Canon A-1 – Camera Review

Canon A-1 Camera Review 6

Were CP the kind of website to give our reviews catchy taglines, the Canon A-1 would pose a bit of a problem. I could title it The Forgotten Canon, or The Middle Child, and these would be appropriate headlines. But counter-intuitively, I could also use the tagline Canon’s Best SLR and be equally accurate. Isn’t that odd?

In addition to writing about all things photography here on CP, I own an online camera shop, and I’ve noticed with regularity that I’ll sell ten AE-1s in the same time that I ship just a single A-1. This is surprising, considering that it’s the better of the two cameras. But why is demand for the A-1 so anemic compared to that of its less capable older brother? I’ve no idea, but that’s the way it is.

Instead of examining this weird consumer confusion, let’s just talk about the A-1. What are its strengths, what are its weaknesses, and what’s it all mean to photo geeks today?

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The A-1 was part of Canon’s A-series, a product line comprised of cameras like the AE-1, AE-1 Program, AT-1, and more. These machines were all designed for new photography enthusiasts, offering great quality with a lower spec (and price tag) than the professional-grade F-1. And the top model of the A-series range was, of course, the A-1.

Released in 1978, the A-1 is one of the most historically significant cameras of the 35mm SLR era because it was the first SLR to offer electronically-controlled programmed auto-exposure. Using a microprocessor rather than input from the photographer, the camera is capable of choosing a shutter speed and aperture setting that will result in a perfectly exposed image. Today this feature can be found in virtually every camera in production, but the very first to include it was the A-1.

But not to be limited to just “Program” mode, the A-1 was also impressive for its ability to shoot in every one of the now-standard shooting modes (aperture-priority, shutter priority, and full manual). This combination of shooting modes set the A-1 apart from the other A-series cameras, and offered a wealth of features not found in any of the competing brands’ machines.

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As sales rocketed to the stratosphere, it was immediately clear that Canon was on to something. This new ethos had staying power. The brand’s new focus on technology laid the foundation upon which the entire industry would be built for the subsequent three decades. With the A-1, Canon created a market ecosystem that persists to today’s era of modern, feature-dense DSLR and mirror-less cameras. This little SLR pushed all camera makers to offer more features, higher technology, and progressively better automated operation, and we’re still reaping the benefits of this technological revolution.

So it’s an historically important camera. That’s great, but why should anyone care? What’s all this mean to today’s photo-geek?

In today’s photography environment, when we speak of classic cameras the first thing that draws a would-be film shooter to a particular camera is the way that camera looks. It may be superficial, but if a camera’s pretty enough we don’t mind sacrificing certain creature comforts and can even live with a few nonsensical annoyances. As long as the camera takes decent photos and looks charmingly retro, most of us are smitten. But the A-1 doesn’t look all that old, and perhaps this helps explain the A-1’s comparative lack of popularity.

Offered in only black, it’s among the most modern-looking cameras of the 1970s. Were this camera offered in the ever-popular chrome paintwork, like its pal the AE-1, we think the A-1 would trump that machines sales month-on-month. Color preference aside, it’s a gorgeous camera. Another no-nonsense offering from Canon, it’s about as simply styled as a film camera gets. It doesn’t stand out in a crowd, and exudes a welcome air of professionalism and ruggedness. Canon’s “Action Grip” gives it a muscular look, and serves to create a more easily-handled machine. There’s little visual contrast aside from the white lettering and a few colorful bits of text, creating a camera that’s almost a silhouette in its visual simplicity.

Yes, the A-1 is a beautiful machine. If you like how it looks, great; if you don’t, I’m not sure what’s wrong with you, but you should see an optometrist at your earliest convenience.

Canon A-1 Camera Review 8

Shooting with the A-1, aside from a few little annoyances, is clinical excellence epitomized. This is the vintage camera for those who love shooting modern cameras, and photogs who’ve never held anything but a DSLR will feel right at home. The first to offer our now-customary shooting modes, the A-1 allows the photographer to shoot however he or she likes. Love the artistic control of aperture-priority? No problem. Want to freeze or blur motion with shutter-priority? It can do that too.

