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Canon EOS 5, A2E & A2

Thoughts from a DSLR Shooter

Peter Kun Frary

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The EOS 5 is a midrange SLR film camera introduced in 1992. In North American it was called the EOS A2E, or, sans ECF, A2, but the rest of the world knew it as the EOS 5.

Woman in Waikiki | EOS A2E, EF28-105 3.5-4.5 USM, Sensia 100

At launch in 1992, the EOS 5 was a cutting edge design with 5-point AF array, 5 FPS silent film advance, 1/8000 to 30 second shutter range, 1/200 flash sync, two control wheels, PC Socket, mirror lockup (prefire), interchangeable focusing screens and Eye Controlled Focus (ECF). Most of these features and their control interface are still standard on current mid-range EOS DSLRs. In other words, a modern day EOS digital shooter will feel right at home with the controls of an EOS 5.

I owned three of these cameras since 1992—EOS 5, A2E and A2—and their unique fusion of advanced features, light weight and ease of use made them my workhorse cameras for well over a decade. With a production span of 10 years, the EOS 5/A2E/A2 was manufactured longer than any other EOS model. This longevity is a testimony to its excellent design and performance.

EOS A2 | My old A2 used to have a satin finish but most of it wore off.

Construction

The EOS 5/A2E has a fiberglass reinforced polycarbonate shell with metal lens mount and pressure plate. It's a little 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 Manfrotto quick release and my A2E fell four feet with a Sigma 100-300 APO zoom onto a concrete dock. It bounced off the tripod leg and hit the concrete dock lens shade first and, amazingly, only suffered a minor ding on the bottom. I removed the shattered UV filter and finished the roll of film (the lens shade fell in the Pacific ocean). A similar drop with a metal camera some years earlier resulted in a big dent, a cracked pentaprism and a jammed mechanism. Polycarbonate absorbs impact better than metal.

As proved by several drops and many bangs, the body is tougher than it appears (plastic flexes and bounces well!). Unfortunately, the finish is more delicate and prone to scratches and finish wear than the EOS 3 or Elan 7E.

The EOS 5/A2E/A2 is a 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 (EOS 100), the EOS 5/A2E's only noisy component is the auto zoom popup flash. The EOS 5 was so quiet for its day models, expecting to hear the film advance motor, often wondered whether or not I took the picture.

A multitude of exposure modes | PIC modes for non-technical users (sports, macro, portrait, etc.) plus programmed AE, aperture priority, shutter priority, manual, X-sync and depth of field (DEP). P, AV and TV modes have -2 to +2 of exposure compensation and auto bracketing available.

Auto Focus

Five-point wide area auto focus with center cross and 4 single axis sensors was cutting edge in 1992. Sadly, Canon didn't improve much on this basic design for their mid-range cameras until the release of the EOS 40D in 2007 (all cross points).

Like current XXD and 5D series DSLRs, the AF rectangles involved flash red when AF is achieved. All 5 sensors may be active or individual sensors are user selectable via ECF or buttons and wheels.

In low light situations the EOS 5/A2E is a little better than the Elan and Rebel series. First, the viewfinder is noticeably brighter, more contrasty and bigger. Second, AF and metering are more sensitive in low light than the Elan 7E. Canon rates EOS 5/A2E 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 auto focus 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.

Water Lily | EOS A2E, EF 200 2.8L USM & Fujichrome 100

Eye Controlled Focus

ECF rocked the photographic world when it appeared in the EOS 5/A2E in 1992. Focus may be achieved by looking at the subject while pressing the shutter button. One of the five 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. The gotcha is ECF only works in landscape orientation for this model. For vertical or portrait orientation you'll have to select AF points via wheel and/or buttons. The EOS 3, Elan IIE, Elan 7E and Elan 7NE have newer ECF designs and work in both landscape and portrait orientation.

For ECF to work, it must be calibrated for your eye. Another person's calibration won't work for you. Calibration is simple: twist the knob to CAL and look at flashing rectangles 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 about a dozen calibrations to achieve consistent results. However, once calibrated, ECF was wonderfully fast and reliable in good light.

EOS A2 back | Many of the rear controls such as the QCD, AF point selection and AE-lock are similar in placement and function to modern DSLRs. The EOS 5/A2E/A2 was the second consumer camera to use a large rear thumb wheel to adjust exposure compensation, aperture, etc.

Exposure Meter

The EOS 5/A2E offers three meter patterns: 16-zone Evaluative, center weighted and a 3.5% spot. A partial meter pattern (large spot) is not available.

The 16-zone Evaluative metering system is 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 EOS 5/A2E bias exposure slightly towards the AF point and tends to average the overall scene.

