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Canon AE-1


I loved it, I hated it.

Something happened on my way to buying my own camera. First of all, Canon made a very big splash when it introduced the Canon AE-1 in 1977. Secondly, I had a father who had this thing for the brand new or the latest model. So during the summer of ’77, I found myself being steered away from the Pentax K cameras (which by this time were already about two years old in design) to the Canon AE-1. The third big factor was the fact that it was my dad who was paying for the camera...

By the time my birthday rolled around in the third quarter of 1977, I found myself with a Canon AE-1, a Canon FD 50/1.8, the Power Winder A and a Speedlight flash. I eventually rationalized why it was a great camera (the winder for on--which the Pentax K cameras does not ordinarily have). It was also unique that it had an automatic aperture (Tv mode) which was quite different from the other cameras which had automatic shutter speed (Av mode). The Olympus OM2, the Pentax K2 and some others all offered Av mode as their form of automation. Recalling certain experiences with the PEN EE-2 and the Datematic (both Av mode cams--sort of) gave me a little sense of security with the AE-1’s Tv mode. There were occasions where I was surprised by the camera with unexpectedly long exposures; with the AE-1 that was something I would not have to worry about.

Given that in college, I was half chasing down girls or running away from fraternity rumbles, a fixed shutter speed was the way to go especially later when my first zoom would come around. The lens that I would acquire is a Vivitar TX 100-300/5 zoom; quite a handful but handy for the stuff I was running after (or away from). I had to peg the shutter speed to at least 1/250 to get a decent shot with the Vivitar avoiding camera shake. To achieve that, I learned to push my black and white film. Discovering Ilford HP4 (later HP5) and Acuspeed, I began shooting at ASA 1600 (ISO 1600) or even 3200.

I would shoot my first wedding in 1978. Cutting my classes to do so, I went armed with the AE-1, a newly acquired Canon P (M42) Mount adapter (“P” for Pentax), which allowed me to mount the Takumars. During this episode, much of the learning was in the darkroom as I began playing around with the chemicals with the goal of achieving high resolution and as fine grain as one can get while pushing the film.

The Vivitar zoom mostly stayed with the Canon as it became the lens of choice for the environment of Philippine Christian University (PCU). The rest of the time, it was the actually the Takumars of the Pentax Spotmatic which I used owing to the fact they were a lot better than the “kit lens” (not yet a term in use in 1978) that came with the AE-1. I was back to screwing around so to speak.

My brother, upon his own high school graduation would receive a Canon A-1 as a present (with a Canon FD 50/1.4 & the Motor Drive MA): definitely a step up from the Spotmatic and a leap over my AE-1. If ever I was envious about anything, it was the FD 50/1.4 because by now, I was beginning to see the inadequacies of the Canon A series.

First of all, its metering seemed flat (as opposed to the center weighted of the SP and the CLC of the SRT-101) so the underexposure was worse in my backlit photos; even worse than the Pentax. The AE-1 had a workaround for that, which was a “backlight button” which automatically raised the exposure value (EV) to +1.5, but that was winging it. With the Pentax I can easily frame or pan around to see what the ‘right’ exposure was and meter there; and since it was a manual metering camera, the setting stayed even as I recomposed my shot. It was more difficult with the Canon because there was no “center” to its metering and the exposure lock (the precursor to the AE-L) held its memory as long as you held it down.

Secondly, because the AE-1 was primarily automatic, those tricky lighting situations became even trickier. It seemed that Canon intended these cameras to be used in automatic mode with no consideration for manual mode. Taking the lens off the “A” mode handed over to the photographer control of the aperture but without any reference to what the exposure should be. At automatic (the lens set on “A”), the viewfinder indicated what aperture the camera automatically decided to use (you set the shutter speed manually). At manual (the lens set off “A”), the viewfinder indicated what aperture you should be using without any information if your lens is actually set at that f-stop. The work flow was: meter—take your eye off the camera to look at the lens--then set the aperture—then take the picture (okay focus somewhere along the way).

The other solution was to use it in stop down mode
—not as simple as it seems.  Basically, it requires fooling the camera into thinking that what is mounted is not an FD lens.  It actually works better when using the screw mount Takumars in full-time stop down mode: the meter needle in the viewfinder swings up or down to indicate over and under exposure—much like the Spotmatic's light meter!  With the Takumars, you simply lock the stop-down switch and center the needle.  It was like going back to using the Pentax SP!

That was the reason why the Canon A-1 did not raise my heartbeat when it came around. It was worse in a sense that its viewfinder had LEDs which indicated the shutter or aperture selected by the camera (in either Av, Tv or Program mode) or the speed or f-stop selected in Manual
but without any indication of over or under exposure. The only way to manually meter was to get a reading off, say, the Program mode then memorizing the numbers then after switching to Manual mode, applying those numbers mentally doing the math to compensating for high or low shutter speeds, or deep or shallow DOF. It was actually easier to use the Sekonic hand held meter rather than manually meter with the A-1.

Finally, all that automation had the proverbial Achilles’ heel: batteries. The 4LR44 were expensive and had a nasty habit of suddenly dying (as it had no indication of power). There were a number of occasions where I found myself running to the nearest camera shop (after begging for money since I was on allowance part of the time) to find a quick replacement.

That factored in as I anticipated one of my best adventures towards the end of my college days—the Ifugao community work. Knowing that I would be in the middle of nowhere, I brought along extra batteries and an extra camera: a Pentax K2 borrowed from a cousin. I found myself finally using the camera which I really wanted; oh it did not have winder but then again in many situations I would turn off the Canon’s Power Winder because it was too noisy. The K2 came only with one lens though although I knew enough that with the M42 adapter, the Takumars would seamlessly work with it without having to fool it.

Moving on from college to seminary, I would routinely shoot events and weddings but now with a back up camera around (the SP, the SRT-101 or my brother’s A-1) as the AE-1 began to show signs of aging. A breakdown sent it to a shop requiring a replacement of a circuit board: it was expensive and I would discover that it was almost the cost of a used camera! The winder would also breakdown and it would cost P700+ to repair; a number notable because I remembered that the winder cost P666 when it was originally purchased (quite easy to remember ‘no?). I did not bother having the winder fixed. The Vivitar zoom had a series of mishaps that ultimately killed it. Although before that, I managed to find a TX adapter to use it with the Minolta SRT-101.

After that expensive CLA, I decided to part with the Canon AE-1 finally in 1985. I would eventually sell it and buy a used Pentax ME super, but that is now an altogether different story.


Canon would release the AE-1 Program about the time my own camera was dying but because of my experience with my brother’s A-1, I did not pay any attention to it. The subsequent T series was even more automated and would turn out the last of the FD mount cameras. I realized that if I stayed on with Canon, I would find myself abandoned when it moved to the EOS series. I would have had to start from scratch again—something which I was about to do.
Because of the peeve about the A series, I was now basically looking at a camera that had a full information viewfinder where I can manually adjust without taking my eye off the camera. The Nikon FM and the Pentax MX now comes into view.

Mid-life Postscript

In 2006, a friend asked me to baby sit her Canon AE-1 Program (black body). It was déjà vu. Picking up some accessories from eBay to make it usable, I feel like I’m back in college again.


Post Mid-life Postscript

In 2009, another friend asked me to take care of his Canon AE-1.

I hate it. I love it.


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