But it’s not just about offering myriad modes, dials, and buttons. Canon’s engineers understood that capturing a perfect image is often reliant on swiftness and the ability of the camera to feel like an extension of the photographer’s hand, eye, and mind. This philosophy is evidenced with just a glance at the A-1’s top plate. Here can be seen an astounding number of levers, dials, and buttons all crucial to photographic mastery, and while at first glance it looks cluttered and nightmarish, things begin to magically simplify the moment you start shooting. More than any other SLR I’ve tested, the A-1 is a camera that can actually be shot one-handed without compromising the capabilities of the machine.

It’s possible to go from shooting in aperture-priority to shutter-priority to Program mode, adjust the settings in each of these modes, and take a photo, by using just a single finger. I struggle to think of another SLR from the ‘70s or ‘80s in which this is possible, and it’s a pretty fantastic experience with the A-1. This magic happens through manipulation of a tiny wheel on the front of the top plate. It’ll look familiar to anyone who’s shot a decent camera in the past thirty years, but at the time of the A-1’s debut this little spinning wheel was pretty revolutionary.

Canon A-1 Camera Review 7

By setting the camera to AV or TV, it’s possible for this wheel to not only adjust shutter speed, but aperture as well. Simply slide the aperture ring of any FD lens into “A” mode and the aperture becomes controllable through the camera body. Spin the wheel to your desired aperture and shoot. Shooting in TV mode implements the same idea. Spin the very same wheel to your desired shutter speed and you’re ready to go. Additionally, this wheel sets the camera to shoot in full Program mode.

It seems so simple, to have a single control handle all of the major adjustments of a camera, but in an era in which mechanical cameras all used levers, gears, and springs for every individual adjustment, this modest wheel was truly amazing.

Further showcasing Canon’s (occasionally lackluster) attention to detail are numerous small touches throughout the machine. A retractable cover protects the selector wheel from accidental movement, a viewfinder shutter keeps accidental light from spilling onto the film when shooting when not using the viewfinder, and double exposure capability allows for fans of that particular style to express themselves. Add to this list exposure compensation, exposure lock, depth-of-field preview, and an exceptionally robust offering of slow shutter speeds (2,4,8,15, and 30 sec.) and we start to realize that this camera offers much more than the typical enthusiast-level camera.

Canon A-1 Camera Review 12

Then again, nothing’s perfect, and there are a few little annoyances here. For one, some of the controls are almost too small for their own good. Occasionally, switching between AV and TV will be an arthritis-inducing exercise due to the positioning of the knurled edge on that selector knob. Setting exposure compensation can be a bit fiddly due to that dial’s reluctant locking button, and actually using the double exposure lever can be a bit annoying due to its embedded position below the film advance lever.

These are minor problems, for sure, but the most prominent issue has nothing to do with ergonomics. It’s the relatively slow maximum shutter speed. At 1/1000th of a second, the A-1’s shutter is a bit old-fashioned. Even back when it was released the average maximum speed of most cameras at this price-point was 1/2000th of a second, enabling use of larger apertures in brightly lit shots. With Canon’s FD lens range offering fast primes of ƒ/1.8, 1.4, and so on, the A-1’s shutter could be a bit limiting in certain shooting situations. You’ll find this less annoying if you’re not of the type that drools over bokeh, but it’s worth mentioning for those who always love that shallow depth-of-field, even on a bright, summer day. Yes, you can use an ND filter to mitigate this, but should you have to? Not really, when there are faster shutters available in similarly priced classic cameras.

It should also be mentioned that shooting in full manual mode isn’t as fluid as it could be, though the problem will only hamper those who want to shoot in M mode without being second-guessed by a light meter. The issue here is that when shooting in manual mode the camera doesn’t show all of the selected settings in the viewfinder. Instead, it shows the selected shutter speed and the aperture that it thinks should be used. This causes the photographer to have to continually look up from the viewfinder to check and double-check the aperture setting on the lens.

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I feel that it’s more important for the viewfinder to show the manually selected aperture in order to streamline the shooting process. If you’re shooting in M mode, it’s likely you know your craft, and having a light reading isn’t very important. I know some will disagree and think that it’s better to have a metered reading to indicate which aperture will create a proper exposure, and that’s fine. I don’t like it, but I can understand this perspective.

