Canon EOS-3
and 550EX Strobe

 Platypus Claws-on Review
by Dirck Halstead

The advances in still, film-based cameras are coming in increments. The essential shapes and functions are now well known. As we begin what may be the last developments in film cameras, the purpose of the manufacturer (other than selling cameras) is to refine the capabilities of the equipment. The photographer is the big winner. Prices are coming down--functionality is going up.

The Canon EOS-3, which was introduced late last year, is the newest entry into the field of professional instruments aimed at helping the photographer take better pictures more easily.

The camera is based on the EOS-1N, and is probably a way station on the road to a further evolution of that camera. If you want the story in a sentence: It is a "better metering and a fantastic strobe system."

The main new feature is 45 user-selectable autofocus points that cover 21 metering zones, instead of the five that now appear in the EOS-1N. The 45 points are packed into the central 23% of the screen. If 45 meter points sound like a lot, you can scale back to 11 points.

The body has a finish that reminds me of the old F-1s, a dull matte black, which as a former war photographer I appreciated (no reflections to catch a sniper's eye). It has a rugged feel, the same size and shape of the EOS-1N. It will also take all the EOS-1 motor drives and boosters, but with the new booster it will give you seven fps with nickel metal hydride (NIMH) batteries.

One difference between the EOS-3 and the 1N is that the viewfinder screen only offers a 97% view. This is one way Canon keeps the cost down as they introduce the camera. For most shooters, this is not a big deal compared to the advances in metering. The camera synchs at 1/200th, versus the 1/250th of the EOS-1N. I will talk further about this later.

Control functions are the same as the EOS-1N, except that it's easier to access the exposure bracket function. This feature has been taken out from behind the "secret door" and is now on top of the camera along with the "drive" setting.

The meter selection, which is the main plus of the camera, is a radical and better solution for the photographer. When you hit the focus-point selection button, on the rear of the camera, 45 red squares will appear surrounding the subject. For a grab shot, the camera will look at the spots and pick the one closest to the photographer. To define the subject  you want to focus on, hit the focus button with your thumb, and by turning the quick control wheel on the back of the camera, you can rotate the points to select only vertical points. If you want to rotate the points horizontally, you use the main control dial on the front of the camera. By judicious use of these features, combined with the average, tight, and spot metering you should be able to control most exposure situations from the camera.

The camera also features the "eye control" focus points which were first introduced with the EOS A2E. In theory, this function resembles the "heads up" display in fighter jets. When properly calibrated, the infrared sensors actually recognize the rotation of the eyeball. In order to calibrate, it is necessary to take two sets of readings which are activated by hitting the calibrate control. The photographer will see red zones appear in the viewfinder, and by looking left and right, the camera will evaluate the "Purkinje spot" in the eyeball. This should be done in both daylight and low-light, since the size of the iris will be different. This system will work for 90% of photographers, unless you are using bifocal or trifocal eyeglasses, in which case the camera will be confused by the different lenses.

The big news about this system is not so much the camera, but the strobe which was introduced at the same time. The 550EX is very expensive, however probably worth its cost to most photographers. It is a radical departure for a number of reasons. It is the first strobe to give proper exposure on a digital camera. The reason is that previous ATTL strobes, with the exception of the little old 380EX, took their readings off the film plane. The problem is that when a CCD replaced the film, it had a metal and glass surface that led to reflections, throwing off the exposure. The 550EX solves this problem. More important, the strobe has a base module that is really a "studio in a box." The strobe has a built-in wireless transmitter and receiver, and exposure control system which allows you to work extension flashes from the camera.

You can control the exposure on any and all extensions from the main unit on the camera. For example, you can Velcro an extension to the surface, and by dialing down the camera strobe in relation to the other unit, have the other unit become the key light, with the on-camera light give just a small fill. The strobes can also be set for automatic exposure bracketing. Another feature of the strobe is that it can be set to give bursts of strobes, this allows you to synch a camera at high shutter speeds, right up to 1/8000th at close range. It should be noted that the effective guide number decreases as the shutter speed increases. When the 550 is used in conjunction with the EOS-3, it supports flash exposure lock (first introduced with the T90 and 300TTL back in 1986), which allows the photographer to lock a spot-reading before the exposure. FE lock works in both regular synch and high-speed synch on the 550.

At a retail price of $1399 this camera is an affordable and worthy addition to the professional bag. The strobe is expensive at $550, but if it can help you solve problems, I recommend it.

You can read more about the Canon EOS at Canon's website:


Reviews of new equipment appearing in the Camera Corner of THE DIGITAL JOURNALIST are solely the opinion of the author. There is no compensation or pressure by the manufacturers considered in the evaluation of the products reviewed on these pages.

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