The Canon EOS Rebel XS – Anonymity, Autofocus, and Andre Agassi

The Canon EOS Rebel XS – Anonymity, Autofocus, and Andre Agassi

2200 1240 Josh Solomon

In the early 1990s, the Canon Camera Corporation launched their new consumer-focused Canon EOS Rebel camera with one of the defining marketing campaigns of the decade – “Image Is Everything.” The commercials featured Canon’s then-new autofocus-equipped EOS Rebel (EOS Kiss in Japanese markets) camera, wielded by a young and upcoming tennis player named Andre Agassi.

And there he was, on the TV screen, all highlighter bright shirts, denim shorts and sunglasses, pulling up in a white Lamborghini Countach, firing off that famous backhand right at our freakin’ faces and telling us that yes, image is indeed everything, and we absolutely needed a new Canon EOS Rebel to capture that image.

Agassi’s brash new-kid-on-the-block visage was the perfect marketing vehicle for the new Canon EOS Rebel, itself a new thing for the consumer SLR market. Gone were the angles of the 1980s, in came the ergonomic curves of the ’90s. Canon banked upon the same idea that propelled the AE-1 to stardom; the idea that they could make technology cheaper and more easily mass-produced, seducing the consumer and youth market with auto-everything and lower prices, thereby dominating the autofocus future for years to come.

Today we see that they succeeded, unequivocally. The radical design of the Canon EOS Rebels became the de facto, even hegemonic style of both consumer and professional SLR design to this day. But the thing about time passing is just that – it passes. Things get old. Over thirty years, Agassi’s once exciting, trailblazing power-baseline style of tennis has become the standard baseline game tennis fans complain about, his bright visual style has been parroted by Nike, Adidas, and every athletic wear manufacturer over the same span of time, and Canon’s once radically new camera design is just How Cameras Look Now, I Guess. What was once innovative became commonplace; what once was a landmark became just another part of the landscape.

But is that fair to a camera so influential?

I was confronted by this question one day when I found a nearly pristine Canon EOS Rebel XS on the shelf at my neighborhood thrift store. Cameras like this would usually be placed on display behind the counter along with the other film cameras (common practice, as the thrift stores in my area have gotten wise to the film renaissance), but for some reason this was just left on the electronics shelf, priced at a paltry fifteen dollars. I figured something may have been wrong with it, but, nope – the camera’s battery compartment was clean and clear of corrosion, and the body, shutter, and 35-80mm lens showed barely any signs of usage. I took a chance and took it home, stuck a couple CR123A batteries in it, and it sprang to life. The LCD display lit up, the plastic dials still had a brand new snap to them, and the lens’s autofocus was as quick and quiet as ever.

Just like that, I had a basically new autofocus SLR and lens for the price of a roll of Cinestill 800T (need B&H affiliate link).

I was initially surprised that such a famous-in-its-day camera was left on the shelf and priced so low, but then I realized that, even to people who know, this is the least exciting, least exotic camera. For over thirty years, companies have made a million other plastic autofocus SLRs, digital or otherwise, that look and operate almost exactly as this one. Even more primitive cameras like the Canon F-1 or the Canon AE-1 command more respect and possess more individual character – even within the Canon EOS lineup, the original Rebels seem boring.

But when we look at the design of the EOS Rebel line (especially this Canon EOS Rebel XS) in the context of the early ’90s, we find a radical departure from traditional camera design, and a remarkably well-executed exercise in extreme utilitarianism.

The design sensibilities of the previous decades aren’t just evolved or avoided. They’re jettisoned entirely. Canon’s EOS cameras instead maximize ergonomics and ease-of-use. The hand grip dominates the camera, while sleek lines curve around the control panel, pentaprism, and lens surround, flowing with no definitive stopping point. While these concepts weren’t new, they found themselves pushed to their conceptual extreme, making a totally new blobby kind of camera design to ring in the ’90s, the same philosophy that produced rotund machines like the 1990’s Ford Taurus and the Sega Genesis controller. But unlike those two, this camera seems to have escaped its associations with the era – it seems like it could’ve been made in the 2000s just as easily as it could’ve been made in the early 1990s. Even more curious, the design does not elicit the “timeless” moniker from camera geeks the way a Nikon F2 or a Leica M-series camera does, though it arguably shares a more direct relationship with modern cameras than either of those two. For however radical, important, and influential these early AF cameras were and are, they seem to now just be a part of the wallpaper of 21st century living.

