Canon AE-1 (Original) Film Camera Review

The Most Popular Film SLR Ever Made

9 min read by Dmitri.
Published on .

The legendary Canon AE-1 film SLR changed the photographic industry forever as soon as it hit the store shelves.

Aside from being the first SLR ever to use a microchip, it democratized (some would say, “cheapened”) the camera concept, paving the way for software to eat the world. Starting with a chunky bite out of the mechanical systems that have historically controlled all of the critical functions, like shutter timing and exposure calculations.

In this review, I’ll cover the build quality and the ingenious ways Canon made these machines affordable while still keeping them fairly reliable — sufficient enough to last all four-plus decades since the first copy rolled off the belt in 1976. Plus, look for the samples taken with two excellent lenses (28mm 1:3.5 S.C. + 50mm 1:1.4 S.S.C.) with my overview of the ergonomics and technical specifications, below.

Note: Regular Analog.Cafe readers may’ve already seen my Canon AE-1 Program review. I bought both cameras (the Program and this older non-program) for an upcoming comparison article. But after spending a few months with the SLRs, I realized that each needs its own homepage: they are sufficiently distinct tools with different controls and shooting experiences, made in their own decades.

Amber T800 with Canon AE-1.

A brief history of Canon’s AE-1 system.

If you’re into cars, even a little bit, you may’ve noticed that modern vehicles have fewer buttons and levers. Touch screens and software are devouring physical controls. Though manufacturers tout these advancements as “high-tech,” made for our convenience, a large part of these changes benefit cost savings for the makers.

For film cameras, AE-1 was the beginning of software taking over the internal mechanical systems — all the way back in the 1970s. Of course, the camera I’m reviewing here isn’t anywhere close to a slab phone with nearly zero actual buttons — the Canon SLR has plenty of vintage charm; buttons, levers, and dials garnish its top plate plentifully. In fact, it’s nearly indistinguishable from the purely mechanical machines of its time. However, when it comes to things like shutter speed timing, a notoriously difficult mechanical system, microchips took the place of the myriad of springs, arms, and bolts.

Canon AE-1 ad (Japan). Pictured with an optional motorized film wider attachment. Source: @CARINA on Pinterest;

While the microscopic transistor design is no simple task on its own, the production of chips from the schematic can be done much faster — such components are “printed” rather than assembled. The result is a system that’s just as capable and perhaps even more reliable than a mechanical timer minus all the labour needed to put tiny metallic objects inside a complicated casing.

In addition to the cost savings Canon got from replacing mechanics with electronics, the company opted for using a much larger portion of the cameras from plastics. On one hand, this means that they are more likely to break when dropped, but on the other, they are much lighter and more affordable.

The decision to allow a CPU to take control over the mechanical action was revolutionary in the 1970s. The upsides outweighed the tradeoffs significantly, which led to the release of the most popular film SLR ever created. AE-1s were 4-5 times cheaper than the competing mechanical cameras with similar features, which was an irresistible deal for the consumer. In fact, AE-1s had true shutter-priority metering, whereas most SLRs of the time used a match-needle system and uncoupled meters.

By the time they were finally discontinued (in 1981), Canon had sold over 5.7 million AE-1 units, which catapulted the company from the brink of bankruptcy to the imaging behemoth we know today. Of course, not everyone was happy, which is hardly avoidable with any product that gathers this much attention.

Technical specifications.

Canon AE-1 bodies weigh 590g (21oz) and measure 141mm × 87mm × 48mm (5.5” × 3.4” × 1.9”).

AE-1 needs a 4SR44 6V battery to work. The more common 4LR44 works, too; however, 4SR44 may be a better option as it produces a more consistent voltage.

The battery check button is next to the rewind crank, which should move the exposure needle (in the finder) to the middle when fully charged.

The shutter on AE-1 can fire between 2s and 1/1000th of a second with flash sync at 1/60th. There’s a built-in 20-second self-timer with a blinking LED (the “S” setting on a lever next to the shutter button) and a shutter button lock (the “L” setting on the same lever).

An +1.5 silver exposure compensation button is on the left side of the lens (when looking at the back of the camera). Below, there’s a lever, pushing which stops down the lens for DOF preview.

The viewfinder is large and comfortable. It’s usable with the glasses on (though you may have to move the camera a bit to notice the edges, depending on how you wear your spectacles). It has an 0.86x magnification factor with a 50mm lens and 93.5% vertical coverage/96% horizontal coverage (meaning, about 6-4% of the resulting photo will extend beyond what you see in the finder).

