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Though cheap, the Elan II contains two of best features from the Canon
EOS-1 and EOS-5 cameras: (1) simultaneous AF/MF with USM lenses; (2) the big
thumb wheel on the back of the body. In addition, it adds high speed flash sync
(via pulses, up to 1/4000th) and a new flash exposure system that is slightly
less lame than previous Canon EOS models but still no match for Nikon D (or a $50
P&S camera's). Probably the eye-controlled focus point selection on the IIe
works better than on the EOS-5/A2e, a body introduced in 1992 -- Philip Greenspun
The Elan II is the first modern, auto-everything snazzy SLR with which I've
had a lot of experience. My previous cameras were a Pentax K1000 and before that
a Zeiss Ikon Contaflex. When I got the K1000 I thought it was the height of
technological achievement because I could focus with the lens wide open and it
had a built in lightmeter. All I can say is that camera technology sure has
The Elan II is a pretty fully featured camera. It has 6 segment evaluative
metering, center-weighted metering and 9.5% partial metering -- even Canon
wouldn't call it "spot" metering. The portion of the frame metered by partial
mode is tied to the focus point which is currently selected. It also has depth of
field preview, a mirror pre-fire feature which is tied to a 2 second self timer,
a very capable fill flash system and all of the other features which are commonly
found on mid range SLR's. Combine this with a very easy to use interface and you
are looking at a real winner in the mid price range.
On the top left of the camera you will find the command dial which selects one
of several different operating modes, ranging from the PhD PIC modes -- the
"image zone" in Canonese -- to the "creative zone" modes: shiftable program,
shutter priority, aperture priority, manual and depth of field mode. In the PIC
modes only evaluative metering is used, except for close up mode which uses
partial metering. In the "creative zone" modes the metering mode chosen by the 3
position switch under the command dial, evaluative, partial or centerweighted
averaging, is used.
There is a button on the back of the body which selects additional
ISO speed override
Auto exposure bracketing (+- 2 stops, 1/2 stop increments)
Push this button multiple times to cycle through the various functions. You
adjust the function setting with the main dial which is located behind the
shutter release. Press the shutter release halfway to register your setting. When
you press the function button again it picks up at the last feature you diddled
with, a nice ergonomic touch. For example, I often use either auto bracketing or
flash compensation. Once I'm through using the function pressing the button once
and the turning the special function off is easy. When I want to reenable it, I
just push the button once again. This is good, thoughtful ergonomic design and
helps to make the camera easy to use.
Underneath this function button is the mid-roll rewind button. Turning on
Custom Function 2 instructs the camera to leave the leader out on rewind, a handy
feature for those of us who shoot different types of film in different
Next to these two buttons is the "quick control dial". This dial is a piece of
genius. In most modes it controls exposure compensation, but in metered manual
mode it controls the aperture. There is a switch just above it which enables and
disables it so that you cannot accidentally set exposure compensation. I just
leave it enabled all the time. I'm not that klutzy. This dial falls
naturally under your thumb and makes adjusting exposure compensation or aperture
The focus mode selector is located on the right side of the top panel. It is a
three position knob which selects one shot focus, AI focus or AI servo focus
modes. One shot is focus priority, the camera will not fire off a shot until the
AF circuitry is satisfied. AI focus is a hybrid mode which normally operates as
focus priority, but if the computer decides that the subject has begun to move it
switches to follow focus mode. AI servo mode is follow focus mode, the camera
will take an exposure irregardless of whether the AF circuitry is happy or not. I
normally just leave the camera in AI focus mode. Underneath this switch is the
film advance mode switch which chooses either single shot or continuous. I
normally just leave the camera in continuous mode.
Next to the focus mode knob is the LCD display window. It displays shutter
speed and aperture, frame number, battery status, exposure compensation (or
manual meter reading) whether or not flash compensation is set, red eye reduction
setting status, whether or not you have custom function active, MF/AF active
status and a whole bunch of other stuff. Really it is a wonder that you can
decode all of this, but you can.
