Classic Cameras: the Canon AE-1 35mm SLR Film Camera

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Believe it or not, numerous technological and cultural events occurred in 1976 that continue to shape our world today. The USA celebrated its Bicentennial, Apple Computer was founded, the first commercial flight of the Concorde took off, the Ramones released their first album, and Canon introduced one of its most successful cameras of all time. Developed nearly 30 years before the 5D, this camera is not even part of the now-prevalent EOS system. It does not take EF lenses, it does not have autofocus and, of course, it is not digital. It was, however, a forward-thinking SLR that became the first camera to feature an internal microcomputer, as well as rare-for-its-time shutter-speed priority TTL metering.

If you haven’t guessed yet, the camera is the Canon AE-1, which stands for Auto Exposure One, and is now one of the most popular cameras with which many have learned the basics of photography. It was my first real camera, and was the only camera I used for the first five years of my photographic education. As my skill set improved and my curiosity was piqued, I gradually moved away from the AE-1 in favor of other, more esoteric cameras—medium format and large format—and eventually digital. And even though I had hardly looked at an AE-1 in more than a decade, having the opportunity to work with one again felt akin to returning to your childhood hometown and still knowing your way around the block.

The beauty of the AE-1 is the simplicity that eloquently disguises the truly innovative inner workings of its design. On the outside, it sports the classic silver and black finish, or if you are lucky to find one, an all-black finish, along with a lightweight, compact profile. Each of the few controls on the top panel is easily accessible, including the shutter-speed dial, which provides speeds from 2 to 1/1000 second, as well as Bulb; the simple ASA selection dial that is adjustable by pulling up on the shutter speed dial, and permits metering for film speeds between 25 and 3200; the film advance lever, which is fitted with the customary rubberized tip; the shutter-release button along with the swinging self-timer lever; and the battery indicator button, which I’ve yet to figure out. The front of the camera body has a similarly Spartan design, which includes a depth-of-field preview switch, a backlight control switch that lets you override the meter’s reading and overexpose the scene by 1.5 stops, a flash sync terminal, and the battery compartment, which doubles as a finger grip.

As insignificant as it might seem now, this battery compartment is the gateway to one of the defining components of the AE-1, and what essentially differentiates the AE-1 from the mostly mechanical cameras of the era. Since the AE-1 is an electronically controlled camera, it will not perform without battery power. While this may seem like a nuisance, or very normal by today’s standards, it afforded more precise, repeatable results, and reduced the overall cost of the AE-1 when it was introduced. By replacing the multitude of mechanical, metal, and machined components with relatively few electronic components, manufacturing costs could be reduced and the process of building each camera could be further automated. For the user, this meant a camera with high-end-for-the-time functionality and versatility along with an affordable price tag. For Canon it meant millions of sales over the course of the camera's eight-year production run, and its subsequently legendary status. The AE-1 paved the way for future electronic cameras and signaled the transition from all-mechanical to electronically controlled operations.

The electronic infrastructure of the AE-1 also brought with it a range of accessories that were unusual  for their time in 1976, including an accessory motorized film winder, the Power Winder A, that replaced the need to physically wind between shots and offered up to a blazing-fast 2 fps continuous shooting rate. The Data Back A was also available, which can be seen as the precursor to EXIF metadata, and could be used to imprint configurable sets or types of data, such as the date, onto your negatives as you shot. Finally, the AE-1 also debuted alongside a dedicated flash, the Speedlite 155A, which could be set to configure the camera’s f/stop and shutter-speed settings automatically, based on metered reflective light from the subject that differs from TTL metering and, rather, relies on a front-facing photo sensor on the flash body itself.

With this bit of history in mind, when I finally got to shooting with this camera again, it truly brought me back to the same feeling I had when I took a Photo 101 course in high school. “You need to have a 35mm camera that can shoot manually,” said Professor Berkun on my first day of photo class. “Try to see if your parents have an old camera in the closet” and I remember going home and asking my mom if we even had a manual camera, since I could only recollect smaller point-and-shoots and disposable cameras being used throughout my childhood. Sure enough, she had her AE-1 packed away, but not forgotten. I remember bringing the camera to school the following day and getting the nod of approval from my teacher, along with a brief speech on how an AE-1 was the learning tool. Its manual capabilities let you refine your skill set and help you to understand the basics of exposure, yet its non-intimidating stature meant it was no big deal to carry around with me everywhere I went.

Although now well versed in the technical side of photography, I immediately snapped into a bit of wonderment when handling the camera for the first time in years. I felt like checking to make sure everything worked properly and I was simply intrigued by just releasing the shutter even prior to putting in my first roll of film.

