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Canon EOS Beginners’ FAQ

PhotoNotes.org DonationsCopyright © 2002-2014 NK Guy

Version 0.9.6. 16 December 2010.

http://photonotes.org/articles/beginner-faq/

Part I - General Questions

Which is better? Canon or Nikon or Sony or Pentax, etc?

This is a religious question, and most people have strong feelings about it that mainly depend on whichever system they’ve bought into already. However, it’s complicated by the fact that there are definitely strengths and weaknesses of each system.

Note that I say system here - I believe it’s far more important to consider all the elements of a given camera system (lenses, flash units, etc) than a specific camera model. You often see posts online from people agonizing over whether they should buy the Canon 30D or the Nikon D200 or the Sony Alpha or whatever, but I think they’re missing the point. Unless you really really love a specific camera model for some reason, or just want to buy a single camera and lens, it’s wiser to consider the features available to you in the whole system.

So I think the question only becomes meaningful when you ask, “which manufacturer makes a system which best suits my particular photographic needs?”

Now since this is meant to be a beginner FAQ for users of Canon EOS cameras I’m not going to get into a long discussion about the merits of drawbacks of each manufacturer. But I will mention a few points to consider.

And of course there are many other things to consider. If you’re interested to know some of the reasons that I personally chose the Canon EOS system, have a look at my article on the topic.

Really, though, it comes down to personal choice. Make a list of the type of features you need to suit your photographic requirements and work out a basic budget. Go to a camera store. Check out the various cameras and lenses that fit that budget and decide if they feel right for you. Play with the camera controls - do they make sense to you? Does the camera grip feel comfortable? Does the maker offer the equipment you want at prices you can afford?

What does “EOS” mean?

Canon’s line of autofocus-capable SLR cameras is sold under the name EOS. This stands for “electro-optical system” but is also meant to be a reference to Eos, a Greek goddess of the dawn. Some people pronounce it like the goddess (ee-oss) and others as separate letters (ee-oh-ess).

Note also that the company itself is Canon with one N - not with two Ns, like the weapon. In its very early days the firm was named Kwanon, after an older spelling of the Buddhist goddess of mercy Kannon or Guanyin. However the company soon changed to Canon (a general law or principle).

What does “EF” mean?

Lenses built by Canon for use with their EOS series of cameras are technically known as EF-series lenses. This acronym stands for “electrofocus.” Older Canon lenses which are not marked EF, such as FD and FL series lenses, are not compatible with EOS cameras.

Compatibility is very straightforward - if it’s an EOS camera then an EF lens will fit. However, there is one complication. In 2004 Canon introduced a new EF lens mount variant for certain digital EOS cameras only. This variant is known as EF-S. An EF-S mount camera can accept both EF and EF-S lenses, but all other EOS cameras take only EF lenses. Newer consumer and midrange EOS digital cameras can use both EF and EF-S lenses.

There are four other minor points of note here. Mainly of interest to completists, but there we go.

What does “SLR” mean?

All Canon EOS cameras are SLRs, which stands for “single lens reflex.” Very simply an SLR is a camera in which there is only one lens, which is used for both picture-taking and viewfinding. When you peer through the viewfinder at the back of the camera you’re looking directly through the main picture-taking lens, so you can see pretty well exactly what’s going to be in the final picture. There isn’t a separate viewfinder lens on the front of the camera like on a point and shoot camera.

The word “reflex” in there refers to a mirror used to reflect light from the lens up into the viewfinder. SLRs also have glass pentaprisms or pentamirrors on the top, which explains the protruding section on top of the camera.

What is the history of EOS cameras?

While today Canon and Nikon are considered the big two Japanese 35mm SLR manufacturers, and thus the world, this was by no means always the case. German camera makers dominated the global camera market for the first half of the previous century, with many local players selling products successfully in generally less prestigious markets. Then, in the 1950s, Nikon became the 35mm frontrunner with a host of smaller firms - Pentax, Minolta, Canon, Olympus, Miranda, Ricoh, etc - following on behind. Canon made some breakthroughs with their F1 and A1 cameras in the 1970s, but by the 1980s they were definitely lagging and Minolta (now sadly gone from the camera market) were making considerable inroads.

