Camera Review: Canon EOS Elan II

In all honesty, a camera like the Canon ESO Elan II is usually not my cup of tea. Manufactured in the mid-nineties, the Elan II was made at a time when camera companies like Canon were moving toward plastic bodied SLRs packed with a whole lot of features I don't want like do-it-all-for-you exposure modes and autofocus while at the same time getting rid of features I love like micro-prisms in the viewfinder and threaded cable release sockets. Most of the time, if I'm going to work with 35mm film, I much prefer a simple machine like the Minolta SRT-101, a Pentax K1000, or even a Canon AE-1. 

So why do I own an Elan II and why am I reviewing it here? Well, my introduction to the Elan II is a bit of a roundabout story. I was doing a project at the time that required the use of a longer lens. Something in the 85mm to 100mm range. All of my lenses tend to be either normal focal lengths or wide angle lenses and I quickly discovered that if I wanted to do this project I would need to shell out at least $300 or more for a good quality tele-photo prime lens. Not something I really wanted to do for a project that I was basically doing for free.

So a friend of mine let me borrow his Canon EF mount 85mm f/1.8 which was very kind, but I didn't have a body to go with it. So I set my sites on Ebay and within five minutes found a listing for an Elan II described as being in working order and 98% perfect cosmetic condition for ten dollars with free shipping. For ten bucks I was willing to chance it!!

After one outing with the Elan II I quickly grew to appreciate it for what it is - a nicely built 35mm SLR with intuitive controls, a better than average viewfinder, and good ergonomics that cost me less than a couple of pints of beer. I mean really, it all boils down to that very simple statement. Who can argue with that!!?? 

The Elan II has a lot of different exposure modes, auto focus modes, metering modes, etc mostly indicated with silly icons located on the control dial on the left side of the camera's top plate. These are indicated with the typical icons you see on cameras today like a tiny face for portrait mode or a little icon of a mountain for landscape mode. There are also a whole host of custom functions (ten to be exact) that I've never bothered to look up. I just set the camera to aperture priority and shoot away. I really hate fiddling with menus.

Canon deemed the EOS Elan II worthy of being sold in a sort of champaign and black color scheme which I understand isn't to everyone's taste. Personally I sort of like it. It reminds me of the chrome and black looks of SLRs from the seventies. I'm really not sure when we all got it in our heads that an all black camera was somehow more professional looking. I appreciate Canon's willingness to be a bit different here in a camera that at the time it was produced was aimed at a more high end consumer, or at the very least, a mid-range consumer. 

Despite its modern styling and the fact that I find most of its features pretty much camera clutter which I tend to ignore, the Elan II does have a couple modern functions that I find useful. Much like Canon EOS models of today, the Elan II has a gigantic wheel on the back of the camera that controls various menu options. From what I understand the Elan II was one of the first EOS models to have this feature and its usefulness has managed to soldier on into high end DSLRs of today.

I have my Elan II set so the control wheel handles adjustments to exposure compensation. It is really nice being able to bracket my exposures at will with my thumb on the back of the camera without moving the body away from my eye. Pretty cool.

I also really enjoy the fact that I can both manually focus and use autofocus without adjusting any switches or hitting any buttons. Assuming one is using a Canon EF mount ultrasonic lens, all I have to do is grab the lens barrel and focus manually to my hearts content or press the shutter button half way down and let the camera do it for me. I can't tell you how irritating I find it when modern cameras force me to hit a special button on the camera before I am allowed to take control of the focus. Serious kudos to Canon for this one. 

I will often see other photographers recommend cameras like the Canon Rebel G or the Canon Rebel 200 as ultra cheap options for newcomers to make a cheap and easy switch from digital to 35mm film. This is especially for those who already may own a few Canon EOS lenses. I really can't fault their logic. The Rebel line of Canon SLRs can be found for next to nothing in terms of cost, are very durable despite being all plastic, and boast some nice features for such cheap cameras. However, I've always found the ergonomics of the Rebel line to be complete rubbish. I have very small hands and even I have a hard time holding a Canon Rebel comfortably. 

Despite taking up a bit more room in your camera bag and adding a little bit more weight, the Elan II is miles ahead in terms of shooting comfort and a joy to hold in your hand. Despite a lot of plastic parts, it feels professional and durable, and the viewfinder is bigger and brighter than anything you will find on a Rebel.   

Comparing prices of the Elan II and Canon Rebel models on sites like Ebay and you aren't looking at much difference. In fact, I regularly see the Elan II going for even less money than Rebel bodies due to its relative obscurity. As I type this article there are three "Buy It Now" listings going for fifteen dollars or less. Honestly, it is a bit of a no-brainer to pick up an Elan II just for the heck of it at prices like that. 

I think it is worth mentioning that there is also an Elan IIe floating around there on the used market. From what I understand the 'e' stands for Eye Control Focus. Basically the camera had the ability to detect the autofocus point it should be using based on where you were looking inside the viewfinder. I remember this feature being advertised a great deal in magazines like Popular Photography and American Photo back in the mid nineties. Even back then it seemed like a useless gimmick. I've personally never used this function nor can I picture it being all that useful. Still, I'm sure it can be turned off so if you find an Elan IIe at a bargain price don't hesitate to pick it up.