Happily, the qualms mostly end there. I can’t find much more to complain about with the A-1. The viewfinder is refreshingly uncluttered, showing different combinations of shutter speed and aperture in each shooting mode, and it utilizes the standard split-image/matte prism focusing screen. It’s large, well-lit, and offers the ability to turn off the vibrant LED information panel if so desired. The metering system works phenomenally even in the most challenging situations. Shooting directly into the sun yields astoundingly balanced exposures, and it was pretty much impossible during my testing to get the camera to miss an exposure.

In aperture priority mode especially, things are sublime, with the A-1 refining its selected shutter speed in step-less variations. To put it simply, this camera creates exacting exposures in every mode, with every shot. The previously touched-upon exposure compensation is there to help things along manually, but I’ve honestly never needed it. Choose your shooting mode, and just shoot.

Build quality is good, certainly better than any other A-series camera. And this isn’t just apocryphal blithering, I’ve seen it with my own eyes. My Exploded View feature delves into the juicy innards of classic cameras, and I’ve seen for myself the rather cheap, plastic gearing found in the AE-1. The A-1’s design, while still showing Canon’s cognizance of cost-cutting through the use of plastic components, uses substantially more metallic internals, resulting in a more reliable machine. The A-1 is stronger, faster, better, than any other A-series machine, and you can feel that fact when you hold it and shoot it.

Canon A-1 Camera Review 4

Canon A-1 Camera Review 2

Perhaps, in a kind of backwards way, this extra strength could help explain why the A-1 is seemingly so lesser-valued than the AE-1? Compared to the A-1 there are fewer AE-1s still alive today; demand rises, and prices for the inferior camera are higher? I can’t say for sure, but if this is the case, doesn’t it seem illogical? Surely the better camera should cost more. Obviously, yes. But it doesn’t. The A-1 is less expensive! Another strange market anomaly in this odd hobby of ours.

Canon’s FD lens range is widely regarded as one of the best in the business. Their prime lenses are exceptionally sharp across the range, offer fast apertures, and are decently built. They may not be as robust as some of the Minolta or Nikkor lenses, but they do the job and often cost much less than these competing brands’ offerings. Most A-1s will come with the standard 50mm ƒ/1.8, a lens I reviewed and found to be extremely capable, so it’s likely that any would-be owner will have a perfect do-it-all lens right from the start.

Most importantly, the A-1 simply has it where it counts. For some readers, that last sentence may be a confusing start to this paragraph, but the experienced photo geeks here will understand my meaning. While this is a completely unquantifiable facet of any given camera, shoot a bunch of cameras and you’ll realize the importance that a camera has that special something that just feels right. There are certain cameras that may have fantastic specs, but are no fun to use. The result being that users of those cameras take less pictures, enjoy themselves less, and are left uninspired. We’ve all been there.

At the other end of the spectrum there exists a whole bunch of paradoxical cameras that are quite awful, but make the shooter feel great. These machines may be lower-spec, get no respect, or look rather ugly, but they elicit the kind of joy and wonder that originally imbued in us all a love of photography. Luckily, the A-1 is one of those rare magical machines that both feels great while also actually being great.

Canon A-1

When all is said and done, rather than being something mystical and indefinable, the A-1’s allure is actually the result of excellent engineering. And above all else, that’s what this camera stands for. It’s an historically significant machine that’s one of the best from the era of film SLRs. It does everything you’ll want it to do, and it does it all well. Aside from a few tiny annoyances, you’ll be hard pressed to find a better machine for taking photos in whatever style you prefer, or a camera that will feel more natural in the hand.

More so than any of their other cameras, Canon’s A-1 is greater than the sum of its parts. Not only does it offer virtually everything any shooter could want, it does so in a way that’s fluid, seamless, and nurturing of the bond between man and machine. It’s a machine that’s timeless, classic, and dare we say, perfect? Okay, nothing’s perfect. But as far as Canon cameras are concerned, the A-1’s about as close as it gets.

