Canon AE-1

Canon AE-1 Review – The Hater’s Guide – By Rich Stroffolino

October 20, 2020

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.

Canon AE-1 Logo

We weren’t worthy

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.

Canon AE-1 dial

An act of design malfeasance

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 Top

“People don’t even use their left hand, right?” – Canon Executive, circa 1975

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.

Canon AE-1 Back

Stare into the void (then look away to check your aperture again)

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.

The Positives

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.

Canon AE-1 Battery Compartment

So sick

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.

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  • Reply
    Malcolm Myers
    October 20, 2020 at 10:43 am

    You’ll have to excuse me, but I really don’t see the point of publishing that ‘review’.

  • Reply
    October 20, 2020 at 11:55 am

    Canon AE-1 was my first real SLR and people really liked it when it came out in around 1976. We liked the design, the handling, the ruggedness of the camera. US airforce used those camera’s.There was nothing “oatmeal” in the construction, proof that so many of them are stil working. It was also the first real computer camera, opening the way to all the camera’s we know today. The camera was relatively “cheap’ and in those days it came with the FD 50MM 1.8 and ever-ready case included in the box!
    The construction was revolutionary, composed of pre-assembled sub-modules and the top and undercover was made of an internal plastic shell and electroplated with different layers of metal. (maybe you can read the extensive test in Modern Photography) It had the advantage of absorbing quite some chocks without denting the covers.When it came out, Nikon and the other camera makers were quite angry on Canon because of the very competitive price. Its an Icon!

  • Reply
    October 20, 2020 at 1:36 pm

    devo dire che questi “ferrivecchi” hanno l’unico inconveniente che quando si stancano di funzionare ti salutano e addio!! cercate di pagarli poco!! Auguri a tutti.

  • Reply
    October 20, 2020 at 1:41 pm

    I don’t own one, I’ve never shot one, and I don’t lust after one – but I really enjoyed this article thank you. You made me laugh and you’re spot on.

  • Reply
    October 20, 2020 at 2:44 pm

    I hope people continue to lust after this camera. Keeps their attention off the superior A-1 model, that is every bit as reliable, more feature rich, and most importantly, cheaper.

    • Reply
      Lawrence L Huber
      October 20, 2020 at 9:07 pm

      You are looking at the camera from the 2020 perspective.
      ASA was seldom changed if you used the same film over and over.
      It was purchased as a point and shoot automatic and NOT a manual camera.
      It literally blew the competition away because it was simple to use.
      No technical knowledge was required and it spelled the demise of the instamatic. People loved it and bought it as fast as it could be delivered.

    • Reply
      Chalifour Bruno
      October 20, 2020 at 9:27 pm

      Well the A-1 was far from being cheaper than the AE-1 when it was released. We are talking here of a far more evolved and powerful camera, better built, better designed with far features, considered as a semi if not fully pro camera by comparison to the AE-1 that was to the A1 what a mini Morris was to a Jaguar (or for Fabien, what a 2CV was to a DS).

  • Reply
    Brian Nicholls
    October 20, 2020 at 3:17 pm

    Interesting viewpoint Rich! I bought two AE1 bodies in the seventies plus 28, 35, 50 and 135 mm Canon FD prime lenses plus screw-on Canon autowinder. I was inspired by my role model Victor Blackman who was sports photographer (‘et-al’ ) for the Daily Mirror newspaper and columnist for weekly magazine Amateur Photographer, and used his AE1s …”in all types of inclement weather'”
    As well as the usual personal pleasure stuff I also did a number of paid assignments (mainly weddings predominantly with the 50 mm) with no complaints. I can’t recall being aware of any of the encumbrances to which you refer.

