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Nick's Classic Corner - No. 2 - Canon AE-1

Discussion in 'Classic Models & Marques' started by Benchista, Oct 5, 2013.

  1. Benchista

    Benchista Which Tyler

    Following on from Bawbee's suggestion, here's my first bash - I've gone for the AE-1 because of it's historical significance, and because mine was sitting around handily...

    Back in the early 70s, the camera world was undergoing major change. Not many years before, most "serious" amateur photographers would've used a rangefinder camera or a rollfilm folder, or better yet a TLR. But in the late 60s/early 70s the 35mm SLR revolution really took hold, and suddenly the SLR was king. Then along came the Olympus OMs and Pentax M series, and all of a sudden the big, heavy and entirely manual SLRs that had dominated the scene looked suddenly very old-fashioned.
    Against that backdrop, in 1976 Canon chose to do something a little different; they didn't go as far down the miniaturisation route as Olympus and Pentax, but instead came out with something even more radical and without which today's autofocus, autoexposure and digital SLRs could not function - microprocessor control. Canon claimed that the electronics in the AE-1 allowed for the reduction of 300 parts, clearly something not to be sniffed at.

    So, what was this camera? It offered shutter priority and manual exposure - shutter priority was relatively rare at the time, most manufacturers opting for aperture priority instead, but Canon already had FD lenses set up with an auto setting, so stuck to their guns. It was a little larger than some competitors, but a fair bit smaller and lighter than the previous generation EF and FTb models. Some of that was achieved by the use of plastics, not all of which were to the standard of more modern materials. However, overall the camera feels solid and reasonably robust. It generally came with the 50mm f1.8 FD lens, originally in breechlock form but from 1979 in bayonet form - there will be a separate article on lenses, but suffice it to say that this lens is typical of standard lenses of the era, and still a very fine performer.
    The camera was a massive success, backed up by a huge marketing campaign - back in the 70s, you could hardly move for SLR ads. Over a million AE-1s were sold.

    It relied on batteries, of course - a 4LR44 battery that's still easily obtainable now. Shutter speed range was a fairly conventional for the time 2 seconds to 1/1000 with a horizontally running cloth shutter, but less conventional was the placing of the shutter speed dial - around the wind-on lever, with an inset window for setting the film speed (in ASA) The wind-on lever is smooth in operation, has a comfortable stand-off angle and can be stroked. There's a shutter lock lever around the shutter release that also switches on the self-timer. Just inboard of the shutter speed dial and behind the shutter release is the frame counter. On the left of the (ABS) topplate is the battery check button and the rewind leaver, which as usual releases the back. The hotshoe has two extra contacts for a dedicated flashgun - this would automatically set the synch speed (1/60) and aperture.

    On the base is a central tripod bush, the rewind button, and a cover for the drive socket, with a couple of electrical contacts for communication for the autowinder - the Power Winder , which takes 4 AA batteries and propels the camera at 2 fps, a normal speed for the time. The back has a memo holder (for the end of the film box) and could be replaced with a databack.

    On the front at the bottom is a depth-of-field preview switch. Above it is a metering button, and above that, a backlight button to give about 2 stops more exposure. There's no other exposure compensation available. There are lugs for a strap, and a PC socket.

    The viewfinder is reasonably large and clear, and very uncluttered by modern standards. The (fixed) screen has a horizontal split image rangefinder surrounded by a microprism collar - all very standard. On the right is an aperture scale, with a needle indicating the selected aperture. Above is a red LED M to indicate manual exposure, and below is a red LED for underexposure.

    Perhaps surprisingly, Canons QL quick load system was abandoned with this camera, with the take-up slot having multiple slots instead.

    All in all, not a particularly unusual specification - if only because everyone else jumped on the electronics bandwagon shortly afterwards. What it is is a good solid photographic package that's still reliable now notwithstanding both the early electronics and the infamous Canon squeak. It's certainly not my favourite camera of the era, but it's far from my least favourite, too.
  2. TimHeath

    TimHeath Well-Known Member

    Great stuff but I would like to see photos of the camera in question :)
  3. 0lybacker

    0lybacker In the Stop Bath

    Re: Nick's Classic Corner - No. 1 - Canon AE-1

    Over a million sold? Are you sure?

    I seem to recall that at its peak of AE-1 production, Canon were making 1 million per year of which something like 20-25% were sold in the UK. Haven't got a referable source for that, it would have been a read & (mis?)remembered 'fact' from a photo mag way back when. :eek:
  4. Benchista

    Benchista Which Tyler

    To follow... ;)
  5. Benchista

    Benchista Which Tyler

    No, not at all: sadly, the figure is from Wikipedia, which claims it's from Bob Shell. Although I used to converse regularly with Bob on all sorts of matters photographic, that's not exactly a realistic proposition now. :(

    Sounds quite possible - maybe the figure was for the first year's sales.
  6. PeteE

    PeteE Well-Known Member

    Really enjoying all these articles -- AND you mentioned the Famous 'Canon Squeak' in this one !! Keep writing ---
  7. PeteE

    PeteE Well-Known Member

    Here is MY AE1 as a previous member wanted to see a photo . I WAS going to change from PENTAX to Canon as I got annoyed when Pentax changed from screw to bayonet mount but I used to make all mistakes with the Canon -- come back PENTAX -- all is forgiven --
    Canon AE1 by pentaxpete, on Flickr
  8. RogerMac

    RogerMac Well-Known Member

    I certainly remember reading, at about the time I bought mine, that production was running a million a year. The serial number on mine is 1,531,638. I do not know if serial numbers usually start at 1 but if they do that number would add credence to the production rate. Perhaps someone knows if that is so
    Last edited: Nov 18, 2013
  9. Benchista

    Benchista Which Tyler

    It's very rare for serial numbers to start at 1.

    The more production figures I see for cameras, the more surprised I am at how low many of them are - some cameras I've considered pretty common only managed in the tens of thousands. The entire production of all the L series Prakticas over a 20 year period didn't amount to 5 million, so 1 million a year is a very large number indeed fir a single camera - however, it may well be right.
  10. gazza77

    gazza77 Well-Known Member

    I've just got my hands on one of these, as my Dad had been rooting around at home and found his. I remember this from all sorts of holidays and days out as a kid (I'm 36 now). Hopefully it will still work, so I can put a film through it and see how I get on. :D
  11. RogerMac

    RogerMac Well-Known Member

    One of my teenage granddaughters has just decided to to experiment with film and picked up a mint AE1 on the Swiss equivalent of ebay, including four lenses, for £23! She has already done some good B&W images so obviously still a very practical machine
  12. Skyehammer

    Skyehammer Well-Known Member

    I have THREE of them !!
  13. PeteE

    PeteE Well-Known Member

    Wow ! are they all 'Squeak -free ? ' :)

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