Want your own A-1? Buy it from our own F-Stop Cameras • Buy it on eBay • Buy it on Amazon

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  • Reply
    April 20, 2015 at 2:39 pm

    Great review as always 😀 Keep up the great work!
    Can you make a review for Yashica Mat 124G TLR? Thank you very much 😀

    • Reply
      April 20, 2015 at 3:14 pm

      Absolutely! Always looking for requests. Thanks for the kind words.

  • Reply
    April 24, 2015 at 7:43 pm

    Beautiful review. I can answer your mystery:
    “So why is demand for the A-1 so anemic compared to that of its less capable older brother?” – Because the less capable older brother is silver. Looks more hipster, and in some way, demands less knowledge. But mostly because it’m more hipster.

  • Reply
    August 25, 2015 at 10:59 am

    Love the review and love this camera. Its my everyday shooter and I couldn’t rate it highly enough.

    • Reply
      August 25, 2015 at 11:01 am

      Thanks for the kind words, and glad you’re loving the Canon. Happy shooting!

  • Reply
    September 26, 2015 at 1:33 am

    I had one of these in my collection for three weeks only. Your review is a wonder, but my issue was colour-blindness. I’m slightly red-green as are 8% of the world’s males. Red led displays are only just legible in dimly lit situations, once daylight is added to the mix they’re invisible. This rendered it, and other cameras with similar displays, useless at a stroke.

    My working collection is of several OM1n and OM2n cameras, FM2/T, two Pentax MXs, Canon AE1, Topcon Unirex (because it’s so unecessarily weird), a Mamiya C220 and an Olympus XA.

    The MXs have a green correct exposure led, which funnily enough makes it good, the rest have needles (wonderful invention), except the FM2, which can be forgiven its red led display because it’s so mechanically superb.

    Requests for review… XA, FM2

    Keep up the good work!

    Best regards from the UK.


    • Reply
      September 26, 2015 at 1:51 am

      Thanks for the kind words. I understand the struggles of special eyes! The analogue needles are always welcome in my book.

      We’ve been hunting for an XA for a while now. Thanks for the request. It’ll happen soon!

      Thanks again, my friend.

  • Reply
    October 11, 2015 at 6:48 am

    I came to the same conclusion hen researching a purchase for a great 35mm film camera. Like you I was perplexed as to why the A1 was not preferred over the AE1. But I’m glad as I have a far superior camera for a better price.

    • Reply
      October 11, 2015 at 9:02 am

      It’s nice, isn’t it!? Happy shooting!

  • Reply
    October 30, 2015 at 5:25 pm

    Thanks for this great resource.

    After reading your well written review, I decided to get an A1 for myself to replace my very heavy EF.

    Halfway through the roll, I noticed that when I’m on aperture priority, the lens blades dont physically respond to the turning of the AT dial.

    Is this how it really is? Or is the cam at fault?

    Thanks again.

    (Funny too the first roll I loaded had the film leader right side wrong. I was miffed but I just sheared the top off to lock the end of the film into the spindle. Just before going to bed I realized what I actually loaded was redscale!!! Still in my drawer from my lomo days in 08. No wonder it was in reverse!

    • Reply
      October 30, 2015 at 6:08 pm

      Hey there my friend. Happy to hear you’ve picked up an A-1. Great camera.

      To answer your question, the aperture should not stop down when you adjust the dials on the camera until the moment you take the picture. On shutter release the blades stop down and then reopen. The camera does it this way so that when you’re composing your shot you have a nice bright viewfinder due to the the maximum amount of light coming through.

      If you take a look at the lens and shoot a shot at a small aperture and the iris still does not stop down, you may have a lens with oily aperture blades, which would need repair.

      Does this help?

      • Reply
        October 31, 2015 at 12:19 am

        Very much! Thank you again. Ill update you when I get to process the rolls.

  • Reply
    November 19, 2015 at 5:31 am

    This review led me to buying my very first camera in the A-1! I totally fell in love with it and am so stoked to start shooting.
    However, my A-1 is failing to advance its film for some reason. The mechanism turns when there’s no film, and I’m 93% sure I’m loading it correctly, but it’s almost as if it loses the power to turn once it has film on it. Do you have any suggestions?

