Thursday, January 10, 2013

Back to school with the Elan 7ne

So next week I pull a Rodney Dangerfield and go back to school. I've done this before--the fall of 2008 specifically--so I know what to expect, more or less. I'll be that old geezer in the class all the 19-year-old undergrads wonder about. "What's his story? He's not fooling anyone--he's got one foot in the grave already!" I pulled a 4.0 last time around, however, probably the only time I've done so in my college career. I hadn't intended to take such a long layoff, but work intervened and I couldn't get the highers-up to sign off on additional coursework until now.

This semester, I'm taking 9 hours (all that is realistically manageable while maintaining a 40 hour work week) and I've got more than my share of late nights and juggling family obligations to look forward to. Actually dodged a huge scheduling bullet earlier this morning through dumb luck more than wise planning. In 2008, I took 2D Design (a prerequisite course), Photojournalism I (which I should've taken at A&M, but my asshole father made me drop it) and Traditional Photography I (a film/darkroom class). This time around, I'm taking Drawing I (another prerequisite course), Digital Photography I and finally Traditional Photography II. Obviously, having assisted The Wife as second shooter on countless weddings, I'm pretty well-equipped on the DSLR front (have I mentioned how much I enjoy my Canon 7D? Well, I do!). For Traditional Photography II, I'm afraid I was lacking, however. For the 2008 film course I used Lisa's old Rebel, which is an OK camera, but very, very basic. The expanded capabilities of digital bodies have me spoiled, so I dropped some big hints that I wanted a more advanced film camera. And look what The Wife gifted me with for Christmas:

Canon EOS Elan 7ne with eye control focus

For those of you who aren't camera gear heads, that's a Canon EOS Elan 7ne. Elan was Canon's prosumer line of camera bodies, a big step up from the introductory Rebel line and roughly equivalent to Canon's current 40D/50D/60D line. The Elan is fully capable of using modern camera strobes and ETTL-II (Evaluative-Through The Lens flash metering system). It's got a number of the whistles and bells common on current DSLRs. It's light, well-build and simply looks attractive for a camera. But you know what? It's got a very cool feature that no DSLR has--Canon's "Eye-Control Focus!" It is exactly what it sounds like: Looking through the viewfinder, sensors track the shooter's eye and various focus points light up indicating where the camera will focus. It is very, very cool. Here's an article I accidentally stumbled across last week in an old issue of American Photo from 1993 that discusses one of the very first SLRs that incorporated this technology:

Alas, it seems that ECF was a technology ahead of its time. Remember, the autofocus and computer processing capabilities of these cameras are primitive compared to what we are used to with modern DSLRs. AF points were also limited (the Elan 7ne has a mere seven, total, while my 7D seeming has 19!). For some people, ECF never did work the way it was supposed to. For others, it operated perfectly. There's lots of speculation on why ECF proved so problematical for some, but I suspect it's calibration issues. The ECF must be specifically calibrated for each individual using the camera (it can store up to five separate user profiles). But what's more, calibration improves with more data. Calibrating once will get you going, but accuracy improves with repetition. After I went through the initial calibration process, ECF worked well for me with the exception of the far left AF point--either in landscape or portrait orientation. The next AF point over would light up instead. Maybe my eye is simply weak when looking to the left? I don't know. But I ran through the calibration process again, and the number of false focuses dropped by at least 50 percent. Running the calibration under different lighting conditions also improves accuracy.

Long story short, I really like this feature. Sadly, the Elan 7ne is the last camera body Canon produced with ECF. No real explanation why has ever come out, but most seem to agree that the technical capability hadn't evolved enough to make it foolproof, and therefore Canon received a steady stream of complaints from those who couldn't get it to work. I suspect a large percentage of these complaints came from owners who 1) didn't calibrate the system more than once or B) didn't calibrate it at all and expected it to work perfect out of the box. Thinking about the computing power of modern DSLRs like my 7D, coupled with the vast number of AF points, and my heart starts to flutter. How is it that Canon has not reintroduced this cool feature? It would be magnificent for sports shooters and photographers who don't have the luxury of time for "focus and recompose." To me, it seems the long-rumored Canon 7D II would be a prime candidate for the return of a new, modernized ECF system (there were rumors a year ago that a version of ECF was included on prototype Canon 5D IIIs for evaluation). If so, I know I'd like to upgrade. With all of the smart phones and tablet computers surging into the market that include versions of eye tracking ability to follow what the user is looking at on the screen (SMARTPHONES FOR CRYING OUT LOUD!) then there is absolutely no reason why a super charged, refined ECF system shouldn't be a standard part of Canon DSLRs--after all, they make movies with these DSLRs now, so I could see ECF as being a real asset to filmmakers as well.

Graflex Crown Graphic large format camera

The Wife also got a film camera for Christmas. My brother, Uncle Shaggy, found a prime condition Graflex Crown Graphic for her. This is the successor to the famed Speed Graphic cameras used by every newspaper photographer in every Hollywood movie and TV show produced from 1940-1960. It's got a Kodak Ektar 127mm lens and the shutter works well, although it sticks on shutter speeds 1/5 of a second and slower. The rangefinder works. Pretty much everything works, but it has no back, no ground glass for focusing. This last bit is frustrating, but we're watching Ebay and elsewhere to get the few remaining pieces necessary to make this camera operational again. Sheet film holders are common and relatively inexpensive, and 120 roll film holders are pretty common as well. I've never shot medium or large format before, and neither has The Wife, so we're looking forward to exploring this new world of photography together.

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