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Canon EOS A2

Review of a Modern Classic

Peter Kun Frary

I've owned two EOS A2 SLRs since 1992 and their unique fusion of advanced features and ease of use made them my workhorse cameras for nearly 10 years. Most of the images in my galleries were taken with an EOS A2. With a life span of 10 years, the EOS 5/A2E/A2 remained in production longer than any other EOS model. This longevity is a testimony to its excellent design and performance. The EOS 5/A2E/A2 was ahead of its time and, thus, remains a viable camera for advanced amateurs. Features and performance are, for the most part, superior to the Elan series, including the Elan 7E.

Waikiki Beach EOS A2, EF28-105 3.5-4.5 USM, Sensia 100, LS-1000 Scanner

Major Features

Five-point wide area auto focus • When AF is achieved, the AF rectangles flash red. All 5 sensors may be active or individual sensors are user selectable. I prefer the center cross sensor as the default most of the time.

Whisper Drive • The silent motor drive rips at 5 frames per second (3.5 FPS in AI Servo). The mirror slap is surprisingly soft, but not as soft as the original Elan. Your subject may not know you took a picture.

Autozoom Popup Flash • The built in flash has a guide number of 13 meters (43 ft) at ISO 100, 1/200 flash sync, TTL metering and 28mm to 80mm autozoom. Flash AE compensation and second curtain sync are available.

Quick Control Dial (QCD) • The A2 is the second consumer camera to use a large rear thumb wheel to adjust exposure compensation, aperture, etc.

Shutter Speeds • 1/8000 to 30 seconds in 1/2 stop increments. Bulb and self timer ability. 1/200 flash sync.

Three metering patters • 16-zone evaluative, center weighted and spot meter (3.5%).

Multitude of exposure modes • programmed "PIC" modes (sports, macro, portrait, etc.), programmed AE, aperture priority, shutter priority, manual, X-sync and depth of field. Moreover, you may override P, AV and TV modes with -2 to +2 of exposure compensation or auto bracketing.

A-TTL Flash Metering • You'll need the 430EZ or 540EZ external flash for A-TTL features. Compatible with E-TTL Speedlites in TTL mode only. The EOS A2's onboard flash AE compensation and second curtain sync controls are compatible with all external Speedlites.

Dioptric Adjustment • -2.75 to + 0.75 of adjustment is built into the eyepiece. You won't care about this if you have 20/20 vision, but a sharp viewfinder for the rest of us makes for better shooting.

PC Socket • Plug in a PC cord and you can trigger studio strobes or flashmeters the old fashion way.

Five Interchangeable focusing screens

16 Custom Functions • This feature lets you customize some controls and/or features. For example, you may move AF activation to another button or have a choice of leaving the film leader in or out after rewind.

Mirror Lockup • Mirror prefire is available by setting custom function CF12 and activating the selftimer (2 second delay). Locking up the mirror helps avoid vibration during high magnification photography or slow shutter speeds.

Fiberglass Reinforced Polycarbonate Body • The pressure plate and lens mount are metal. The body is not weather sealed but is tough enough for most amateurs. If you frequently shoot in wet or dusty conditions you should consider the fully sealed EOS 3 or EOS 1V instead.

"The Beast" • My Well Used EOS A2 • The 2CR5 battery is housed inside the removable grip and more durable than the trap door and plastic hinge of the Elan series.

Like the Elan 7E, the A2 is an extremely quiet camera due to its "Whisper" drive. The mirror slap is slightly louder than the Elan 7E, but much softer than the EOS 3. Like the original Elan, the A2's only noisy component is the autozoom popup flash.

The EOS A2 is identical to the EOS A2E (EOS 5) but lacks eye controlled focus (ECF).

Construction and Feel

The A2 is larger and heavier than the Elan 7E and, thus, is easier to grip and hold steady. Like the Elan, it flexes slightly when you squeeze it due to predominantly plastic construction. However, there are advantages to fiberglass reinforced polycarbonate over metal. I had an accident with a Bogan quick release and my A2 fell four feet with a Sigma 100-300 APO zoom onto concrete. It bounced off the tripod leg and hit the concrete dock lens shade first and, amazingly, only sustained a minor ding on the bottom. I removed the shattered UV filter and finished the roll of film (the lens shade fell in the ocean). A similar drop with a metal camera some years earlier resulted in a big dent, a cracked pentaprism and a jammed mechanism. Polycarbonate seems to absorb impact better than metal.

Low Light AF

In low light situations the A2 is more useful than the Elan or Rebel series. First, the viewfinder is noticeably brighter, more contrasty and bigger. Second, the AF and metering are more sensitive in low light than the Elan 7E. Canon rates A2 metering range at EV 0 to 20 and AF range at EV 0 to 18, a full stop more sensitive than the Elan 7E. Third, the near infrared AF assist light is more elegant than the blinding white strobe of the Elan 7E.

All autofocus SLR cameras share similar limitations when shooting in low light. EOS A2 owners won't notice problems if they stay within the AF assist light range, about 25 to 30 feet. However, once outside of this range, it is crucial to use fast lenses and focus on points of contrast. In other words, you can't merely point 'n shoot when lighting gets dim. You must pick your targets carefully.

