How 1987 Led to Canon's Domination of Photography

How 1987 Led to Canon's Domination of Photography

In 1987, Ronald Reagan was president, Mathias Rust landed his light aircraft in Red Square, and the stock market crashed on October 19, dropping 22% in a single day. Fox also made its primetime debut, the Simpsons aired for the first time, and "Robocop," "Dirty Dancing," and "Good Morning Vietnam" were all released. But what happened in the photographic world?


Perhaps the single biggest seismic shift in the camera market took place in 1987 with the announcement of Canon's EOS (Electro-Optical System), crucially unleashing the EF lens mount, which removed all mechanical linkages, introducing significant improvements to autofocus. It additionally incorporated the largest throat diameter of any SLR of the time, which enabled Canon to produce the fastest SLR lens in the shape of the EF 50mm f/1.0! However, the EF mount broke compatibility with the previous FD mount, requiring users to use mount converters or upgrade their lenses.

It was a bold move and one of the biggest gambles in recent camera history. Nikon was number one with pros at the time; however, Canon smelled an opportunity with the shift to autofocus, which enabled them to stay at the bleeding edge of camera design. The EF lens mount (and EOS cameras) was that gamble, and it paid off. Camera sales had started to rapidly increase in the late 1970s, and Canon rode that wave to become the biggest camera manufacturer on the planet.

So what was the first EOS camera to roll off the production line? The rather uninspiring EOS 650, which arrived with the BASIS sensor for accurate and fast AF using a new range of EF lenses. It was uninspiring in the sense that it was a top-end enthusiast camera but offered AF performance and usability significantly ahead of anything else at the time. The 650 wouldn't win pros over, but its successors would. It was also purportedly used to take the first photo that was uploaded to the worldwide web.

Nikon — in contrast — released the One-Touch, Fun-Touch, and Tele-Touch Deluxe cameras, which perhaps goes to show how important compact cameras were becoming to manufacturers at the time. The only camera of note was the F-401, which was a harbinger of things to come. Canon had released its first full AF model in 1985 (T80) but was about to go EOS. Nikon's first foray into full AF was in 1986 with the F-501; the F-401 was important because it provided entry-level AF, TTL flash, and introduced the now commonplace thumb wheel for setting the aperture. AF on the F-mount worked using a motor in the camera to operate an interconnecting screwdriver that controlled the focus ring. Canon put the motor directly in the lens. Nikon's solution was evolutionary, whereas Canon's was revolutionary. The future belonged to the Canon.

Minolta had had a barnstorming year in 1985 with the release of the 7000AF, the first in-body autofocus SLR. While they had a quiet 1987, their collaboration with Leica led to the release of the R5, which was a Minolta XD-7 incorporating significant Leica modifications in the form of metering, mirror box, and body. For the first time, Leica introduced TTL flash exposure to one of their cameras.

While Minolta and Canon were riding the wave of autofocus, the same couldn't be said of Olympus. Their masterpiece of design and highly regarded system — the OM — was now getting a little long in the tooth, and their response to the Minolta 7000AF was the OM-707, which used a disappointingly poor AF system that was subsequently dropped. The OM system never recovered and never received AF. In 1987, they released the OM-4Ti, an evolution of the OM series; the system was finally discontinued in 2002. Pentax was last to the AF party and rapidly backpedaled in order to retrofit an AF system to its cameras. This led to the 1987 release of the SFX, their first full in-body AF camera, and also the first that incorporated auto flash. It was marginally better than Olympus' variant, but well behind the market leaders.

Perhaps the most interesting response to the SLR autofocus wars of the 1980s was from Fuji. All of the brands had a 35 mm SLR range, and it was at this point that Fuji decided to abandon it — it's never produced one since. The only cameras they made in 1987 were compacts that would have sold in large quantities. This, of course, hides what was to be the seismic camera release of 1988 — the DS-1P, which is considered to be the first fully digital camera, saving its images from a 2/3" CCD to a memory card. And at about $40,000 in today's money, it was a top-drawer product.


As the news headlines at the beginning show, there were plenty of global events to keep press photographers busy. For a long and lingering look through 1987, take a peek at The Atlantic's retrospective for the US, while paimages provide a well-rounded view of the UK.

On the awards front, "Immersions (Piss Christ)" by Andres Serrano — nominated by Time as one of the 100 most iconic photos of all time — made its first appearance. A striking photo in and of itself, it won some limited critical acclaim; however, the clue is in the title. Serrano photographed a crucifix in a glass of his urine and claims that he didn't mean to offend anyone. It created much more controversy when it was later exhibited in 1989, and Serrano received a fair amount of hate mail as a result. However, its legacy is more profound — the image was condemned as indecent and (in part) led to the standards law that required federally funded arts agencies to consider decency in their award criteria. And whilst this might seem to fly in the face of free speech, the Supreme Court begged to differ.

World Press Photo of the Year went to Alon Reininger for his long-term study of the AIDS epidemic and specifically his photograph of Ken Meeks, a director at the Gay Men's Health Crisis. The eyes are piercing, soul-searching, staring out from a virus-wracked, emaciated, body. The wheelchair speaks to his frailty, the lesions on his arms unsettling. Perhaps darker, for me, is the other person sitting and reading on the couch. The image is one of sadness, of waiting for the end. Meeks would die several days later from the disease. It is a reminder of a key and tragic news story that ran throughout the 1980s.