Canon’s first step to pull itself ahead in the SLR market came with 1986’s innovative T90, a manual-focus camera designed in collaboration with the noted German industrial designer Luigi Colani. The T90’s curved organic shape, heavy reliance upon computer automation and intuitive user interface set the direction for the entire Japanese SLR industry for the next 10-15 years.

The company realized, however, that the future of photography lay in autofocus. Their early experiments - such as the T80, which shipped with somewhat clumsy autofocus lenses adapted to the FD manual-focus lens mount - weren’t particularly successful, so Canon took the risky and unusual step of abandoning their FD mount altogether. In 1987 they released the first cameras and lenses of the EOS system.

EOS cameras were utterly incompatible with Canon’s previous products; a move which obviously alienated legions of Canon FD owners. The risk was calculated, however. EOS cameras with their EF lenses did not rely on any mechanical linkages between body and lens. Unlike all other camera makers Canon chose to house both the autofocus motor and the aperture diaphragm motor in the lens barrel itself.

This gamble paid off when Canon were the first maker to release lenses containing fast and silent focussing ultrasonic autofocus motors. Canon’s comprehensive line of USM lenses, along with the professional-quality EOS 1 and 1N camera bodies, helped Canon firmly establish themselves as a strong favourite of professionals. Massive sales of their low-end EOS cameras also allowed the company to enter markets in which Nikon, with a traditional emphasis on mid to high-end cameras, could not compete.

The EOS lineup branched out to encompass digital image sensors in the mid 1990s. First Canon teamed up with Kodak to release a number of EOS 1 series pro bodies combined with large digital add-on gear. Then, in October 2000 Canon introduced the D30, its first fully homegrown digital SLR camera. Canon now sell a wide range of digital EOS SLRs, covering the familiar consumer/advanced amateur/pro ranges, and are the largest DSLR maker in the world, with Nikon very close behind.

What is 35mm film?

Most Canon EOS film cameras were built around 35mm film, which is photographic roll film exactly 35mm (about 1.4 inches) in width. The film is punched with sprocket holes on either side, so the useable image area of 35mm film is 24mm by 36mm in size.* The film is wound onto spools and the spools sealed up inside metal (occasionally plastic) lightproof canisters. Typically there are either 24 or 36 fullsize still frames (pictures) on a roll of 35mm film.

35mm film, occasionally referred to as 135 film after the original Kodak product code number, is really the only major film format commonly used today for still photography. It’s considered a small format since the negatives are fairly small in size. Other formats seen in years gone by include APS (a moribund consumer film format - see below), 110 (now-obsolete Instamatic film cartridges popular in the 1970s), medium format (6 cm wide film used by portrait and landscape photographers; the second-most popular format to 35mm today) and large format (big sheets of film in varying sizes, used by some artists).

* Technical note - the 24mm x 36mm area assumes three things. First, that the useable width of the film excludes the sprocket hole area. Second, that you’re using a 2:3 aspect ratio of height to width. And third, that the width of the film is used for the shorter of the two dimensions. Basically every 35mm film camera sold today uses this image area standard defined by the original Leica cameras of the 1930s, though in the past cameras were made which used smaller film areas by using the width of the film for the longer of the two dimensions. Such “halfsize” film cameras, including the Olympus Pen and Canon Demi, were around mainly in the 1960s and could pack twice as many photos onto a roll, albeit at lower image quality. And in fact motion picture cameras, which first used the 35mm film standard, actually use what is considered a “halfsize” frame format by still photo standards. But enough trivia.

Should I get an APS film camera?

Only if you’re an antique collector.

