Canon and Nikon; today, these two brands are synonymous with professional photography, both make fantastic machines, and even the uninterested public considers them equals. But it wasn’t always this way. In the early days of Japanese cameras it was widely thought that Canon’s cameras weren’t up to par compared with Nikon’s more sophisticated machines.
By the 1970’s Canon was no longer satisfied with domination of the compact and fixed-lens camera markets. In earnest, they set out to bring to life a series of microcomputer-controlled SLRs solely aiming to dethrone their hometown rival. The resultant cameras were known as the “A-series”, a range of cameras aimed at providing high-technology and maximum features to millions of enthusiastic amateur photographers. Among this series of cameras was the AE-1, the “Goldilocks” choice. This middle-of-the-road A-series camera was just right for countless photo geeks.
Instantly the AE-1 became an unprecedented success in the world of photography. This machine was a near perfect blend of quality, capability, and cost, and it signaled for the first time Canon’s intent to be a dominant player in the world of SLRs. Selling more than a million units, The AE-1 cemented Canon’s place as a world-class camera maker.
But, is it still worth owning today?
When the AE-1 was first released in 1976 it benefitted from a truly massive marketing campaign. For the first time ever a Japanese camera maker had bought airtime on national television networks in the USA, plugging the AE-1 in ads featuring world-renowned golf and tennis stars, like John Newcombe. In print ads the AE-1 was seen with NFL stars like Joe Theismann, and Canon further strengthened its international marketing through sponsorship of the Olympic Games.
But decades have passed, and while the AE-1 is still around, the advertising is not. So does the camera stand on its own legs, or was it all just smoke and mirrors?
The first thing one notices with the AE-1 is that it’s a gorgeous camera. It’s almost perfect, aesthetically. It’s the quintessential old camera, dripping that vintage style that everyone loves. It’s sober and classy, with purposeful lines and fantastic proportions. Controls are nicely machined with intricate knurled edging, contrasting patches of chrome and black, and deeply engraved, colorful text.
The nameplate font uses the classic Canon logo, which is simple and succinct, and the textured leatherette has an incredibly organic quality that’s superior to some of the cheap plasticy offerings of its contemporaries. The strap lugs and shutter release button are finished in a polished chrome that contrasts nicely with the satin body. Numerous parts of the camera sport a very nice chamfered bezel, more impressive since this camera comes from a time before using chamfered bezels was a thing.
Most people would agree that the AE-1 is beautiful, but beauty means nothing if there’s no substance. It’s an awful thing to pick up a nice looking camera and discover that everything feels cheap and tacky. Luckily the AE-1 manages to (mostly) avoid this. Although certainly not as solid as some Nikons and Minoltas, it’s forgivable given the fact that this camera was intended as a machine for enthusiasts, not professionals. Levers and dials all click into place solidly enough, and the film advance lever and shutter release both leave the shooter with a satisfied feeling that something mechanical just happened. The camera feels nice; not amazing, but nice.
But even though it’s not a solid brick of a camera, build quality is still impressive. In fact, it’s made all the more impressive when one considers that the camera is almost entirely plastic.
The top and bottom plate are injection-molded ABS that has been electroplated with copper and finished in chrome. This gives much of the look and feel of metal while diminishing cost and lightening the load (weight comes in at a reasonable 590g). Unfortunately, the reliance on plastic also sacrifices overall resilience, so the AE-1 is more prone to broken battery flaps, bezels cracking away, and impact damage.
Looking to further cut cost, Canon spread the plastic love to the inside of the machine as well (which you can see for yourself in this exploded view). An emphasis on electronic internals and plastic gearing reportedly reduced overall internal complications by 300 parts, and helped Canon achieve a higher level of automation at a much lower price than their more mechanically-driven competitors.
Unfortunately for vintage camera shooters the use of these cheaper components has led to trouble, with many AE-1s suffering a myriad of breakdowns and mechanical problems. The most famous of these would be the dreaded “Canon squeal”, in which actuation of the shutter results in a slow mirror-lift coupled with a rather pathetic sounding motor whine. Other frequent troubles include broken battery doors, frozen or locked mirrors, and film advance levers jammed by internal bits of broken off plastic.
Because of this relative fragility, it’s crucial to ensure that the machine works properly when looking to buy an AE-1. The youngest AE-1s are nearly 30-years-old, and electronics this old are rarely fully functional.
For the most part, the common ailments are easy fixes for someone mechanically inclined, and inexpensive for those who aren’t able or willing to tackle the repair personally. In most cases a camera will only need a few parts from a donor machine to get working again, and the abundance of AE-1s makes this a more viable course than with some rarer machines. In any case, these mechanical issues are a sad truth, so practice due diligence when shopping. Batteries for these machines are readily available in the form of a standard 4LR44 6 volt battery.
So it’s an attractive and well-built camera, albeit with a few reliability caveats, but is the AE-1 a good photographer’s camera? Yes, and no. While the AE-1 is one of the most full-featured SLRs of its age, it was clearly designed with one eye on professionals and one eye on amateurs. It does everything you ask of it, but sometimes it asks a little too much of you in return. Certain tasks can be finicky and cumbersome.
The typical functions of the era are all present with the AE-1. As stated, the camera was made to be a well-specced machine with an affordable bent. Specs include a cloth shutter capable of speeds from (a somewhat sluggish for fast primes) 1/1000th of a second down to a relatively slow 2 seconds. Bulb mode is naturally available, and the shutter release button conveniently features a cable release socket for long exposure shooting. Also included are an exposure preview button, depth of field preview, flash sync via hotshoe and cable socket, self-timer, and the ever-lauded memo holder (wow).