    • Reply
      November 19, 2015 at 5:35 am

      Happy to hear that we helped you dive in. I’m not sure what the problem could be but I’m sure it’s minor. My first guess would be that there’s an error in the way the film is loaded, but you said you’re pretty sure you’ve loaded it correctly. Aside from that, I’m not sure why it wouldn’t be advancing. Feel free to email me at We can exchange photos or videos of the camera and I can try to help out if you like.

  • Reply
    Frank Lehnen
    December 30, 2015 at 8:09 am

    Verily, the A1 is probably the best looking SLR from those days! And one of the most pleasant to use.

    I have owned and used one for 2 years now, and the results are great – hardly any missed exposure.

    Some niggles though, on top of those you pointed out:

    The selector wheel is a bit too small, too recessed for my finger – I am sometimes hunting for it and struggling to turn it.

    The annoying EEEEE – error in the display when not doing the correct magic sequence when you stopped down the lens to check depth of field….

    Apart from that, the A1 just feels natural and is my main camera with the very fine 50/1.8 and 28/2.8 lenses.

    Thanks for your great reviews and very informative site!

    Happy new year!

    • Reply
      December 30, 2015 at 12:55 pm

      Yes, the EEEE can be pretty obnoxious. But I’m glad you’re loving the A-1! Happy shooting, bud.

  • Reply
    January 3, 2016 at 7:43 pm

    Thanks for the very nice and informative review.
    My first “real” camera was an AE-1 that I bought in 1979. At the time I couldn’t afford an A1. Around 1989 I bought a used A1 and have been using one ever since. I think the A1
    is the best looking camera from 70’s and also one of the most capable. Today I own 2 of them, both in mint condition. I still also have a AE-1 which I love to shoot with, but the A1 will always be my favorite. What a great camera!

    • Reply
      January 3, 2016 at 7:55 pm

      Happy to hear you’ve been faithfully served by the A-1 for so long! You must’ve taken a lot of great shots in that time, I’m sure. Happy shooting!

  • Reply
    January 9, 2016 at 6:30 am

    Actually I own two of this A1s and besides being one of the greatest cameras ever, I find it very elegant. The reason I see why the AE1 could value more on the used market today, is that, the fact that there are less AE1s on the market, and this should tell all of us , WHY?…very simple…there are more A1s, due to the fact that the A1, survived all this years better than the AE1, because the A1 is a way better camera compared to the AE1, which is mainly built out of plastic….

  • Reply
    January 25, 2016 at 1:06 pm

    I modelled an A1 in a 3d tutorial and ‘customized’ it! (then later i bought the real thing)

  • Reply
    February 2, 2016 at 8:02 pm

    Thanks for this write! Just found one locally and this totally sold me. Have had an A2e for years and always loved my results but this classic has me so intrigued. Excited to try this out. Cheers!

    • Reply
      February 2, 2016 at 8:03 pm

      Thanks for the kind words. Enjoy this gem of a camera!

  • Reply
    March 10, 2016 at 3:19 am

    I bought an A1 in 1980 and remember well how it stirred up the industry when it was released. Being an early PC adopter, the electronic poweress it held back then was a big selling point for me. Still own it and my Osborne 1.

    • Reply
      March 10, 2016 at 3:26 am

      I love that you still have it after that much time. So many people parted with them.

  • Reply
    April 30, 2016 at 7:27 pm

    I have the AE1 program but I wish I had read this review first .Now I will have to persuade the wife that I need a A1 as well .

    • Reply
      April 30, 2016 at 7:28 pm

      Good luck to you on that front. 😄👍

  • Reply
    Chris Orbach
    May 28, 2016 at 10:32 pm

    Hey there — just wanted to shout out and add to the praises of this camera. I bought one when I was in high school in 1983, and shot with it like a maniac for four years. I loaned it to a friend who took it on vacation, and it got stolen. After that I’d gotten a Nikon FM2, but I wished I’d replaced my A1. Your assessment is dead on: The A1 smokes the AE1 in almost every capacity. The funny thing is, this is the year of my 30th high school reunion, and I dusted off an old box of pictures I took with it of the old school and gang and posted it online. The response has been SO positive that I went ahead and bought myself a restored A1 on eBay today. 🙂

    • Reply
      May 28, 2016 at 11:22 pm

      Fantastic memories and I’m really glad that you’ve reconnected with this classic camera.