APS - Advanced Photo System - will probably be the last film format ever invented. It was released in 1996 by Kodak and a consortium of major manufacturers, including Fuji, Agfa, Konica, Nikon, Canon, Minolta and Pentax. It packed a number of technological advancements, such as the ability to record shooting data to film using a magnetic recording layer on the film surface. More importantly, the cartridges were slightly smaller than 35mm canisters, thus permitting the creation of tiny and cute little cameras. The system was also designed to be as idiot-proof as possible, with simple drop-in film loading. APS cartridges were fully sealed and the film was never removed all the way, so users never handled the negatives.

Unfortunately, APS was doomed from the start because of its inherent weaknesses. First, the size of its negatives was smaller than that of 35mm film. Thus the image quality was, all things being equal, lower. If you were making small (4"x6" or so) prints then this difference didn’t much matter. But what if you get that amazing photo that you want to enlarge? If you shot it with APS then it’d look rather grainy blown up, which would be really disappointing. Second, it cost more to process and print APS film than 35mm film. So you paid more for lower quality - not much of a win. And third, APS sales were soon to be completely wiped out by digital.

This question is relevant to an EOS FAQ because, in addition to a number of currently available APS point and shoot cameras, Canon also made two EOS cameras which could use APS film - the EOS IX (and the ECF-equipped IX E in Japan) and the less expensive EOS IX 7 (international) / IX Lite (North America) / IX 50 (Japan). By all accounts they were quite decent APS cameras and were fully compatible with all EOS lenses and accessories. Note, however, that you do get a focal length multiplier effect when you use EOS lenses with these APS cameras.

Should I buy a film camera or a digital camera?

When I first wrote this FAQ back in 2001-2002, film had not yet been dealt the crushing body blow from digital that it has now received. But now, in 2010, it’s pretty clear that film is dead as a viable imaging medium for most purposes. That may make a lot of film lovers deeply unhappy, but it’s basically pretty unassailable.

Now, obviously film isn't going to disappear utterly. Just as vinyl records are still used for specialized purposes today (namely DJing), film isn’t going to vanish off the face of the Earth. However it will become increasingly expensive and uncommon and eventually only some artists and hobbyists will continue to use the antique chemical processes. For many years the massive amounts of consumer film processing have subsidized professional and artistic use, but with the former gone the latter is basically economically unviable.

It’s a shame, as there was a certain magic in the ritual of shooting film and getting it processed and printed. Slides always looked so beautiful. But digital is cheaper, offers higher quality in most cases, and is vastly more convenient. So we’ve reached the end of an era.

Cost.
Film has low startup costs (film cameras are dirt cheap these days) but high consumable costs (developing and printing film is increasingly expensive). By contrast digital has high startup costs (digital SLRs with interchangeable lenses cost much more than good film cameras, plus you really need to buy a decent personal computer if you haven’t got one already) and lower consumable costs (if you don’t print your pictures you only need to buy storage media, and you can selectively print out only the photos you want).

Quality.
Film has long been superior to digital, but this is no longer necessarily the case. High quality digital cameras can produce sharp grainless images that exceed shots taken with 35mm film. Purists will sniff and say that digital film has an artificial look that film lacks, just as LP aficionados dislike CDs for the same reason. But for most of us digital has reached the point where we can’t tell the difference. Sure, medium format film still looks great, but who can afford to use it these days?

Convenience.
Digital wins this hands down in most cases. Digital cameras have preview screens so you can have a rough idea of whether or not your picture turned out a second after you’ve taken it. Digital images are available immediately - there’s no need to take the film to a lab. Digital images can be emailed around the world or put onto a Web page in seconds, without the need for scanning. Naughty home photos can be taken without the embarrassment of lab technicians looking at your stuff and posting them to the Internet. And so on.

Freedom and experimentation.
One of the most valuable aspects of digital is the sense of freedom it can give to photography. Shooting in digital is essentially free once you’ve bought the camera, and large-capacity memory cards capable of storing hundreds of shots are readily available. So you can just go out there and shoot shoot shoot, trying every new thing that strikes your fancy, without worrying about developing costs or having to carry dozens of rolls of film with you.

