For years, the Canon AE-1 (along with the AE-1 program) has been associated with the film addicted hipster. Some were spotted sporting a Praktica MTL5 but, outside Germany at least, the AE-1 became iconic and eclipsed the rest of the A-series.
This is somewhat strange. The A-1 was released in 1978, two years after the AE-1. Like the later -and equally iconic- AE-1 program it offers full program mode in addition to aperture priority. Unlike any of the AE bodies, it has an aperture priority option (a first for canon) and generally has a reputation for more solid built quality. This quality difference comes with an increase in weight: a whole 30g compared to the AE-1.
All this begs the question why the AE-1 has become more popular –so much so that it is barely cheaper on the second hand market? The AE-1’s iconic status may in no small part be due to its sheer ubiquity: many amateur users had one and even more will have remembered it from the 1970s. Another factor may be the A-1s ergonomics.
Automation in Canon FD-mount cameras followed a certain logic: in manual mode, one would adjust aperture and shutter speed separately as usual. Some bodies offered shutter priority automation, which was achieved by setting the aperture ring to the auto (A) setting and then choosing the shutter speed –the aperture setting would be matched to it automatically. The programme mode of the A-1 (and the AE-1 Programme) takes this one step further letting the camera select shutter speed and aperture –so far so intuitive.
To switch the A-1 to aperture priority mode, one needs to turn a knob on the top plate from TV to AV while leaving the lens aperture ring on the auto setting. The aperture is then selected via the control wheel on the top panel rather than the aperture ring on the lens. When switching back to shutter priority, the selected shutter speed is determined by the physical position of the selection wheel, which had just been used to choose the aperture. In practice, this means that a wide aperture has a counterpart in a long shutter speed and vice versa. Compared to modern camera lay-outs with separate mode selection this is counter-intuitive, but easy enough to get used to.
Another source of confusion is a design flaw linked to depth of field preview. The aperture ring has to be moved off the auto-position for a depth of field preview. This is obvious: the preview has to be for a specific aperture value after all. Now, assume the film has been advanced, and the aperture ring is then moved off the auto-position for a depth of field pre-view (using the preview lever). If the aperture ring is then returned to the auto-position without activating the shutter, an error message will appear in the viewfinder. The problem is easily solved, but the method is far from obvious: the multiple exposure lever has to be pressed in and the film advance lever used to re-cock the shutter. After this the camera will work as normal.
With these problems in mind, the A-1 is a nice camera, even today. It does have full PASM modes, the focusing screen has a split image and micro-prism ring as focusing aids and aperture and shutter speed are visible in the viewfinder. This display can be switched off if desired and the viewfinder can be obscured with a built in switch, for long exposures.
Another unusual – probably unimportant – feature are the two self time delays of two and ten seconds along with the usual controls (exposure memory etc.). The shutter speed range is from 30s to 1/1000 not unusual for the time. The ISO range is impressive for its day though: from ISO6 to 12800 high enough to push TMax P3200 –in 1978! Even today, this is a good feature set for a manual focus SLR and, unlike more modern offerings, the design is nice.
How did it age?
It is one thing to judge a camera by the standards of its time, another to ask how its features held up. An increasingly important question is how well the average model navigates the passage of time –both in terms of common deterioration problems as well as obsolescence.
The good news is that the battery for the Canon A-1 (a simple 4LR44) remains available. The bad news is that the battery door is prone to breaking. One solution to this problem is to attach an optional screw-on grip (available for the A-1 and AE-1 Program but not the simple AE-1) which does improve handling and also holds the battery door shut if e.g. the closing latch breaks.
Another age related problem is of course the infamous Canon squeak –it can be fixed, but is a common problem. Finally, there is the common Achilles heel of all electronic cameras: when the electronics break, repairs may not be possible, and nobody really knows how well 40+ year old electronics will age going forward.
So, is the A-1 the best of Canon’s A series? It is clearly the top model, being the most fully featured. Whether it is the best is in some way a matter of taste. Some are bothered by the ergonomics of the aperture priority mode, but if that is a problem, it can simply be ignored and the A-1 can be used like an AE-1 programme. The depth of field pre-view error is a nuisance but I am rarely bothered by it in practice. Other problems like the flimsy battery door and the Canon squeak are common across the A-series.
Bearing all this in mind, I do think the A-1 is the best, as well as the most fully featured, of the A-series models. Many seem to differ in their assessment and go for the AE-1 instead.