      • Reply
        Chris Orbach
        May 30, 2016 at 11:32 am

        Thanks, James. Here’s just a little bit of what I shot in those days with it. I went with some friends to some abandoned railroad tracks in upper Manhattan in late 1985, or early 86. There was a whole subterranean world there, and it’s all gone now. Shot with my A1! 🙂

        • Reply
          May 30, 2016 at 9:25 pm

          That’s fantastic. Some great urban exploration there. Makes me want to get out and poke around the lesser known alleys.

  • Reply
    July 5, 2016 at 8:27 pm

    I’d love to own one of these beauties as I have FDn 50mm F1.7 and FDn 135mm F2.8 that are currently used on a T50 but I have so many cameras already and I run the danger of using this one the most 🙁

    • Reply
      July 5, 2016 at 8:36 pm

      Too many cameras isn’t a problem. Ha! 🙂

      • Reply
        July 6, 2016 at 4:02 pm

        Well I guess but the Chinon CP-7M has different program modes that can be shifted as well as A and M where as the Canon A-1 only has one program mode and TV A M. Maybe if I get a body super cheap I’ll get one

  • Reply
    August 27, 2016 at 8:50 pm

    I found your site by accident and saw this magical write-up about the Canon A-1. So I looked behind mounds of books and gear and found my A1 my dad bought me in 1981 as a gift for my exams. I hadn’t seen it since 1990 and it brought emotion to my eyes. Polished, gleaming and such a wondrous design.

    Once the battery and film arrived I felt like a druid from some ancient civilisation loading the Ilford black and white film into the back. Wound the film lever, manually focused easily and click… the satisfying sound of the shutter-button, the mechanical thunk of the mirror…why would this make me feel so satisfied? Of course my 5D MkIII is superior, but modern digital cameras…ah what have they lost?

    The film goes off and the prints and negatives arrive back. The delayed gratification reminds of a time when the pace of life was slower, when summers lasted forever, when you composed before taking the shot, when you spent time deciding which one would be “blown up” to 8×10 inches to be framed on the wall! The pictures look analogue, organic, real, in a way nothing exported out of photoshop EVER looks real.

    That my Canon A1 is the same pristine condition as when I took it out of the box as my dad watched his teenage son smiling so happy all those years ago is unreal. I can imagine my A1 still working for my grandchildren and for theirs over 100 years from now. Mr Designer of the Canon A1, whoever you are, I send a thanks to you. Beautiful camera.

    • Reply
      James - Founder/Editor
      August 27, 2016 at 10:16 pm

      Amazing comment. I’m so happy to hear that you’ve fallen in love with this camera again. Thanks so much for sharing this, my friend. Enjoy that A-1.

  • Reply
    September 5, 2016 at 6:00 pm

    Hi, great site, I just need a few weeks to read through it all, now that I’ve found it! I just wanted your opinion on the Canon A1 vs Olympus OM-2N as you give them both great reviews. I’ve got the chance to grab one, the Canon is cheaper, both in good order, what would you suggest? Are there any issues re: lens quality/availability for either? I shoot a Rollei 3.5MX-EVS 1954 and of course some digital but wanting a film SLR system for landscape/travel etc. Thanks for any help/advice you can offer & keep up the great work!

    • Reply
      James - Founder/Editor
      September 5, 2016 at 7:27 pm

      Hey Sam. I think if you value compactness you’d probably prefer the OM system (smaller cameras and lenses), but if you are more concerned with low cost I might suggest Canon. They are both very good cameras. I think if I were picking for myself I would choose the Olympus.

  • Reply
    September 6, 2016 at 7:42 am

    Thanks James, I suppose the main consideration is image quality but the added compactness of the Olympus I think will make me pay out the extra cash and invest. Thanks!

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