Some may argue that this leads to a certain sloppiness - photographers had to be incredibly careful about what pictures they took when taking a photo meant exposing a huge glass plate or a frame of a roll of 6 exposure film that cost a typical month’s salary. Which is true, but nobody’s arguing that digital is the ideal medium for slow, carefully-composed landscape shots here. The requirements for, say, candid photography are quite different.

Specialized issues.
There are many other complex issues which may or may not factor into your decision making. For example, most affordable digital cameras today have image chips smaller than the image area of 35mm film. This means that wide-angle lenses behave like less wide lenses, which could be a problem if you do a lot of wide angle photography and haven’t invested in EF-S type lenses. On longer trips, digital cameras require more support infrastructure than you might initially think. You need power to recharge batteries, you need to carry portable laptop computers or picture wallets, etc, which can be a problem when travelling, especially in more remote regions. A traditional all-mechanical film camera might still be usable even without battery power.

Why aren’t cameras and lenses from different manufacturers interchangeable?

Each camera maker wants to lock you into their system. They don’t want to see sales lost to people buying other makers’ products. So they design their own lens mount systems which other makers don’t or can’t use. This also lets the manufacturer unilaterally alter the lens mount design to add new features without the need to consult with a committee or other makers.

This is why a Nikon F lens cannot fit a Canon EOS camera. And why a Pentax K lens can’t fit a Sony SLR camera body. Of course, some third party makers build lenses which fit different camera systems, but they do so only by producing different versions of each lens for each camera system.

In the 1960s and 70s many makers used 42mm screwmount lenses of the type popularized by the Asahi Pentax Spotmatic camera. Back then lenses lacked complex computerized autofocus systems and the like, so it was comparatively easy to make them. That’s probably the closest the world has ever come to a universal lens mount system. Interestingly, the dream of a universal lens mount is not completely dead - in 2002 Olympus and Kodak collaborated on the creation of a new standard for interchangeable lens digital cameras, which they call Four Thirds. So far Olympus, Kodak, Fuji, Panasonic, Leica, Sanyo and Sigma have agreed to make and sell products which adhere to this standard. Notably absent from this list are Canon, Nikon, Pentax and Sony.

Now, naturally things aren’t quite as cut and dried as all that, since lens adapters do exist. Such adapters are machined metal rings which allow lenses for one camera system to fit onto a body of another camera system. Unfortunately such adapters only permit non-EF lenses to be physically attached to EOS bodies - they don’t let autofocus and auto-aperture mechanisms work, for example. For more information on these and other drawbacks of lens adapters please consult my article on the subject.

I have an EOS film camera and accessories. Can I use this stuff with an EOS digital camera?

That depends. Most things will work, some things won’t, and some things will work but in a slightly different fashion.

Lenses.
All Canon EF lenses will work with any Canon EOS digital camera. However, if you have an EOS digital camera with a subframe image sensor (ie: its image sensor is smaller than a frame of 35mm film) then pictures you take with that camera and lens will look cropped compared to the pictures you take with the same lens on a film camera body. For details have a look at the section on the cropping factor.

It’s hit and miss whether your non-Canon (third party) EF lenses will work with your EOS digital camera, however. For example, older Sigma lenses will not work on newer EOS film or digital camera bodies, even though they work fine on older EOS film bodies. This is because their electronics are not compatible. Most Tokina and Tamron lenses should be fine, but there’s no guarantee.

Flash.
All Canon Speedlite flash units of the EX variety (eg: 430EX II, 380EX) will work fine with an EOS digital camera. However, if the flash unit’s name ends with EZ or E then it will not work in a useful fashion on an EOS digital camera since it will not meter automatically. Third party flash units are a toss-up. Most are TTL only and thus won’t work on an EOS digital camera. However, if your third party flash supports E-TTL flash metering then it should work, but again there are no guarantees.

Filters.
Filters can be used if they fit the lens in question. If the filter is too big for your lens you can adapt it using a step-up ring to make it fit. But if the filter is too small then obviously it isn’t going to be of much use on a larger lens.

