Canon EOS 3

End of the Film Era

Peter Kun Frary



The EOS 3 is a SLR film camera introduced in late 1998, the dawn of digital photography. At that time it was Canon's most technologically advanced film SLR design, debuting the 45-point AF array, wireless E-TTL flash and 21-zone metering system later used in the 1V and early 1D models. It also shared the same form factor, controls and most of the same accessories as the EOS 1V and 1N, making it an ideal second camera for 1 series shooters.

Canon EOS 3 | The tiny button between the grip and lens mount activates depth of field preview and E-TTL modeling lights.


With environmental seals, high grade components and heavy-duty construction, the EOS 3 feels and looks like a serious professional tool. While lighter cameras bob around in the wind, the EOS 3 is as solid as a brick and lends itself to rock steady shooting. Without PB-E2 Booster Drive, it tips the scales at 780g. According to the Canon EOS Technical Overview (CT2-1114-001), the EOS 3 body is..."constructed of glass-fiber reinforced polycarbonate with aluminum inserts around the aperture area with exterior panels of rigid engineering plastic."

The EOS 3 is built to the same durability and sealing specs as the EOS 1N. For example, buttons and dials use rubber gaskets to block water droplets. The back door has a seal too. Significant electrical contacts are bipolar and gold plated. I've been caught in tropical downpours many times with my EOS 3 and A2. Not once did the EOS 3 jam or lockup. In contrast, the A2 stopped working. Luckily it rose from the dead after drying out for a week!

The EOS 3 viewfinder is among the brightest I've used, brighter than the A2E. Canon rates it at .72 magnification with 97% viewfinder coverage. Moreover, the viewfinder data display indicates shutter speed, F stop, flash ready, frame numbers, exposure compensation and includes an ambient light and flash exposure scale. Display brightness automatically adjusts to ambient light levels.

Quick Control Dial (QCD) | Like the 1 series before it, a large rear thumb wheel may be used to quickly adjust exposure compensation, aperture, etc.

Shutter speeds are available from 1/8000 to 30 seconds in 1/3 stop increments (1/2 stops via custom function). There's bulb and self timer ability and 1/200 flash sync. The shutter is a rotary magnet shutter design—no touching metal parts—and claimed to increased longevity over prior designs.

When firing the EOS 3 shutter the motor drive and mirror slap are loud compared to the A2 or Elan series. Really loud. Out of the box, it tops out at 4.5 fps in AI Servo mode. To get 7 fps you need the Power Drive Booster PB-E2 (battery grip).

Power Efficiency

So I'm ready for grab shots, I leave my EOS 3/BP-E2 loaded with film and turned on for weeks at a time. Leaving the camera on or off doesn't influence battery drain much. AA lithiums in a BP-E2 power through about 100 rolls in a year's time before depletion. I mainly use the EF200 2.8L USM, EF70-200 4L USM and EF300 4L USM on this body. With the BP-E2 booster removed, the EOS 3 may be powered with a single 2CR5 battery.


The EOS 3 interface—like the EOS 1, 1N and 1V—is based on push-buttons and menus. This interface is not as easy to use as the knob-twisting type in the Elan 7E or A2. For example, to change drive modes, hold down the Mode button with a left-hand finger, tap the Drive button with another left-hand finger and rotate the Main Dial with your right-hand thumb while looking at the LCD.

I have one minor gripe: program mode (P) is shiftable in one stop increments only. My other EOS cameras are shiftable in half stop increments. Why change a good thing? A choice of half or whole stop increments would be a welcome addition.

EOS 3 | Top deck controls

Custom Functions

Like most modern cameras, the EOS 3 supports custom functions. This feature allows customization of controls and features. For example, you may move AF activation to another button, use mirror lockup or leave the film leader in or out after rewind. There are 17 standard custom functions but an 18th function, oddly labeled as CF-19, was available as a service option (firmware 1.7). CF-19 applies only to controls found on IS superteles, e.g., EF300 f/2.8L IS, EF400 f/2.8L IS, EF500 f/4L IS & EF600 f/4L IS. Custom functions are set by viewing the tiny top monochrome LCD! You'll need a manual as settings are simply unlabeled number codes. But at least the the LCD may be Illuminated with a pretty blue light.

Chairs at Waikiki | Canon EOS 3, EF70-200 4L USM and Provia 100F

Eye Controlled Focus

The EOS 3's implementation of ECF is more refined than that of the EOS 5/A2E, but operation is the same: focus by looking at the subject while pressing the shutter button. One of the 45 AF sensors in the viewfinder confirms focus by flashing red. Foreground? Background? Off-center subject? It's your choice. No more locking focus and recomposing.

EOS 3 | The ECF calibration dial (CAL) is on the right side of the viewfinder.