  • Reply
    Dean Linney
    October 20, 2020 at 5:12 pm

    I owned a canon AE1 about 20years ago and I used it extensively for a couple of years. It’s both well made and reliable. The only things I didn’t like were the primitive match needle metering and the fact that its completely battery dependent, basically if the battery goes on you, that’s it unless you have a spare. All that changed suddenly when I got my hands on the far superior Pentax me super. I’m afraid the AE1 was sold shortly afterwards without too much regret. The Pentax is smaller, lighter, easier handling, it tops out at 1/2000th second shutter speed and 1/125th flash sync. The exposure meter has LEDs instead of match needle metering ( much better) and the shutter makes a lovely quiet ” CLACK” sound when tripped. The m e super also has another ace up its sleeve. If the batteries go , you can continue shooting as the 1/125 second shutter speed is mechanical. Don’t get me wrong, the Canon AE1 is a good if basic camera in it’s own right but personally, I would pick the Pentax m e super every time.

    • Reply
      Matthias Rabiller
      October 21, 2020 at 3:05 pm

      I must admit, I got an AE-1 Programm and a A-1 (I specially like the latter, but it goes through batteries quicker than Depardieu through a crate of wine…), but after I got a Pentax ME and a ME Super, the Canon pretty much lost their appeal. There is something about Pentax that makes you want to grab them, rush outside and take pictures 🙂

  • Reply
    October 20, 2020 at 6:04 pm

    Ah, I see… young geek as pimply as his favorite cameras!
    The just-post-ado spits on the bases of what has been diverted over time to the delight of the incompetent.
    I drive the D850, but I keep shooting with my Rollei 35SE, my CANON AE1-P and my baby, CANON AT-1.
    Guess what, button lover, what are my loves?
    My Rollei, and my AT-1!(50 and 35mm) !
    A photographer worthy of the name does not necessarily need zigouigouis to play.
    A speed setting, a f-stop setting, both coupled to a central weighted cell: it’s ME who decides and takes the picture, not an algo laid by engineers.

    • Reply
      Chalifour Bruno
      October 20, 2020 at 9:21 pm

      PS Fabien, it terms of zigouigouis and other merdouilles no-one can say that any camera with any electronics in them does not have some. If one wants to live without them the best choice is to invest in an all mechanical camera (one that does not depend on batteries to take photographs). I could also throw an over-arching statement here and following in your steps say that “any photographer worthy of the name would definitely agree with that!” PS2… the design of how the center-weight lightmeter works was also the result of an engineer’s algorithm ;o) Amicalement,

  • Reply
    Brian Gordon
    October 20, 2020 at 8:14 pm

    The only problem I had with the two AE-1 cameras I have (including one of the first, when fewer than 500,000 of the eventual 6 million had been made) was that, after years of shooting, the foam mirror dampers disintegrated, causing.light leaks. Canon stopped repairing these workhorses around 1996.

    • Reply
      Rich Stroffolino
      October 20, 2020 at 8:24 pm

      Same thing happened to my Pentax KX. No light leaks but the residue is sticky and causes the mirror to stay flipped up.

      • Reply
        Johnny Martyr
        October 20, 2020 at 11:32 pm

        Not changing light seals on old cameras is like driving without changing the oil in your car. This will eventually destroy the whole thing over something that is very cheap, can be done oneself and is just routine maintenance, not a fault.

  • Reply
    Chalifour Bruno
    October 20, 2020 at 9:15 pm

    As said previously in another post about the Canon AE1, this was a camera that was launched like a new bar of soap… with tons of worldwide advertising by Canon. That is the real reason why it is so “popular.” It has very little to do with its intrinsic qualities. The camera was not aimed at people who wanted to be in charge of their tools but those who just wanted to press the button and let the camera do the rest (except focusing which still had to be done by the operator (as you may have noticed here I am intentionally not using the term “photographer”). Keeping on advertising this camera is, in my opinion, just doing a disservice to anyone now wanting to go back to film (meaning wanting more of a hands-on approach and control). This camera was primarily designed as the epitome of a consumer’s camera to work in automatic exposure mode. As a consequence, using it in full manual mode is not really practical. (better use an old Nikkormat or Canon Ftb for that). In the end, the very fact that its functions depend on electronics that was mass-produced (euphemism here) does not make it a very reliable camera, especially compared to its two ancestors mentioned above. To summarize this one would be ill-advised to invest in a Canon AE-1. By the way it is easy to replace the foam that dampers the mirror’s movement. You can buy it, cut it to your needed dimensions and there are plenty of instructions on the internet to proceed (as it is a very common occurrence with older SLRs).

