Creating beautiful and compelling imagery through the medium of photography is a difficult challenge. Capturing a scene as it unfolds is both art and truth in storytelling. Today, digital photography presents the effortless platform for image capture. Excelling technology allows anyone to pick up a camera and take excellent photographs. One might say the ease of digital imagery has opened doors across platforms. We’ve seen this paradigm before; we witnessed the introduction of gateway tools in the world of photography since the dawn of the medium, each time bringing in new and excited enthusiasts who will go on to redefine what it is to be a photographer. In 1981, well before the surge of digital technology, there was a camera that similarly ushered in a generation of photographers: the Canon AE-1 Program.
Compact beauty and simplicity. The AE-1 Program has all the components of a proper SLR packed tightly into sleek and stylish package. An upgrade from earlier models, the Program offered fully automatic modes. The auto settings greatly make this camera an attraction for street photographers and shoot-from-the-hip enthusiasts. It is sleek and beautiful, lightweight, and (let's be honest) stylish. Packed with a 50mm lens and your shots compose themselves, giving you the opportunity to actually be in the environment. Rather than firing away 1,000 photos to be edited later, you can watch a situation unfold and raise your camera only at the time when you feel it is ready to be captured. The auto settings give you the ability to think less about mechanical composure and more about artistic composure. I’m a proponent for using manual settings (often saying auto settings can be leaned on but never relied on), but I’m also a sucker for having to work less to create beautiful images. The AE-1 Program is so incredibly simple and capable. The necessary skill level required to operate this camera is broad, perhaps why this is the most popular camera for photography students.
It is one thing to marvel over the technology of the AE-1P, however understanding drama of this model takes a look back at photography’s history. Set your time machine for 1981. There were many great cameras, but Canon was low on the list when it came to groundbreaking technology. There was Leica and Nikon as the big boy 35mm cameras. Olympus, Minolta, Pentax, and Canon were coming up closely as consumer-level equipment. Sure there were standout characteristics of each, and many began to break apart in their eventual pursuits. The point to be made is Canon was just another contender in a pack of camera companies. Canon had the Canonet, a popular rangefinder point-and-shoot, and the 110 series cameras as their popular consumer candidates. Aside from those they had the A-series cameras to offer up. The A series was a growing category honing in on the automatic/program technology. Canon was beginning to develop highly accurate metering technology that was allowing for automation like no other.
There were plenty of amazing cameras on the market, but there was little in the way of competition for full-auto in the market. Nikon had just released the famed F3 that offered aperture priority with stepless shutter, but nothing quite at the level of the AE-1 Program. The camera was ushering in a new type of shooter to the professional level 35mm camera. Whats more, the original AE-1 and the cameras to follow (including the AE-1 Program) would be manufactured using automated technology, a huge contributor to the drop in price for high quality 35mm cameras. Price for a new AE-1 Program in 1981 was around $700, roughly $2,000 in today’s market. Not a bad price for a fully-automatic SLR. It was half the price of a new Nikon F3, widely considered to be one of the best high-end SLRs on the market at the time, if not ever.
The lenses for Canon A-series cameras used the FD mount system. There are many lenses available out there, but there are really only a few you worth paying attention to. Chances are, if you’re shooting with an AE-1 Program, you’re in film school, taking a photography class, or just have an appreciation for analog photography. In whatever case, you’ll want to gravitate towards the three primes: 35mm, 50mm, and 85mm. There are some wide angle options that are pretty nice, but the 50mm f/1.4 is a really great get. A well executed 50mm shot on an AE-1 Program takes little effort with great reward. As you know, the 50mm lens is about what the human eye sees, so spotting a great shot and executing the photograph comes pretty smooth. There is an f/1.4 and a cheaper f/1.8 available, with the greater reviews going towards the f/1.4. The 85mm lens available shoots at f/1.2, and still runs pretty pricey for one in good shape. A little digging with reveal and range of wider angles, a fisheye, and a bunch of telephotos, however the 50mm on this camera is the winning combination.
A slight pull up on the rewind crank pops the film door open from left to right. Simple and straightforward, the film compartment is located on the left with a dual stage take up spool on the right. Feed the leader into the slots on the take up spool and advance. The stock manual advance crank is required to send the film into place with a dial located on the top right to signify the amount of exposures captured. Opening the film door will always send the dial back to “S” or start. To rewind the film, press the small black button on the bottom right of the camera to release the take up spool, pop up the rewind crank, and turn clockwise. An optional attachable motor drive auto advances and rewinds the film automatically. This device uses the same technology and connecting points from the AE-1P’s predecessor, the A-1. Looking through the eyepiece, you will notice a meter on the right side of mirror display. The numbers indicate the proper aperture to take an accurately exposed image. The metering was groundbreaking for its time, incorporating full aperture, counterweighted, averaging metering (also known as TTL stopped-down metering). The meter is also rated to work on film speeds from ISO 12–3,200. All together, it’s a beauty of engineering packed into a sleek package.
There's a pretty easy hack for a double exposure on this camera. Achieving a double exposure on most film cameras requires a few steps at the very minimum. On the AE-1 Program, you can simple click the little black button on the bottom of the camera that you'd click to rewind the film. This will release the take up spool. Put your thumb on the rewind crank to prevent it from moving and advance the film. Now you'll be ready for your second exposure and continue advancing as normal. Repeat these steps for each additional exposure per frame.
Overall, for the price, this camera is worth every cent. It is a must-own camera for every photographer, if anything for its historical significance. The functionality is efficient, the look and feel is unmistakeable, and the price is reasonable. You can easily pick one up on eBay for under $100, load it up with your favorite film, and let the nostalgia wash over you. My recommendation is to not take the camera super serious. Sure, you’ll find photographers out there producing some very technical imagery using this camera, but to me, the beauty rests in its companionship. Having the AE-1 always with you allows you to snap some beautiful candids from the hip but don’t expect it to deliver in a paid professional setting. The manual advance slows things down (though an auto advance attachment is available), and the lens (specifically the 50mm f/1.8) gets very soft around the edges when shooting faster than f/4.
I must confess, I'm very biased in my review of this camera. This model was my gateway to photography when I was a child. We had our family's AE-1 Program, complete with woven strap, on the top shelf of the hall closet ready for every family event. Oftentimes, no one would want to have the responsibility of documenting our ridiculous adventures so the duty would fall to me. My earliest memories often consist of cranking the advance lever, the satisfying feel of gears turning, the metal clanking and the film moving inside of this solid metal body. The AE-1 Program, and many of the Canon A-series cameras, have similar nostalgia to film shooters; whether their first film school camera, a family heirloom, or a gateway back into shooting film, the AE-1 marks a beginning in a lot of ways. Just as it ushered in new technology, it very much still exists as a reference point in the evolution of photographic technology.
Is there a camera that speaks to your childhood or beginnings as a photographer? What is it and why? I’d love to review it.