In 1933 Seiki Kogaku Kenkyusho, the predecessor of Canon Inc., was founded in Azabu-Roppongi, Tokyo. In 1935 it produced the ‘Kwanon’ – the first Japanese 35mm rangefinder camera with a focal plane shutter. Two years later the company began producing cameras under the brand name ‘Canon’. Around 35 different Canon rangefinder models were produced over the following 20 years but by 1959 Canon was phasing out rangefinder cameras with focal plane shutters and ushering in the age of the single lens reflex (SLR).
The ‘R’ series
The first Canon SLR was introduced in May 1959, but it was very much a camera of the 1960s. Called the ‘Canon Flex’ (shown in the header image above), it introduced the highly successful and long-running Canon breech-lock bayonet mount for interchangeable lenses and offered a completely automatic diaphragm mechanism with Super-Canomatic lenses. There was a quick-return mirror mechanism, an interchangeable viewfinder and an optional coupled exposure meter – all advanced concepts at the time.
The Canon Flex was followed by the Canon Flex R2000 in September 1960 – the original camera with addition of a top shutter speed of 1/2000sec. This was the fastest shutter speed on any 35mm camera at the time. Just over 18 months later, in April 1962, the Canonflex RM appeared – it was the first Canon SLR with a built-in exposure meter.
The ‘F’ series
April 1964 saw the introduction of a new series of Canon SLRs, and an improved lens mount and lens range. The Canon FX featured a lens mount with a simpler and more reliable automatic diaphragm coupling than earlier models when used with the new FL series lenses. The R series of lenses introduced for the earlier cameras could still be used, but with reduced compatibility.
The Canon FT QL (March 1966) featured the unique Canon Quick Load system. When a new cassette of film was loaded, the system grabbed the film leader as the camera back was closed, eliminating the need to thread the film manually onto the take-up spool.
But the most significant model in the ‘F’ series was the Canon F-1, introduced in March 1971. The F-1 was Canon’s first professional camera. The Canon FD series of lenses was introduced at the same time, providing full-aperture through-the-lens (TTL) exposure metering for this and all following models.
The Canon F-1 was a system camera, accepting over 40 lenses (later increased to nearly 60) and more than 80 other accessories. Extreme accuracy of construction, high and low temperature resistance and high durability made the F-1 the choice of many professional photographers during the 1970s.
Introduced at the same time as the F-1, the Canon FTb also used FD lenses and open-aperture exposure metering. Semi-automatic match-needle flash photography was possible with the Speedlite 133D flashgun and Canon Flash Auto Ring. The FTb remained popular for more than five years and became a million-seller.
Professional ‘F’ series developments
In 1972 a limited production model of the Canon F-1 was developed for use at the 1972 Munich Summer Olympic Games and the Sapporo Winter Olympic Games – the F-1 High Speed Motor Drive Camera. It offered a rapid shooting facility of up to nine frames a second – ideal for sports photographers, though it got through a 36-exposure cassette of film in four seconds.
Five years after the original F-1 was introduced, several minor modifications were made to the camera's specifications. The name of the camera wasn’t changed, but the revised model can be identified by the addition of a plastic tip to the film advance lever, a memo holder on the back cover, threaded flash terminal, increased film speed range and increased viewfinder brightness.
An unusual version of the F series was the Canon ODF-1 (a limited edition of the revised F-1). Most of the external parts are finished in olive drab (OD) military colour. Various parts of the camera were non-standard. Only 2002 units were made and the camera was only sold in Japan.
The Canon New F-1 (launched in June 1981) was introduced as the professional camera of the 1980s. It retained the match-needle metering system that was still favoured by professional users, but added the options of shutter priority and aperture priority exposure metering. Other features included selective and spot metering modes. The camera operated without a battery at shutter speeds from 1/90sec to 1/2000sec, or at speeds down to eight seconds (and Bulb) with a battery.
In January 1984 the last of the F-1 line appeared. A limited production camera, made to special order only, the Canon New F-1 High Speed Motor Drive Camera was introduced in time for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games. The built-in motor drive offered three continuous shooting speeds – 5fps, 10fps and 14fps. At the top speed a 36-exposure cassette lasted just 2.57 seconds!
While the ‘F’ series was going strong, from the mid-1960s until the early 1970s Canon brought out a few SLR models that didn't fit into the mainstream range.
In April 1965 the Canon Pellix was the first commercial production SLR to use a pellicle mirror. Unlike mirrors in most SLR cameras, the pellicle mirror is fixed, eliminating the viewfinder blackout that normally occurs during exposure. The mirror is semi-transparent, transmitting most of the light from the lens through to the film, but reflecting a small percentage to the viewfinder. The viewfinder image is a little darker than with conventional SLR cameras. The Canon Pellix QL appeared in March 1966, featuring the Canon Quick Load (QL) system.
A pellicle mirror was used in both the aforementioned Canon F-1 High Speed Motor Drive and New F-1 High Speed Motor Drive cameras. Not only did it overcome the engineering problems of moving a mirror up and down at high speed, it also gave sports photographers an uninterrupted view of the action they were shooting thus giving better timing over potential images.
The Canon EXEE (launched in October 1969) didn't feature the standard Canon breech-lock lens mount. Instead, a rear group of lenses was permanently fixed to the camera with only the front elements being interchangeable – these were attached using a screw mount. Four focal length units were available – 35mm, 50mm, 90mm and 125mm. This lens system allowed the camera to make use of open-aperture TTL exposure metering a couple of years before the FD lens mount was introduced with the Canon F-1 camera.