  • Reply
    October 20, 2020 at 9:32 pm

    Such an entertaining read, Rich! It’s nice to hear a grouchy negative review once in a while.

  • Reply
    Johnny Martyr
    October 20, 2020 at 11:34 pm

    Amazing review. The film community needed it! I personally have needed to read it for about 20 years as a matter of vicarious catharsis! 😉

  • Reply
    October 21, 2020 at 12:40 am

    A good read, indeed. I had a Canon AE-1 from new in around 1979-80, and I absolutely hated it.

    I sold a Nikkormat FTn and some Nikkors to buy an AE-1 (probably because of the advertising and hype that make the Nikkormat seem old). I hated it from the word go. It was the first camera I bought new, and I remember being disappointed by it as I took it out of the box that came from Jessops of Leicester. (Back then, we did not have the right to return purchases unless they were faulty.) It felt cheap and nasty, and (as the review says) the controls were all wrong and the viewfinder was utterly horrid.

    I hated it even more when its battery was accidentally flattened, and it took me days to get a replacement to the Scottish island I was staying on at the time (these islands were very remote back then). I had not realised that a lack of battery could completely cripple a camera so did not think about carrying a spare.

    Lack of funds meant that I had to hang onto it for a torrid year or so. I re-bought my really favoured camera – Olymus OM-1 and some Zuikos – and was very happy. (I still have that OM-1 and I used Olympus and Nikon cameras ever since.)

    So profound was the experience of the AE-1, even 40 years on, I would not consider buying a Canon camera. That is how much owning the AE-1 hurt!

    About the same time, a pal of mine had a Canon A1 and F1. Both of them broke in annoying and expensive ways. He replaced them with an old Nikon F2Sb, which I eventually bought from him when it was well over 10 years into a hard-used life, and it was an absolute delight! It lived alongside my Olympus cameras for many years.

    So, my advice to modern film SLR users is to shun the vile AE-1, and get yourself and Oly OM-1/3, Nikkormat FTn/2/3, Nikon FM, Nikon F2 and you will have a camera that will be a joy to use and that you can pass on to your children and grandchildren! If you want automation, an OM-2 OM-4, Nikon F3/4 EL-2/FE are all so very much better!

  • Reply
    October 21, 2020 at 1:33 am

    Loves your review, also loved reading all the replies to it. In my opinion, it all comes down to whether you like shooting with it. 😊 It was my first film camera that I picked up a few years ago and i loved it. Though to be honest, it’s just a fun hobby to do with my youngins, I don’t do it for money or for a job so my expectations are probably lower than most. lol. I now own more than 15 slrs and 4 dslrs from various manufacturers and still love my AE-1. Like I said, I feel it should be about whether you like shooting with it or not.

  • Reply
    October 21, 2020 at 3:10 am

    I also hate the overrated AE1. I inherited one from a cousin but never took to it. My Minolta XE-7 with aperture priority was so much better. I’m working in a Ct. camera shop now and more than half the AE’s that are brought in for us to buy have a particular wheeze. A death rattle of sorts. I recommend picking up one of the fabulous Olympus OM, Pentax MX or Nikon FE or FM Cameras.

    • Reply
      October 21, 2020 at 3:03 pm

      What is this wheeze or rattle? What does the AE-1 do or not do?

