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Canon EOS Elan

Review of a Modern Classic

Peter Kun Frary

The groundbreaking 1991 EOS Elan--icon adorned Command Dial, Main Input Dial and rear Quick Control Dial (QCD)--served as a model for all midlevel EOS cameras since: Elan IIE, A2E, Elan 7E, 20D, 50D, etc. Why? Turning labeled knobs is more intuitive than pushbuttons and menus. Thus, it is not coincidental that the Elan sports most of the features of the Elan II and 7, plus a few extras and variations. This first generation Elan, although discontinued (1995), still holds its own against newer EOS film cameras. In a few aspects it's superior to the Elan 7.

Butchart Bells, Victoria, BC Canon EOS Elan, EF 28-105 USM, 430EZ Speedlite (-1 2/3 flash compensation) & Sensia 100

Major Features

Central Cross Autofocus Sensor works with lenses are slow as F5.6.

Near Infrared AF Assist Light. This feature is omitted from newer models and has compromised low light AF considerably. The Elan can autofocus on almost anything in total darkness.

Whisper Drive. The silent motor drive zips along at 3 frames per second.

Autozoom Popup Flash. The built in flash has a guide number of 12 meters (40 ft) at ISO 100, 1/125 flash sync, TTL metering and 28mm to 80mm autozoom head. Flash AE compensation and second curtain sync are available. Popup flashes on the Rebels, Elan II and Elan 7 all have a fixed head.

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

Three metering patters: 6 zone evaluative, center weighted and partial (6.5% of frame). No spot meter. All meter modes are available in the Creative Zone.

Shutter Speeds. 1/4000 to 30 seconds in 1/2 stop increments. Bulb and self timer ability. 1/125 flash sync.

Multitude of exposure modes: programmed "PIC" modes (sports, macro, portrait, etc.), 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.

A-TTL Flash Metering. You'll need the 430EZ or 540EZ external flash for A-TTL features. Compatible with E-TTL Speedlites (EX series) in TTL mode only. The Elan's onboard flash AE compensation and second curtain sync are not compatible with external flash.

7 Custom Functions. This feature lets you customize some controls and/or features. For example, you may enable/disable the AF assist light or set second curtain sync.

Mirror Lockup is available by setting a custom function and using the selftimer or RC-1 Remote. Locking up the mirror helps avoid vibration during high magnification photography or slow shutter speeds.

Wireless Shutter Release is possible via the RC-1.

Barcode Programming allows the input of 5 additional programmed modes.

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 1V or 3 instead.

Canon EOS Elan • Still a viable machine. Checkout the huge AF assist light. Pictured with Bar Code Reader E (L) & GR-70 Grip (R). Photo taken with EOS 5D/24-105 4L IS USM, ST-E2, 430EX Speedlite & Bogan 3001 tripod.

The international version, EOS 100, has a couple of extra features: auto popup flash in the Basic Zone (programmed pic modes) and a ruler scale for manual mode meter readout.

Like the EOS 5/A2 and other Elan models, the Elan is nearly silent. The motor drive and mirror slap are the most muted of any 35 mm EOS model except the Elan 7E (the mirror slap of the EOS IX is softer but that's APS format). Like the A2, the Elan's only noisy component is the auto zoom popup flash.

What features of this Elan are superior to the Elan 7E? There are seven: low light AF is better within the AF assist light range, it has a near infrared AF assist light (!!), the viewfinder is slightly brighter and more vivid, the partial metering pattern is smaller (almost a spot meter at 6.5%), the popup flash autozooms from 28 to 80mm (the Elan 7 is fixed at 28mm), it has shiftable DEP mode (see below) and the rounded grip is more comfortable. Moreover, those that find multiple sensors and ECF confusing or bothersome will love the simplicity of a single cross AF sensor.

Low Light AF

Canon's specs show the Elan with an AF range of EV 0-18 with an EF 50 1.4 USM. Of course, a slower lens, e.g., EF 28-80 3.5-5.6 USM, will have noticeably less low light response. The Elan 7E has a stop less of low light sensitivity at EV 1-18. During an evening test in my lamp lit living room (very dim), the performance of the Cross-type BASIS AF sensor in the Elan proved to be head and shoulders above the CMOS sensor in the Elan 7E, albeit because of the Elan's built in AF assist light. If you disable the Elan's AF assist light, the Elan 7E performs better! The Elan starts having serious trouble around EV 4 without an AF assist light. In bright light the Elan 7E's CMOS sensor is a little faster and is locks onto low contrast detail better than the Elan.

