Did you know that Canon introduced the world to eye control focus back in 1992? In this retrospective, I will discuss the Canon EOS A2E, the world’s first camera that allowed the user to select a focusing point by simply looking at it.
The Canon EOS A2E (EOS 5 in European markets) was a prosumer SLR that had a slew of advanced features, including an excellent 5-point autofocus system, a variety of exposure modes including Program, Shutter and Aperture Priority, Manual, Portrait, Landscape, Sports, and more, a large, built-in flash with 28mm-80mm automatic zoom, 1/200 sec flash sync, 1/8,000 sec top shutter speed, 16 custom functions including high-speed film rewind, back button autofocus control, mirror lockup, and the ability to leave the film leader out, a feature that I always appreciated because I developed my own film. The A2E was also one of Canon’s cameras that helped codify their design language, and in operation, it is very similar to the 5D series. It features the same command dial, main dial, and rear control wheel, a testament to enduring great design. If all of this wasn’t enough, the camera was the first to introduce eye control focus (in the A2E model), although it could be purchased without this feature as the A2.
A Prosumer Camera Loved By Pros
In the lineup, the A2 series was positioned just under Canon’s EOS-1 series workhorses and marketed as semi-professional models. The A2 quickly gained popularity with pros, however, because of its robust feature set, excellent handling, and reliability. Although the camera is made mostly of plastic, it proved itself as extremely well-made and able to handle a variety of shooting conditions. I’ve owned my A2E since 1998, and it still works flawlessly. When the optional VG-10 vertical grip was attached, it not only gave the user a vertical shutter button, main dial, AF selector button, and custom button, but also made the ergonomics much better and resulted in one of the best-looking cameras of the period.
Eye Control Focus
Not to be confused with eye tracking focus in modern digital cameras, eye control focus let the user select one of the five horizontally positioned focusing points by looking at one and pressing the shutter button halfway. The system was revolutionary for the 1990s, but had mixed results depending on the specific photographer. It always worked well for me, however, and even when I dusted off my A2E and shot a few rolls of film for this retrospective, I was pleasantly surprised with its accuracy, which, although not perfect, worked most of the time. In the A2E, the feature only worked in landscape mode, however, so taking vertical shots had to be done the old-fashioned way, by manually selecting a focusing point or letting the camera decide.
Eye control focus quickly reached its apex in the EOS 3, which I also owned but (regretfully) sold many years ago. The EOS 3 took a place above the A2E and just under the EOS-1 series in Canon's lineup, and featured an incredible 45-point autofocus system with much improved eye control focus. Unfortunately, eye control was a short-lived feature and disappeared altogether not long after the EOS 3, and although I do not know the official reason why, I would guess that it was due to how inconsistently it seemed to work from one user to the next.
I will add one other problem I found with eye control focus. When using the system, sometimes, I found myself looking at one of the autofocus points instead of at my subject, so in a strange way, it momentarily removed me from paying attention to my composition, as my eye was focused on the little red squares in the viewfinder.
Ergonomics and Handling
The ergonomics and handling of the A2E are exemplary, especially for a near 30-year-old camera. As I mentioned, the layout is very similar to the 5D series, and if you look at the cameras side by side, you can see how closely Canon has stayed true to their design language throughout the years. The grip on the camera is one of the best parts, as it is large, deep, and very comfortable. The vertical grip has the same level of comfort and support, and the buttons are well placed, which make the camera easy to use in either portrait or landscape orientation. Dialing in the correct exposure is easy via the main dial and rear control wheel, although the A2 series lacked an exposure scale and used a simple plus/minus icon in the viewfinder (the European model has a proper exposure scale which makes it more desirable on the used market today). The viewfinder is large and bright, and overall, buttons and dials seem right where they should be, which made using the camera after many years a breeze.
The A2E is not a small camera, and one thing that surprised me was how bulky it seemed now. Even without the vertical grip, the camera is chunky and has decent weight to it, especially for something that is more or less made of plastic. It’s not overly heavy for sure, but the size and weight are noticeable if you carry it around for a day of shooting. The large built-in flash also means that the top of the camera protrudes forward quite a bit and has an angular design, unlike most of Canon’s high-end models, but I always found this to add to the charm of the camera.
For this article, I tested the A2E with an EF 50mm f/1.4 lens, and I found the focusing overall to be fast and accurate. There were a few times where images I thought were locked into focus came out slightly blurry. Since one feature the camera is missing is a diopter, it was tough for me to tell if focus was locked in a few instances as well. One other quirk about the camera is that every so often, it would take an additional split second for the camera to fire. At first, I thought there was something wrong with it, but then, I realized that it hadn’t achieved focus and was still in the process of locking on to the subject. This also happened a handful of times.
Besides autofocus, one thing that I enjoyed about using the A2E again is how fast it is to dial in settings. Changing from one mode to another is fast and easy, and adjusting aperture or shutter speed is as simple as using a modern Canon camera. Dialing in settings was intuitive and fun, with the main hindrance being the simple plus/minus exposure meter that lacks a scale.
I shot two rolls of film with the A2E (Fuji Superia 400 and Ilford XP2 Super 400). I then had the negatives developed and scanned at my local camera store. I tweaked the two black and white images in this article, but the rest are direct from the scans. I was quickly reminded of how incredibly spoiled we are with high-resolution digital cameras regarding image quality; however, the results were very pleasing and have that certain film look that is very desirable and emulated so often. The images are contrasty with muted colors and have just enough grain to make them look vintage. I also used the flash as fill for a portrait of my wife, and the camera metered that situation nicely. Although I am becoming more invested in shooting film, I’m not yet at the point of investing in a high resolution film scanner. I would imagine that if I purchase a good scanner, I would see a noticeable difference in the quality of the scans, but I'm not there yet, especially since the cost of using the camera is already quite high, as I detail below.
I always loved the vertical grip for the A2E. It’s small, light, and looks great on the camera without seeming like an afterthought, like many grips often do. Part of the reason why it is so light and small is that it does not contain a battery compartment, which was obviously a compromise, but what was lost in functionality was gained in size and usability. I always thought that the sharp angle of the grip on the non-shutter side was a very nice design choice as well, because it keeps the camera from looking like a giant brick.
The A2E uses a 2CR5 battery, something that was common in the 1990s and a go-to battery for many cameras. Today, however, a 2CR5 will run about $20. Add to this the cost of the film, around $15 each, and the cost of scanning and developing two rolls, roughly $20 each, and it easily cost almost $100 to shoot two rolls of film with this camera! This is why I didn’t test it in high-speed continuous!
The Canon A2E was and is a great camera. For the 1990s, it is feature-packed and versatile and has quite a bit to offer film shooters. For me, using a camera like this is an exercise in nostalgia and fun, although after dusting off my A2E, I think I will use it more often. The question now is whether or not to invest in a scanner and begin developing my own film once again, and we all know that this can be a time-consuming and expensive venture, albeit a lot of fun.