For ECF to work, it must be calibrated for your eye. Calibration is simple: twist the knob to CAL and look at the flashing rectangle while pressing the shutter. Calibrations are cumulative, i.e., the camera learns to track your eye better with each calibration, especially if you calibrate with different lighting and lenses. It took me several dozen calibrations to achieve consistent results. However, once calibrated, ECF was fast and reliable in good light. ECF is noticeably faster than the A2E and Elan IIE.

For me, ECF works well on the EOS 3, but the Elan 7E and 7NE are a notch more reliable. First, the Elan 7E has defined AF rectangles to look at whereas the EOS 3 has a large ellipse etched on the viewfinder screen. The ellipse contains a concentrated mass of 45 sensors but you can't precisely target individual sensors because they're invisible. In fairness, Canon states the EOS 3 45-point AF allows you to "automatically focus by area" and doesn't claim to target individual sensors like the A2E or Elan IIE. The manual explains:

Eye-Control AF enables you to focus at where you look within the area AF ellipse in the viewfinder. The camera instantly detects where your eye is looking and activates the corresponding focusing point (among the 45) to focus.

EOS 3 ECF always gets the general area but sometimes snags the sensor above, below or to the side of the one I preferred. Fortunately, there is a great workaround: custom function CF13-2 may be set to limit the AF sensors to 11, thereby improving speed and gaining 100% accuracy (45 sensors are overkill anyway). Some people have reported ECF difficulty, especially if they wear glasses with special coatings. Fortunately, the fuzzy logic chip does an excellent job of selecting focus if you forgo EFC.


The forty-five-point wide area auto focus auto focus may be activated by eye controlled focus (ECF), automatic selection (1990s fuzzy logic) or manually dialed in. Only active sensors are visible during AF as a red flash.

With a F2.8 or faster lens mounted, the AF system of the EOS 3 blows the Elans, A2E and Rebels out of the water, especially in lower light or AI Servo. However, there's a gotcha: a F2.8 or faster lens is needed to get this high speed performance. Why? The center AF sensor is a cross sensor with F4 or faster lenses. The middle cluster of six AF sensors are crosses with F2.8 or faster lenses. The remainder are vertical or horizontal only sensors that work with F5.6 or faster lenses. When a slow lens is mounted, , e.g., EF 28-135 3.5-5.6 IS USM, the AF cross sensors revert to vertical sensors. Vertical sensors are mainly sensitive to horizontal lines. Scenes containing vertical lines, e.g., distant skyscrapers or rows of books, will not auto focus (you could tilt the camera to snag focus). Thus, the EOS 3—like the EOS 1, 1N and 1V—need fast lenses to realize full AF potential. However, there's an advantage to these picky AF sensors: better low light performance and AF accuracy than the A2E, Elans or Rebel.

Palm leaf in Lagoon | Ala Moana Beach Park | EOS 3, EF 75-300 4.0-5.6 IS USM, Elite Chrome

Low Light AF

All auto focus SLR cameras share similar limitations when shooting in low light. In low light photography, it is crucial to use fast lenses and focus on points of contrast. I normally disable ECF and use automatic selection of AF points when light gets dimmer. When it's really dim—below Ev 6—I manually select the center AF cross and target contrasty objects, e.g., the border between a roof and skyline. With that said, the EOS 3 can snag focus in candlelight murkiness while many other cameras rack back and forth.

When there is little or no light there is not enough information for any passive AF system to focus. The best solution is to use the AF assist light of a Speedlite. Of course, this light is too dim for hand holding and, thus, a tripod is necessary. It's a shame Canon omitted the built-in near-infrared AF assist light. It made low-light AF convenient on the A2 and older Elans.

The EOS 3 has a custom function to expand the AF area and improve AF performance with slow lenses and low light. CF 17-2 expands the AF points by one sensor vertically and 2 sensors horizontally. If you use slow zooms, this setting makes a night and day difference in AF performance! In normal AF mode (CF 17-0), the EF 28-135 IS USM is unreliable. With CF 17-2 set, the lens locks on to almost anything. Too bad it took me a year to figure this out!

Without the use of an AF assist light, the low light AF of the EOS 3 is better than my Elan 7E, Elan and A2 cameras. Initially the A2 appears to perform better because of its integral AF assist light. Disable the A2's AF assist light and the EOS 3 is clearly better at snagging focus at Ev 6 or lower.


There are four metering patterns: 21-zone evaluative, center weighted partial (8.5%) and spot meter (2.4%). Automatic multiple spot averaging is supported.

The 21-zone Evaluative metering system is excellent, yielding consistently accurate exposures with slide film. Initially I used multi-spot metering in tricky lighting, but usually ended up with the same exposure as Evaluative metering. However, there is one aspect of metering I found different than other EOS cameras: the active focusing point strongly influences exposure. In other words, the object you focus on is given more weight in the camera's exposure calculation. The Elan 7E and A2 bias exposure slightly towards the AF point and tend to average the overall scene. You can go whole hog and link spot metering to 11 individual AF sensors (Custom Function 13-1). Then, use ECF to select individual AF points for focus and spot metering.

