Talk about being in the right place at the wrong time. The Canon T90 was a high-end 35mm SLR introduced right at the dawn of the autofocus era...but it had manual focusing and relied on a line of expensive lenses that Canon was no longer going to support. The T90 both represented the future - the way it looked, the way you interacted with it - and was stuck in the past by being manual focus. Canon's EOS line of autofocus cameras superseded it, but as we shall the see the T90 had the last laugh - it created the model by which all high end SLRs came to follow for the next three decades.
The T90 was created in collaboration with Canon's in-house design team and German-born industrial designer Luigi Colani. It had been 10 years since the groundbreaking A-1 (imagine a decade between products today!), and the T90 was an all-out technological and design assault on the state of the art -- except that is, for the fact that it was still manual focus.
Defining the Future
The T90 was the third in Canon's line of enthusiast-oriented, technologically advanced SLRs, and while it shared some similarities with the earlier T50 and T70, it was so much further advanced in several inter-related key areas that it really existed on a different plane:
Whereas the T50 and T70 were blocky and angular in that early 80's Blade Runner kind of way, the T90 was a realization of Luigi Colani's design philosophy, which he termed biodynamic. What's amazing is that in the almost three decades since it came out, the T90 is still the design archetype that Canon uses for its high-end SLRs. For example, compare it to 2012's EOS 1D-X, which - aside from becoming even more gargantuan in size and covered in even more buttons due to it being digital instead of analog - the two cameras look like they could have been designed almost contemporaneously.
Colani was obsessed with ergonomics. In an interview he stated, "It took two years of me telling them [Canon] that a camera is a thing between the human hand and the human eye, so it had to have ergonomics on both sides!" It's impossible to separate Colani's organic aesthetic from his emphasis on making things that fit well with the human body. Until the T90 most cameras had been shrunk-wrap around the internal mechanicals and were limited to shapes that could be easily stamped or formed in metal. Colani realized that the new technologies inside the camera, and the use of 100% polycarbonate for the body, freed up the constraints so they could be more optimized for comfort. After all, the T90 was intended to be a workhorse for professionals who would be using it for hours, day in, day out.
The T70 and even the AE-1 that came before it were Canon's first attempts at evolving the way users adjusted the settings of a complicated camera - exposure mode, shutter speed, aperture, ISO, exposure compensation, etc. The T90's was considerably more sophisticated and refined. It introduced a large top-deck LCD, and the vertical wheel next to the shutter button that could be made to control multiple parameters of the camera when used in combination with other buttons.
This made the camera highly "modal" in user interface speak - you could only do one thing at a time, and had to change modes in order to adjust something else. While it allows a lot of breadth of control, it does take some getting used to. It was radically different than the control approach on most cameras to that point, where one knob or button did just one thing.
But it became the interface paradigm used by every high end SLR to the present day (though recently the pendulum has begun to swing back and we're seeing a resurgence of function-specific knobs again). The multi-purpose wheel with an exposed, rubberized edge is an interaction method we now take for granted; the T90 was the first time it appeared, to my knowledge.
The Sexy Tank
The T90 is pretty hefty once loaded up with 4 AA batteries (though not as big and heavy as equivalent top-end digital SLRs). It's solidly made, and reportedly earned the nickname "The Tank" from Japanese photo-journalists. But the almost 2-pound weight is well distributed so that strain on the wrist is minimized -- the batteries are down low in a cool slide-out sled carrier, and the largest of the three motors inside the body is inside the hand grip. Speaking of the grip, it was the first camera grip to be really shaped by human fingers, and still to this day it's one of the more comfortable ever put on a camera, helped by a substantially carved out thumb grip on the rear.
The camera's look is equal parts sexy, intimidating, and tool-like. The overall silhouette is simple, broad-shouldered - menacing like a Samurai in armor (or a warrior robot). Surfaces are largely planar or cylindrical (but with enough variation of radii that they don't feel repetitive), with more complex surfaces for scalloped out details like around the shutter button.
Control feel is a mixed bag: the shutter button is extremely light to the touch, the control wheel is quite stiff and clicky, most of the smaller buttons are a bit on the mushy side, while the depth of field preview has a real mechanical feel (appropriately, since it's the only non-electronic control).
The T90 can take up to 4.5 frames per second - even today that's a pretty high frame rate, especially given that this was having to move 35mm film and not just expose a digital sensor. That built-in speed was new for its time - typically one had to get an accessory motor drive to achieve that rate. But it's loud - the motors and the flapping mirror are not what you want to have when photographing in a church!
It's hard to understate the impact that this design has had on all SLRs - film and digital - that have come since. Canon got a lot right with the T90 and, much like Porsche with the 911, they've been gradually refining the recipe over the decades and improving the weaknesses. It's probably Colani's most famous and commercially-successful design, and by far his most refined and production-ready (many of his other designs were too far out there to be realized, including other concept designs he did for Canon).
The instant you pick up the T90 you can tell the care that went into it. Especially when seen next to other cameras of its era, it looks like it came from the future. The fact that Canon has stuck to the T90's playbook (and that the playbook was largely adopted by Nikon, Olympus, Pentax for most of the last 25 years) is a testament to how successful the design was as a design, even if it had the bad luck to be a dead-end technologically.