Save Money by Checking Out Canon's Best Older Gear

Save Money by Checking Out Canon's Best Older Gear

Addicted to Canon gear, but not to Canon prices? Canon has a long history of producing some extremely impressive products. If you find yourself looking for some new gear, but trying to stay within a budget, consider these gems of Canon yesteryear.

1. The “Magic Drainpipe”: The EF 80-200mm f/2.8 L

Released in 1989, this lens was a precursor to the now universally revered EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM.  It is extremely sharp wide open and offers similarly beautiful bokeh as its successor. It renders color well and maintains excellent contrast. It’s also a parfocal lens, meaning focus will be maintained when focal length is changed. Autofocus, while not lightning fast, is quite good and accurate. On the downside, it is a very heavy cylinder (thus its nickname) and its minimum focus distance of 1.8 meters is nothing to write home about. It also doesn’t have Image Stabilization like its successor.

Price: Expect to pay between $450 and $600 depending on condition and if it includes the tripod mount.      

2. Elan (EOS 100)

Released in 1991, this might be my favorite film camera ever. Being part of the EOS system, it takes all EF lenses. Why is it my favorite? It’s likely the quietest motorized film camera in history. I frequently shoot classical music concerts and I’m less worried about being noticed with this camera than with the 5D Mark III in silent mode. Though it only has one AF point in the center, I’ve never had accuracy issues. It features all the standard shooting modes, a built-in flash with a sync speed of 1/125, red-eye reduction, and a 3 FPS shooting speed.

Price: I got my copy for $22 shipped. You can’t go wrong with this camera.

Not many cameras, film or digital, are quiet enough to shoot just two harps.

3. The EF 100-300mm f/5.6 L

Call me crazy, but I love push/pull zooms. I know I’m in the minority, but it just matches my neuromuscular wiring better, in my opinion. This lens, introduced in 1987, is a push/pull zoom that was the precursor to the EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM. It’s known for its excellent resolution and low distortion. On the downside, AF performance is a few generations behind today’s best lenses (but not horrible), its maximum aperture of f/5.6 is quite slow (though you should note that with its successor, you only gain at most 2/3 of a stop), and the build quality is below L standards. The zoom range is also smaller than its successor, but nonetheless, is quite useful. This lens makes a great outdoor zoom.

Price: Expect to pay between $300 and $350 for a quality copy.

4. 1D Mark III

The 1D Mark III is two generations behind the current 1D X. Build quality is absolutely top notch, as expected with the 1D line. It features a 10.1 MP APS-H sensor (1.3x crop factor), a still excellent 45 point AF system (19 cross-type), 10 FPS burst with a 110 shot JPEG/30 shot raw buffer, an ISO range of 100-3200 (50-6400 expanded), and a 1/8000 shutter. Many photographers were upset when the 1D X moved to a full frame sensor, as the APS-H format was often considered to be a perfect balance between the reach of APS-C and the DOF and low light benefits of full frame. Don’t expect modern low light performance on this model, but it is certainly still a capable body. It was plagued by an issue involving AF performance for models with serial numbers between 501001 and 546561, but in 2009, Canon began offering a free program consisting of a firmware upgrade and AF recalibration to remedy the issue. Check to see if a body you're purchasing had the fix.

Price: Expect to pay about $700 for an excellent copy with a battery and charger.

5. EF 28-80mm f/2.8-4 L USM

This lens, introduced in 1989, is a good alternative to the current EF 24-70mm f/2.8L II USM. It is sharp across all focal lengths with great contrast. It was also one of Canon’s first (1989) lenses to feature an ultrasonic motor (USM), making AF faster and quieter. It does feature the controversial focus-by-wire mechanism, in which the manual focus ring is actually a digital input that commands the lens’ computer to change focus. Nonetheless, it is a strong performer and a good candidate for a walk-around or events lens.

Price: Look for this lens around the $500 mark.

6. EOS-1v

I can’t not include the 1v on this list. If you want to know what it was like shooting with the top film camera of its day, used by journalists, sports photographers and studio photographers alike, this is the camera to pick up. This camera has an unbelievably accurate 45 point (7 cross-type) AF system, superb customizability, perfect ergonomics, outstanding build quality, and some of the most sought after features, even today, such as focus point linked spot metering. Add the PB-E2 Power Booster and you can shoot at 10 FPS. You haven’t been truly impressed until you’ve seen a camera chew through a roll of TRI-X in 3.6 seconds.

Price: Look for this body for about $400 without the PB-E2 and $500 including it.