Just in front of the LCD panel lies the main control dial and the shutter
release. The main control dial controls the main feature for the exposure mode
you've chosen. In program mode it handles program shift. In shutter priority it
handles shutter speed, and in aperture priority it changes the aperture. In
manual mode it sets the shutter speed and aperture is set with the quick control
dial on the back. This is so much easier to use than the Rebel XS that it isn't
even funny -- when using manual mode on the Rebel changing aperture/shutter speed
combinations required lots of button punching/holding and was in general a pain
in the ass. Using manual mode with the Elan II is a breeze.
Finally, there are two buttons on the back of the camera right behind the LCD.
One controls exposure lock and the setting of the current custom function when in
custom function setting mode. The other controls the choice of focus point,
automatic or one of three selectable points. To change focus point, you need to
press the focus point selection button and then spin the main control dial. This
selects each focus point in turn and then selects automatic focus point selection
mode. Changing the focus point is so easy and quick that eye control focus almost
isn't necessary, but more on this later.
The classic complaint from eyeglass wearers about Canon cameras still applies
to the Elan II: there isn't enough eye relief. As a result, I need to move my
head around to see the entire frame and the displays. At least on the Rebel XS I
was able to buy the Eyepiece Extender EP-EX15 to get some more eye relief.
Unfortunately, such a goodie is not available for the A2/Elan II, although the
same part can be used on the 1n. I note however, that the situation here is
considerably better than it is on the Pentax 67 I've been using recently. With
that camera I can't even see the whole viewfinder with my glasses off!
Other than that, the viewfinder is nice. I often MF with my 100/2.8 Macro and
the scene snaps in and out of focus sharply and quickly allowing for easy MF
operation. MF gets progressively more difficult as you go to slower lenses, but
this is to be expected. The viewfinder displays an adequate amount of
Exposure compensation setting
Flash status (on/off)
Flash compensation status (on/off)
Flash sync speed mode (normal/high)
Scaled manual meter (no stupid +- arrows)
Range of exposures if AEB is turned on.
The Elan II has a host of custom functions, but I find the following most
CF02: Film leader position after rewind (in or out)
CF04: AF activation method (AF on shutter, AF on AE lock, DOF preview on AE
CF09: Flash sync in Av mode (normal Av operation or force sync to 1/125)
As for most people, I find CF4 is the most useful and used custom function, I
typically leave it set to 1 (AF on AE lock button), but like anything else this
depends on the shooting situation I am faced with. Since I never use the self
timer I always leave it in mirror prefire mode.
So how does it work?
Pretty well. I have fairly small hands and all of the controls fall readily
under my fingers and the camera operates quickly and intuitively. I never need to
take my eye away from the viewfinder to set any of the major functions (aperture,
shutter speed, exposure compensation). Other important functions such as flash
compensation and exposure bracketing are easily set. The only thing I don't like
is the Custom Function stuff. I have hard time remembering what function controls
what feature, and if I forget to put the manual in my camera bag (100% of the
time) there is no hope of remembering anything except CF4 which I use constantly.
If Canon supplied a sticker for the bottom of the camera which allowed you to
connect the numbers with a name life would be much easier.
The AF is, as is usual with Canon, plenty fast. I have all mid-range USM
lenses: the EF 20-35/3.5-4.5, the EF 28-105/3.5-4.5 and the EF 100-300/4.5-5.6. I
also have the EF 100/2.8 Macro, which doesn't have a USM focusing motor. All of
the lenses, except for the 100/2.8 Macro, are really quick and quiet. If Canon
makes the lens I'm looking for, and if I can afford it, I'll buy it. In these
circumstances I would never consider a 3rd party lens. USM is that good. So far
I've had a grand total of 1 picture out of focus, and that was because I was too
close to my subject and hoped that the DOF of a 24mm lens would save me. The AF
is really good
The metering system seems to work quite well, although I initially thought
that it underexposed mainly because I shoot Velvia and was rating it at ISO 50.
Changing that rating to ISO 40 fixed that. All the other types of film I've used
have been exposed quite well. I have checked the calibration of the meter via the
clear north sky at noon method and found that the meter registered the correct
exposure in all of it's modes. In general I just trust the evaluative metering if
I have the misfortune to find myself shooting in the middle of the day. As the
scene grows more contrasty the evaluative metering becomes less trustworthy.
