Happy Anniversary, EOS

Whether you pronounce it “EE-os” (as in the Greek goddess of dawn) or prefer the three-syllable “E-O-S” (as in Electro-Optical System), Canon’s EOS system of automatic-focus cameras and lenses has been with us for thirty years now (March being the actual anniversary), and — I suppose this might fall into the category of “how time flies when you’re having fun” — I’m happy to say I’ve been “with EOS,” both film and digital, for 29 of those thirty years.

Not to the exclusion of other makes, mind you, for when it comes to (at least film) cameras, I am a man of many loves. But this little ramble has to do with my EOS (mostly film) cameras.

I see that I actually started to write my original EOS story back in the summer of 2013. It was to be titled “Welcome back into my bag, old friend,” as it was about my purchasing a “new” copy of my first EOS camera, the EOS-620. The story was inspired by getting a near mint 620 back in my pack for $28.00 (19 bucks plus $9 shipping — it was considerably more expensive in 1988 when I bought my original 620!). At that price, largely occasioned by model-age and the shooting populace’s quantum shift to digital, how could I not, considering the lovely travel memories related to that model (including first visits to both Paris and Switzerland).

Hotel Restaurant Belvedere in Switzerland’s Bernina Alps (Canon EOS-620 with 35–105mm lens on Kodachrome-25)

I should back up and say that the EOS line actually was introduced in March 1987 with the EOS-650. But later that year, Canon introduced the almost identical looking 620, which was endowed with a better, more capable, feature set aimed more toward the professional user.

The photog’s flesh is weak…

I succumbed to the allure of Canon’s new EOS auto-focus single lens reflex cameras in 1988, and while I had at the time two fine and trusty Nikon (manual focus) SLRs along with a reasonable complement of Nikon lenses, I had a trip coming up and Canon’s literature had absolutely convinced me I’d feel naked in quick shooting situations, such as out of Swiss train carriages with open windows, without the benefit of auto-focus.

And the then-top model in their lineup, the 620 with a 35–105 mm lens felt irresistible when I handled it. Different from the stolid Nikons, of course, but there was definitely a solid, quality feel to it, and I looked forward to using its auto-focusing capabilities when shooting rapidly (as opposed to my more deliberate landscape work). So I bought the Canon as a sort of high-end point-and-shoot. Mind you, it was far better than such a description suggests, but I still envisioned my Nikons as my “serious” tools.

In the Bastille district of Paris, 1988 (Canon EOS-620 with 35–105mm lens on Kodachrome-64 slide film)

Well, Paris and Switzerland gave all three cameras lots of opportunities to shine, but a couple of years later came the crux faced by so many of us, when a different camera system beckons, with the specter of incompatibility between cameras and lenses. See, at this point, auto-focus was gaining some genuine credibility among serious photographers, as both Canon and Nikon introduced professional heavy duty cameras with this feature.

Their approach was different. Canon designed its focusing motors into the lenses; Nikon had the motor in the body. Canon may have initially disappointed a lot of their serious manual focus shooters by designing an entirely new system of lenses, from the ground up, around the new concept of auto-focus. On the other hand, at least at the time of AF introduction, Nikon might have appeared to show more respect for its loyal followers, as their old lenses would work on the new pro auto-focus model, the F4…given one’s willingness to focus manually. In other words, with the Nikon, one did not necessarily have to buy an entire compliment of lenses in one fell swoop.

In my view, Canon did the better job with auto-focus, as each lens’ focusing motor could be optimized to the nature and design of the lens.

Anyone remember brochures that you didn’t have to print out yourself?

And, oh those classy full-size brochures — heck, they were actually little books with intelligent text and vivid graphics; they even smelled inviting — remember those, and the tactile delights of leafing through them…and saying TV dinners were an OK choice for a while if it meant getting one’s hands on a new Nikon F4…or Canon’s professional AF flagship the EOS-1?

I do…and I can tell you a 23” computer monitor, while fine for editing images and writing stories, just can’t hold a candle in the “aroma” and tactile departments to those camera brochures of the ‘80s.

Now, a return trip to Paris and the Swiss Alps was beckoning, and I’d decided auto-focus — as long as it allowed for manual override — was the way to go. And those glossy invitingly written brochures fostered the idea that a professional model was also…the way to go.

How a camera feels in your hands is an important criterion in determining whether you and it are likely to be a happy couple going down the road. Both the F4 (hey, I can keep my Nikon lenses!) and the EOS-1 (well, at least I have one convenient zoom lens) bespoke quality. But when it got down to those all-important ergonomics, it was clear that, for my use, the EOS-1 made more sense. Example: I often like to check my depth of field through the lens, which requires pressing a button on the camera body that makes the lens stop down to the actual taking aperture. While my Nikons of the time (FE2 and FM) made checking d-o-f an easy process, I found that on the F4 you needed fingers like Benny (the mutant taxi driver) in “Total Recall.” The EOS-1 fell right to hand…better ergonomics.

Sold!

Prognosis: lots of TV dinners for foreseeable future while assembling EOS lens compliment.

Oh yes, I sold the 620 when I bought the EOS-1 in 1991 and, as the buyer wanted a lens, I did part with the 35–105, but it was replaced by a more refined 35–135 model that had Canon’s quicker and virtually silent USM mechanism.

