Canon AE-1 Program Film Camera Review

Iconic, Polarizing, Trail-Blazing SLR of the 1970s and 1980s

13 min read by Dmitri.
Published on . Updated on .

Canon’s AE-1 Program is one of the most popular film SLRs ever sold. AE-1 was the first camera to use a microchip — designed in collaboration with Texas Instruments. The Program is a successor to the likely most popular film SRL system ever made — the Canon AE-1.

However, the introduction of this camera in 1981 wasn’t free of controversy. Wikipedia references two articles highly critical of AE-1’s simplified design that made high-end features available to photographers on a budget. Still, it was never a cheap tool (adjusted for inflation, it would cost well above $500 just for the body).

In this review, I’ll share my thoughts about the build quality, usability, and my overall impression of the SLR that sold over 3.3 million units and inspired Mac and iPhone shutter camera sounds. I will also address the criticism and give actionable tips for finding your reliable AE-1 Program.

The copy I used for this article is a “near-mint” all-black model bought from a reputable Japanese reseller for US $187.90 in 2023. I spent a few months with it, shooting the kit Canon FD 50mm 𝒇1.4 S.S.C. and the wider Canon FD 28mm 𝒇3.5 S.C. on casual photo walks, indoors, and during product shoots.

Camera controls layout and nomenclature from the Japanese instruction manual with English translations.

Technical specifications/how to use Canon AE-1 Program.

Canon AE-1 Program is one of the lighter and smaller 35mm film SLRs, measuring 14×9×5cm (~5½×3½×2”) and weighing 565g/20oz. It’s only slightly bulkier than the highly-regarded minimalist Olympus OM-1.

Note: If you’re looking for something really light and small, consider the half-frame Olympus PEN system, esp. with the 38mm pancake lens. Or pick up the smallest film camera ever made.

Canon AE-1 Program with Canon FD 50mm 𝒇1.4 S.S.C. 

Canon AE-1 is compatible with an extensive range of FD lenses that use a breech-lock mount. There are 134, from 7.5mm fisheye to 1,200mm super-telephoto. This is allegedly the largest selection of manual focus lenses for any SLR mount.

The 50mm 𝒇1.4 S.S.C. lens was particularly fun to shoot out of the two I tried for its unique renderings.

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. This camera has an odd way of testing the battery charge: it beeps repeatedly, and you’ll need to count the number of beeps per second as you press the black button by the rewind crank. Six beeps per second indicate a full charge; three means low (according to the manual). In essence, you’re looking for a fast beeping succession.

The battery powers a TTL full-aperture center-weighted average metering system with a TTL stopped-down metering option. This means that your AE-1 will meter the scene correctly with the aperture fully open — very useful for photographing in subdued light (since closing down the aperture will dim the image in the viewfinder). Older FL-mount lenses that are also compatible with this camera and some adapted lenses will have you stop down the aperture to meter the light at the intended f-stop.

Canon FD 50mm 𝒇1.4 S.S.C. with Canon AE-1 Program and Kodak Portra 400. This photo was taken in a relatively dark forest at around 1/30th of a second. I had no issues focusing through the viewfinder in subdued light. Thankfully, the camera’s mirror and shutter vibration dampening worked wonderfully; there’s no motion blur (but plenty of bokeh) here.

You can use film rated between 12 and 3,200 ISO with AE-1. Your film does not need to be DX-coded, as you’ll be setting its ISO (marked ASA) speed using a dial underneath the film rewinder crank (using a small lever). You’ll need to unlock it by holding down a silver button next to the winder. This manual film setting makes pushing or pulling film as well as shooting certain films with DX-codes (i.e. the Lomography Lomochrome range) easy.

The Program has a fully automatic exposure mode activated by setting the shutter dial to “PROGRAM” and setting the lens to a green “A” or “O.” With the lens set to “A/O,” AE-1 can be used in shutter priority mode by selecting a shutter speed to anything other than “PROGRAM.”

AE-1 Program has a dedicated exposure lock button (second from the top on the side of the lens mount near the front plate). This is an unusual design, as most cameras would activate the exposure lock when you half-press the shutter, but it works fine. Above the exposure lock button is another odd one: a button that activates the light meter and shows the readout in the display — an identical function to a half-pressed shutter button.