Miscellaneous accessories.
Some accessories will work and some won’t. For example, let’s say you have an RS60-E3 shutter release for your EOS 50 camera. It’ll work fine on your EOS 550D camera since they use the same connectors. The Off-Camera Shoe Cord (OCSC) is another compatible accessory and will work fine with a digital camera, letting you attach a flash unit to your camera.

Other accessories won’t be compatible. For example, if you have an RS-60T3 switch for your old EOS RT camera it won’t work on any modern EOS film or digital camera since the T3 connector is no longer used by Canon. Another accessory that won’t work is the TTL Hot Shoe Adapter 3, since it requires TTL flash and EOS digital cameras support only E-TTL flash.

I have a non-EOS digital camera. Can I use its accessories with an EOS digital camera?

As above, that depends. Only it depends more. Some things may be interchangeable; many things may not.

Memory cards.
EOS cameras use either CompactFlash (CF) or Secure Digital (SD) cards, depending on the model. A few models can use both. So if your old digital camera uses cards that match the new camera you’re all set. All other cards - Memory Stick, SmartMedia, and so on - will not be usable on an EOS camera.

Lenses.
Lenses are probably not interchangeable. At best you may be able to adapt the lens for another camera through the use of an adapter ring, but if you did so you would lose autofocus focus abilities. This sort of lens adapting is possible, for example, with Nikon F lenses, is awkward for Pentax K lenses, and impossible for Four Thirds lenses. So it depends. For more information on adapting lenses to EOS cameras, take a look at my article on the subject.

Filters.
Same as in the previous section - if they’ll fit then they’ll work.

Miscellaneous accessories.
Again, it all depends. A simple USB A to mini B cable is going to work with any digital EOS camera that uses standard USB, but a proprietary data cable (such as the ones Nikon build for their cameras which use Nikon-specific connectors) will not be useful. Some Pentax cameras use the same type of 2.5mm connector for wired remote shutter release cables as low-end EOS cameras. And so on. Generally it’s best to assume that most accessories won’t work. But there’s only one way to find out, and that’s to try them!

Which is a better investment? A camera or a lens?

Frankly, neither. To me, cameras and lenses and other photographic equipment are tools to accomplish a job: that of taking great photographs. And Canon EOS gear is just commodity equipment - albeit pretty good commodity equipment - to that end. It’s not like buying classic Leica camera gear or other stuff sold these days in the collectors’ marketplace as if they were paintings or stamps.

Having said that, it’s clear today that lenses are your best bet for useful EOS photographic equipment which holds up its monetary value over time. Film camera bodies have plunged in price now that digital rules the world. A top of the line film camera, worth as much as a good personal computer just a few years ago, is now traded on the used market for the cost of a good point and shoot.

Camera body pricing has had to change economic paradigms. Digital cameras now follow the computer equipment model in depreciating rapidly the moment they’re purchased. But EOS lenses continue to be resold at decent prices. An L class lens isn’t going to be worth more today than when it was bought, but neither will it plunge rapidly in value if it’s in decent condition.

So, given this fact of the new digital economy, if you’re concerned about money you’re best off buying an expensive lens and attaching it to a cheap camera rather than the other way around.

And not entirely coincidentally, this approach will also result in better photographs. Good optics are still good optics, but digital cameras are improving rapidly year by year. Witness all the people adapting classic German lenses from the 1950s or Japanese lenses from the 1960s and using them with the latest digital bodies - the glass is as good as it always was, and often competes with the best glass made today. It may just be less convenient, since newer lenses sport technological features such as autofocus and image stabilization.

Where can I get a manual for my camera?

If you bought a used camera sans manual or if you simply lost yours you have a number of choices.

Look on Canon’s Web sites.
Canon post electronic (PDF) versions of their new camera manuals online, which is great news. All their digital cameras, for example, have online manuals available. Unfortunately they haven’t posted manuals for all their older products.

Call Canon for older cameras.
Canon will happily sell you another manual for a modest fee. Just phone the Canon office for your country and someone should be able to help you. Note that they may only be able to offer you a photocopy of the manual for older discontinued products. Calling Canon is definitely your best bet for finding manuals in languages other than English.

