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The Canon AE-1 Program. Is it still worth it?

Updated: Mar 24, 2023

Canon AE-1 Program | 35mm SLR

The Canon AE-1 Program is often referred to as the camera that started it all for many film photographers, and it's easy to see why.

Compact with beauty and simplicity, the AE-1 Program has all the components of a proper SLR packed tightly into a 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. Package it 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. For this reason, it's a fantastic camera for someone who is just getting into the craft and isn't yet comfortable in manually exposing their images.

The lenses for Canon A-series cameras used the FD mount system. There are many lenses available out there, from primes to telephoto and zooms. Although most people who shoot with the AE-1 Program tend to gravitate towards the primes, namely the, 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 will reveal a range of wider angles, a fisheye, and a bunch of telephotos, however, the 50mm on this camera is the winning combination.

A 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 number 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 was also available which 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 the 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. Altogether, it’s a beauty of engineering packed into a sleek package.

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 are unmistakable, and the price although has increased over the last few years, is still very reasonable. You can easily pick one up for anywhere between £80-£120 depending on its condition, oftentimes you'll even find it bundled with a lens or two. Just load it up with your favourite film, and let the nostalgia consume 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. 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.

Overall, it's a fantastic camera for the price and is capable of producing some stunning images.

I would absolutely still recommend this camera to anyone with an interest in film photography, especially if you've never had one.

You can find this camera on our website.

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