The finder on AE-1 shows just the right amount of info — selected apertures, flash info, and the selected shooting mode. The Program has those values light up on the right which I find helpful as I tend to ignore the dimly lit mechanical needles. I found the finder to be large, bright and comfortable with the glasses on or off; it has 94% coverage (i.e., you get a little more than what you see in your final picture) and 0.83x magnification with a 50mm lens.

Features I haven’t used on my AE-1 Program are the self-timer and flash sync (at 1/60th) via cable or hot shoe.

Why do so many photographers hate the Canon AE-1 SLRs?

Based on what I heard on the recent episode of the Film Photography Podcast and read in the pair of ranty articles about the camera, the AE-1 series brought revolutionary changes in manufacturing techniques that upset the traditionalists.

Before AE-1, most SLRs were built with hundreds of metal components that actuated springs, gear, and point-to-point wired circuits. I love seeing soldered connections and wires when I open up a camera. Years before I got into photography, I spent thousands of dollars on guitar amplifiers and FX pedals that used tubes or transistors and even built some on my own. However, the labour and the parts to create such a tactile experience are expensive. And the price goes up exponentially as the technology advances.

AE-1 was a leap in the democratization of SLR photography thanks to the cutting-edge technology it pioneered in its construction. It mirrored some of the best-loved features and design elements from cameras like the Nikon F3, which cost $1,175 at launch in 1981 — nearly $4,000 in 2024 dollars! Compared to that, AE-1’s adjusted $850 price tag (which would include the kit 50mm 𝒇1.4 S.S.C. lens) is a remarkable deal. And that from a camera maker with an excellent reputation, no less. This new pricing structure made many budding photographers happy and opened up access to the craft to those who couldn’t previously afford it.

To make AE-1s remarkably affordable and up to Canon’s quality standards, the firm collaborated with Texas Instruments to implement a microprocessor unit inside the camera body. This microchip took over the control of shutter speeds, exposure metering, and autoexposure calculations from hundreds of gears, springs, and point-to-point wirings. With fewer pieces to put together, fewer people had to be paid for their time on the factory floor. This change alone was enough to anger the purists.

But Canon didn’t stop there. The manufacturer replaced a significant portion of the camera’s metal material with plastic. This includes gear and the top plate, which they masterfully disguised with anodized paint — a technique similar to the one used in Polaroid’s SX-70 design.

Nevertheless, AE-1 is still a good-looking camera, even if it doesn’t come with two hundred grams of brass as part of the package. Besides, who’s to say that a pricey metal piece can’t get smashed to bits or warp beyond repair when it hits the ground?

Canon AE-1 Program body next to Canon AE-1.

AE-1 Program build quality.

I’ve had many metal-made camera parts deteriorate beyond repair due to mechanical failures in my years of reviewing film cameras. Having taken apart many toys and tools in my lifetime as a tinkerer, I believe that durable design is a product of smart engineering solutions. That is, plastic gears that exert well-calibrated force may weigh less and last longer than poorly made or stressed metal gear. Was Canon able to out-design their expensive competition with cheap resins and printed microchips?

I don’t drop-test vintage cameras; thus, I can’t say how well AE-1 would respond to rough treatment. For this reason, it may not be the best tool to throw into a bag with hammers (there are cameras for that, see: Konica Genba Kantoku).

On first impression, AE-1s are nearly indistinguishable from their expensive metal counterparts in hand feel and appearance. They have weak points, like the plastic battery door that tends to crack — but in normal use, these cameras look and feel well-made, even after 40 years of waiting to be used again. Nothing is dangling; the tolerances are tight, and the piece feels hefty, especially with the lens on.

Some of these cameras are reported to make squeaky sounds due to drying lubricant in the shutter assembly or aperture blades. This problem is fixable today at most shops that provide CLA (clean, lubricate, adjust) services for film cameras. Plus, these issues are easy to diagnose before purchase.

Despite having fewer metal parts, a plastic leatherette, and a battery door that can use superglue every now and then, my AE-1 Program is a good-looking, well-made camera. It’s not as sturdy as a Leica, but it’s not a toy camera. If handled with care, it’ll work for as long as a much more expensive point-and-shoot will — perhaps longer.