The Canon EX Auto (launched in March 1972) was based on the EXEE camera but it added an automatic maximum aperture setting mechanism for the interchangeable lens components.
The Canon EF (which arrived on the market in November 1973) was Canon’s first SLR camera with an electronic shutter – though only the shutter speeds between 30 seconds and one second were electronically timed; the faster shutter speeds operated without a battery in the camera. The camera was also Canon’s first integral TTL automatic exposure single lens reflex – the forerunner of all of the recent Canon SLR cameras.
The ‘A’ series
The Canon AE-1 (March 1976) was the first of a new generation of SLR models. It was the first Canon camera with a central processing unit (CPU), introducing the concept of computer control, and the first camera with a fully automatic AE flash system, using the Speedlite 155A. Automation also extended to the production line, allowing Canon to produced large numbers of the camera at moderate cost. The AE-1 went on to became one of Canon’s most popular SLR models, selling more than five million units worldwide.
The modular construction of the AE-1 was mirrored in later models of the series. The AT-1 (January 1977) was developed to offer a lower-price model with the shutter priority metering and flash AE operation of the AE-1 missing. The AV-1 (from May 1979) was Canon’s first aperture priority camera. The AE-1 Program added program metering to the shutter-priority metering of the AE-1. The AL-1 featured semi-automatic focusing – if a red light appears at the base of the viewfinder the subject is out-of-focus; the lens focus ring is turned manually until a green ‘in-focus’ indicator appears.
However, the top model in the range was the Canon A-1 (launched in April 1978)– the world’s first multi-mode SLR camera. Shutter priority AE, aperture priority AE, program AE, stop-down AE and flash AE were available, along with manual metering - digital electronic circuitry made it all possible.
The ‘T’ series
In March 1983 Canon introduced an unassuming little SLR camera – the fully automatic T50. It was aimed at the photographer who would be moving up from a compact rangefinder camera and the only exposure modes were program AE and flash AE. However, the significant feature was a built-in motor for film advance – the first Canon SLR to offer this.
The Canon T70 soon followed in February 1984. It was the first Canon SLR with a liquid crystal display (LCD) – a feature now commonplace on most models - and a motor-driven film rewind. It was also the first (and only) Canon SLR to feature push-button shutter speed and aperture control.
Canon’s first autofocus camera was not an EOS model, but the T80 dating from February 1985. It retained the FD lens mount, but used AC lenses – each lens had a built-in ranging sensor and micro motor for autofocusing. Only three different AC lenses were ever made – the AC 50mm f/1.8 prime lens, the AC 35-70mm f/3.5-4.5 and the AC 75-200mm f/4.5. FD lenses could also be used, with manual focus confirmation provided in the viewfinder.
Finally in the ‘T’ series came the Canon T90 in January 1986. This top-of-the-line model offered every imaginable feature (except autofocusing). It was the first Canon SLR to offer TTL flash metering (with the Speedlite 300TL).
The EOS era
In 1987 Canon took a huge gamble - it introduced the all-new EOS camera system. This featured the EF electronic lens mount, Canon’s first completely new lens mount in 28 years. It was a brave move as it meant that anyone buying an EOS camera also had to buy new lenses to accompany it – none of Canon’s previous lenses were compatible with the EOS system. Would photographers be willing to leave all their equipment behind and upgrade to EOS? The answer was a resounding 'yes'. In the intervening 22 years EOS has become the world’s most successful and popular SLR camera system.
The first model in the range was the EOS 650 (launched in March 1987), and it was quickly followed by the EOS 620 in May 1987. The major feature of the system was autofocusing. Unlike the T80 camera, with autofocusing sensors in the lenses, EOS cameras have AF sensors built-in. Every EF and EF-S lens in the system autofocuses with every EOS camera.
Over the years there have been 35 EOS film cameras. Highlights have included the long-running EOS 5 (launched in November 1992), which introduced the world’s first eye-controlled focusing system. On the professional side, the EOS-1 (from September 1989) led the field, followed by the EOS-1N (out in November 1994) and the EOS-1V (launched in March 2000).
The last film model to be introduced was the entry level EOS 300X in August 2004. However, the last film model to be available was the EOS-1V, with a sales life just short of a decade.
The EOS system moved into the digital age with the DCS 3 in July 1995. Before the year 2000 Canon and Kodak jointly produced Canon’s digital SLRs, with much of the digital technology coming from Kodak and the camera hardware being provided by Canon. The Digital Camera System (DSC) series was marketed jointly, with both the Canon and Kodak logos on each camera body. The EOS D2000 (March 1998) only carried the Canon logo, but the same camera was marketed by Kodak as the DCS 520. From 2000 onwards Canon has been in complete control of its digital cameras, providing both the hardware and the digital systems.
The first professional camera in the digital range was the EOS-1D, based on the EOS-1V and with a 4.15 megapixel CCD sensor. All later models, both professional and consumer, use a CMOS sensor that was developed and manufactured by Canon.
Canon’s film-era developments, such as Ultra Sonic Motors (USM) and Image Stabilization (IS) lenses, have now been complemented by a raft of digital innovations. These include Live View Mode and, in the recent EOS 5D Mark II and EOS 500D models, the addition of Full HD video capture alongside digital stills capture. So, Canon seems set to remain a trailblazer in SLR innovation for some time yet.