Mount Baker • EOS A2, EF28-105 3.5-4.5 USM, Sensia 100, LS-1000 scanner

 

Exposure Meter

The EOS A2 offers three meter patterns: 16-zone Evaluative, center weighted and a 3.5% spot. A partial meter pattern (large spot) is not available. Like the Elan, the EOS A2 has independently switchable patterns. In other words, Evaluative, center weighted or partial are available in any of the Creative Zone modes.

The 16-zone Evaluative metering system is amazingly good and delivers excellent exposures in all but the most extreme situations. For example, with a telephoto lens, the Evaluative meter underexposes blazing Hawaiian sunsets and thus requires +.5 to +2.0 exposure compensation. Instead, I spot meter a section of sky I wish to appear medium toned and let the highlights and shadows fall into place. Hazy sunsets meter perfectly. Nevertheless, the situations that require spot metering or exposure compensation are far and few between.

Like all multiple AF sensor EOS cameras, the A2 bias exposure slightly towards the AF point and tends to average the overall scene.

Runner at Sunset • EOS A2, EF300 4L USM, Bogan 3001 & Sensia 100

A-TTL & TTL Flash

The performance of the A2's A-TTL/TTL flash system is excellent. With the popup flash, 430EX Speedlite and 420EZ Speedlite I got consistently well exposed images, even in point 'n shoot modes. The A2/430EZ combo was especially effective in bounce mode (I avoid direct flash as it looks unnatural). Moreover, the A2 handles off-center subjects surprisingly well, nearly as well as the Elan 7E or EOS 3. The two flash pitfalls are simple and predictable: predominately dark subjects are overexposed and predominately light subjects are underexposed. By the way, these same pitfalls plague all flash systems, including E-TTL. Normal distribution of light and dark areas (18% medium tones) come out perfect. Fortunately, the A2 provides flash exposure compensation (-2 to +2 in half stop increments) to counter flash exposure problems. Unlike the Elan, on-camera flash exposure compensation works with both the popup flash and external Speedlites.

The best current flash for the EOS A2 is the 540EZ, the last full featured A-TTL Speedlite. If you have an eye for the future, you may wish to consider the 550EX as it has most of the 540EZ's advanced TTL features plus E-TTL circuits compatible with newer EOS bodies. Although you can't use most E-TTL features with the EOS A2, wireless operation is available in manual flash mode (you need a flash meter for this).

Canon states that the EOS A2 is fully compatible with older A-TTL/TTL Speedlites, e.g., 200E, 300TL, 300EZ, 420EZ, 430EZ and 540EZ. It is also compatible with newer E-TTL Speedlites in TTL mode only, e.g., 220EX, 380EX, 420EX and 550EX. I have personally used the 220EX, 420EZ, 420EX and 430EZ Speedlites on the A2 with good results.

There is one flash gotcha: the A2 disables AF assist lights on Speedlites and defaults to the built-in AF assist light. Canon did this because in 1992 Speedlite AF assist only covered the center AF sensor. Unfortunately, large lenses (e.g., EF 300 2.8L USM) partially block the AF assist light making AF unpredictable in darkness. There are now several Speedlites capable of covering all 5 AF sensors. I wish Canon would provide a firmware update to correct this problem.

Guitar Student • EOS A2, EF 85 1.8 USM, 430EZ Speedlite & Sensia 100

Power Efficiency

For an early nineties design the EOS A2 is extremely power efficient. I average about thirty-five 36-exposures rolls before the 2CR5 battery dies. This would be excellent even for a new "power efficient" design. Plus, I frequently forget to turn off the A2 for weeks and battery life isn't impacted much. The A2 was years ahead of its time and this one of the reasons this camera remained in production for ten years. The ease of handling puts my EOS 3 to shame and the low light performance with a slow zoom is better than the Elan 7E, EOS 1N and EOS 3 (probably the IV too, but I haven't tried this model).

Custom Functions

The A2 has 16 custom functions or special settings that allow you to customize camera operation to your liking. My favorite custom function is no. 12, mirror lockup. In self-timer mode the mirror locks up and a picture is taken two seconds later. Unlike the EOS 3 and Elan 7E, mirror lockup only works in self timer mode, making it unnecessary to cancel the custom function when you resume normal picture taking. This implementation is less hassle and an excellent substitute for a cable release. This is a good thing because I hate the 60T3 cable release, especially trying to attach it in the dark.

Manual Mode

If you decide to buy an EOS A2 or A2E, consider the non-North American variant, the EOS 5. It's identical in all aspects except the EOS 5 sports an analog display in manual mode rather than a stupid "+" or "-." The analog display shows how many stops you're off from the meter with a ruler-like graphic (-2 -1.5 -1 0 +.5 +1 +1.5 +2). With the simple "+" and "-" on the A2/A2E you merely know you are over- or underexposed, but not how much.