Generally, in tricky lighting I switch to using a handheld 1 degree spotmeter and
use the camera in manual mode. Often I check my calculated exposure against the
exposure recommended by the meter and they seldom vary by more than 1/2 stop or
so. I still use the exposure I calculate, however; I've just never been able to
On a recent trip to Yosemite I was shooting in the valley near sunrise and ran
into a situation where my calculation and the camera's recommendation differed
wildly, with the camera recommending much more exposure than I had calculated.
For grins I decided to shoot two sets of brackets, one at my exposure, one at the
camera's recommendation. When I got the slides back, the ones taken at the
camera's exposure were hopelessly overexposed, so I think I'll still trust my own
calculations in difficult light.
As I mentioned earlier, I have 3 upper middle class consumer zooms and a
snazzy macro lens:
EF 28-105/3.5-4.5 USM
EF 20-35/3.5-4.5 USM
EF 100-300/4.5-5.6 USM
EF 100/2.8 Macro
I have also owned the EF 75-300/4-5.6 II USM and I can't really recommend it.
This lens, and the very similar EF 75-300/4-5.6 II are very soft at the corners,
even stopped down. I was never able to get what I would call an elargeable slide
out of it. The EF 100-300/4.5-5.6 USM which replaced it is reasonably sharp and
has produced several slides which I have enlarged to 8x12 with good results.
I bought the 28-105 to replace the truly awful EF 35-80/4-5.6 II which came
with my Rebel XS kit. The 28-105 is a really nice, sharp lens. Sometimes I wish
it was a little faster at the long end but overall I'm thrilled with the
performance of this lens. The same comments apply to the performance of the
20-35. Both of these lenses represent very good value for your optical dollar,
sure they could be faster, but then they would cost $1500 each instead of $325
and $450, so don't complain.
All three of the USM lenses share similar construction characteristics. These
Full time manual focusing
Focus distance scale
Ring USM motor
Non rotating front element
Metal lens mount
Sad to say, they all have a substantial amount of plastic in their
construction, but that seems to be pretty usual in consumer grade lenses these
days. The really outstanding feature of these lenses is the full time manual
focusing. This feature, when combined with custom function 4, allows you to
choose manual or auto focus as the shooting situation dictates without having to
switch the lens or the body from auto focus to manual focus and back. This is
really great if you like to shoot with a wideangle and use hyperfocal distances,
just set the lens to the hyperfocal distance and shoot away. If you see a shot
where AF is practical, just press the AE lock button and the camera will focus,
probably better than you can. Nothing to remember, no switches to switch.
Finally, there is the EF 100/2.8 Macro. I know it doesn't have USM, but so
what. This lens is so sharp, so contrasty and it's color rendition so brilliant
that it is worth every penny of the $600 I spent on it. If you own a Canon and
you take macro photographs, buy this lens, not only is it a great macro lens, but
the 100mm focal length and f/2.8 maximum aperture makes it a great portrait lens
[Ed: the new Canon 180/2.8 USM is an even nicer lens, but alas costs
One of the principle innovations contained in the Elan II/IIe is E-TTL flash
exposure. This uses a white preflash from the flash, combined with the evaluative
metering system to balance the background and subject exposure. Canon's previous
fill flash system, A-TTL, has gotten a pretty bad rap and is certainly inferior
to the Nikon 3D matrix system. E-TTL is Canon's answer to that.
First, Canon, although many of its lenses do return distance information,
still does not use it to calculate flash exposure. Why? My guess is because Nikon
has a patent on using focus distance information to calculate flash exposure. Too
But Canon's answer in the Elan II works pretty well. I've found that it
provides nicely filled shadows in outdoor portraits (or scenes which require
fill) with the flash set to -1 or -1.5 stops of compensation. Off center subjects
are handled well with results which are identical to those gained for centered
subjects. However, I have found situations where a subject was underexposed
because of objects in the foreground which I was using to frame the main subject
(it wouldn't have worked anyway...). I expect that a distance based system would
have correctly exposed the main subject.