Finally, National Geographic selected an image of Dr. Zbigniew Religa as their picture of the year. Taken by James Stansfield, it shows Religa sat exhausted — his assistant asleep on the floor — next to his patient Tadeusz Zitkevits after having completed Poland's first successful heart transplant. It's an image transfused with meaning: the subject is singular, being cocooned within an operating theater. It is also unorderly, with tubes, cables, and blood littering the scene. Tiredness infuses everything, from the assistant, to Religa, to the patient. Yet, it speaks of success, of life, of new beginnings. New life for Zitkevits, new opportunities for medicine, and a new future for Poland.

If there is one word that describes 1987, then it is this: opportunities.

Lead image courtesy of Nebrot. Body images courtesy of Thomas Steiner and Mfunnell, all used under Creative Commons via Wikipedia.

Mike Smith's picture

Mike Smith is a professional wedding and portrait photographer and writer based in London, UK.

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Hi Mike, I enjoyed your very interesting article on Canon's rise to the top. In the 1970s I was in the retail photo industry (in the US) and was an amateur photographer since the late 1950s. Nikon was the undisputed king of 35mm in the 70s and Canon, Minolta and Pentax were second tier. What I recall about Canon at the time was that almost every time they introduced a new model it came with yet a different lens mount. This required photographers to buy new lenses with every upgrade. Most professional photographers didn't appreciate that and considered it a strategy to squeeze more money out of them. So many stuck with Nikon through thick and thin. I owned a Nikon F2 Photomic for years and later bought a Pentax MX because it was smaller and lighter for travel (I consider it an unsung pro-level classic). I left the industry in 1979 and only took up serious amateur photography again in the mid 2000s. I was surprised to see that Canon had risen to the top. I just assumed that Canon had beaten Nikon in digital platform development and its lens mounts had stabilized sometime in the past. It's amazing to me that Canon was able to pull it off after so many changes. Even to this day I am a loyal Nikon fan however. Old habits and loyalties die hard.

Not so on the Canon lens mount comment. Canon, along with everyone else had a thread mount, then went to the FD mount which was a bayonet type that made sure the lens was always mounted correctly, then to the EF which allowed truly "one-hand" installation of a lens, and then to the RF mount which is the very same design as the EF. Nikon went through similar changes. Remember how the little "ear" on the lens had to engage the pin and lever on the electronic viewfinder?

I agree that FD to EF and RF Canon mount changes were refinements, its just that with each change the older lenses were no longer compatible with the new Canon cameras and this happened over a short period of time. It was much more than the earlier change from thread mount to bayonet, it was the disruptive rapidity of the changes that upset photographers in the 1970s. Nikon took a different approach and evolved their system keeping backward compatibility. The little "ear" that you refer to was a lens indexing change to automatic and did not effect compatibility forward or backwards. Of course, all this was made moot by the development of the highly automated digital lens systems some two decades later. And now even that is religated to history with mirrorless cameras and all new mounts for both Canon, Nikon and others.

I just love the "Big Name" moniker. Hate people that hide behind some sort of fake name and no headshot.

You are very strange. Please keep your unsolicited advice to yourself. If I want your advice I will ask for it. Thank you.

The real work was a year earlier in the form of the T90 which utterly changed the aesthetic of the SLR. EOS and the EF mount were nothing, really, compared to the usability revolution that happened with the Tank. My current D7100 from Nikon has only the F mount in common with the Nikon cameras of 86 & 87; every thing else is descended from the T90.

bugga ; that reading made me feel old !! :)
That was about the time I was getting a bit serious about photography past the happy snapper . Had a minolta x700 (??) at time but moved to the Nikon stables mainly because of the FM2 . Eventually bought a F4s but then tried a canon EOS 5 which I actually hated
Auto focus was a godsend ; especially when photographing young children .
1987/88 was around the time while watching **** photos fall out of our mini lab I made a comment like "there should not be any bad photos these days because cameras are so good" . Still true IMO --- just look at mine pics :lol:

Although 10 years later; I still feel my favourite camera back then was the little olympus MJU 2 --- that was such a fun camera at weddings and it supplied a few front page photos in the local rural paper .

Good read Mike that brought but some forgotten memories

That makes you feel old, I still have my trusty Minolta STR101 (bought new) & XD-7's (bought 1 year old SH) although really just display items. My current camera is a Canon EOS 1Ds-MkIII, now over 10 years & going strong. Love Canon skin tones (people don't look clammy/dead ) & my "L" glass. My 1st Canon 40D then 50D then 5DMkII & 60D.

Good read Mike. I lived and worked through this time. In 87 I was shooting a lot of medium format and autofocus didn't hold much interest for me. In 96 I was shooting a Kodak 460 built on a Nikon body. They later introduced a Canon version. By the early 2000 Nikon was leading in digital cameras. Nikon released the D1 and that was a very big deal. The early Canon DSLR cameras were not well received, then they got their act together and 2 things made a big difference. First they offered a full frame camera, 2nd they beat the noise issue that plagued early digital cameras. Nikon didn't introduce a full frame until the D3, I think in 2006-7. During that time many pros were making the switch from film to digital and Canon had taken the lead. Today you can't go wrong either way. I have been a Nikon shooter for over 45 years and love my Z6.

One big factor was the fact that Minolta lost a major autofocus patent suit to Honeywell (suit ended in 91) which pretty much trashed their focus advantage and cost a lot of money,

I've been a Nikon shooter since the 60's but never could quite get myself to convert to Canon with their superior AF telephoto lenses. I couldn't afford the lenses anyway. I was doing a lot of surfing photography (and was always surrounded by Canon shooters) so in 2004, I purchased the Sigma AF 300-800 F5.6 in Nikon mount and that made everything much better. Still use it today. I can also sell it now for more than I paid for it originally. Take that Canon shooters. (humor)