Sunset Boys EOS A2, EF 75-300 4.0-5.6 IS USM & Elite Chrome 100

Shiftable DEP Mode

The EOS A2, Elan and IX have a feature that most later EOS SLRs lack: shiftable DEP mode. DEP mode refers to depth of field autoexposure. By focusing on the nearest and farthest points desired in focus, the camera automatically sets hyperfocal distance and aperture to render everything within those two points sharp. The EOS A2, Elan and IX allow you to shift the program to increase or decrease depth of field (I normally increase depth of field). I miss this feature on my EOS 3 and Elan 7E! To get the same result on these cameras, I use the DEP mode, note the aperture setting, disable AF (so the hyperfocal distance won't change), change mode to Av and set a stop or two smaller aperture.

Accessories

The most universally useful accessory is the VG10, Vertical Grip. Besides increased grip surface, it boasts a duplicate set of controls for vertical shooting: shutter button, AE lock button, main dial and AF focusing point selection button. It has a tripod socket and two sets of strap lugs for a handstrap and neckstrap. My A2 never leaves home without a VG10 attached.

The EOS A2 has a 3-pin remote socket. Thus, T series remote accessories may be used, e.g. the Remote Switch 60T3 may be used as a cable release. I found the threaded attachment of the 60T3 fiddley and slow, especially in the dark. Too bad the RC-1 Wireless Remote doesn't work with this camera.

There is a full range of dioptric adjustment lenses available from +3 to -4. These are the same lenses used for the EOS 3 and Elan 7E. However, the built-in dioptric adjustment of +.75 to 2.75 should be sufficient for most folks. The EOS 5 and A2E lack built-in dioptric adjustment.

There are five user interchangeable focusing screens available in North America: Ed-N, Standard Matte (included); Ed-O, Screen with Focusing Marks (instead of rectangles); Ed-D, Matte Screen with Grid (composition aid); Ed-H, Matte Screen with Scale (for magnification photography and copying); and All Matte Screen (no marks). A sixth screen, the Panoramic Matte Screen, is only available in Japan.

Interchangeable focusing screens are a welcome feature for picky photographers or specialized applications such as high magnification photography. I find the grid focusing screen (Ed-D) indispensable as a composition aid. My horizons are consistently straight now! Moreover, cleaning is easier with a removable screen (you may blow off both sides of the screen). Handle screens with extreme care as they're easily damaged or soiled. Never touch a screen with your fingers or blow on the screen with your breath. Instead, handle the screen with the supplied tool and clean it with a bulb blower.

Honolulu Harbor • Canon EOS A2, EF 28-135 3.5-5.6 IS USM, Sensia 100, FS4000US Scanner

Cons

Certain batches are prone to command dial problems (1998-2000 batches are said to have an improved dial). I always press the release button when turning the command dial on or off and, yet, my 1996 A2 had two failures within five years (my 1992 A2 had no dial failures). At $120 a crack, this ain't funny. My second command dial was installed during Summer 1999 and was still going strong 6 years later when I sold it. In all fairness, the dial does not break as easily as reported by internet cry babies provided you:

1) Press the locking button when tuning it on/off or switching from Basic Zone to Creative Zone.

2) Don't spin the dial needlessly like a roulette wheel.

3) When shooting, leave the camera on all the time to minimize dial wear.

Horizon Electronics is reputed to have a main dial fix that is better than Canon's replacement: failed plastic parts are replaced with metal and the lock button is disabled. I'll give them a try if my dial fails again.

The camera disables AF assist lights on Speedlites and defaults to the built-in AF assist light. Unfortunately, large lenses (e.g., EF 300 2.8L USM) may partially block the AF assist light making AF unpredictable in darkness.

As proved by several drops, I find the body is much tougher than it appears (plastic seems to bounce well!). Unfortunately, the finish is more delicate and prone to scratches than the EOS 3 or Elan 7E.

Girl & Pet Pigeon • Waikiki HI EOS A2 & EF 100-300 4.5-5.6 USM

Pros

After using two EOS A2 cameras for ten years, I can say this is one of Canon's best designs of the 1990s: a near perfect harmony of advanced features, high performance and ease of operation. The superior low light AF, AF assist light, interchangeable focusing screens, 5 FPS motordrive, PC socket and 1/200 flash sync give it a clear edge over the Elan 7 for serious shooters. My A2 cameras cranked out well exposed and focused chrome after chrome for hundreds of rolls. They never jammed or locked up, even with Sigma lenses!

I find the A2 implementation of mirror lockup fast and convenient: enable self timer (with 2 or 10 sec. delay) and press shutter button. Other cameras--EOS 3 1V or Elan 7E--require you to set a custom function, press the shutter once for lockup, press the shutter again for exposure and, finally, disable the custom function!

The A2 was my favorite camera for a decade and earned its bacon repeatedly. It's an amazing camera that delivered features and performance serious amateurs and many pros needed. Although an older design, it still holds its own and in some ways is better than newer EOS film bodies.

Source Materials

Canon EOS A2 Instructions (CT1-1002-004). Canon Inc., 1992.

More Images taken with the Canon A2 (click to enlarge)

 

4/27/02 • Updated 10/18/2011

©Copyright 2002-2012 by Peter Kun Frary • All Rights Reserved

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