Canon AE-1 Program with FD 28mm 𝒇3.5 S.C.  and Fujifilm 400 (US).

Canon AE-1 Program in use: design and ergonomics.

Getting an AE-1 Program ready for a photo shoot is fairly straightforward. Loading film is a standard operation. However, installing a battery may be a little tricky while the lens is still on — you may want to detach it before opening the cell door.

The battery door on AE-1 doubles as a grip. However, given that it’s one of the most brittle components, you may be better off getting an action grip to mount on top of it.

My other complaint with this camera is the depth of field preview lever¹. For some reason, it’s folded down in its default position; a small part of it that rests on a hinge needs to be pried away from the camera body to be useful; the hinge can then be used to push the entire bit toward the lens. The DOF preview lever will not work if you shoot in shutter priority mode or in full auto. Pushing it all the way in locks it (presumably for use with older lenses); unlocking is done by pressing the small button under the lever. Do not leave it locked when shooting with FD or nFD lenses.

Switching the shooting modes is reasonably intuitive on AE-1. Setting the lens to “A” or “O” turns on the shutter priority. Setting the shutter dial to “PROGRAM” (in combination with the lens’ “A/O” setting) turns the camera into a full auto exposure. Unfortunately, there’s no aperture priority mode; when the lens is set to an f-stop value, and the shutter is on “PROGRAM,” the camera fires at a consistent speed (I’m assuming 1/60th of a second), which can ruin some pictures.

Switching the camera on and off isn’t necessary, as AE-1s do not drain the battery unless you’re actively metering light and operating the shutter. But if you wish to save a little extra juice or prevent accidental exposures, the small selector lever next to the film winder should be set to “L” to power off. The “S”-position is for a 10-second self-timer (you can cancel it by pressing the battery check button next to the film rewind lever).

It’s nice to have full control over the shutter speed and aperture when needed, but I’ve also really enjoyed the autoexposure mode on my AE-1 Program. It’s quick and accurate. I especially enjoy that there aren’t many automation settings on this camera, giving way to a minimalist, uncluttered operation.

The controls on the AE-1 Program are well laid out: easy to access and intuitive enough to operate without having to look at the buttons each time. It took me a few minutes to get used to this camera, after which it was a breeze to operate.

Another pleasant feature of my AE-1 Program is the mirror dampening. It’s incredibly soft, which means it takes a second to reset, but it sounds very nice and adds stability to an already well-balanced shutter design. It’s easy to get shake-free photos at 1/30s with a 50mm lens on this camera.

¹ — A depth of field preview lever/button is meant to stop down the aperture to let the photographer see which part of the scene would be in focus in the final image. It’s helpful because SLRs typically show the view with the aperture blades fully open to let maximum light in for easy operation.

Canon AE-1 Program with FD 28mm 𝒇3.5 S.C.  and Fujifilm 400 (US).

Is Canon AE-1 Program worth the price?

If you want a good-looking SLR with full manual/semi-auto/autoexposure modes, a fantastic selection of lenses, and an excellent viewfinder that’s affordable and easy to find, the AE-1 Program is probably your best bet.

AE-1s cost nowhere close to what they were offered for at launch, even in mint condition. These cameras have a vast range of affordable, high-quality vintage lenses and many accessories, such as custom focusing screens, carrying cases, specialized flash units, macro setups, and more.

AE-1 is not for everyone, of course. This camera may not take abuse like its metal-bodied counterparts, and it’s not a bling. Just an excellent SLR with revolutionary for the time technology that’s also affordable with a few minor trade-offs.

Where to find a reliable Canon AE-1 Program.

Because so many of these cameras were made, there’s no shortage of them online and at the brick-and-mortar stores. I would advise you to buy tested or film-tested copies. It’s cheaper to pay extra for a verified product from a reputable seller than to deal with repairs or replacements.

I’ve got a few links for you below where you can find this camera in good condition at a fair price. I paid just under $200 for mine with a kit lens last year. There are also mint copies with the original box out there for around $350 and cheaper, tested copies for $150.

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