Did you know that Canon introduced visual control focusing to the world in 1992? In this review, I’ll talk about the Canon EOS A2E, the world’s first camera that allowed the user to select a focus point just by looking at it.
The Canon EOS A2E (EOS 5 in European markets) was a prosumer SLR with a host of advanced features including an excellent 5-point autofocus system, a variety of exposure modes including Program, Shutter and Aperture Priority, Manual, Portrait, Landscape, Sports, and more, a large built-in flash with 28mm-80mm autozoom, 1/200s flash sync, 1/8000s maximum shutter speed , 16 custom functions including high-speed film rewind, back button autofocus control, mirror lockup and the ability to drop out the film leader, a feature I’ve always appreciated because I developed my own film. The A2E was also one of Canon’s cameras that helped codify their design language, and in operation it’s very similar to the 5D series. It features the same control dial, main dial and rear control dial, which speaks to an excellent durable design. If all that wasn’t enough, the camera was the first to introduce eye control focus (in the A2E model), although it could be purchased without this feature like the A2.
A Prosumer camera loved by the pros
In range, the A2 series was positioned just below Canon’s EOS-1 series workhorses and marketed as semi-professional models. However, the A2 quickly gained popularity with professionals due to its robust feature set, excellent handling and reliability. Although the camera is mostly made of plastic, it proved to be extremely well made and able to handle a variety of shooting conditions. I’ve had my A2E since 1998 and it still works perfectly. When the optional VG-10 vertical grip was attached, it not only gave the user a vertical shutter button, main dial, AF selection button and custom button, but also improved ergonomics and resulted in one of the most beautiful cameras. of the period.
Eye control focus
Not to be confused with the eye-tracking focus of modern digital cameras, eye-tracking focusing allows the user to select one of five horizontally positioned focus points by looking at one and pressing the shutter button halfway. The system was revolutionary for the 1990s, but had mixed results depending on the specific photographer. It still worked well for me, however, and even when I dusted off my A2E and shot a few rolls of film for this retrospective, I was pleasantly surprised by its accuracy, which, while not perfect, worked for most time. In the A2E the feature only worked in landscape mode, however, taking vertical shots had to be done the old-fashioned way, manually selecting a focus point or letting the camera decide.
The development of eye control quickly peaked in the EOS 3, which I also owned but (unfortunately) sold many years ago. The EOS 3 took a place above the A2E and just below the EOS-1 series in Canon’s lineup, and featured an incredible 45-point autofocus system with control focus much improved eyepiece. Unfortunately eye control was a short-lived feature and disappeared completely shortly after the EOS 3, and although I don’t know the official reason, I guess it was due to the way it seemed to work so inconsistent from user to user. Next.
I’ll add another issue I found with the eye control focus. When using the system sometimes I found myself looking at one of the autofocus points instead of my subject, so in a weird way it took me away from paying attention to my composition, as my eye was focused on the small red squares in the viewfinder.
Ergonomics and handling
The ergonomics and handling of the A2E are exemplary, especially for a device almost 30 years old. As I mentioned, the layout is very similar to the 5D series, and if you look at the cameras side-by-side, you can see how faithfully Canon has stuck to its design language over the years. One of the best parts is the camera grip, as it’s big, deep, and very comfortable. The vertical grip offers the same level of comfort and support, and the buttons are well placed, making the camera easy to use in portrait or landscape orientation. Dialing in the correct exposure is easy via the main dial and rear command dial, although the A2 series lacked an exposure scale and used a simple plus/minus icon in the viewfinder (the European model has a scale of appropriate exposure which makes it more desirable in the used market today). The viewfinder is big and bright, and overall the buttons and dials look exactly where they should be, making using the camera after many years a breeze.
The A2E isn’t a small camera, and one thing that surprised me was how bulky it felt now. Even without the vertical grip, the camera feels chunky and decently heavy, especially for something that’s more or less plastic. It’s not too heavy for sure, but the size and weight is noticeable if you’re carrying it around for a day of shooting. The large built-in flash also means that the top of the camera protrudes a little forward and has an angular design, unlike most of Canon’s high-end models, but I’ve always found that to add to the charm of the camera.
For this article, I tested the A2E with an EF 50mm f/1.4 lens, and found overall focusing to be fast and accurate. There were a few times where images that I thought were locked in focus became slightly blurry. Since one feature missing from the camera is a diopter, it was hard for me to tell if the focus was also locked in a few cases. Another quirk of the camera is that occasionally it would take an extra split second for the camera to trigger. At first I thought there was something wrong but then I realized it hadn’t reached focus and was still locking up on the subject. This also happened a handful of times.
Aside from autofocus, one thing I liked about using the A2E again is how quickly it can dial in settings. Switching between modes is quick and easy, and adjusting aperture or shutter speed is as easy as using a modern Canon camera. Dialing in the settings was intuitive and fun, with the main stumbling block being the simple plus/minus exposure meter that doesn’t have a scale.
I shot two films with the A2E (Fuji Superia 400 and Ilford XP2 Super 400). I then had the negatives developed and scanned at my local camera store. I modified the two black and white images in this article, but the rest are straight from the scans. I quickly remembered how incredibly spoiled we were with high resolution digital cameras when it came to image quality; however, the results were very pleasing and have that movie look that is very desirable and imitated so often. The images are contrasted with soft colors and have just enough grain to give them a vintage look. I also used flash as fill for a portrait of my wife, and the camera measured that well. Although I am getting more and more involved in film photography, I am not yet at the point of investing in a high resolution film scanner. I imagine that if I buy a good scanner I would see a noticeable difference in the quality of the scans, but I’m not quite there yet, especially since the cost of using the camera is already quite high, as I detail below.
I’ve always liked the vertical grip for the A2E. It’s small, light, and looks great on camera without seeming like an afterthought, as many grips often do. Part of the reason it’s so light and small is that it doesn’t contain a battery compartment, which was obviously a compromise, but what was lost in functionality was gained in size and usability. I’ve always thought the sharp angle of the grip on the non-shutter side was also a really good design choice, as it keeps the camera from looking like a giant brick.
The A2E uses a 2CR5 battery, which was common in the 1990s and a battery of choice for many cameras. Today, however, a 2CR5 will cost around $20. Add to that the cost of film, about $15 each, and the cost of scanning and developing two rolls, about $20 each, and it easily costs close to $100 to shoot two rolls of film with this camera. ! That’s why I didn’t test it continuously at high speed!
The Canon A2E was and is an excellent camera. For the 1990s, it’s feature-rich and versatile and has a lot to offer movie shooters. For me, using a camera like this is an exercise in nostalgia and fun, although after dusting off my A2E I think I’ll be using it more often. The question now is whether or not to invest in a scanner and start developing my own film again, and we all know that can be a time-consuming and expensive, yet very fun, undertaking.