Launched way back in 1976, the Canon AE-1 broke new ground for 35mm SLRs, becoming the first camera to feature a central processing unit (CPU). Together with a huge advertising campaign that featured famous golf and tennis players, the AE-1 was a huge hit for Canon, selling well over a million units in its eight year lifetime.
The AE-1 was also a turning point for Canon. Until the arrival of the AE-1, Canon’s range of SLRs had attracted a predominantly amateur photographer, but the arrival of the AE-1 and its electronically controlled internals meant Canon could offer more advanced functionality that hadn’t been seen at this price point before.
Lens mount: Canon FD
Exposure control: Manual, shutter priority
Shutter speed: Mechanical 1/1000 sec to 2 second, plus bulb
Exposure metering: Centre-weighted
Battery: 2x 1.55V SR44 / 1.5V LR44 batteries
Dimensions: 141 x 87 x 47.5mm
As well as being the first camera to sport a CPU, the Canon AE-1 was the world’s first 35mm SLR to be equipped with a shutter speed-priority exposure mode (AE stood for Automatic Exposure Control). Many rival brands offered an aperture-priority exposure mode on their high-end SLRs, but because of the lack of information available in the viewfinder, there was invariably the risk of the camera selecting a shutter speed lower than desired, often resulting in a wasted frame of film because it was just too blurry.
The AE-1’s shutter speed-priority mode, though, was a huge benefit to more novice photographers as you’d always know how long the exposure was going to be, while the camera adjusted the aperture.
Canon took things a step further with the launch of the AE-1 Program in 1981. The successor to the AE-1, the AE-1 Program featured a Program auto exposure mode that saw the camera set both the aperture and shutter speed.
The maximum shutter speed on the AE-1 was a little disappointing though, maxing out at a little limiting 1/1000 second, though an optional Canon Winder A provided a motorized single frame advance up to a heady 2 frames per second.
The AE-1 used Canon’s FD lens mount, accepting both FD lenses and the New FD mount (often referred to as FDn). The earlier FD lenses feature a chrome twist-ring to the bayonet, while an FDn lens slots entirely into the camera, and then twisted to lock it.
Design and operation
With the implementation of the CPU, Canon took the opportunity to tear up the rule book and design the AE-1 from the ground up. This saw the AE-1 made up of five major units and twenty-five minor units, allowing Canon to make the whole manufacturing process highly automated.
Looks can be a little deceiving though and while the AE-1 looks to be based around an all-metal chassis, Canon opted to use a decent smattering of structural plastic in a further drive to keep costs down. While the top-plate might look like metal for example, it’s actually an injection molded thermoplastic polymer that’s been finished in either a satin chrome or black enamel.
Don’t let that take the shine of it though, as the viewfinder is nice and large – it’ll certainly make many optical viewfinders in modern-day DSLRs feel quite tunnel-like.
With the AE-1 proving incredibly popular, before you jump on eBay, it might be worth asking relatives if they have one – you never know what might be tucked away in a shoebox in the back of a cupboard. Otherwise, your best place to start tracking one down is eBay.
The good news is that one won’t break the bank either – an AE-1 in nice condition with a 50mm f/1.8 shouldn’t set you back more than much more than £175 / $150. Just be mindful that there can be a few issues if they haven’t been looked after, namely poor light seals and the reflex mirror returning slowly which results in a loud squeak.
The AE-1 might seem a little rudimentary now, but it helped open up more advanced features to a much wider audience. Relatively risk-free for the price, the Canon AE-1 is still a very capable SLR.