Of course all of this flash trickery only works with the Canon 380EX which is
a reasonable unit by itself. One of the really neat things about it is its
ability to sync up at all shutter speeds when you use high speed sync mode. This
is great for people who like to use fill flash outdoors. Since the 380EX is fully
automatic you can't really use it to do fancy manual flash tricks, but if you
only want fill and don't want to use it for macro work, etc. it should be
sufficient. I just wish that Canon would come out with a 540EX.
Overall the 380EX/E-TTL system provides a substantial improvement in the
quality of fill flash provided by the Canon system. It still isn't up the the
standards set by Nikon, because it is still possible to fool it without a ton of
effort, but it does work much better than A-TTL or straight TTL flash
Why I should have bought an Elan IIe
The only difference between the Elan II and the Elan IIe is the eye controlled
focus. I tried it out in the store and basically felt it was a gimmick given how
easy it was to set the focus point manually and how well the automatic focus
point selection worked. Nice, but not worth $50. What I hadn't counted on was the
eye controlled depth of field preview.
On the Elan II the DOF preview is enabled by setting custom function 4 (CF4)
to 2. This leaves AF start on the shutter and moves DOF preview to the AE lock
button. Normally I prefer to leave CF4 set 1 which puts AF start on the AE lock
button and moves AE lock to the shutter release. The great thing about this
configuration is that you can manually focus or use auto focus as the situation
dictates without having to change the focus mode. But the problem here is that
you can't have both AF start on the AE lock button and DOF preview on the AE lock
button at the same time. The Elan IIe has an eye controlled DOF preview feature
which works around this problem. It's not crippling, but if I were given the
choice again, I'd get the IIe because of eye controlled DOF preview.
The executive summary on this camera is: in this price range it can't be beat.
The Elan II ($420) competes in price with the Nikon N50 ($410) which can't even
begin to touch it in terms of features. The camera is easy to use and figure out,
Canon's USM AF technology is impressive, and the fill flash finally works pretty
well for off center subjects. But, buy the IIe instead of the II because the
eye-controlled DOF preview is a more important feature than you might think.
Photography in General
When I bought a little point and shoot thinking it might be fun to have a
camera once again I never dreamed of the obsession which would take hold. I
remembered that when I was in high school and college that serious photography
was fun for me and that I was good at it, but I thought that I could be happy
with a point and shoot. How wrong I was. I've since indulged myself by buying
just about every piece of equipment I wished I had been able to buy in the poor
student days. This means that I have to lug around a 20 pound camera bag anytime
I go out for a serious shooting session.
And you know what? It's worth it. I've rediscovered a very satisfying hobby
and am taking better photos than I ever have, mainly because I am now able to
afford all of the equipment I wanted but couldn't afford when I was a poor
student. This is nothing against simple cameras and a simple kit, but more
capable cameras and more varied kits allow you to take shots which work in a much
wider variety of situations. I'm glad that I no longer need to look at something
and say: "I could have a great picture here if I only had a macro lens". I just
got a roll back from the lab and every shot on it was a keeper. That's never
happened for me before, I won't say I owe it all to the Canon Elan II, but the
camera helped me immensely because it didn't stand in my way.
In the end, that's the highest compliment you can pay to a piece of
The Canon Elan II/50 (e) uses the relatively expensive 2CR5 battery. The price
isn't so high in the US, but it is apparently costly and sometimes hard to find
elsewhere in the world. Also, if you use the built-in flash for fill (or worse
yet, your main flash), the battery runs down rather quickly.
The BP50 accepts either a 2CR5 battery, or four AA cells. Aditionally, it has
a vertical grip, with a shutter release button that duplicates the functions of
the camera built-in release button. Unfortunately, it does not have the very
useful multi-function dial found on the Elan II/50 (e), which is a shame.
It feels a little on the cheesy side, very light weight, and made of the same
material as the camera body. It attaches to the camera by means of the tripod
socket (the BP50 has in turn a tripod socket).
I haven't done the math, but given that AA cells are quite a bit cheaper than
2CR5 batteries, the unit will probably pay for itself over time. The vertical
grip comes in handy, and the Elan IIe/50e will even do eye controlled focusing
while held vertically.
In sum, it's a useful accessory, well worth its price.