The Canon AE-1 and Canon A-1: Game-changing SLRs

Birds in the bush
Birds in the bush outside my former apartment on Pearl Street in Denver’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. Made with the 135mm f/3.5 lens. (Daniel J. Schneider)

Canon struggled for years to compete with Nikon in the SLR realm. After years of being a step behind, though their efforts allowed them to release a lot of great features before the competition with their A-series SLR cameras from the mid-1970s through the 80s.

I picked up the A-1 first, though most people seem to start with the AE-1 (or the slightly more common AE-1 Program). I got my AE-1 quite a bit later, actually. In the interim I had gotten the Nikon FM2n, but I hadn’t yet fallen in love with it.

Both of my Canons came from thrift stores and included 50mm kit lenses. I picked up a few other lenses here and there, knowing the A-series were the standard-bearers for a fledgling prosumer class of cameras.

According to the date codes in the film bays (look yours up here), my A-1 was made in 1981 and my AE-1 in 1979.

All the A-body cameras sacrificed a degree of durability by using some plastic parts to save on weight and production cost (and largely account for the cameras’ being so affordable). Battery doors, for instance, are notoriously delicate on the AE-1, though reportedly fare somewhat better on later models such as the A-1 and AE-1P.

Despite a few weak points, all the Canon A-series cameras remain quite sturdy. They don’t quite compare with a Nikon F2, but what does?

Some have credited the A-series, with its available motor drives and winders, Speedlite flash units, and other semi-professional accessories, with bringing many of these tools to the amateur and hobbyist photographer for the first time.

The Canon A-1

Canon A-1 and 50mm
The Canon A-1 with a kit 50mm f/1.8 lens. The A-1 was only available in black. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The Canon A-1 was THE fully-automatic SLR of its day, and it was among the first. For the history books, though, the A-1 was the first SLR camera anywhere with all four PASM modes (Program, Aperture priority, Shutter priority and Manual).

Aside from focusing, you don’t really have to do anything. The built-in micro-controller can handle the aperture and shutter speed both, but it also has a fully manual mode. The Canon A-1 beats the AE-1 and AE-1P, though, with its aperture-priority and stopped-down aperture-priority modes.

The A-1 also allow exposure compensation from +2 down to -2 stops, notched in 1/3-stop increments. You can compensate even more, if you want, with the amazing ASA dial, which goes from ASA-6 all the way to an unheard-of ASA-12,800.

The biggest black mark for the A-1 is the relative complexity of the controls. I found it difficult at times to keep track of everything I might need to tweak between frames in each mode depending on my shooting goals.

The center-weighted TTL meter on the A-1 uses a glowing red LED display in the viewfinder. Depending on the auto-exposure mode selected a variety of other information appears here, too, such as shutter speed, aperture and Speedlite flash-ready.

The Canon AE-1

Canon AE-1 and 135mm
The Canon AE-1 and a 135mm f/3.5 lens. I picked up this vintage Canon lens cap somewhere, too, that just slides on and somehow stays pretty well. (Daniel J. Schneider)

Released in 1976, the Canon AE-1 was the first of the A-body cameras and the model for the line as it expanded. The line was among the first with a price that almost any photographer could afford.

The AE-1 has only shutter priority auto-exposure mode. The AE-1 Program added Program mode in 1981, which worked with certain lenses to automatically use the aperture that is recommended by the meter, but the AE-1P still lacked aperture priority.

Like the A-1, the AE-1 is completely dependent on its micro-controller and cannot operate without a PX28 6V battery. Unfortunately, that includes the shutter, and the AE-1 was the first 35mm camera to be so completely electronic. Aside from the fully-manual AT-1, no A-series cameras work at all without their battery.

The viewfinder in the AE-1 is big, but I found it difficult to see all of my scene at once through it, having to move my eye more than I’m used to with my Nikons and other cameras. I also found it a little dim, and it could be difficult to focus without a lot of light.

The meter in the viewfinder is a simple single-needle affair with a couple of red LEDs to indicate manual mode and automatic exposures. The meter recommends the appropriate aperture based on the currently-selected shutter speed. The AE-1P added more indicator lights to the viewfinder, which respond to the scene being metered by dimming or brightening to stay visible without being blinding.

