Canon A-1: 40 Years Old

In 1978, Canon introduced the A-1. It was technically more advanced than most of it’s pears (maybe all). It was the first camera to offer a programmed auto-exposure mode, which means it was the first time the camera would decide which shutter speed, and which aperture to use based upon exposure meter readings. It had a built in integrated circuit, and was programmed to calculate the settings automatically.

Now, I understand how special the A-1 was, being the first camera to have the programmed auto mode, but I still feel like the camera is a bit complicated to use. However, I’m approaching this exercise with an open mind, and I’m just going to shoot and then see how I like it. I bought my A-1 a while back and have not used it at all, except to test the shutter and meter. This will be my first roll of film to run through it.

The A-1 is truly electronic – like its predecessor, the AE-1. In all auto modes, after the lens’ aperture ring is set to “A”, the aperture or shutter speed are controlled from a multi-function dial on the top right of the body – in the same place that the shutter speed dial was located on manual bodies of the time. In shutter priority mode, programmed exposure mode is selected by setting the shutter speed to “P” (which is above 1/1000 of a second on the dial). Again, having the multi-function dial to set all this seems a bit complicated, but in practice you can get used to anything, I suppose.

The viewfinder of the A-1 is pretty simple, yet displays what you need to see. The shutter speed and aperture are visible as red LED digits at the bottom. If either blinks, it means that the proper exposer is not possible. This only displays when you depress the shutter button halfway – presumably so you can concentrate on focus and composition without distraction. Even when warned about a potential incorrect exposure, nothing prevents you from taking the photo.

If you move off the “A” setting (on the lens aperture ring) you will be able to run the camera in full manual mode – by leaving the multi-function dial in Tv mode (shutter priority) you can adjust the aperture manually on the lens, and adjust the shutter speed manually with the multi-function dial. When you press the shutter button half way in this mode, it will instruct you what the aperture settings should be – and you will be responsible for making the appropriate settings. There is also an “M” in the viewfinder that instructs you “something must be manually adjusted”, so you realize that you are not in auto mode anymore.

It’s my thought, that with this camera, like the AE-1 and the other “A” bodies, manual mode wasn’t something they intended people to use much. It’s a bit inconvenient – and was there just so they could say it had a manual mode. I don’t think many owners of this camera shot in manual mode. People bought this camera for the auto modes.

So, I’m fitting my A-1 with a Canon 28mm f3.5 FD lens. For film, I’m going to try Kodak Portra 400. I’d like to make use of the various auto settings in my tests, and shoot some in lower light settings – at night, or indoors, with natural lighting. We’ll see what I end up with.

Here’s some of my results. I’m actually fairly impressed with the results – not my compositions, but just the technical details of the camera and film combo. The colors are very nice, and the camera, for as old as it is, does a great job with exposure. Just for fun, I shot all these in the Programmed Auto mode, since that was really the specialty of this camera. I’m very pleased with the results! Let me know what you think.

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