1990s autofocus SLRs like the Canon EOS Rebel XS present many contradictions. Perhaps a bigger contradiction is one that James already handled in his paean for the so-called “Dorky AF SLR.” I’ll paraphrase – though indeed dorky, these AF SLRs from the ’90s represent the peak of 35mm SLR technology, and are the best pure user film cameras out there at any level. The EOS Rebel XS is much the same; it was marketed squarely at consumers, but offered an astonishingly comprehensive set of features which in the past could only have been found scattered across multiple cameras.

It has an electronically-controlled shutter with a range from half a second to 1/2000th of a second, full TTL flash metering, standard evaluative (Matrix) metering with a center-weighted AE lock override, auto film winding, one-shot autofocus, AI servo autofocus, and manual focus override, and full PASM exposure selection with specialized portrait, sports, close-up, and landscape modes. It even features a built-in flash for use in a pinch, a programmable multiple exposure mode, and a separate aperture priority mode that prioritizes deep depth of field. I know there’s a lot to be said for all-manual everything, manual focus cameras (and I will be the first to defend them), but almost every major technological advancement in photography up until 1990 is present in a Canon EOS Rebel, and for cheap. That’s incredibly hard to argue against.

It is then no wonder that Canon sold boatloads of these cameras. It adhered to the simple math that Canon previously used to sell the Canon AE-1, AE-1 Program, and Canon A-1  – make the most features available for the least amount of money (¥89000 with the 35-80mm f/3.5-5.6 lens, ¥59000 body only). The substitution of a mirror box instead of a full pentaprism, and the wholesale replacement of metal with plastic made it cheaper and lighter, making these technologies accessible to casual shooters as well as improving Canon’s bottom line. This is anathema to shooters who demand mechanical quality, but such was the deal Canon made to remain the rulers of consumer photography.

The experience of shooting an old EOS Rebel XS is one that is shockingly modern and simple. The full shooting experience is as follows: load some film and the camera will automatically roll out the entire film into the take up spool and wind it backwards with every shot. Pick a shooting mode, and watch the relevant adjustable values show up on the LCD screen. Pick either an aperture or shutter speed value using the single multipurpose dial (or not, if the camera is on a programmed auto-exposure setting) and look through the viewfinder, which provides a full LCD readout of the settings, plus a light meter display. Then half press the shutter button to focus, compose, and shoot until the roll’s done, at which point the film will have already rolled itself back into the canister.

The EOS Rebel XS’s design emphasis on extreme utilitarianism works – it’s ludicrously simple to shoot. Every immediately essential function of the camera of the Rebel XS lies perfectly under each finger and is accessible with the press of one distinct button or dial setting, with secondary functions (of which there are only a couple) accessible with two movements, maximum.

If AE lock is needed, just press the AE lock button. If the flash is needed, press the flash button. If the self timer is needed, press the self timer button. And if exposure compensation is needed, hold down the exposure comp button and select a value with the dial. The camera can be set to take the reins yet does not lock the shooter into a programmed auto-exposure mode – everything can be overridden, and overridden easily (even, to my surprise, the ISO setting). This shooting interface makes sense to me, even as a staunch supporter of mechanical dials and buttons. It keeps me feeling connected and in complete control, which is something that I can’t say for later automated 35mm AF SLRs.

The ingenuity and novelty of the EOS Rebel XS did, however, come at some price. The auto-everything, purely utilitarian design discarded the tactility and outright romance of the manual focus cameras of before, a move that again alienated purists and collectors. What’s more, this design philosophy eventually birthed the multi-purpose button, the practice of menu diving, and the endless fiddling with settings that drives digital SLR and mirrorless shooters crazy, and makes them seek comparatively simple and primitive mechanical film cameras as refuge. I suspect it is this quality that keeps the prices of these cameras low, and their cultural cachet being near nonexistent regardless of their actual performance.

However, the irony of the Canon EOS Rebel XS is that while it offers a modern user interface, its age ensures it is not as overwhelming to use as a modern machine. Even though the shooting interface is modern, this camera was still released in 1993 — time hadn’t yet given camera companies the opportunity to *ahem* transform these cameras into the feature-bloated, inscrutable, aesthetically anonymous cameras we’ve come to know as DSLRs in the 21st century. There are no menus, no hidden technologies that take over, no display hieroglyphics to decode before you take the shot. It is as raw and direct as one can get in this genre of camera, and a breath of fresh air.