The lack of a near infrared AF assist light in the Elan 7E has been a sore spot among many owners. The Elan has one and thus can discreetly and quickly focus on nearly anything in near or total darkness, even a blank wall. The Elan even has one advantage over the EOS 5/A2 and 10S: AF assist lights on Speedlites work (the A2 and 10S disable AF assist lights on Speedlites).

Canon specs also indicate the Elan's metering range as EV -1 to 20 vs EV 0 to 20 for the Elan 7E. In terms of specs, that's better than all the current EOS cameras including the 1V! As far as real life performance is concerned, I doubt the meter is more sensitive than that of the EOS 3 or IV.

Exposure Meter

The EOS Elan offers three meter patterns: 6-zone Evaluative, center weighted and 6.5% partial. A spot meter pattern is not available. The Elan's meter was unique for its time because it offered independently switchable patterns. In other words, Evaluative, center weighted or partial are available in any of the Creative Zone modes. In contrast, the metering patterns in the EOS 10S and Rebel are fixed for each mode.

The 6-zone Evaluative metering system is amazingly good and delivers excellent exposures in all but the most extreme situations, e.g., severe backlighting or blazing ball of fire in the viewfinder. I've shot hundreds of rolls of chromes with the Elan, and it still amazes me at how consistently accurate exposure is. The 35-zone meter of the Elan 7E is wonderful, but it doesn't produce much better or more consistent exposures than the simple 6-zone pattern of the Elan.

Shiftable DEP Mode

The EOS A2, Elan and IX have a feature that 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.

Mukilteo Sunset • Canon EOS Elan, EF 70-210 3.5-4.5 USM & Sensia 100

A-TTL & TTL Flash

The performance of the A-TTL/TTL flash system is generally very good. Most of the time you merely point 'n shoot and get well exposed flash pictures. Fortunately, it's pitfalls are predictable: predominately dark subjects are overexposed, predominately light subjects are underexposed and off-center subjects are either under- or overexposed depending on the background.

All flash systems have problems with predominately light or dark subjects. The cure is to subtract 1 to 2 stops of flash compensation for dark subjects and add 1 to 2 stops of flash compensation for light subjects. For off-center subjects at night, the dark background causes the flash to overexpose about a stop, so you need -1 stop of flash compensation to counteract the overexposure. A bright background--the setting sun or a mirror--will cause the flash to underexpose, so you'll need to add flash compensation. The correct exposure of off-center subjects is an area where the E-TTL flash of the Elan 7E is clearly superior to the Elan. Of course, if you know when to override the flash, you'll get equally good results with A-TTL or E-TTL.

The best flash for the EOS Elan is the 540EZ, the last full featured A-TTL Speedlite available (the smaller 200E is still around). 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.


Barcode Reader E

If you use the programmed pic modes (Basic Zone), you may like the barcode system. It lets you replace the programmed pic modes with modes of your choosing, e.g., sunset portrait with catchlights. Up to five programs may be input if you don't mind overwriting the PIC modes (portrait, sports, etc.). You scan the desired program in a booklet and transmit to the Elan via an IR input. The Barcode Reader E also works with the EOS 10S. A program for printing your own custom barcodes is here.

Barcode Reader E • Ready and able to scan in P21, Stained Glass in Church.

The included booklet, EOS Photo Files (Canon, 1990), contains 23 barcode programs, each with a sample photograph, and suggested equipment, e.g., lens, tripod, film, etc. If you wish to go hogwild, Barcodes 101 (Canon, 1991) boasts 101 barcode programs for your scanning enjoyment. Each program tailors the exposure, flash, meter pattern, AF mode, etc., for the image/situation depicted in the booklet. For example, P23, Bright Exceptions, depicts a white cat in front of a white wall. Camera meters expect a medium tonality and thus underexpose in this situation. P23 adds 1.5 stops of exposure compensation to keep whites from going gray. P01, Portrait With Catchlights, pops up the flash and uses -2.0 stops flash compensation to gently fill the face and add a little sparkle to the eyes.