Lotus at Ala Moana | Canon EOS A2, EF 200 2.8L USM, Fujichrome Sensia

A-TTL & TTL Flash

The EOS 5 and variants sport an auto zoom popup flash, a feature most early 1990s SLRs lacked. 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 auto zoom. Flash AE compensation and second curtain sync are available.

The performance of the EOS 5/A2E'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 EOS 5/430EZ combo was especially effective in bounce mode. Moreover, the EOS 5/A2E handles off-center subjects surprisingly well, nearly as well as the Elan 7E or EOS 3.

The pitfalls of the system are simple and predictable: predominately dark subjects are overexposed and predominately light subjects are underexposed. Average distribution of light and dark areas (18% medium tones) come out perfect. Fortunately, the EOS 5/A2E provides flash exposure compensation (-2 to +2 in half stop increments) to counter exposure problems. On-camera flash exposure compensation works with both the popup flash and external Speedlites.

The best flash for the EOS 5/A2E is the 540EZ, the last full featured A-TTL Speedlite. If you have an eye for the future, 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 5/A2E, wireless operation is available in manual flash mode.

Canon states that the EOS 5/A2E 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 but in TTL mode only, e.g., 220EX, 380EX, 420EX and 550EX. I have personally used the 220EX, 420EZ, 420EX and 430EZ Speedlites on the EOS 5/A2E with good results.

There is one flash gotcha: the EOS 5/A2E 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 provided a firmware update to correct this problem.

Runner at Sunset | EOS A2, EF 300 4L USM, Manfrotto 190 & Sensia 100

Custom Functions

The EOS 5/A2E 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.

Under The Banyan | EOS A2E, EF 28-105 3.5-4.5 USM & Fujichrome 100

Power Efficiency

For an early nineties design the EOS 5/A2E 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 EOS 5/A2E for weeks and battery life isn't impacted much. The EOS 5/A2E was years ahead of its time and this one of the reasons this camera remained in production for so long. 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 that model).

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.

Canon EOS A2 | EF 85 1.8 USM & Kodak TMY

Shiftable DEP Mode

The EOS 5/A2E, Elan and IX have a feature that most later EOS SLRs lack: shiftable DEP mode. DEP mode refers to depth of field auto exposure. 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 5/A2E, 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!

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 hands trap and necks trap. My EOS 5/A2E never leaves home without a VG10 attached.

The EOS 5/A2E has a 3-pin socket for the Remote Switch 60T3 or other T series accessories (now obsolete). The threaded attachment of the is 60T3 fiddly and slow, especially in the dark. Too bad the RC-1/RC-6 Wireless Remotes don't work with this camera.

Dioptric adjustment lenses available from +3 to -4 are available for the EOS 5/A2E. These are the same lenses used for the EOS 3 and Elan 7E. However, if you have the EOS A2, 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.

Five user interchangeable focusing screens were 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 high magnification photography); and All Matte Screen (no frames). A sixth screen, the Panoramic Matte Screen, was only available in Japan.

Interchangeable focusing screens are a welcome feature for 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! Plus, cleaning is easier with a removable screen (you can blow off both sides of the screen).

Diamond Head Beach • EOS A2, EF 35 2.0 & Fujichrome 100

Gotchas

Certain batches of this camera are prone to command (mode) dial problems (1998-2000 batches are said to have an improved dial). I always pressed the release button when turning the command dial on or off and, yet, my 1996 A2 had two failures within five years (my 1992 A2E 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. It's easy to forget to do this one little thing...
    2. Don't spin the dial needlessly like a roulette wheel.
    3. When shooting, leave the camera on to minimize dial wear.

The EOS 5/A2E/A2 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 block the AF assist light making AF unpredictable in low light.

Girl & Pet Pigeon in Waikiki | EOS A2 & EF 100-300 4.5-5.6 USM

Final Blurb

After using three EOS 5/A2E/A2 cameras for over 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 due to an assist light, interchangeable focusing screens, 5 FPS motor drive, PC socket and 1/200 flash sync give it an edge over the Elan 7 for serious shooters. My EOS 5/A2E/A2 cameras cranked out well exposed and focused chrome after chrome for hundreds of rolls. They never jammed or locked up, even with old Sigma lenses!

I find the EOS 5/A2E/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 and Elan 7E—require setting a custom function and then pressing the shutter for lockup, press it again for exposure and, finally, back to the LCD to disable the custom function!

The EOS 5 was my favorite camera for a decade and earned its bacon repeatedly. Although an older design, it still holds its own and in some ways is better than newer EOS film cameras such as the Elans.

Source Materials

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

More Images taken with the Canon EOS 5/A2E/A2 (click to enlarge)

 

06/22/2017

©Copyright 2017 by Peter Kun Frary | All Rights Reserved
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