7. EF 28-105mm f/3.5-4.5 II USM

This is probably my favorite alternative walkaround lens. It features a USM motor, is light and durable, has an MFD of 1.6 ft., and is reasonably sharp with good color and contrast. It’s my preferred walkaround lens on a film camera. It’s completely internally focusing and has a non-rotating front ring for use with polarizing filters, while also being decently fast for a walkaround lens. You really can’t go wrong with it.

Price: Look for a quality copy to be around $180.

8. EF 70-210 f/4

Introduced in 1987, this lens is quite old, but still a viable option. It’s decently sharp across its range (it’s a bit soft wide open at the tele end), has a reasonable constant aperture, is lightweight, and is sturdily constructed. It does have some quirks: it suffers from zoom creep and manual focus requires using a switch on the barrel, while the bokeh is only passable, but autofocus is reasonably fast and accurate.

Price: For $100, it's a great bargain.

9. EF 24mm f/2.8

Not to be confused with the pancake or IS version, this lens, introduced in 1988, is a great starter if you’re looking to get into one of the most popular focal lengths. It’s supremely lightweight, small and has reliable (though loud, as with many older lenses) autofocus. It’s also considered quite sharp in the center, but corner softness is an issue when working at or near maximum aperture. It’s solid, but not built like a tank. CA is also present, but this is quickly corrected in Lightroom. Distortion is reasonably well-controlled.

Price: A good copy of this lens should set you back about $300.

10. EF 28-70mm f/2.8 L USM

Introduced in 1993, this was the standard professional zoom lens before the 24-70mm f/2.8L was introduced and is probably the most modern of the discontinued lenses recommended here. It’s sharp in the center at the wide end and acceptable at the tele end, while the corners are acceptable across the zoom range. Stopping down shows great improvement quickly. Flare resistance isn’t as great as a contemporary lens (coatings have come quite a long way). Distortion is typical of such a lens, with barrel distortion at the wide end and pincushion at the tele end. It features an USM for fast AF and is quite accurate.

Price: A well taken care of copy of this lens should run you about $600.

A Quick Note

Remember when buying used gear that service or parts will often be unavailable. Nonetheless, like most gear, if you take good care of it, it will likely last you a long time. If you’re looking for quality Canon gear at a great price, these products from previous generations can fill that role quite well. 

Alex Cooke's picture

Alex Cooke is a Cleveland-based portrait, events, and landscape photographer. He holds an M.S. in Applied Mathematics and a doctorate in Music Composition. He is also an avid equestrian.

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Yea, I want the 1V; that way I could share lenses with my 5D and also have the ability to shoot film.

This is manual focus, but I own two Canon's from the late 70's and early 80's: A-1 and F-1N with FD 28mm f2.8 and FD 50mm f1.8.

I think the 5D classic is also worth noting here. It's an amazing full frame camera with a very reasonable price tag.

Last week, I got an EOS 1N with PB-E1 off eBay for $80 delivered. Sure, I prefer the 1V, but I still got a lot of camera for not much cash. And I've got more than a dozen Canon primes and L series lenses that work with both my digital and film cameras, plus my 580EX and 600EX RT speedlites work with them too, just not quite as well.

When people ask me which Canon they should buy as their first camera, I know they're trying to decide between a T3 or T5, but if they are at all serious, they should look at a 5D in good shape, and spend their money on good glass. I can pick up a 5D locally for around $400. They are built like tanks, and get the job done. Combined with an aftermarket AC adapter, and Vello Shutterboss, I have an inexpensive setup for trying my hand at time lapse photography.

Still using a 1D Mark IIN here! An awesome camera for the price. Takes some practice with the menus but otherwise it is amazing.

It would be sweet to see a post like this for nikon-users too! Great idea!

I like my Canon EOS 100 (Elan) a lot but I'm selling it on Ebay now to make space in my camera bag for something new.

I used eos 5, eos 30V, eos 33V which all of these are EF mount bodies. They are awesome. Eos5 and 30V has eye control. You are just looking through a AF point on viewfinder and it choosing and focusing with that AF point. As we all know, at digital series we are choosing af point manually everytime you need to change it.

I love my 28-70 2.8. never lets me down.

The EOS-100/Elan (#2) was a great camera! That was my first AF SLR. I bought it in 1992, along with the then-new 28-105 USM (#7 but version 1). I totally maxed out my budget on the lens but I wanted that one instead of the 100's 28-80 kit lens. That was a great rig and I had a lot of fun with it!