The EOS 3 sports the standard complement of exposure modes: Programmed AE, aperture priority, shutter priority, manual and depth of field. Moreover, you may override P, AV and TV modes with -2 to +2 of exposure compensation or auto bracketing. No programmed "PIC" modes (sports, macro, portrait, etc.).

Sailboat at Ala Moana | EOS 3, EF 70-200 4L USM, Elite Chrome


The EOS 3 was Canon's first pro DSLR to feature E-TTL Flash: evaluative E-TTL flash meter, three point TTL flash meter, wireless ability, second-curtain sync, FE Lock (flash exposure lock), flash exposure compensation , FP Flash (high speed sync) and auto flash bracketing (550EX only). Of course, you need an EX Speedlite, e.g., the 550EX, to access E-TTL features. FE Lock, flash exposure compensation, modeling flash, and second-curtain sync may be controlled from the camera. If you have older A-TTL/TTL flash gear, take heart as the EZ series Speedlites are fully supported by the EOS 3. With all this new tech, Canon still provides a PC Socket to trigger studio strobes or flashmeters the old fashion way.

E-TTL Flash Metering

When you press the shutter button, EX Speedlites fire a low power preflash to determine flash exposure a split second before exposure. The preflash is so near the main flash it appears to be a single flash, not two flashes. The camera's Evaluative meter, e.g., the 21-zone Evaluative meter in the EOS 3, is used to measure both ambient light and flash. In most modes the camera balances both flash and ambient light for a natural appearance.

Fill-in Flash

In bright light, above EV 10, the EX Speedlites provide automatic fill-in flash in Full Auto and P modes. In dim light, EV 10 and below, flash is the main light in Full Auto and P modes (the background may be dark). Av, Tv and M modes deliver automatic fill-in flash in any light, even at night (slow sync). Slow sync results in a natural balance between ambient light and flash. However, you may need a tripod due to the resulting slow shutter speeds.

The active focusing point is linked to metering and, thus, flash exposure. In other words, there is an exposure bias in favor of the object you focus on.

As mentioned above, the EX Speedlites balance flash and background light perfectly in Av, Tv and M modes. There is an automatic flash reduction of -.5 to -1.5 stops depending on the strength of the ambient light. This balance makes the subject look natural, but is too perfectly blended with the background for some tastes and purposes, especially under dim lighting conditions. When I want the subject to standout from the background, I dial in +.5 or +1.0 flash compensation or use P mode. P mode uses the flash as the main light—full power flash—under dim conditions (EV 10 or lower).

Iolani Palace | EOS 3, EF 70-200 4L USM & Provia 100F

FE Lock & Flash Exposure Compensation

FE Lock is great for off-center subjects or troublesome highlights that fool the meter. FE Lock works like a spot meter for flash. First, place the center AF sensor on your subject and press the FEL button (next to shutter button). The Speedlite fires a low power preflash. Exposure is determined by the reflectance of the subject in the spot metering circle, so be careful what you aim at. Use a medium toned area for best results. Finally, you have 16 seconds to recompose and shoot. The flash will expose the subject correctly even with usually light or dark backgrounds or an off-center subject.

Unfortunately, FE Lock preflash isn't people friendly since being flashed in the face once for metering and a second time for the shot is irritating. You might be more popular if you apply appropriate flash exposure compensation and forgo FE Lock.

If FE Lock is ued on an unusually light or dark object, e.g., a white wedding dress, apply appropriate flash exposure compensation first (it doesn't work after FE Lock): subtract 1 to 2 stops of flash compensation for dark subjects and add 1 to 2 stops of flash exposure compensation for light subjects. Why? Spot meters are calibrated to read 18% gray tones. No matter where you point, the camera expects a medium tone (18% gray) and gives you the correct meter reading for this result.

FP Flash

FP Flash allows sync at any shutter speed, albeit with loss of power (EOS 3 normal sync is 1/200). FP Flash is great for daytime fill flash as it allows use of large apertures or fast film. FP Flash works best in Av, Tv and M modes where the user has control over aperture and/or shutter speed. When a Speedlite is mounted, P and DEP modes are not shiftable. Second curtain sync doesn't work with FP Flash (high speed sync).

AF Assist Light

With the 550EX mounted, low light AF is vastly improved: the EOS 3 will AF a blank wall in total darkness from 30 feet away. The 550EX is the only shoe flash that works with all 45 of the EOS 3's AF sensors. The 220EX, 380EX, 430EZ and Sigma EF-500 Super only cover the center AF sensor. The 420EX covers most but misses some of the outer sensors. The Speedlite Transmitter ST-E2 covers all 45 AF sensors and is great if you only need an AF assist light.

