Shoot Like It's 1995!

My Canon EOS Elan IIe, pictured here with a Tamron SP f/3.5-5.6, 24-135mm zoom lens. The lens cost considerably more than I paid for the camera, but has proven to be a solid performer.

Camera reviews typically cover hot, new digital toys (like the newly leaked, 50.6 MP Canon 5Ds). Big name review sites and independent bloggers alike scramble to cover the latest photographic innovation. As in all areas of life, however, not everything worthwhile is necessarily cutting edge. You've almost certainly seen an Ansel Adams print. By the standards of 2015 technology, his camera gear was primitive and crude, yet he produced breathtaking photography; his prints sell very well to this day, and his books remain useful resources for students of photography.

This post is a brief overview* of a 20 year old camera still worth buying. It's decades newer than anything Ansel used, and modern enough to boast the ease-of-use people expect today. I own a number of vintage cameras, many of which require manual configuration. The Canon EOS Elan IIe works like a modern digital camera. The main difference is you have to load a roll of 35mm film, but there's no cocking or winding as with vintage cameras; it features a motorized advance and automatic rewind. Once the film is loaded, you can set the camera to full Auto mode or you can use one of the other program modes - the same ones available on the latest DSLRs.

The Canon EOS Elan II and IIe are basically the same camera, so either one is an excellent choice. (I previously shot with an Elan II, a gift from the kind folks at the Film Photography Project. Unfortunately, it developed a persistent, sticky shutter problem.) The only difference is that the IIe adds a novel feature that lets you program the camera to focus using your eye movement. I'm not sure how well this feature works as I've not bothered to set it up yet. I bought mine from KEH, a widely respected reseller of camera gear, for around $35. You may be able to find one even cheaper from thrift shops or a reputable eBay seller. Adding a basic kit lens, if needed, will likely set you back a bit more.

Stranger at the Knoxville Museum of Art last September. Natural light, shot on my Elan II using the remarkable Svema Color 125 film.

There are several features worth nothing about the Elan II/ IIe. It accepts auto-focus EF lenses, which also work with modern Canon DSLRs. If you happen to be a digital Canon (APS-C) shooter, this means you can share some lenses between systems. (Not all camera accessories will work between generations of cameras; when in doubt, check your product manual.) It has a pop-up flash, so you may find that other accessories are unnecessary for everyday use. You can even buy inexpensive infrared remote controls that let you trigger the shutter wirelessly - handy for including yourself in group photos and other tripod work. 

Both the Elan II and IIe are full-featured SLRs that allow you to control the focus point in your photo. Here I shot wide open, focusing on the front tire to deliberately throw the handlebars out of focus.

Another useful feature of the Elan II/ IIe is that it allows for manually selecting film speed. This is not always the case with other cameras from the same era. It's helpful because you can tell the camera to treat film as faster (or slower) than it's actually rated. A prime example of this would be "pushing" certain films, such as Kodak Tri-X 400 or Portra 400, to ISO 800 or even 1600 - either for creative effect or to compensate for low light conditions.  Being able to manually select your ISO is essential for some "boutique" or bulk-rolled films that may not have the standard DX encoding** on the film cassette. Of course, you can also let the camera select the ISO automatically.

In short, this is a modern camera in every way that really matters for making photographs. If you have thought about exploring film photography, but don't want to struggle with figuring out the manual controls on vintage gear, this would be an excellent way to ease into the world of film with minimal fuss. And if you're a bit shy, the Elan II/ IIe is unlikely to draw attention as its design will easily pass for just another digital camera on the street (as long as nobody asks to see the image on the back after you take their photo).

*For an in-depth, photographer's review, complete with technical specifications, see this online review from 1996.  

** DX encoding was developed in the 1980s as a way of automating film speed selection. One of the first cameras to offer this feature, the Konica TC-X, also happened to be my first SLR that I purchased new back in 1987.