Canon EOS-1 – A History & Review | This Old Camera



Welcome to This Old Camera, I’m your host Azriel Knight and in this episode we take a look at the Canon EOS-1.

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Announced at a press conference in June 1989 in Bar Harbor, Maine, The Canon EOS-1 is a 35mm SLR meant to be a turning point in professional cameras. Canon did away with traditional controls in favour of a push button system, utilized ultra sonic motored lenses, and added an LCD display to a fiber-reinforced polycarbonate body. Meant to be a replacement of Canon’s long time champion, the F1, The EOS-1 was the new flagship, and it took a lot of risks.

The EOS-1 would be among the top picks in photography magazines for 1990, 91, 92 and 93.

In 1989, Petersen’s Photographic published Canon’s announcement of the EOS-1. Though no price had been revealed at this point, the public knew that is would have five metering modes, a max shutter speed of one 8000th of a second, a flash sync speed of 1/250th of a second and be able to shoot 2.5 frames per second.

The earliest ad I found was in September 1989’s issue of American Photographer, a colourful three page ad, that would be one of a theme of ads with the suggestion, to quote “shoot it hot”.

“Live for photography. Eat Sleep and breathe it. Become a photograph.”

“Send the world your message…written in silver.”

The ad says you’ll experience “The swiftest predictive autofocus the world as ever known.”, mentions the features like auto-bracketing, and the ultra sonic-motored lens system and promises all this in “a clean, uncluttered form that fits the hand like a glove. So clean, yet so responsive, that if you spend five minutes with the Canon EOS-1, you may well want to spend all your time with it; especially if you’re the kind who aims to shoot it hot.”

The ad ends with the bold statement: The Image of the New Professional.

Another ad in the same issue claims that “Never before has the professional photographer had so much control,” and mentioned the “unique rear mounted ‘Quick Control Dial’ which would become a staple with Canon SLRs.
In addition to these ads was a full review by Russel Hart. Hart explains that auto focus SLRs have only been around for five years at this point, if that gives you an indication to the ground breaking nature of the camera.

The direct competition of the time was the Nikon F4, a well loved model, with more traditional stylings, and as Hart points out, “while virtually any previous Nikkor lens can be used on the F4, none of Canon’s manual focus FD lenses can be mounted on the EOS-1. This makes the camera just as much of a financial leap for pros shooting with Canon’s top of the line F1 or T90 as it will be for newcomers.”
In case you didn’t know, Canon had recently abandoned its FD mount almost overnight. Introducing the auto focus system, through EF lenses, and that meant every lens they made before 1987 was unusable on the new system, and many people were upset. Especially those who had purchased the aforementioned cameras, especially the T90, only released three years previous.
Hart admits though that the auto focusing is so quick and quiet, it’s “a little unnerving”
Hart spends a little time talking about how a couple features were borrowed from the Canon T90, including a sort of hidden door, with more button activated features inside, but his favourite, was the custom functions menu. Eight custom functions in all, like cancelling the auto rewind, leaving the film lead out when rewinding, overriding the DX coding, and swapping the functions of the main and quick control dials.

The EOS-1 introduced some new things for photographers as well. “The camera is the first, in fact, to offer shutter priority auto exposure in third stop increments, and the weird numbers take some getting used to. It’s a little disorienting to get three, four, six and eight tenths of a second of either side of the usual half, and you’ve probably never heard of f7.1”
Popular Photography’s Herbert Keppler also chimed in the same month, saying “Watch out Nikon F4, here’s Canon’s answer, a professional EOS-1”

“Unlike the all metal Nikon F4 with its control dials, rings and levers, EOS-1 controls are all electronic, and Canon has trimmed its weight by using a single die-cast metal lens mount, mirror box, and film-plane unit bonded to a fiber-reinforced polycarbonate body.”
Popular Photography’s review echoes the same thing about the autofocus, and that it’s faster than any other, giving an example that with a 50mm lens, you can focus from infinity to 18 inches in 1/3 of a second. Keppler also calls the Quick Control Dial a “major innovation for improved camera handling”

Though the camera was intriguing for Popular Photography it wasn’t without its faults. The eight custom functions required you to have your manual with you to translate, the lack of compatibility with older lenses was still fresh and hurt people’s wallets, the diminished brightness of the finder information panel compared to that of the EOS 620, especially in bright light and having to use the custom function s

menu to switch from evaluative to centre weighted metering.

