User Collectible of the month: Canon's Landmark EOS A2E

Canon's '92 tech flagship can fly with today's best--and it's a steal!

When you consider that this rugged 35mm SLR, beloved by advanced amateurs and pros, arrived on the scene back in November 1992, its feature set is amazing.


 In terms of high-tech capabilities and overall on-film performance, it can still go toe to toe with today's top contenders. While lacking the tank-like construction of the top-of-the-line EOS-1 series, the A2E, Canon's tech flagship of its era, has established an enviable reputation for durability and reliability.

Incredibly, this fine camera, which debuted at around $1,200 and is fully compatible with all EOS lenses, is currently available at Adorama's used department for only $189 in excellent condition (body only). The EOS A2, exactly the same camera but without eye-controlled autofocus, is a mere $139 in E condition. (Editor's note: These prices are accurate as of January 2006)

Breakthrough technology

While the A2E's basic features are impressive, what sets it apart as a historical landmark is Canon's innovative and exclusive Eye-Control Autofocus, a photographic adaptation of a concept used by fighter pilots in aiming at their targets. The system employs a CCD sensor housing two sets of infrared LEDs (iREDs) built into the left side of the viewfinder. These iREDs detect which part of the viewfinder the user is looking at and then targets the AF zone corresponding to that area, so the user, not the camera, determines the point of precise focus. If the viewer wears glasses, a second set of diodes is activated, and if the shooter glances at the depth-of-field icon in the finder while holding the shutter button partway in, the lens automatically stops down to the shooting aperture.

Calibration is a beep

For all this to work properly, you have to calibrate the system for your eyes--a simple procedure using the command dial and a confirming beeper. There are five sets of eye-control settings built into the system.
Verdict: The system works well for most users, but may not perform consistently if you wear bifocals or trifocals.
Downside: The system only functions reliably when shooting horizontal pictures. Some people have reported success when shooting verticals, but it's a lot trickier.

Focusing, metering, and more

When going over the A2E's feature list, it's hard to believe that it refers to a camera that's more than a decade old, but here goes. The wide-zone AF system includes five AF points that can be activated manually, automatically by the camera or with eye-controlled focus. The 16-zone metering system, linked to the five AF points, provides evaluative, 3.5-degree spot, center-weighted, and average metering, with shutter- and aperture-priority, depth-of-field AE, intelligent program AE, four program AE modes, and metered manual. The electronically controlled, vertical-travel metal focal-plane shutter has speeds of 30-1/8000 sec plus B, and X-sync at 1/60-1/200 sec.

Powerful flash--and a really fast motor

The A2E's powerful built-in retractable TTL flash reads off the film, and has an auto-zoom head covering 28-80mm focal lengths. To set flash compensation, use the Quick Control command dial on the back, which also sets exposure compensation in auto modes, and apertures in manual mode. Finally, there's auto loading, and a built-in motor that advances film at about three frames-per-sec in normal mode and a whopping five fps in high-speed mode. What more could you want? How about an ergonomic vertical accessory grip? (See box at right).

Handling and convenience

Technology aside, the A2E is a great-handling shooter's camera with many thoughtful touches. Its non-slip surface is superbly contoured and all controls are logically arranged. The built-in flash pops up automatically in low light, and provides auto-balanced fill flash when used in backlit conditions.

The top dial for setting AE modes is a simple, traditional control. The large, click-stopped Quick Control Dial on the back can be configured to set apertures or shutter speeds via Custom Functions, and is conveniently located for making flash or ambient exposure compensations. The motor drive and autofocus data on the LCD are color-coded to match the corresponding control buttons, and the LCD, though non-illuminated, provides exposure, focus, and film advance info at a glance.

For casual shooters, the A2E offers Canon's PIC subject modes such as portrait action landscape and close-up, and there's an AE mode for auxiliary flash units that limits shutter speeds to the common flash range (1/60-1/200 sec) and switches aperture control to the main control dial just behind the comfortably angled shutter release. There are 16 custom functions, and you can shoot up to nine multiple exposures on a single frame.

A fantastic bargainWith its phenomenal array of features, and astoundingly low price, this camera is an outstanding value for any film shooter into the Canon EOS system, and it makes a great backup companion to Canon's current line of DSLRs. While its upside potential as a collector's item is about average, it's a user's delight par excellence and it's top-of-the-line in terms of durability, reliability, and performance.

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