After finishing that first roll, the AE-1 itself seemed to sort of fall into the background as it became more natural to work with all of the minor quirks of the particular model I was using. The viewfinder is bright and large, but had a yellowish cast and some dust had collected inside it during its four-decade lifespan. The shutter made a high-pitched whirring noise, the aperture ring of the FD 50mm f/1.8 lens seemed to stick a bit between f/4 and f/2.8, and the film rewind button on the bottom plate never seemed to stay locked when I was rewinding a roll of film. Nowadays, if any these problems were to occur with a new EOS DSLR, the camera would be deemed a failure. For the AE-1, though, at least in my now historical perspective, these flaws added some character to the experience. None of the issues I ran into were particularly bothersome, and none of them affected the picture-taking experience. It must be said that for a camera approaching its 40th birthday, it is holding up quite well.

When it came time to go out and shoot, I felt like exploring my home borough of Brooklyn, where I had shot many past school photo assignments. Albeit a very large area to call home, I stuck with familiar locations to focus my attention on just taking photographs and to reacquaint myself with this camera. It seemed fitting to keep with my academic introduction to the AE-1 and search for elements of composition, formal designs, and take the opportunity to reëxamine my borough as if I were instructed to seek new perspectives of a familiar place.

The AE-1’s simplicity was beneficial for this exercise: smooth manual focus, an intuitive single match- needle in the viewfinder for metering—the sensuousness experience of sound and view—brought more fun to the process of making pictures than I had experienced in a while. As novel as it seems too, the AE-1 held its own throughout the day of photographing in a variety of situations. Even when photographing in bright sunlight or near-dusk conditions, the meter still seemed to provide consistent results and the shutter speeds were accurate.

Working in shutter-speed priority mode was a unique experience, mainly due to the fact that it’s my least-used mode nowadays, with a DSLR. It felt a bit quirky, though, to be working with such a machine in a nearly completely automated manner. I can only imagine how this must have felt during its initial release when the experience was likely to be completely foreign to many budding photographers. It should also be pointed out that the introduction of a shutter-speed priority mode can be closely approximated to contemporary cameras featuring in-body image stabilization. While radically different in literal terms, the newly developed shutter-speed priority mode was introduced as a means to reduce the likelihood of having blurry photos by helping to ensure you are always working at hand-holdable shutter speeds. Of course, this doesn’t always take into account that at some point, your lens or film will not be fast enough to keep up with darker conditions; but still, having a technology that is there to assist in preventing unwanted errors must have been new and exciting.

At the end of the day I could see myself continuing to work with this camera just for the sake of the shooting experience. The process of working with a camera of such a legendary status seemed to outweigh the actual results I might be getting with such a tool. By today's standards, it is a humble camera that teaches you, and compels you, to reconsider how to approach photography from the ground level and, of course, brings with it a healthy dose of nostalgic appeal. The Canon AE-1 can be seen as a milestone that helped to steer camera design and culture to where it is now. It introduced millions of people to photography in the 1970s and it continues to be a gateway camera for students today.

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Unfortunately, the AE-1 was also my first camera, which I bought just prior to a trip to Europe in 1977. I tested one roll before I left and it seemed to be okay. Little did I know, Canon had a problem with the electronics on the AE-1... they were intermittent (which they fixed with the AE-1 Program.) Only about 10% of my photos were usable (I shot chrome back then so what you shoot is what you get.) The rest were mostly very dark. I don't remember if it was just the metering that was off, or the actual aperture and/or shutter. Anyway, that was my last Canon product for over 30 years. I switched to bullet-proof Nikons (and medium and large format cameras.) However, I switched from Nikon back to Canon with the advent of the 5DMkii because of video. Even though I don't use DSLR's for video anymore, I have 2 - 6D's I love for digital photos, and I have a bunch of Canon primes I use with my cinema cameras.

I have an interest in this camera if anyone is selling! THANK YOU!

Are you still looking for an AE-1?  I have one that is in great shape and with multiple lenses, filters, bag, etc. if you are interested.

Hello, Lilian

Im interested in your camera. How we can proceed with this? 

Clarista C.  you have been looking for quite a while.  Found one yet?

I would like to sell an all black AE-1 that I purchased in Tokyo in 1976.  Near perfect condition.

Has a Canon 35-70 zoom and Canon 70-150 zoom lenses; ProMaster flash;  leather camera case.

Original owners manual.  Tested recently all pictures were great.  Any interest?

How much are you selling for?

Around a hundred bucks.

Please contact me at ehlyr(at)att(dot)net

Are you still selling?

Still available, Rich?

I have 2 AE-1 Program bodies, 4 lenses, a 2x telemacro, power winder, flash, assorted filters, lens hood and remote plungers. Not willing to part. Can send pics. Looking for offers.

Thanks

are u still selling? :)

Hi! I'm looking to purchase a Canon AE-1 Program with a lens if anyone is selling one. 