Inside the finder, there are two red LED bulbs for under/over-exposure warnings and a needle that will point to a selected lens aperture when using the camera in shutter priority mode or recommended aperture in manual mode.

The light meter uses center-weighted TTL-metering; this camera accepts manual film ISO input from 25 to 3200.

Amber T800 with Canon AE-1 and a 50mm 1:1.4 S.S.C. lens.

AE-1 build quality.

So what’s it like to hold and use AE-1, given its mix of plastic and metal guts and a microprocessor on a forty-year-old camera body?

Bad news first: two issues plague AE-1 cameras; flimsy battery door and squeaky shutter.

The former is due to design oversights that make the cell compartment cover (which doubles as a grip) brittle. While that does not affect the camera functionality, and the piece isn’t necessary to make contacts, the camera is a lot more awkward to hold if the plastic strip is missing.

The squeaky shutter is fixable (as is the battery door), though very annoying, and it may affect the quality of the images.

One of the two AE-1 cameras I had in my possession had a crack in the battery cover. But neither had any issues with the shutter.

AE-1 feels less solid in hand than its full-metal counterparts, and it may fall apart if it comes crashing to the floor — but that doesn’t make it a bad camera. Many gadgets will fail the drop test.

Now, the good: AE-1, thanks to its lighter materials, is easier to work with and carry for long periods of time than many SLRs of the time. Most users won’t even notice that many of its components are made of plastic — Canon used a similar technique as Polaroid did on its premium SX-70 cameras that cleverly disguised resin shell bits with metallic paint. Meanwhile, many AE-1 parts are still made of metal — including the frame, important mechanical components, and the bottom plate.

The camera is controlled by a microchip that’s no longer in production. This means that if it breaks, there’s no fixing the AE-1. Thankfully, the chip is solid; no one has ever reported problems with it during my research. The two main issues (the battery door and squeaky shutter) are also serviceable.

If you happen to send the camera flying to its demise, you may have to replace it. Thankfully, these bodies can be found for about as much (or less!) than a visit to a repair shop.

Product photography with CineStill 800T and Canon AE-1.

Canon AE-1 in use: design and ergonomics.

The most challenging aspect of using AE-1 is the unmarked, often odd-positioned buttons. Whereas loading film, using the shutter button/film winder, shutter speed settings, and ISO dial are easy enough to find, everything else is cryptic. If you want to use any of the additional features, I suggest you check out the manual first.

There are also some odd choices for the controls. For example, there’s a dedicated exposure preview switch just below the exposure compensation button (pressing which does a similar action as half-pressing the shutter button) — but no exposure lock. The battery check button will place the needle in the middle of your exposure dial in the viewfinder when there’s an adequate charge, but the needle will creep up when the battery is low. Despite being unconventional, none of these controls are marked on the body.

Once you get past that, the operation gets smooth. There’s very little difference between AE-1, at that point, and any other SLR of the time. Point, focus, and shoot. The only downside is perhaps the grip, which feels a little slippery, especially in sweaty hands. But the nice thing about the shutter winder design is that it can stay slightly away from the body once cocked so that you can operate your SLR one-handedly (since there’s space for your holding hand’s thumb to slip in and advance the film to the next frame).

Because this camera has autoexposure controls, it can be used as a point-and-shoot if you were to stop down the lens. There’s no DOF calculator, unfortunately, but a wider lens set to 10’ will probably have most things in focus at f/8.

Is Canon AE-1 worth the price?

These cameras can still be found for less than $100 or $200 in good condition. Given that they use the same lenses as the A-1/F-1 series, they are an excellent entry model into the vintage Canon system. This glass produces excellent-quality images and is relatively affordable, so your collection will not cost you an arm and a leg.

AE-1 has some old-school charms that the AE-1 Program won’t, though given a chance, I’d probably go for the latter. (I’ll explain why in an upcoming comparison.) Neither is a bad choice, however.

Where to find a reliable Canon AE-1.

Whenever shopping for your AE-1, consider the main two issues mentioned in this article: a squeaky shutter and a broken battery door. The latter should be obvious from photos, but the former requires you to read the description and possibly ask the seller directly.

Your best bet is always to go for film-tested cameras or to buy from a reputable, experienced seller. I go into great detail on making sensible purchases on eBay on Analog.Cafe — a highly recommended read for all first-time vintage gear buyers.

By the way: Please consider making your Canon AE-1 camera purchase using this link so that this website may get a small percentage of that sale — at no extra charge for you — thanks!