Today marks the 35th anniversary of the Canon EOS 650, which revolutionized photography. It was Canon’s first EOS camera, and while it may not appear to be related to Apple’s game-changer, it has a surprising amount in common with it. It, like the iPhone, was a radical departure from the past, with its novel take on existing technology ushering the industry into a new era. To truly appreciate the significance of the EOS 650, we must go back to March 2, 1987. On the same day, Apple was prepared to unveil the Macintosh II, while Nokia was set to unveil its first handheld phone, the Cityman 1320, later that year. However, the camera industry was also undergoing a technological revolution. In the mid-80s, cameras, like phones and capacitive touchscreens, were experimenting with an intriguing new technology termed ‘autofocus.’ In the late 1970s, Leica started the trend, but in 1985, Minolta startled the photographic industry by releasing the first SLR with in-body autofocus (the 7000AF). However, the camera in this narrative is the LG Prada phone, which is a widely forgotten trailblazer. Canon, like Apple 20 years later, saw a chance to advance – and seize it, inventing a camera system that is the reason it is still at the top of the photography world today. In the early 1980s, Canon had autofocus cameras and lenses, but the technology had reached its limit. Yasuo Suda, a Canon developer, adds, “Prior to the advent of the EOS series, our cameras used the FD lens mount.
However, in order to obtain a high level of AF technology, a fully electronic mount was required “. That meant ditching the mount for which current SLR aficionados had purchased lenses in favor of a totally new one that would provide a significant improvement in autofocus. It would be a risky move, not least because the autofocus isn’t universally regarded as the holy grail. Nikon, the obvious leader in pro cameras at the time, dismissed the technology as a novelty for professionals, believing that most serious photographers would prefer to manually focus. However, Canon chose to take the plunge in 1985, and their ‘Electro Optical System’ (or EOS) was established two years later with the Canon EOS 650, an advanced amateur camera. For two reasons, it was significant. To begin with, EOS was the first system to provide a full electrical connection between an SLR camera and its lenses, allowing autofocus to progress beyond the slow, clumsy experience of the time. It also marked the beginning of the EF-Mount, which is still used on Canon DSLRs today and has the same physical form. The Canon EOS 650, like the original iPhone, was a futuristic-looking device based on a proprietary platform that would set the standard in its sector for decades.
However, when it was first released in 1987, it was also far from complete. What were the opinions of the Canon EOS 650 at the time? The New York Times’s Andy Grunberg wrote in a 1987 review titled “Camera; a new experience in simplicity” that while “it took a few days to get relaxed with my high-tech companion” he discovered that it performed “a remarkable number of feats without any intervention or input from the person holding it” He liked the single-point autofocus mechanism, saying, “all I needed to do was to press the button the rest of the way down and the picture was taken” but he wasn’t happy with the too sensitive shutter button. Still, “using the Canon EOS 650 has improved my opinion of auto-focusing, electronic SLRs\” and “certain aspects of their whirring, blinking performance are actually fun\” according to the conclusion. While the EOS 650 was a film camera, it marked the beginning of the modern, electronic shooting experience — one that has become so common that operating a Canon EOS 650 is still quite easy today. But, like the first iPhone (which didn’t have an App Store at launch), it was the EOS 650’s successors that cemented Canon’s position as the industry’s most recognizable brand. “My opinion on auto-focusing, electronic SLRs has improved while using the Canon EOS 650. Certain portions of their whirling, blinking show are truly entertaining “. New York Times reporter Andy Grundberg (1987) With the EF 300mm f/2.8L USM, the first important USM (UltraSonic Motor) lenses arrived in November 1987. Importantly, instead of the camera, a small, quiet autofocus motor is placed inside the lens. Apple had “patented the hell out of it” as Steve Jobs yelled at the iPhone introduction, and Canon did the same with its new technology.
This resulted in true pro revolutionaries such as the Canon EOS 1 and EOS 1N, which are widely considered to be the most impactful cameras of the last half-century. So much so that we’re looking forward to the predicted Canon EOS R1 as their successor. In another similarity to smartphone cameras, what’s remarkable about the Canon EOS 650 is how it was advertised and marketed back in 1987. “now you don’t have to be a pro to shoot like one” said the tagline of one US television commercial. “One of these guys is a pro photographer, one is a dentist,” added another, “and it’s tough to tell them apart with the autofocus Canon EOS.” The EOS 650 is introduced as a new point-and-shoot king in the video below. While that wasn’t quite the case, the Canon EOS 650 did lay the groundwork for a new generation of SLR cameras. It, like the Canon T90 before it, removed buttons, simplified the shooting experience, and put usability first – sound familiar? Who’d have predicted that Apple, which was still struggling with the Macintosh in 1987, would go on to become one of Canon’s major point-and-shoot successors in the 2010s? The EOS 650’s design, which is so painfully 80s that it must be related to Knightrider’s KITT car, may explain why it’s commonly disregarded by today’s film camera buyers. Retro camera buyers are drawn to classic, fully mechanical bodies like the original Olympus OM-1, but the EOS 650 is still worth looking into – especially if you already have EF lenses and don’t need the old-school, manual-only film experience. While it originally retailed for roughly $830 / £620 / AU$1,140 in 1987 (when adjusted for inflation), and EOS 650 may currently be had on eBay for around $25 / £25. Not bad for a camera that revolutionized autofocus, altered photographic history, and reputedly shot the first photo ever posted to the internet in 1992.