Despite these shortcomings the camera was considered a success by Popular Photography.

In October 1989, David Brooks of Petersen’s Photographic did a user report on the EOS-1, and tested it in British Columbia.

The first things that seemed to grab the attention of Brooks was the 100% viewfinder and the quick dial.

The auto focusing system again, became one of the EOS-1’s greatest features mentioned. “In the EOS-1, autofocus has enhanced performance in both speed and sensitivity over the original 620 and 650 EOS models. The new camera utilizes the greater-capacity 12Mhz clock speed microchip main control introduced in the EOS 630, adding a new cross-reference AF sensor so the camera will respond to both vertical and horizontal lines of contrast differences in subjects.

“Combined with the high response speed of the Canon EF design, and with the focus and aperture control drive motors in each lens, plus the virtual instantaneous response of the ultrasonic lenses, the EOS-1 autofocus performance far exceeds traditional manually controlled systems in many important applications.”
I quite enjoyed the review from David Brooks, especially since he went to British Columbia in Canada to test the EOS-1. His review claims that Canon’s EOS-1 created the “highest level of predictable images” and “affords the most secure and comfortable handling I have experienced in a modern 35mm SLR camera.”

David Brooks would revisit the EOS-1 just a couple months later, in December, with some new lenses including the 85mm f1.2, a 20-35mm f2.8, and an 80-200mm f2.8. All L series lenses. He also tested a speedlite, the 430 EZ.
Much of the review goes over the functionality of the lenses and flash but all ties into the EOS-1 in the end. Brooks states “Now, with an extended compliment of lenses, and the new speedlite 430 EZ, the EOS-1 can be considered a full-fledged professional camera system, in my judgment. Based on the work done for both my initial report and this one, with considerable shooting experience in between, using a varied selection of lenses, I am thoroughly convinced of the capability of the system.”

Canon would continue with its “Shoot it Hot” ad series, with several variations on the theme in 1989 and 1990. The end of 89 would see ads like this one, with random photos, or the camera itself. Here’s an example promoting the EOS-1 and the EOS 630. Beginning in 1990 though, there were Shoot it Hot ads featuring professional photographers and their photos taken with the EOS-1. Photographers like Walter Looss Jr., George Lepp, and Lee Page. Each ad included a quote or two from the artist, their photo, the usual advertising jargon and even the camera settings for the photo at the bottom.

Lee Page says “To Keep your work fresh, you have to get out of the studio sometimes. And the versatility of the EOS 1 and the EOS L Series zoom EF lenses lets me do that.”

George Lepp admits “As a result of the superb optics and technical capacity of the EOS-1, I’m now looking for fast action subjects so difficult I’d have shied away from them before. The responsiveness of EOS-1’s 4.5 fps predictive auto focus provides the most extraordinary opportunities.”

Of course, that frame rate is with the booster grip.

Walter Iooss jr says that the “EOS-1 is unlike anything I’ve ever used. For me this is the future of 35mm photography”

By the end of 1991, the “Shoot it Hot” slogan was dropped, in favour of these two page spreads. They kept using professional photographers to endorse it though. Here’s photojournalist Dennis Brack and sports photographer David Walberg. The ad featuring David Brack is especially telling of the times, as it features an image taken during the Gulf War. “My old equipment kept breaking down. Ever tried to find a camera repair shop in the Al-Hajara Desert?”

