt in low-contrast lighting.
With that said, neither camera can hold a candle to modern autofocus systems.
If you can get past the EOS 650’s limitations, or you know you’ll be shooting with fast glass, then it’s definitely worth considering. However, if you must have something that focuses accurately every time, it may be worth springing for the EOS-1 or 1N, or the much more expensive EOS-1V or the EOS 3
While the EOS 650 represented a technical turning point for Canon, its design was much more evolutionary than revolutionary, taking inspiration from the company’s earlier T-series cameras.
The blocky polycarbonate build and smooth rubber grip material lack the fit and finish of later models, but mechanically the camera is fantastic.
On top of the camera, you’ll find a standard TTL hotshoe flanked by the mode and exposure compensation buttons, the LCD readout, control dial, and of course the shutter release.
At first glance, the back of the camera is pretty sparse, sporting only the on/off switch and auto-exposure lock button. However, beneath a magnetic flap located near the bottom of the camera, you’ll find the mid-roll rewind, AF mode select, drive mode and battery check buttons.
The only thing I’m really missing is a second control dial.
Setting aside the EOS 650’s rather dated styling, the camera still managed to pack most of the amenities you’d expect to find on a modern SLR, film or digital.
It’s kind of wild what features camera manufacturers used to reserve for their higher-end models.
Today, we’ve come to expect features like multiple metering modes, exposure bracketing, fast shutter speeds, or multiple exposure support for granted, but in early days of AF SLRs, they weren’t a given, especially on entry-level models like EOS 650.
That said, the most glaring problem I’ve found with the camera has nothing to do with metering modes. It’s the 1/2000 sec max shutter speed.
Now, this isn’t really a problem if you’re shooting 100 or 200-speed film, but in broad daylight, it’s easy to max out the shutter with 400-speed film. That said, overexposing most negative film by one or two stops still isn’t that big of a deal. Film handles overexposure far better than digital.
Like many cameras from the late 80s and early 90s, the EOS 650 is equipped with an automatic winder that makes loading film quick and easy. The EOS 650’s winder is actually pretty quiet, especially compared to my EOS-1. Whether that’s due to wear and tear, or if the motor was actually louder, we may never know.
That automatic winder enables the camera to shoot at a pretty respectable 3 FPS. That’s pretty slow by today’s standards, but it’s actually faster than the EOS-1, which without the optional power grip, could only manage 2.5 FPS.
Given how expensive film photography is today, I don’t know that many people who would need to shoot in the high-speed drive mode, but its cool nonetheless.
Pretty much any EF lens ever made — with the exception of EF-S lenses — will work flawlessly with the EOS 650, regardless of whether it was made in 1987 or 2019.
I tested the EOS 650 with the original EF 50mm F1.8, the EF 50mm F1.4 USM, the EF 70-210 F4 and a cheap Tamron 28-80mm F3.5-5.6 with no issues whatsoever.
This post will be updated with sample images shot on the EOS 650 on Fujicolor C200 color negative film using an assortment of Canon EF and third-party lenses.
Should you buy an EOS 650 in 2020?
Despite being Canon’s first EOS system camera, the EOS 650 has aged surprisingly well.
If you’re in the market for an inexpensive autofocus film SLR, and you’ve already got a bag full of EF glass, the EOS 650 or the new 620 or 630 are certainly worth considering.
The 650 originally retailed for 80,000 Yen, but today can easily be found in good, used condition on eBay for less than $30.
Finding lenses, however, might prove a bit more expensive. EF glass, particularly L models and quality primes have held their value surprisingly well. If you’re willing to live with a few autofocus glitches here and there, third-party glass from the likes of Tamron, Sigma or Tokina can be had for a relative bargain.
While historically significant, the EOS 650 is hardly Canon’s best 35 mm AF SLR. If you’re looking for something a little more advanced or want top-notch autofocus, I recommend you take a look at some of Canon’s slightly more expensive offerings, including the venerable EOS-1, 1N or 1V or the cult-favorite EOS 3.
The EOS-1, which I reviewed earlier this year, is a particularly good value at less than $100 used.
One of the great reasons to buy a vintage EOS camera is the community. There are hundreds if not thousands of EOS film devotees. Here are a few resources that you may find helpful. I’ll be adding more in the future.
What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments below:
- Have you ever shot an EOS film camera? If so which was your favorite?
- Do you still shoot film? What’s your favorite stock? Mine’s Kodak Tri-X 400.
- Have you thought about shooting film again?
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