But even if the Canon EOS Rebel XS was a total chore to shoot, it still would be worth its ludicrously low price simply because it mounts the full range of Canon EF mount lenses. The camera came with a perfectly versatile Canon EF 35-80mm f/4-5.6 kit lens, but really comes into its own with Canon’s professional lenses.

Canon’s L lenses are quite literally the industry standard (and have been for over thirty years) and can be mounted natively onto the humble EOS Rebel XS. The prospect of 50mm f/1.2L, the 24mm f/1.4L, the gargantuan 400mm f/2.8L, and more is a tantalizing (and slightly hilarious) one, and also points us to a key characteristic of these consumer EOS Rebel film bodies – they’re a ridiculously cheap way to access full frame in the EOS system, and can function as a second film body to full-frame DSLR’s. At prices consistently under $60 ($15 in my case – got lucky), it’s a no-brainer.

There are, however, three real drawbacks to the Canon EOS Rebel XS. The first is its construction which, as mentioned before, is nearly completely plastic. This is less of a big deal considering the low prices of these bodies, but still concerning if the camera is being used in rough environments and situations. As with any camera, try to find a good example and roll with it, and try to find a backup too. They’re cheap and plentiful.

The second is the quality of the autofocus. While the EOS Rebel XS does offer AI servo autofocus (which enables subject tracking) and a so-called wide AF zone (which enables a wider range of autofocus), this still is a very primitive AF system. Being from 1993 and being a consumer model, this early AF system hunts quite often and can miss focus if the shooter isn’t paying attention. It should be noted that I did miss a few frames with this initially, but got used to it as I got acclimated to the camera itself. Even though this camera bears a striking resemblance to newer AF cameras, prospective shooters should not expect the acrobatics of newer AF SLRs or DSLRs.

The third drawback is a little more subjective, but ultimately points to what I think makes this camera important to shoot today. For all the technology crammed into it, for however new it was at the time, this camera is almost disturbingly normal. Not unremarkable, not ugly, not inconsequential, but just… normal. Compared to other cameras, the big boys of the segment, the Canon EOS-1v, Nikon’s F6, the Minolta A9’s of the world, or even the Nikon N90s or later Canon Elan 7s, there’s just not much that makes this camera stand out, even though its design laid the foundation of consumer autofocus SLRs for decades to come.

But after pondering it for a while, one thing stands out about this EOS Rebel XS. Oddly enough, that thing (person, rather) is… Andre Agassi.

The marketing admittedly worked on me – I can’t look at the EOS Rebel logo without thinking about him and that ad campaign (which, for different reasons, actually affected Agassi himself). Agassi’s hard-hitting, power baseline style was once radical and new, but by the time his career ended, it had become the de facto style, and was even decried by some as “ruining the game.” Yet, when we look back at the actual highlights of Agassi in his prime we can see why everybody started to play like him. Look closer and we see, with every perfectly struck backhand winner, with every impossible return off the Sampras serve, that nobody was able to do it quite like Agassi. He moved the game forward.

The Canon EOS Rebel XS and the rest of the early autofocus SLRs could and should be considered along those lines. The EOS Rebel was revolutionary in its day, and today remains maybe one of the best and most influential consumer camera lines ever made, no matter what reputation time foists upon it. I don’t know what the future holds in the world of film photography, but it would be interesting to see these SLRs in the hands of shooters just as often as we see the Nikon F3 or Leica M6. It would only be fitting – after all, the man who to whom this camera was inextricably tied eventually grew up, shed his image-obsessed reputation, and made a comeback on his own terms.

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Josh Solomon

Josh Solomon is a freelance writer and touring bassist living in Los Angeles. He has an affinity for all things analog. When not onstage, you can find him roaming around Southern California shooting film and humming a tune.

All stories by:Josh Solomon
  • Ahh… Cheryl Tiegs, and my OM-10!

  • For those of us in the UK, this is an EOS 500. It was replaced by the EOS 300 (in 1999) and 3000N (2002). All very similar cameras, so easy to use, auto or manual, and for sale with EF lenses for much the same price as the lens by itself. Zero street cred but great cameras.

  • I have one of these with a couple of lenses – known as the EOS 500 in my part of the world. It cost me very little, and feels very similar in operation to my EOS 100D. If you were a Canon DSLR shooter this would be a no brainer for shooting film with!

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Josh Solomon

Josh Solomon is a freelance writer and touring bassist living in Los Angeles. He has an affinity for all things analog. When not onstage, you can find him roaming around Southern California shooting film and humming a tune.

All stories by:Josh Solomon