Canon A-1 – Cheap and Awesome

The Canon A Series

camera was Canon trying to take market share from Nikon’s very successful SLR cameras of the 1970’s. The Canon A-1, Canon AE-1 and Canon AE-1 Program are sort of the same camera. But I will just concentrate on the A-1, because it has it all. The AE-1 actually predates the A-1 by 2 years. And the “AE’ stands for “Automated Electronic” , according to the Canon manual. Which I guess sounded cool at the time. (1976)

The Canon A Series – “A Song and a Dance”

I must make a confession. As 35mm SLR’s go, I’m a Nikon guy. But I do understand why people love this camera. Sharp lenses, simple, easy to fix,….and can be had for a song and a dance. Including the FD lenses. Both Canon TTL Speedlights, and generic thyristor flashes work very well on this baby. Some consider it to be the “best” manual film SLR ever made. I don’t know about that. No camera is actually the best ever. Some are just better than others.


Canon A-1 with MA Motor Drive
Canon A-1 with MA Motor Drive


The body is aluminum, and the top and bottom plates are  copper electroplated ABS, and enameled in black. I guess that was to save either weight or money. It only weighs 620 g or so with the tiny battery. Compare that to my Nikon F4s with batteries at a whopping 1430+ g, and you can easily call it a lightweight camera. I’ll refrain from calling it “beautiful”. That’s in the eye of the beholder. Some people think pink Instax cameras are “beautiful”. Can you say “Hello, Kitty”?

Lots of Modes

It has Manual, Aperture-priority, Shutter-priority and Program modes. Everything you could possibly want. And I think it was the first SLR to incorporate all 4. This was 1978, so I guess the Nikon/Canon feud had already started. Kind of silly. Also, you can only select the aperture from the  camera body. I’ve always thought that was weird, but I guess A-1 aficionados think that’s cool. The F-1 doesn’t have that issue, (non-issue?)


Canon Speedlight 199A
Canon Speedlite 199A

I’m not a fan of multi exposures, but it does have a multi exposure switch. It has an electronically controlled horizontal-travel cloth shutter, with a top speed 1/1000 sec. Something I suppose manual purists will hate. So, you do have to have a battery, However, it’s very accurate in use. The only caveat I would expose is oil on the shutter. I don’t know of another camera with that issue. I’m sure someone will tell me. While not very common, make sure you buy one without that issue. After all, these cameras are almost a half century old.


Canon A-1
Top Deck


The center weighted metering in this camera is very accurate. Just as good as the latest 3D space-age, fuzzy logic crapola making the rounds these days. And with the latitude of most films, it would be hard to mess up too much. But be assured, the results are always reliable. Sometimes simple is better. The exposure compensation dial is capable of + or – 2 EV, in 1/3 increments. Sort of ahead of its time. And it locks, so no accidental movement when shooting. But with the lock button, you’ll need 2 hands to turn.

Batteries, Please

It also has auto-exposure lock. But I don’t find it very useful, because you have to “hold it”. That’s stupid. But I never use AE anyway, so no biggie. This camera does NOT work without a battery. A PX28. Or A544 if you prefer. All the same. I’ve even seen them at CVS. But the Ebay deals are great. However, the battery lasts a really long time. But carry a spare. Always! There’s a battery testing button on the top of the camera, but I haven’t tested it enough to know how accurate it is. The manual says if it ‘blinks’, change the battery.


Canon AE-1
Canon Motor Drive


Of course this camera takes the FD mount lenses only. So, no modern Canon EOS lens will fit. But on the upside, these lenses are almost universally sharp,…and cheap! I guess because they don’t fit any digital Canons. You can get a 35mm or 50mm lens for as little as $20! Compare that to Nikon manual glass, and the ‘song and dance’ analogy applies here.

Huge SLR Viewfinder

The viewfinder, while only about 95%, is huge and very bright. And uncluttered. You see your aperture and shutter speed in the viewfinder in red LCD text. Actually, one of the better viewfinders on an SLR. And that includes the present day electronic wonders. I guess camera makers no longer find viewfinders a thing of importance. Or just not sexy in the marketing world. I just need to know the Aperture, Shutter and am I over exposed or under exposed. So a big thumbs up here. Why they put a viewfinder blind on a prosumer camera, I don’t know. But it’s cool to have. I would also add an eye cup. I’m not a fan of that hard, rectangular piece. But you do have to push it back to open the film door. (same on my Nikons)


Canon Winder A
Canon A Winder


The film advance lever is large, smooth and well placed. But if you want a winder or motor drive, they make them, too. First is the Canon Power Winder A. At 2 fps, it’s no speed demon, but it works quite well. They are also cheap. The MA Motor Drive gives you 5 frames a second.  It has variable speed settings. While it does add substantial weight, I have to say it makes the camera look ultra cool. To me. But then, I’m a guy, so what do I know. I’m sure it’s just my testosterone talking.

The Canon A-1 – A Big Thumbs Up

In essence, I can see why so many young filmies are using this camera. And with spectacular results. It’s simple, cheap, glass is cheap, and allows you to concentrate on the image. In fact, the only thing I can find wrong with this camera is the film door seems less than “robust”. But I’ve never heard of one falling off or breaking, so maybe it’s me and my normal experiences of shooting with ‘tanks’.




Canon, Inc.

Place of Manufacture


Date of Manufacture


Focusing System

Single-lens reflex with penta prism viewfinder

Fixed eye-level penta prism. 0.83x magnification, 93% vertical coverage, 95% horizontal coverage. Split-image matte screen. LED readouts with 7 segments for shutter speed, aperture, flash-ready, manual settings and exposure warnings.

Viewfinder blind. Optional rubber cap.(I’d get)

Lens Mount

Canon FD bayonet mount


Focal plane shutter 30 sec.- 1/1000
A “slow” X-flash sync of 1/60
2 and 10 second self-timer.

Metering System


TTL metering

Automatic exposure modes:

Shutter priority automatic exposure

Aperture priority automatic exposure

Program automatic exposure

Manual exposure

Stop-down aperture priority exposure mode

EV -2 to 18



Both external hot-shoe and PC connection

Hotshoe has extra pins for dedicated Canon Speedlite flashes

Film Type


Type 135 film (35mm standard)

ASA 6 to 12800

Battery Type

6V PX28

Plentiful on Ebay





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