Cloth at Fancy Tiger
A shelf of unique cloth prints at Denver’s hip handmade haven, Fancy Tiger Crafts on Broadway. (Daniel J. Schneider)

The same, only different

The A-1 and AE-1 share so many features it’s hard to remember them all. Here’s a partial list from memory and two seconds of Googling:

  • 1/1000s fastest shutter speed
  • 1/60s flash sync speed
  • Electromagnetically-controlled horizontal film-plane cloth curtain shutter
  • Right-hand side “action grip” (optional)
  • Compatible we all FD- and FDn-mount lenses
  • Compatible with Canon motor drive MA winders (and a couple more for the AE-1P)

Several other cameras round out the A-series line, including the AT-1, which omits auto-exposure for the most budget-conscious; the AV-1, which trades shutter-priority auto-exposure for aperture-priority; and the AL-1QF (Quick Focus) which assist focusing with an electronic rangefinder. True autofocus was still a few years off for Canon.

Solid starters

The AE-1 combines good quality and ease-of-use with enough features to allow experimentation, but stops short of overwhelming beginners with too many bells and whistles. A lack of too many automatic options encourages beginners to shoot in manual modes and learn to understand reciprocity in exposures — the relationships between aperture, film speed and shutter speed — and its effect on the final photo.

IStillShootFilm.org recently posted a review that makes some compelling arguments for the AE-1 as a great beginner camera, none of which I can argue with.

For these reasons and more the A-1, AE-1 and AE-1P appear on almost every list of recommended beginner film SLRs these days.

Rocky Mountain sheep
A group of Rocky Mountain sheep in late fall graze on a hill near sunset near Estes Park, Colo. (Daniel J. Schneider)

Cheap and Plentiful

There were so many AE-1s made that you can likely pick one up for around $50 on eBay, or quite a bit less at a thrift store, swap meet or garage sale. Of course, those plastic parts could mean you’ll have to buy a couple and munge them together into one working Franken-camera, but that can definitely be done. It’s worth noting that decent Canon FD lenses are plentiful and reasonably priced, too — generally cheaper than comparable Nikon lenses.

If you decide to get one, the biggest thing you should watch out for is the screeching-wheezing-whining mirror, which results from a lack of lubrication in its flywheel and gearing and could make the mirror slow and weak. It may still work, but you never know when it’s going to quit if it’s suffering from The Canon Whine.

The good news is, if you’re willing to take the time, you can fix the Canon Whine with one or two drops of light, non-drying oil (sewing machine oil will work in a pinch, NyOil would be ideal). That won’t reverse the damage done in the time it went un-lubricated, but it should stop the problem from getting any worse.

Yawning cat in the window
A yawning Bonnie cat silhouetted against the blinds in the afternoon sun. (Daniel J. Schneider)

Complaints

Since starting to plan this post I have actually gotten rid of all my Canon film SLR bodies and lenses, trading them to a dealer on the hunt for inventory in advance of fall semester Photography 101 classes. Part of the deal was the Domke F-5XB camera bag I wrote about recently.

Why, you ask? Well, aside from a few gripes listed above about the controls, the biggest things for me were that the A-1 and AE-1 were a little big, a little heavy, and didn’t quite function the way I really wanted. Which is to say, basically, they weren’t my Nikon FM2. As happy as I am with my Nikons, I think I’ll be mostly staying out of the SLR game for a while. I have half a dozen more in the Home for Wayward Cameras waiting to be tried out.

So that’s it — there’s really no reason not to get one or both or all of these if you want one. Great cameras, highly recommended.

Garage door in Baker
A garage door on an old brick building in Denver’s Baker neighborhood. (Daniel J. Schneider)
Review Summary
Review Date
Reviewed Item
Canon A-1 and AE-1 cameras
Author Rating
4
  • R Madrid

    Got both. A1 has a squeak but and a bit fuzzy with the meter. Still works well though. AE-1 is a good student camera in lieu of of the Pentax K1000s.

    • I’ll stick with the Nikon FM2. :P Sold every bit of Canon kit I had acquired, and not getting any more.

      • R Madrid

        As a matter of fact, I have a Nikon FM2 as well. Actually it is my brother’s (we buy and sell cameras), he bought it with a Nikkor 16mm F/3.5 fitted for for around $100 through one of the local sellers here. We are gradually selling the Canon as not everyone is interested in using FD lenses anymore. Compared to other mounts (Nikon, Pentax, M42 and Minolta)

        • That’s a crazy ultra-wide lens! And a good deal. I really dig the Nikons of that era in general. lots of great m42 cameras, too. Love my Spotmatic.