      • Reply
        Brian Nicholls
        October 21, 2020 at 8:13 pm

        The aforementioned ‘wheeze or rattle’ is officially known as ‘The Canon Cough’ an audible noise indicating that the lubrication in the shutter bearings has dried up.

  • Reply
    Marco Diaz
    October 21, 2020 at 3:51 am

    Great article. That comment on the short shutter is HILARIOUS! The AE-1 will always have a soft spot for me. For one it was the first camera I ever had. My father gave me his in the 1980’s. He had upgraded to the AE-1 Program! I would love to see an article on that one day. I lost possession of it for an EOS ELAN in the early 1990’s. But I bought one on eBay in the aughts and it is what got me back into film. Sadly I Mari Kondo’d even that one. But I don’t know – this article is making me think twice about that decision.

  • Reply
    Bob Janes
    October 21, 2020 at 11:04 am

    Well your antipathy to the AE1 doesn’t seem to have stopped you shooting with it and producing some decent results – I find myself wanting to know more about the ‘Deer drop off’…
    I think you really have to use automatic cameras in their automatic modes to really appreciate them – at the time the AE1 was out I was shooting with Konica Autoreflexes, which were the other ‘shutter priority’ cameras available – back in those days, along with the debate between manual and automatic (real photographers don’t use automatic cameras!) Tenn there was a sub-argument about whether shutter or aperture priority was best.
    I seem to remember that Canon produced a manual exposure version of the AE1 (AT1?) – I wonder if you would find that a more suitable fit…

  • Reply
    October 21, 2020 at 3:30 pm

    Interesting. Someone placing a camera in it’s time, who has either forgotten, or wasn’t there. I chose a Pentax, but I do remember the pro’s and con’s of the AE-1, when compared to it’s peers at the time. You missed them all.

    You can fool some of the people some of the time &etc…

  • Reply
    October 21, 2020 at 5:43 pm

    I was hoping your review could be more descriptive (J.K. – “screen door on a wet fish” 🙂
    Excellent review. I once lusted after the AE-1 but could never afford it but I now own two and have found them to be – Meh!
    I also wanted a Pentax ME Super and now that I have one (and an ME) find it somewhat inconvenient to use. On the other hand i overlooked the Olympus slr’s back then but now adore them. The AE-1 I find just has a tinny, flimsy feel to it. It’ll do the job well no doubt but just isn’t a satisfying, soul quenching experience for me.
    Nice job

  • Reply
    Barry Reid
    October 21, 2020 at 8:39 pm

    Just for perspective, the AE-1 is far from the worst Canon. In fact it’s a dream of practicality and charm compared to its behemoth antecedent, the EF. The latter being the only electronic camera I’ve encountered that makes a Zenit seem refined by comparison.

    It incorporates all the drawbacks of the AE-1 (including the non-coupled manual mode metering) but about 40% heavier and requiring not one but 2 PX-625 mercury batteries. Much loved by the hairshirt brigade on’ equipment forums because it’s heavier than an anvil and some of its shutter speeds can be used without a battery.

    • Reply
      October 22, 2020 at 3:18 am

      The alternate view: The EF was a serious camera built to an extremely high standard, Shutter speed down to 30 sec. It looks like the F1 series. I’d buy an EF in a minute; the AE1 never.

  • Reply
    October 21, 2020 at 9:50 pm

    I always considered the AE-1 a overrated camera. It was relatively cheap but I prefer much more other cameras from this era, like the Nikon FE ir FM, Pentax MX, Olympus OM-1 ir Minolta XD11

  • Reply
    Bill Smith
    October 22, 2020 at 8:18 pm

    Spot on review Rich.