Hi, if anyone is interested ,I have this camera in a case with many accessories flash,telephoto lens, more lenses and other items.It was in a thrift store that I opened up . I am not familiar with all the items in the case. I do have some photos. 

Thanks,

Mark

the sn is 4749536

This camera has been sold.

hi! Mark G. 
May I know if you have any idea where I could find something similar to what you have gotten? Thank you! 

I have an AE-1 with a 5 to 100 lense and a 50 MM lense  in very good condition.  It has been in a case in a closet forever.

Hi is it still available?

I have a Canon AE-1 with the case, flash, and a few lens including a Sigma 28mm and an Aragon 80-120mm that I am looking to sell. 

Do you still have this camera available?

is it still available? how much?

If anyone is still looking/interested in purchasing a Canon AE-1 program camera, I have have one.  The lens that I have with it is a Sigma Zoom-Master 35-70mm 2.8-4 and a UV filter.  It's pretty much brand new.  I got it for graduation (1985) and hardly used it.

yes, i am very much interested.  Could i get your contact information?

I'm interested as well. Please send contact information

I have a Canon AE-1 with the case, flash, and a few lens including a Sigma 28mm and an Aragon 80-120mm that I am looking to sell. 

Is camera still available?

Hello Bjorn,

you wrote a wonderful description of using a Canon AE-1. It was also my first SLR camera and I was very glad using it with time value priority. Nevertheless because of its integral metering  it was difficult to use in  backlit conditions or stage photography and so I preferred the 12 per cent metering of the F-1. If anyone loves to try a rugged camera with everything you need to take Photos (including an external light meter  because the batteries for the F-1-cell  are no more available) it is a F-1 (First model). It works between +60 degrees Celisus and -30 degrees and it teaches you how pictures nare created. #Bjorn: The Canon EF (1973) and the F-1 with Servo EE (1971) allowed the time value priority several years before the AE-1.

If anyone is still looking, I have a Canon AE-1 for sale with the 50mm f1.8 and Sigma 35-200 f4.0-5.6 for sale in excellent condition. Message me at jrhrocky (at) hotmail (dot) com. 

Update - Camera has been sold

I have an AE1 in great used condition for sale. I will sell on ebay. Has 3 lenses and many accessories as well as original cannon bag, and manuals.

Hi, is this a Canon AE-1 Program model? If so, have you already sold this item?

Hi Aimie, if you are still looking for an AE-1 Program, I have one for sale, including the 50mm lens that came with it. I also have a Kalimar 35-70mm zoom, a Vivitar 75-205 zoom, and Vivitar wide angle lens.

Hi Barbara, where are you based out of? I'm interested in buying the camera. Reach me at- 626-491-6447. 

I live in New York and was wondering if BHphotovideo sell the Canon AE-1?

I have an ae1  will sell

Still available??

I have an AE-1 I’m selling as well! Contact me: melaniekcosta(at) gmail(dot)com

Hi is your AE-1 still available?

Hi, Aimie! I have one for sale! I was going to put it up on Ebay, but I wanted to use Mr. Bjorn Petersen's kickass article in the description but I felt that was pretty wrong. If you know what you're looking for, I'm selling my AE-1, 50mm lens, 75-200mm lens, Asanuma Auto Teleconverter, all the manuals, lens cases, and a camera bag. It's all in pretty awesome shape and I'll sell it all for $200 plus shipping.

   It's not the Program model, but let me know if you want some photos. My email is: benjaminabbottbrady@gmail  

Anyone selling their Canon AE-1 camera? And at what price??

Emily, I have an AE-1 I'm willing to sell. It was given to me by my father so I'm not certain of the working condition.

I also have a kodak vintage camera in brown leather case says Retina on it with flash and some kind of meter. Great condition

I also have a kodak vintage camera in brown leather case says Retina on it with flash and some kind of meter. Great condition

I am interested in selling my camera w/35mm lens and flash attachment and much bigger lens also with bag. Make me a offer in central cali. Text me 559-309-0460

I would like to sell an all black AE-1 that I purchased in Tokyo in 1976.  Near perfect condition.

Has a Canon 35-70 zoom and Canon 70-150 zoom lenses; ProMaster flash;  leather camera case.

Any interest?

At what price?

Open to an offer.  Prices seem to be all over the place from 5 bucks to 200.

Rich, I was wondering if you still had your AE-1 and were still accepting offers.

Trevor:  Yes still available.

Hello, is this still available?? 

Emily S. wrote:

Hello, is this still available?? 

Emily:  Yes it is.  Please contact me at ehlyr(at)att(dot)net

hello, Rich E. May I know if the camera is still available? I am very interested in it! Thank you very much!

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