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Canon A-1 Camera Review – Canon's Greatest Gadget – Casual Photophile

Were CP the kind of website to give our reviews catchy taglines, the Canon A-1’s review might pose 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 its less capable older brother?

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?

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?

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 to come out of the 1970s. 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.

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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.

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.

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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.

Shots in the samples gallery were made by CP staffer Chris Cushing using Eastman 5222 and Ilford HP5 and expired Ektachrome.

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 f/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 I say, perfect? Okay, nothing’s perfect. But as far as Canon cameras are concerned, the A-1’s about as close as it gets.

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