Appreciating the Canon AE-1 (1976)

Appreciating the Canon AE-1 (1976)

In this era of 'post-digital dominance' film photography, there are several common recommendations for the photographer new to film looking to buy an SLR. Quite often, either the Asahi Pentax K1000 or the Canon AE-1 are recommended.

It's not hard to see why the K1000 is often recommended. After all, it used to be sold as a comparatively affordable (at the time, at least) beginner's camera, often recommended to introductory photography students for decades from its launch in '76 until its discontinuation in '97, and understandably so. Featuring nothing but a single needle in the viewfinder, the camera was otherwise devoid of information telling you whether what EV value you had set was correct. Its simplicity and lack of automatic options was ideal for those wishing to learn in practice, the triangular relationship between film sensitivity, lens aperture and camera shutter speed.

On the other hand, it seems that the a major reason for the Canon AE-1 being recommended so frequently online nowadays is solely due to its relative abundance, rather than its feature set. The camera, after all, did manage to sell well over three and a half million units. Yet as the modern film community grows, so too are the recommendations against the AE-1, with naysayers suggesting the camera has no merit aside from its former popularity (and originally, very low price on the used market due to its popularity). A somewhat (or comparatively) heavy, partially plastic, fully electronic camera with only shutter priority and manual modes available, along with a fairly average lens selection for a mount that can't be used (with infinity focus) on most DSLR cameras? As the prices for these cameras have risen noticeably in the last several years, it's not hard to see the skepticism behind the recommendation in 2021 or beyond.

Here's the point that I'd like to make, however. The point being that the AE-1 is, contrary to belief, a remarkably well designed camera centered around simplicity and usability, and, depending on what's available, price aside, is certainly worthy of the praise it receives in addition to being recommended to newer film photographers.

Let me explain why.

From the very beginning, the AE-1 design was more advanced than many of its competitors in terms of ergonomics. The camera was one of the first in its class to feature a grip for considerably easier handling, and was also smartly incorporated into the battery door. The design of the battery door was simple, such that it could be opened easily with the provided hot-shoe cover. Even without the cover, the door was fairly easy to open with a fingertip, but not so easy such that it could be opened by accident. In today's cashless age, not needing a coin to change a battery can be quite helpful!

The shutter dial placement and design is a lot more intelligent than it initially would appear. The positioning of the dial is similar to that of the Canon EF, an older FD mount camera or the (in)famous Leica M5. The dial on those two cameras hangs slightly over the main frame, making it very easy to change while the user is looking through the viewfinder. The AE-1 also follows this, and while the dial is not hanging over the edge of the main frame, it is still located at the edge, making it still very easy to change while composing or focusing through the viewfinder. The textured edges of the dial also make it easy to rotate with the index finger.

In combination with this shutter speed dial placement is the positioning of extra exposure function buttons. Located on the side of the lens mount, the camera had an extra exposure check button (aside from the half-press of the shutter) that was designed such that the meter could be checked while the shutter speed was adjusted. This was significantly more intuitive and faster instead of awkwardly pressing the shutter button to check if the selected shutter speed was appropriate. In addition, located right next to the exposure check button was a pseudo exposure compensation button that increased the exposure by 1.5 stops via increasing the aperture, designed for situations such as shooting against the sun, and to ensure there was enough shadow details in these higher contrast situations.

Despite not being particularly targeted towards sports or wildlife shooters, the AE-1 had a puzzling automatic exposure mode, shutter priority. Yet, shutter speed priority was, in my opinion, the ideal choice for the target market of the AE-1, which were amateur photographers. Shutter priority, while not being able to give the precise depth of field control that aperture priority would offer, was able to offer consistency in most situations which would be ideal for a new or amateur photographer. By simply setting the camera to 1/60s or 1/125s with ISO 100 or 200 film, the camera would be able to handle the exposure correctly for almost any outdoor (or bright indoor) lighting scenario with the accompanying standard 50mm f/1.8 lens. Despite the lack of an aperture priority mode, there was a manual mode once the user was more familiar with the exposure triangle. The camera's ability to easily select shutter speed while looking into the viewfinder meant that a targeted aperture was not so difficult to select either. If the user wanted to shoot at f/2, they would simply slide the shutter speed dial until the needle dropped down to the f/2 mark, and likewise for shooting at f/16. The lack of a shutter speed readout in the viewfinder, however, makes this process slower and less streamlined than it could potentially have been.

Regardless of all the recommendations and criticism it receives, the fact should stand that at it's core, the Canon AE-1 is a brilliant camera designed for those who are new, or not the most familiar with photography. The multiple millions of units Canon sold during its heyday is a testament to its design (and marketing too!).


Thank you for taking the time to read this article. We often sell the Canon AE-1 and its related variants on the website, so feel free to have a look at what we might have available.

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