Check out the unofficial manuals.
At least two Web sites offer original unofficial manuals for certain EOS camera models for free download. One, PhotoNotes.org, is the site you’re looking at now. The other is EOSdoc.com.

Contact a used camera shop.
Many camera shops which specialize in used equipment also sell whatever camera manuals that wind up in their inventory. Two such shops with online presences include Craig Camera (which actually specializes in rare and obscure camera manuals) and KEH.

Buy a third-party book.
You can buy supplemental user manuals from camera shops published by third parties. (ie: not Canon) The names these books are sold under include Hove and Magic Lantern. These third party books are intended to be good companions to the original manual. Unfortunately they are of varying quality - some offer useful detailed information and others, even from the same publisher, are filled with generic fluff. You might want to see if your local camera shop carries the book you’re interested in before buying it.

Look on eBay and other auction sites.
There seems to be a small cottage industry in scanning camera manuals and selling CD-ROMs to users. Technically this is, of course, a blatant violation of Canon’s copyrights, but Canon apparently don’t care and haven’t taken legal action against these folks, so it’s pretty easy to find such manuals on auction sites. Sometimes people will auction off genuine Canon manuals as well.

Experiment.
The tough way to go. Who needs a manual anyway? Most of Canon’s equipment is reasonably easy to figure out, so just play with your camera until it seems to make sense.

What is a third party product?

A manufacturer of lenses, add-on devices such as flash units and so on that sells products designed for another camera system. For example, Tamron, Tokina and Sigma all manufacture third-party lenses designed to work with cameras made by Nikon, Canon, Sony and Pentax. According to this model the manufacturer of the camera system is the first party, the consumer (end user, or you) is the second party, and the manufacturer of the add-on accessories is the third party.

What is a grey market product?

Any merchandise which was not imported into a country by the manufacturer’s authorized agent. Some camera retailers, for example, go to Japan and buy camera gear there and import it into the country themselves. This activity is legal but not usually sanctioned by the manufacturer. Since “grey market” sounds rather sinister some shops prefer calling the practice “direct import.”

There are three issues with this. First, some manufacturers don’t respect warranties on products bought grey market. In the case of Canon it depends if you have a film camera or a digital camera. In the case of film, Canon seem to honour international warranties, though usually only at service depots. Sadly with the advent of digital Canon have reversed this policy and restrict warranty service to the region of purchase. (eg: a camera bought in NYC can be serviced in Toronto, but not in Berlin) This is really frustrating for travellers and other professionals who may find themselves for some time outside their home region. Grey market products made by other makers may only be serviced by the importer/retailer itself, and the quality and convenience of this service will of course vary. Second, some people may be concerned that a grey market product may be of lower quality than an officially imported one. This fear is normally unfounded. Grey market product may have different names and may have slightly different feature sets, but in the case of photographic gear they’re usually all off the same assembly line, though sometimes different labels are slapped on at the end. Third, the product may not include manuals or software in a language you can understand - check to see first.

For more information on grey market products please check out my PhotoNotes Dictionary definition of the term.

Where should I buy my camera?

Camera shopping can be a pretty treacherous endeavour. Cameras are high-priced commodity items, so there can be a lot of sketchiness about the whole camera retail market. Here are your basic shopping options, though.

What should I look out for when shopping for second-hand equipment?

So. What about previously owned gear? Well, the attraction is obvious - you should pay a lower price than for brand new. Like a car, camera equipment depreciates in value the minute it leaves the shop, so why not get somebody else to take that financial hit? Or maybe you want to buy a useful product that the manufacturer has discontinued. Of course, buying second-hand is also riskier. You have to be more aware and more prudent if you want to avoid ending up with a useless broken piece of junk.

I’ve bought a lot of second-hand equipment over the years, and here are some suggestions.

What does (some photography term) mean?

The field of photography is indeed filled with strange and arcane buzzwords. For that reason I’ve written a huge online dictionary which lists the vast majority of photographic terms you may encounter.

Part II - Cameras.


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- NK Guy, PhotoNotes.org.

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