It is perhaps underappreciated that because new 35mm cameras aren’t being made (or at least not produced in volume), we have changed how we evaluate these cameras as a community. When cameras were being produced like any other consumer electronic device, the longevity of a camera was less of a concern. But now, as we see once state of the art electronics fail over the decades, we’ve placed a priority on simplicity. This consideration makes once humble cameras into valuable objects in the film world.
This is the only lens (dies inside) through which you can look at the Canon AE-1 with any sort of positivity. It’s not that the venerable AE-1 is a bad camera. Rather it was seemingly clinically derived by Canon to not cause any reaction in the human soul. Remember, the opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s apathy.
Canon AE-1 Design
The design of the Canon AE-1 can be described as typical of a Japanese SLR made in the mid-70s, which is a polite way to say almost completely unremarkable. The greatest design triumph on the body is the inclusion of the old-school skinny Canon logo, which is an act of typographic perfection so complete that the company was forced to change it to a bloated mess of a logo to cause people to buy more gear to fill the empty void in their hearts.
The only design flourishes are entirely to the detriment of the Canon AE-1’s functionality. The shutter release is an interesting approach, a glossy rounded black button that looks like a tiny Art Deco smoke detector. Sure it’s wide, which I guess makes it easy to find. But it’s also really short. And you know what I want when I need to half press the shutter to meter my shot? A short travel.
The Canon AE-1 shutter speed dial is a fantastic piece of design, if you want to feel like you’re fondling a gear from a reject version of Mouse Trap while also slowing you down as you shoot. It’s made from cassette case grade plastic, and gives all the satisfaction of reheated oatmeal made with too much soy milk when used. And because it’s integrated into the film advance lever, you can’t adjust the dial with your thumb. Meaning you always have to take your finger off the shutter to change the shutter speed. Cool.
Changing the ISO on the Canon AE-1 also requires using this dial. One the one hand, hats off to Canon for integrating three critical functions into minimal camera real estate. On the other hand, changing ISO often requiring asking for the assistance of a small child to use their slight and delicate hands to perform the tactile gymnastics needed to achieve this feat. It’s like no one was actually asked to use it before someone signed off on the design.
At least this left plenty of space on the left side of the camera for… (checks notes) … the battery test button.
Canon AE-1 Functionality
At its most basic, a viewfinder on a SLR should allow you to compose your shot and obtain critical focus. With a split prism, the Canon AE-1 is able to do that with aplomb, so bravo on covering the basics. However in every other way, using the AE-1’s viewfinder is an act of frustration.
The Canon AE-1 does offer TTL metering typical of the era, that in my experience is accurate as any 40+ year old center weighted metering has any right to be. But the way that it’s implemented in the camera is more galling than the friend who’s always reminding you he bought a Contax T2 at a garage sale for $5. Instead of just telling you if your shot is over or under exposed, the meter “helpfully” tells you what aperture you need to set for your chosen shutter speed in order to properly expose the picture. This would be fine, except that’s literally the only piece of information provided in the viewfinder.
I guess some would call it charmingly minimalist, except for the red LEDs that blast your eye every time you meter a shot. If you quickly raised your camera to your eye and forgot to check what f-stop you were at, guess what? Better take that camera away so you can check hoss! Granted, the camera can be set to shutter priority on most FD mount lenses. In that case, the metering would be sort of useful in that you get some transparency in what the camera is deciding. But given that you’re picking up something as simple as the Canon AE-1 to get a more manual photography process, the implementation is a hindrance.
Also the shutter sounds like closing an old screen door onto a wet fish.
There are some things to like about the Canon AE-1. It uses FD glass, which is both relatively cheap and abundant.
The Canon AE-1 battery compartment is also surprisingly good. For one, it uses batteries that aren’t actively trying to murder the earth. But it’s placed on the front right where you grab the camera, at least providing some sort of grip. It’s not great, you’re still begging for the carpal tunnel gods to strike your hands down, and it’s made of the same gross 1970s plastic as the shutter speed dial. But it’s a concession to ergonomics rarely seen in consumer-grade cameras of the era. Yes, this camera’s battery compartment is above average. Suck it Nikon.
Some Canon AE-1 Photos
Why Is This Popular?
So why is the Canon AE-1, a light-tight box of room temperature mayonnaise, so popular? It’s part of the depressing truth about film photography in the 21st century that we’re attaching value to those that are prone to break the least (the X-Pan notwithstanding) . Essentially, this camera is popular because a lot of it can break and you can still use it to take photos. And they made a lot of them. It’s in the same boat as the Pentax K1000, a camera that’s the result of a company taking a good camera, the Pentax KX, and taking out all the features of interest.
The Canon AE-1 is a camera devoid of flourish, features, and fun. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m taking mine out to take a few frames of self-loathing.