    My history with Canon and the AE-1, when I started seriously shooting back in the late 1990s mom and dad gave me a Canon Rebel XS as a birthday present and a subtle hint I was working too hard and needed a hobby. Around 2001 I picked up a Canon AE-1 and shot with that, my brother got into the hobby the same time and got a Minolta XG-M. Fast forward a few years after buying a Nikon F around the same time my dad passed and I also inherited his Nikon F. I traded off the Canon AE-1 and FD glass as it made more sense to go deeper into NIkon, Around 2008 a friend gifts me a Canon FTb, a year later I buy brother’s Canon New F-1 and FD glass. Two years later I bought another AE-1 why not for old times sake, traded that away two years later fast forward a bunch of years, I was gifted a black AE-1P shot with that for a little while, let that one go. In the mean time I picked up a few more F-1 bodies, an EF (a very cool and underrated camera) and a second FTb. So I’m a Nikon fan boy with a fair bit of Canon FD gear.

    Thing is A-series Canon bodies do nothing for me. We all know the quirks of the AE-1 mentioned above but that hasn’t stopped every Instagram influencer grabbing one. The A-1s, ah the A-1s, light years ahead of the AE-1 but the user interface is a rhymes with fluster duck, but a Canon digital shooter will feel right at home with an A-1 body. Give me a Canon New F-1, FTb, or EF any day of the week.

  • Reply
    October 23, 2020 at 8:57 am

    Boring, all this “hate” about cameras, in particular if it is about a Canon product (I am no fanboy!). Nobody would write such a review about a Nikon. My main SLR for many years was a Nikon FM-2. Let me cite one passage and swap brand/camera names: “…the design of the Nikon FM-2 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 Nikon logo”. Well, you can easily recognize that this and other passages in this review would apply perfectly to an FM-2 or many other cameras made by different brands during that period of classic industrial design.

    If you basically don’t like such cameras, just sell it and get another one, instead of torturing yourself! Btw, as others already said here, we didn’t use the ASA/ISO wheel frequently back in those days, because we mostly used ASA 100 films to get fine grain, and ASA 400 films when we expected low light. My girlfriend in the 80s had a Canon AE-1, and it was a good affordable and reliable SLR back then, I enjoyed using it sometimes. Finally, the lens was much more important for the results anyway.

    There is definitely too much hate in this world to apply it to something as wonderful as photography IMO. The only cameras I really hate are those pinky digital Kids toy cameras with bad image quality and even worse lcd screens. Only adult idiots can put such cameras on children who have the best eyes of their lives at this age.

    • Reply
      October 24, 2020 at 10:19 pm

      Akshully the FM2 is a very remarkable design. Who else made a camera with a fully mechanical shutter that can fire up to 1/4000 sec?

      There are plenty of AE1 reviews that gush all over it out there, if that is what you want. Don’t take this stuff so seriously!

  • Reply
    Holly Gilman
    October 24, 2020 at 8:31 am

    Thoroughly enjoyed reading this despite not being a big fan of gear reviews. Thank you for the refreshing honesty!

  • Reply
    October 25, 2020 at 9:58 am

    Funny article. I don’t know why they decided that battery compartment should go at the front of the camera, it looks terrible having that lump of plastic there making the body look cluttered, visually imbalanced and giving the very opposite of clean lines. There’s a reason no other company put it on the front of the camera.

    That, plus the common shutter squeal and the fact that FD lenses seem boring to me – too modern in apperance and image quality to feel vintage and characterful, means there’s zero interest from me, despite owning numerous other Canon cameras.

  • Reply
    October 28, 2020 at 9:02 am

    Very funny 😀 I laughed a lot while reading and I’ll be happy to read such for other popular cameras as well. Bravo

  • Reply
    Howie Dewing
    October 30, 2020 at 7:22 pm

    See also : Canon Squeal. Late term. Usually fatal for Canons except for dependants of the most ardent owners.

  • Reply
    Dennis Sulz
    November 7, 2020 at 2:26 am

    Nothing to do with any shutter at all as it is just the mirror regulator as shutters DO NOT use bearings only bushings. One or two drops of oil in the right spots cures this quickly and permanently. Did 3 of mine and quietly use them.

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