My wife liked "Portrait with Sunset" and "Portrait With Catchlights" and left them on her dial for years. I found the Barcode Reader E fairly useless as I prefer to control most camera functions. But, hey, the Barcode Reader E is a cool gadget to play with. I'd rather have one on my belt than a dad burn Palm Pilot or cell phone!

Grip Extension GR-70

The GR-70 Grip Extension is an oversized handle for dudes or gals with monster mitts but lacks a tripod mount, vertical release and battery pack. However, it is extremely comfortable--more comfortable than the BP-300 and VG-10--and the increased grip area makes the Elan easy to hang on to. You may attach both a hand strap and neck strap to it. I had a custom tripod thread installed to allow use of quick release mounts (my father made it). The GR-70 also fits several Rebel models and is still available at B&H Photo.

RC-1 Wireless Remote

A remote release is used to avoid vibration during high magnification photography or slow shutter speeds. A wireless remote release allows all of the above plus you can get in the picture. The RC-1 infrared remote will trip the shutter from 15 feet in front of the camera or slightly behind the camera. It will also fire the shutter from a few feet above, below or to the side of the camera so it makes a fine cable release. For bulb exposures, fire the RC-1 once to open the shutter and again to close it. You have a choice of immediate release or 2 second delay. The RC-1 also works with the EOS 10S, Elan II, Elan 7, EOS IX and all Canon point 'n shoot cameras with an infrared remote sensor (e.g., Elf Z3).

Dioptric Adjustment Lenses

If you have less than perfect eyesight, the viewfinder, set to -1 diopter (objects appears to be 1 meter away), will look blurry. Of course, you can wear glasses or contacts and get a clear view, but this is not a viable solution for everyone. Unlike the Elan 7 or A2, the Elan lacks built-in dioptric adjustment. Fortunately, there is a full range of dioptric adjustment lenses available from +3 to -4. These are the same lenses used for the EOS 1, 1N, 620, 630, 650 and 10S, so they're easy to find. I need a -2.5 for my right eye but can make due with -2.0 or -3.0 (my left eye has 20/20).

Pros & Cons

The Elan is an easy to use camera with most of the features found on later cameras such as the Elan 7 or A2. Although the marketing clowns would have you believe otherwise, in reality, an Elan II or 7 will not be easier to operate nor improve most folk's pictures. Plus, the Elan is a small and light camera (575 g, same as the Elan 7E), perfect when you need a professionally capable camera but must travel light.

Unfortunately, the Elan--like all cameras--has a few gotchas. The vintage electronics aren't as efficient as newer models and, thus, eat more batteries. I only get ten or twelve 36-exposure rolls through this rig before it cries for fresh juice (I use fill flash often). In contrast, my batteries are good for about 50 rolls in the Elan 7E (EOS 30).

Continuous exposure mode doesn't reach 3 fps as claimed by Canon (maybe 2 or 2.5 fps?). Continuous exposure combined with AI Servo also is on the slow side. So, this ain't a great camera for sports shooters, but that's why they make the EOS 1V.

There is no provision for a cable release, but the RC-1 remote makes this a moot point for most folks. And, yes--despite internet myths to the contrary--bulb exposure works with the RC-1 (see above).

The biggest bummer is that onboard flash compensation controls don't work on external Speedlites. Thus, cheaper Speedlites like the 200E, 220EX, 300EZ, 380EX or 420EX can operate in automatic mode only. You'll need a 430EZ, 540EZ or 550EX if you need flash exposure compensation or second curtain sync.

A used Elan may be bought for a song and, thus, makes a fine backup camera or entry into EOS photography. If you're looking at an Elan or EOS 100, check the shutter curtain for oil. The rubber shutter bumper sometimes deteriorates and jams the shutter. The fix is a replacement shutter for $150 or a careful cleaning (free if you do it) with lighter fluid or alcohol. Finally, the command dial should lock into the click stops smoothly. If it is hard to turn or turns freely--no click stops--reject it. A new command dial is $120.

Nevertheless, if you find an Elan in excellent or better condition, it is a wonderful general purpose camera that holds its own against newer models.

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

Source Materials

Canon EOS Elan Instructions (CY8-6121-002). Canon Inc., 1991.

4/28/02 • Updated 6/29/2009

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


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