Major Accessories

Power Drive Booster PB-E2 | The BP-E2 boosts the frame rate of the EOS 1, 1N, 1V and 3.

The most universally useful accessory is the Power Drive Booster PB-E2. Besides increased grip surface, it boasts a full duplicate set of controls for vertical shooting. It also sports a tripod socket and lugs for a handstrap or neckstrap. The PB-E2 is light, tough, shielded with magnesium body plates and matches the exterior of the EOS 3 and EOS 1 series. Although the EOS 3 is big and heavy with the PB-E2 mounted, it's comfortable and secure to hold, especially when using big glass, e.g., EF 300 2.8L USM. The vertical shutter release of the PB-E2 is touchy: I took many unintentional frames before I got used to it.

Alkaline, lithium, Ni-Cad or Ni-MH AA batteries may be used with the PB-E2 mounted on the EOS 1N, 1V and 3. Lithium AAs should not be used with the original EOS 1 due to a lack of internal voltage regulation. With eight alkaline or lithium AA batteries the PB-E2 increases motor speed from 4.5 fps to 6 fps in both continuous single shot or AI servo modes. The Ni-MH Pack NP-E2 nets you 7 fps with the EOS 3 (10 fps with the EOS 1V).

Remote Switch RS-80N3

The EOS 3 debuted the N3 remote system. Fortunately, the N3 quick-lock plug is easier to use than the old threaded T series system. The two main remote releases are the Remote Switch RS-80N3 and Timer Remote Controller TC-80N3. The RS-80N3 duplicates shutter functions at the end of a 80 cm cord. The TC-80N3 adds timer functions and LCD.

Dioptric Adjustment Lenses

The EOS 1N, 1V, 1D, Elan 7E and A2 all have built-in dioptric adjustment. Why omit this feature from the EOS 3? Nevertheless, there's a full range of dioptric adjustment lenses available from +3 to -4. These are the same lenses used for the EOS A2 and Elan 7E.

Focusing Screens

There were nine interchangeable focusing screens available in North America: Ec-A, Standard Microprism (for manual focus); New Split Screen (for manual focus); Ec-C, Laser Matte (EOS 1 screen with AF target); Ec-CII, Laser Matte; Ec-D Laser Matte with Grid (composition aid); Ec-H, Laser Matte with Scale (for magnification photography and copying); Ec-I, Laser Matte with cross hair reticle (astrophotography); Ec-L, Cross Split Screen (manual focus); Ec-N, New Laser Matte (standard screen) and Ec-R, New Laser Matte (spot metering circle).

Interchangeable focusing screens are a welcome feature for specialized applications such as high magnification photography. I found the grid screen (Ec-D) indispensable as a composition aid. Moreover, cleaning is easier with a removable screen as you can easily blow off both sides of the screen. Handle screens with care: never touch a screen with fingers or blow on it with your breath. Handle the screen with the supplied tool and clean it with a bulb blower.

Canon EOS 3 & EF 200 2.8L USM

Final Remarks

I mainly used the EOS 3 to shoot on the beach and other wet environments. It took dust, rain and splashes without flinching and was utterly relievable, cranking out well exposed and focused chrome after chrome. The satin finish is tough, e.g., it's more scratch and polish resistant than my old EOS 1N. After a year the 1N's satin finish was shinny from rubbing on my body and camera bag. The finish on my EOS 3 still looks and feels satin.

The Canon EOS 3 Technical Overview states that "the 45-Point Area AF is locked on the future." Indeed, testimony of the success of the 45-sensor AF array and 21-zone evaluative meter are found in subsequent pro models, the EOS 1V (2000), 1D (2002) and 1Ds (2003). The AF and metering systems of these cameras are based on the EOS 3, albeit without ECF. Moreover, an EOS 3 user will feel right at home with an EOS 1V or 1D as the user interfaces are similar.

The EOS 3 signaled the end of the film era and, along with the 1V, is among the top two film cameras made by Canon. The durable build should outlive most Elan and film Rebels, so it's a smart choice for your last film camera purchase.

It's a wonderful camera that delivers impressive features, performance and durability. The lack of built-in dioptric adjustment and an eyepiece blind are my only gripes.


1.6 and version 1.7 are identical, except that version 1.7 adds Custom Function 19 for Supertele button control. Firmware prior to 1.6 (bodies manufactured before March 8, 1999) may have metering problems in low light. Only Canon Service Centers can update firmware.

Source Materials

Canon EOS 3 Instructions (CT1-1114-004). Canon Inc., 1998.

Canon EOS 3 Technical Overview (CT2-1114-001). Canon Inc, 1998.


©Copyright 2017 by Peter Kun Frary | All Rights Reserved


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