In shooting, the AE-1 is intended to be used with FD mount lenses and shot using those lens’ automatic exposure mode. To select this, the shooter slides the aperture ring of an FD lens until it settles in a detent marked “A” on the lens barrel. Shooting this way the CPU of the AE-1 automatically values the light and selected shutter speed, and actuates the aperture to the correct f-stop on shutter release.
This is known as shutter-priority auto-exposure, and with the AE-1 it’s a dreamy experience that yields consistently excellent results. The photographer only needs to focus on shutter speed, composition and subject. The only issue when shooting like this is that depth of field, an incredibly important aspect to creative photography, is entirely out of the control of the photographer. For those who prefer controlling depth of field, things can get a bit cumbersome.
The camera has no aperture priority auto-exposure mode, a mode favored by many of its contemporary competition. Instead, the shooter selects the desired aperture and then looks through the viewfinder to manually select the correct shutter speed that will result in a proper exposure.
By pressing an exposure preview button to the left of the lens mount, the photographer causes a needle to move in the viewfinder. This single needle indicator hovers over an aperture gauge. The photographer then adjusts the shutter speed by spinning the dial on the top plate, and when the needle moves and hovers over the pre-selected f-stop a perfectly exposed photo will result. It sounds like a slow process, and it is. Compared to contemporary systems from Olympus, Minolta and Nikon, which can shoot in aperture priority auto-exposure, it’s a bit disappointing.
The AE-1 also lacks a full Program mode, so essentially the shooter needs to choose between using shutter priority or a clumsy manual mode. Those who want to simply point and shoot are out of luck. With the AE-1, the user’s going to need to understand shutter speed and how it affects photography. People who don’t understand this will have to learn, or look for a different camera. But don’t fret; Canon’s AE-1 Program is essentially the same camera as the AE-1, with the added ability to shoot in P mode. For a full suite of shooting options (AV, TV, and P) Canon built the A-1.
Using Canon’s older FL lenses requires the photographer to stop down the aperture before shooting to determine the correct exposure. These lenses work just fine, but visibility in the viewfinder will be hampered by low-light when shooting at small apertures. In Canon’s defense, most SLRs operate the same way with older lenses.
While these complaints are real and valid, there’s a certain intangible “something” that happens when shooting with special cameras. It’s difficult to explain, but there are some machines that just make you want to keep shooting all day long, and the next day, and the next. The AE-1 is one of those special machines, and as time goes by these niggling little issues seem to melt away, and shooting becomes almost zen-like.
Thinking of it now, the AE-1s little warts may actually be what make it so special. When shooting manually, it’s impossible to just click away like a fool. Photography with the AE-1 seems to slow everything down. It brings a photographer back to the essence of the medium, makes one think deeply about their shot and forget whatever troubles may have been pressing on their mind moments before. It causes the user to stop and contemplate the light, check and recheck settings, and really think about what’s happening on the other side of the lens. In this way its weakest asset, manual shooting, becomes its greatest strength. Of course, if this isn’t appealing just switch to “A” mode and fire away.
The viewfinder on the AE-1 is about as sparse as they come. As mentioned, it has only one gauge and one needle. Shutter speed and selected aperture are not displayed. Over- and under-exposure are indicated by red areas in the gauge and a single flashing LED. Manual shooting is indicated by a flashing “M” above the aperture gauge.
Focusing is handled by the customary split-image rangefinder and matte focusing screen. The viewfinder is bright enough when shooting with FD lenses, which use through the lens, wide-open aperture metering. But to clearly see the full frame it seems necessary to really shove your eye against the viewfinder. Any distance between your eye and the camera results in a perspective that makes visibility much more obscured than with other cameras. Canon’s accessory eye-cup helps.
As for lens availability, the AE-1 is in the top class among vintage SLRs. Many camera makers’ old lenses are easily adapted to newer machines, often yielding fantastic artistic results at a fraction of the cost of modern lenses. FD lenses, however, are less suitable for adapters due to an incompatible flange distance when used on many DSLRs (though they still work fine with today’s mirror-less machines).
What this means for people shooting with an AE-1 is that the phenomenal FD lens range tends to be pretty inexpensive. That’s not to say that they’re poor quality. On the contrary, they are optically fantastic. One of the standard lenses for the AE-1 is the incredible 55mm ƒ/1.2 S.S.C., which should be on every Canon owner’s shopping list. This lens accompanied by a wide and a tele, create a kit that will effectively handle every need of the average photographer at a cost that would hardly break the bank.
Walking around with the AE-1 is a pleasure. Ergonomically it’s adequate, with a wrist strap or neck strap really helping things along. It’s a comfortable camera to walk with and shoot, but be prepared for questions. Whether it’s an uninitiated shooter drawn in by the camera’s good-looks, or an old hand fondly remembering their first SLR, the AE-1 will get attention. Guys with 5D Mark IIIs will wave you away when you ask about the full-frame monster they’re shooting, and continually guide the conversation back to the vintage gem in your hand.
I started my weekend with the AE-1 unsure of what to expect. In its day it was a masterpiece of technology and design. Today it owns a reputation as a classic, timeless machine. After shooting for three days straight it’s clear it deserves this reputation. But it also deserves its reputation for being temperamental.
It’s beautiful, fickle, capable, and cumbersome. You’ve got to buy four before you get one that works. It breaks, you fix it, and it breaks again. But then you spend the weekend with it. You shoot, and shoot, and shoot, and before you realize it and for reasons unknown, you’ve fallen in love. This camera makes you relax and makes you think of things in a different way, it helps you learn and it helps you grow. The head says it’s flawed, but the heart knows the truth; the AE-1 is a masterpiece.