Taking all this in, the innovation, the endorsements, and the glowing reviews, you’d think there was no other camera that could even come close to competing. There was one model though, that was already out and had a strong loyal following. That was the Nikon F4, and in May 1990, Petersen’s Photographic published a nine page feature on these two industry titans. As seen on the cover here it was the main feature of the issue, showing a transparent Canon EOS-1.
Written by the editors, this in depth beat by beat breakdown first goes over the controls of the camera. The Nikon F4 is, for the most part seen as a traditional styled SLR with tactile controls like the aperture adjustment on the lens, where as the Canon EOS-1 is seen as more electronic, with buttons, and an aperture controlled from the camera.
Both cameras offer single and continuous auto focusing. Both offer multi-area, center-weighted average and spot metering modes, but in addition to that, Canon offers a partial metering mode, in which the camera reads 5.8% of the image. While Canon offers auto exposure bracketing out of the box, Nikon’s F4 requires a special back, the MF 23 or MF 24. Each camera offers flash with automatic metering, known as TTL, and shutter speeds of 30 seconds, to 1/8000 of a second. The Canon EOS-1, being electronic in nature, can set exposure in 1/3 stop increments, while the F4 is limited to full stops.

Many of the differences are small, but one that is glaring of course is at the time of publication, there were only 25 EF lenses, and no backwards compatibility pre 1987, and while Nikon only offered 20 autofocus lenses, they had a auto focus tele-converter, called the TC-16A which took 32 manual focus lenses. But the F4 also handled a wide array of manual focus lenses on their own, from decades previous.
The review is meant to be evenly balanced rather than taking sides. “The long time pro will probably prefer the F4’s more traditional control. Other photographers may prefer the EOS-1’s control dial and buttons. It took our two 20 year plus veteran photographers a little longer to get used to the EOS-1 than the F4, while our 1980’s photographer actually felt at home with the EOS-1 more quickly than the F4.”

By the beginning of 1992, Canon’s flagship had a price tag of $1950, body only. Adjusting for inflation, that’s over $3500 US, but still not as much as the Nikon F4s, which carried a hefty price tag of $2550, or over $4700 after inflation.
In September 1992, Camera & Darkroom Magazine published: A Quiet Revolution, A look at the Canon EOS Phenomenon, by Mike Johnston.

Johnston took an in depth look at Canon as a company, specifically their transition from FD mount to EOS, the controversy and resulting innovations.

“When Canon introduced the EOS line in 1987, they immediately earned for themselves, among other things, a bad rap of sorts. The reason was the lens mount capability. The introduction of the new line was news; and the reaction from those heavily invested in expensive FD optics was swift, loud- and, to put it mildly, less than pleased.”
Johnston also says that what really didn’t make the news was the concept that by Canon accepting, what he calls hard knocks, they were taking a step back in order to take two steps forward.
Much of the article talks about the other aspect of Canon, their Original Equipment Manufacturing, or O.E.M. “If you own a laser printer, for instance, chances are very good that Canon manufactured the actual laser printing mechanism and sold it to the company that built the whole unit.” Johnston related this back to the development of Ultrasonic motors, and how it wasn’t just for Canon’s lenses, but “The reason they could justify the all out engineering effort required to make this possible is, you guessed it, O.E.M. Canon wants to become the undisputed leader of ultrasonic technology…”

The article also touches on optics, something Canon is still very well respected for. “Canon’s gotten the jump on their competition in certain areas, such as the use of aspheric lens elements, which are the most effective means to the designer by which to reduce aberrations in large apertures. Leica for instance, has indicated it will not produce another run of its Summilux-M 35mm f1.4 aspheric, because aspherics are just too difficult to manufacture.”

Johnston goes on to spend some time talking about the advantages of software and electronics in cameras, as well as the caution of the implications of a camera that can do too much.

“In any event, what is underway at Canon is indeed a revolution, even if it’s a quiet one that’s not making the news every day. What seems indisputable is that the “EOS concept” is beginning to pay off, and that the dividends are looking more and more enticing to many kinds of photographers.

Even if you’re not a Canon photographer, it might be wise to keep your eye on them…if only to see which way the winds of change are blowing in the field of 35mm photography”

From here we’ll go over some operation basics, then I’ll show you my field test results, finally I’ll give you my personal pros and cons.

