Exploded Views – Canon AE-1

Casual Photophile was born from an appreciation that cameras are amazing, tiny machines. What better way to illustrate the intricacy and wonder of these little devices than to tear them apart and splay their innards across a cold, white slab?

I’m always looking for new ways to bring unique content to my readers, and today I’m starting a new segment that delves into the nuts and bolts of vintage cameras – literally. I’m calling it Exploded Views, and every few weeks I’ll show you every spring, gear, lever, and screw that make up a particular camera. For my first exploded view, I’ve torn apart one of the most iconic classic cameras, the Canon AE-1.

Check it out.

Many blisters were formed taking this little camera down to its individual pieces. Let’s look at some of the interesting mechanisms I found along the way. The first thing one will notice is the sheer number of components. This thing has an unbelievable number of springs, gears, screws, etc., and they’re all incredibly tiny.

That’s the tripod mount seen below and to the right. Somewhat of a course casting, if I’m being honest. The internal gears, however, are very finely tuned. It’s interesting to see such a mix of materials for use in gears. Though it should be expected; many publications at the time of this camera’s release bemoaned Canon’s decision to opt for plastic internals.

Material aside, seeing the camera broken down into its individual components really helps us appreciate the remarkable miracle of engineering that’s springing to life in our hands every time we shoot a photo.

Canon AE 1 Exploded View 16

Canon AE 1 Exploded View 15

Canon AE 1 Exploded View 11

The springs visible in the above shot are exceedingly fine, small, and delicate. Some of them are virtually weightless, and it’s difficult to imagine the process that created them. But even though they seem insignificant, they’re used universally throughout the camera for a vast number of operations, most notably in the mirror-box assembly.

Below I’ve placed the same springs next to a U.S. Penny to give a sense of scale.

Similarly numerous are the many varieties of retaining clips used to secure gears, levers, and actuators. Some of these cir-clips and retainers, again seen below, are no larger than a pin-head. Amazing.

Even further along we find an assortment of parts responsible for the many mechanical actions that take place in the AE-1. Notable among these is an assembly in the upper right of a following shot is a riveted assembly of gears and levers. This assembly is housed on the side of the mirror-box and, with some hand-actuation, it’s pretty clear that this is the major offender in cases of the infamous “Canon Squeel”.

Canon AE 1 Exploded View 17

Canon AE 1 Exploded View 14

Canon AE 1 Exploded View 4

Canon AE 1 Exploded View 3

Some of the electronic circuitry is pictured above. This was arguably the most important component of the AE-1, and essentially launched an entirely new generation of electronically controlled cameras. One of the first cameras to use this type of technology, the AE-1 propelled the industry forward on a wave of progressive computerization that would continue for decades.

We can also see the camera’s top plate, electro-plated plastic as opposed to metal. This was just one of many cost-saving measures that helped Canon become one of the most fiscally successful camera-makers of the era.

Below we have a veritable forest of screws and bolts. Merely one segment of the whole collection, this makes up roughly one-third the entire count of fasteners. Notice the different materials used for different applications, including brass, chromed machine screws, and hardened steel.

Further below I’ve shown the lens-mount bezel and nameplate, and a detail shot of the internal viewfinder surround. Notice the aperture display in all its analog glory. Exceedingly minute. And further on we see the pentaprism.

Finally, one of the most astounding discoveries made while dissembling the Canon AE-1, within a certain gear there rested a vast number of the smallest steel ball bearings I’ve ever seen. So tiny were they that I had to display them in relation to something similarly small. A few of the bearings rest on a U.S. Penny, which lies next to an engraving on the bottom plate of the AE-1.

Canon AE 1 Exploded View 12

Canon AE 1 Exploded View 2

Canon AE 1 Exploded View 6

Canon AE 1 Exploded View 13

Canon AE 1 Exploded View 10

And that’s what a Canon AE-1 looks like after three nights of disassembly. I hope you’ve enjoyed checking out the guts of one of the most iconic vintage cameras ever made. If you want to see more, let me know in the comments. And if you’re in love with a certain camera and want to know what it looks like on the inside, let me know about it.

Prints of this entire series, including the amazing F3 Exploded View print, are available to purchase through my camera shop and via Etsy.

Buy the Print

Want your own Canon AE-1?

Buy it at F Stop Cameras 

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  • Reply
    March 26, 2015 at 5:53 am

    Truly amazing. Sure the act of photographing can be so straight and clean (shutter, focus and aperture) that hides the vast complexity of its mechanism inside an elegant body. I was amazed, and surpassed, when I attempted to repair my Canon EF and saw so many elements.

    • Reply
      March 27, 2015 at 3:34 am

      I’m really happy you liked it. It was tough going at some stages!

  • Reply
    March 26, 2015 at 8:09 am

    thoroughly fascinating

    • Reply
      March 27, 2015 at 3:34 am

      Thanks for the positive vibes!

  • Reply
    Dmitri Popov
    March 26, 2015 at 8:34 pm

    Reblogged this on Scribbles and Snaps.

  • Reply
    December 6, 2015 at 7:35 am

    Really Amazing….many tiny parts in a small box….I like them….

  • Reply
    December 19, 2015 at 7:25 pm


  • Reply
    Andrew P-R
    December 1, 2016 at 1:22 am

    Hi, James. I know it’s an older article, but thought I might try leaving this here:

    I have been enjoying messing around with an AE-1P that a dug out of a relative’s attic. It’s in overall great condition, but a few of the little 1mm screws are missing from the top-plate. Not an immediate concern, but i’d like to find replacements. Any advice on how to go about this?

    Is this Canon-specific hardware, or something I am likely to be able to find at a camera repair store? or even like a hobby store or hardware store?

  • Reply
    Loyd O'neal
    August 15, 2017 at 11:34 am

    Exploded image should be printed, on t- shirts. I’d get one. Whound69lo

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