But, before I sold it, the EOS-620 with the 35–105 on Paris’ Avenue Wagram (probably a Fujichrome)

Of course, one needs a second body!

And, as I was now solidly in the Canon EOS camp — at least for auto-focus with manual override when desired — naturally (read: more TV dinners) it meant having a second body, for different films or quickly changing from a wide angle to long tele, etc. Canon had by then introduced a very special SLR called simply the RT. It had the same form factor as the 620 I’d enjoyed before moving up to the EOS-1. Indeed, the RT was a variant of the 630, successor to the 620, but it employed a pellicle mirror. Unlike the typical SLR mirror that must flip out of the way each time a picture is taken, the pellicle mirror (an update of that used by Canon in the mid-60s Pellix) is actually stationary and translucent. Two things I loved about my little RT (and still do, as I never parted with it!) were the fact that it was stealthily quiet for an SLR and that one could actually see a flash burst. Great assurance in those relatively rare occasions I use flash. (You can’t see the flash go off in a conventional SLR, either film or digi, because of the momentary mirror blackout at the time of exposure.)

So, with the RT, I also purchased a “nifty-fifty” standard lens (f/1.8) and a “long” tele-zoom, the 100–300mm USM.

Also, around this time, I lucked into a lovely L-Series 28–80mm f/2.8–4 lens when my camera store guy told me a very well to do customer suddenly decided to switch systems after making a purchase, so the lens was virtually new. Sweet (read: still more TV dinners for the happy, now L-equipped, photog).

Traditionalist that I am, I decided that, as comfortable as I had quickly become with the EOS experience, I still wanted a fully manual camera along in the pack, should one of the fully-electronic EOS’s brains fail while on top of a mountain, rendering the camera inoperative.

And, while I’d sold the Nikon FE2 to generate funds for the switch to Canon EOS, I did, for that reason — and the fact that I loved my Nikon manual focus lenses too — decide to keep the fully manual Nikon FM. Typically, I’d use it to shoot my black and whites.

Heavy pack, but I do love me that redundancy! Oh, yes, I needn’t have worried about those all-electronic Canon EOS cameras quitting on a cold mountain top!

More EOS cameras…

Well, yes, there would — of course — be additions to the EOS “fleet.” Especially as digital had knocked the floor out from under the prices of film cameras (for a while…). Thus some of the high-end EOS models became (hugely) more affordable for those of us still carrying a torch for silver-coated sprocketed stuff with names ending in “–chrome” or bearing iconic names like Tri-X, FP4, HP5, Panatomic X. You get the idea. And, finally in 2008 before a trip to Germany, I’d add a digital SLR to my EOS arsenal.

I’ll tell you more about some of these some other time…

Taken with the “new” EOS-620 at New York’s South Street Seaport on Kodak Ektar-100 film

But this story started out with reference to the early models by which the term EOS itself became iconic and how a minty 620 re-entered my EOS collection. Sure, it was a matter of sentimentality. But, having been dragged into the digital world of scrolling through menus, there was just something comfort-food-like about that good old, solid, and relatively straightforward EOS-620. It has been a pleasure to use, whether by itself or when I assemble a pack of EOS film cameras for an outing…and it most certainly remains a remarkable value at…twenty-eight bucks.

Oh, yes, there would be a P.S.

Totally without regard to the approaching EOS 30th Anniversary, a few summers ago, as I was reinforcing my stout armada of film cameras by scanning Ebay for well cared for examples, I did pick up the original EOS model mentioned up top, the 650. I think this one was maybe fourteen or fifteen bucks and was, like the 620, in superb condition. So, I figured it could be a back-up or parts source for the “new” 620. So far, neither has given me a lick of worry. I used the 650 for some infrared black and white work a while back and was very happy with it. It comes along when I don’t necessarily need the more advanced feature set of the 620.

And aside from that, in this 30th Anniversary Year of Canon EOS, the little guy is certainly a nice — and working — memento of a major development in camera history, which is why it became the subject of my “Happy 30th, EOS” photo (at top).

Oops, and as of this past June, this EOS love story has a P.P.S…

I was not in the initial stampede into digital. Guess I just loved film too much at the time (And yes I still do, if you were wondering!). But I did jump in, in early 2008, just prior to a trip to Europe. The EOS 40D I purchased at the time has served me well all these years. Sure, the evolution of Canon’s D-SLRs since that model was impressive and, yes, thoughts about the quality advantages of full-frame were lurking. But every action needs a catalyst, and mine came in June as I planned a trip to New York that was to include an evening open helicopter flight over Manhattan. That lurking desire to move into a higher level full-frame DSLR, combined with the need for some really outstanding performance at higher ISO settings for that blue-hour helicopter shooting brought the necessary logic to the table (even if the table’s going be set with lots of TV dinners again!) and I celebrated my three decades behind EOS eyepieces with a brand new 5D Mark IV. I guess that 620 is going to be in for some benign neglect for a while, but that’s OK — it’s also here to stay — Lots of film in that freezer, alongside the microwave dinners!

©2017 Steve Ember

You can view more of my photography, both film and digital, here and also at