Here I will show you, the basic operations of the Canon EOS-1. This isn’t a complete manual. For that, please follow the link in the description.

To load a battery into the camera, rotate the grip screw until the grip comes off, load a 2CR5 battery with the contacts facing down and away, then reattach.

Mount a lens by aligning the red dot on the lens with that of the lens attachment mark on the camera, and rotate clockwise. To un-mount, press and hold the lens release button, turn counterclockwise to the 12 o’clock position and remove.

Power on the camera by flipping the main switch from the L position to the A. If you want an audible sound when you have achieved focus, switch to this icon here.

Power on the quick control dial by switching it on here.

To perform a battery check, open the palm door located on the right, then press and hold the battery check button, second from the top. Three bars indicate a good battery, two indicates you should probably have a spare handy, one blinking bar means you should change your battery and no bar likely means the battery is likely dead.
To load a roll of film, press the button on the side, and push down the back cover latch, place a roll of film inside, pull the film leader to the orange mark, and close. The film should automatically advance to the first frame.

Most films have DX coding that will automatically set the ISO. If it doesn’t, or you want to override, press the metering mode and auto focus mode selectors together, and use the main dial to select ISO.

Choose your shooting mode by holding the shooting mode selector like a shift key, and rotating the mail dial on the top right. Your choices are M for manual, Tv for Shutter priority, bulb, for long exposures, P for program, Av for aperture priority, and DEP for Depth of Field.

Select metering mode by pressing the holding the metering mode selector like a shift key, and using the main dial.

You can select between evaluative, partial, or spot.

Evaluative will use most of the frame to gauge an exposure, with emphasis in the centre. Partial will use approximately 5.8% of the center and spot will use around 2.3% of the center.

A fourth metering mode can be selected through the custom function menu F8, changing evaluative to center weighted.
To select the auto focus mode, press and hold the AF selector button and use the main dial.
You can choose between One shot and AI Servo.

One shot will lock focus and stay there once it finds a subject. AI Servo will continuously focus as you or the subject moves.

Once you have shot the entire roll, the camera will rewind automatically, use the back door

[motor sounds]

latch to open, and take your film out.
For more settings like auto exposure I tested the Canon EOS-1 by taking it to the Centre Street Bridge here in Calgary Alberta while it was closed off. It was a great experience as a photographer having access to something I normally didn’t and even made a darkroom print.
For my test I used an EF 16-35mm f2.8 L series lens as well as a 28-105mm f3.5-4.5 II USM and shot with Ultrafine Extreme 100 film. [Country Music]

Out of all the camera manufacturers, I have shot with Canon the most, and so my experience was basically an uneventful one.
You can view the entire episode by clicking the link in the description.

Let’s talk about some pros and cons
First the pros

Lenses: While EOS might have been controversial in 1989 when this camera was released, Canon has now over 30 years worth of EF lenses under their belt, not to mention third party alternatives. Canon is known for their quality lenses. Ultrasonic motors make lenses super quiet and the L series is arguably unmatched.
One Handed operation: with the main controls on the one side, much of the camera can be operated right handed, including exposure adjustment, compensation and shutter release.
Solid build: This was a top of the line model and it shows. If it survived Desert Storm, it’ll likely survive the everyday bumps and drops of the urban photographer.

And now the cons

Lack of Mode dial: Though Canon adopted the exposure mode dial pretty early on, this one is lacking and you may find that changing auto focus modes, exposure modes or metering a little cumbersome.
Weight: Buying a 30 year old camera that works is still very much a reality, but there are many other options that came later that will give you the same features in a smaller, lighter form factor.

Well folks, that’s all for now, I hope you enjoyed this episode, if you did perhaps you’ll consider joining me on Patreon. This episode is the result of researching through over 25 photography magazine back issues, spanning four years and my Patreon is what makes that possible. Most of what I found during my research is not available online, until now of course, and generous donors is what makes it all possible. In exchange I offer early access, free prints, your name in the credits and more. Go to to subscribe. You can also follow my on Instagram and Twitter, and until next time, stay classic.

[Funky Beats]