As analogue photography regains popularity, a frequent question in photography forums is, which cheap, good quality analogue camera to pick when trying out film. Until recently, this would not have been an issue: almost all analogue gear was cheap, but prices have been rising for a while. In spite of this: late SLR models from the 1990s and beyond are often overlooked.
Where the main motivation is the look and feel of old or purely mechanical gear, this makes sense. But those who mainly want to try film as a medium and get the most bang for their buck should look at late analogue SLRs. They are likely to look like digital cameras but offer everything a film camera can, from full manual control to point and shoot automation.
The EOS 300
I recently stumbled across a battered Canon EOS 300 (Rebel 2000) -one of the later entry level models, launched in 1999- with an 28-80mm kit lens. At the time of writing, they tend to auction for under £30 with lens and under £20 for the body only.
There are, moreover, some advantages to all EOS models: if you already have an EOS DSLR, the full frame lenses can be used on analogue and digital bodies. (The EF-S lenses are not compatible, and their image circle would be too small for full frame in any case.) All cameras in this series have auto focus of some sort. They all have a choice of aperture priority, shutter priority or full manual exposure, and the later models have the now familiar programme modes. These modern SLRs may be ugly, but if they still work, they are very capable and often cheap cameras.
Autofocus is one feature that improved a lot between EOS upgrades. In the early EOS 620/650 models it only really worked in benign lighting conditions and even then could fail on low contrast subjects. The EOS300 is a late model and this shows in the superior auto-focus capabilities, even though it is at the bottom of the quality range. It has seven auto-focus points and they can be individually selected via a function button. The selection will be reset if one of the programme modes is used.
Build quality is a definite weak point: the camera body is mostly plastic and this includes the lens mount on the kit lens and the camera itself. (The later 300V and 300X models supplied a metal lens mount on the body.) It just does not look like a camera that will take a lot of abuse and last a lifetime. On the other hand, the strap lugs and the tripod mount at least are made of metal.
The particular camera I tried was well travelled and clearly had been knocked about a fair bit. The owner assured me it had been to South America, the Balkans and Eastern Turkey and not just on tourist missions. It looks the part too: there are clearly visible scratches all over the body and the top display, while the kit lens has a dent in the filter ring.
By the time I picked it up it had been idle for over a decade. There was the usual sticky plastic problem on the camera grip (this can usually be solved with a bit of rubbing alcohol.) The two CR2 batteries had died, of course, but they hadn’t leaked and I could still get new ones from a local drugstore, The camera duly sprang back into action with a fresh pair of batteries.
Feeding and handling
The EOS300 loads film automatically after the back is closed and immediately pulls the whole roll out of the container, it is then retracted frame by frame as the film is used. This way only unused film is spoiled if the back is accidentally opened. Once the role is exposed, it automatically retracts fully into the canister -fully: there is no option to leave the leader sticking out as there is on mid range models like the EOS30 etc.
The command dial also gives access to the usual PASM shooting modes as well as programme modes for portrait, macro, flash etc. A depth of field preview button is located to the bottom right of the lens mount, and the top display sits in front of exposure lock as well as exposure compensation buttons. These arrangements are the usual ones on the Canon EOS series. What is surprising is not their lay-out but their extent on such a basic entry level model.
The viewfinder is bright, and has 90% coverage. The LED display in the viewfinder, supplies the usual information on flash availability, shutter speed and aperture. It also indicates partial metering -if the AE-lock button is used- and the number of auto-focus points in use. A confirmation indicator shows when the auto-focus has fully engaged. This is useful for those who want formal focus confirmation and still long to deactivate the annoying confirmation beep that is switched on by default.
So much for the specifications. What about the results? I tested the camera with a roll of Kodak Color Gold 400. Everything seemed to work, and the photos showed no signs of light leaks or other problems. The EOS 300 has one of these darkened windows on the back cover, which gives a view of the film canister. That’s handy, but if the foam around it deteriorates on an older camera, the light leaks can be severe.
The metering seems to work reasonably well without being fooled too easily by bright backgrounds.
There are limits, of course: when shooting against the sun, exposure is best set manually. Even then, there will be some flaring as in the top left hand corner in the shot below . On the bright side, the photo below shows that the auto-focus works well, even with a moving target, like a water spout.
Not surprisingly, the camera does well in even lighting. The kit lens has its limits with occasional distortions (it is an entry level zoom after all) and the small aperture produces a consistently deep focal plane even when focussing closely.
The EOS 300 has a dedicated flash mode or can release the built-in flash in full auto mode but the po-up flash can also be activated manually by pressing a dedicated flash button. The pop-up flash does what pop-up flashes normally do: it gives poor results. It may have some use as a fill flash, but as a main light source produces photos you don’t want to see in print. This should surprise nobody, of course.
I don’t often shoot programme modes, but tried the macro-mode on this one. It functioned well at a moderate distance with low light and a bright background. The programme modes add to the versatility of this camera: the full auto mode (the green square on the command dial) turns it into a bulky point and shoot. The P-A-S options allow for a fair degree of automation and some creative control: it is easy to meter off centre, lock the exposure via the AE button and then focus elsewhere in the frame.
The full manual mode finally enables complete control over exposure time and aperture while still allowing for ttl metering and autofocus although there is no unavoidable need to depend on either.
As a final verdict: I’d say, the EOS 300 is a cheap and reliable way to try out film. It is a capable camera in terms of functionality and, in spite of its relatively poor build quality, seems reasonably durable. I tried one that clearly had suffered prolonged abuse and still did the job smoothly.
On the other hand, it is quite ugly and is bound to wear out eventually. A plastic mount on the camera, for example, is all but guaranteed to be worn down over time by changing lenses with a metal bayonet. As a camera for a project or to experiment with it is great, as a main camera for life, not so much.
The manual is available at the usual place: Butkus.org