Camera Review: Canon A-1

It is not often these days that a camera will surprise me. I've been a photographer for a very long time and I've used just about every camera design from just about every era you can imagine at least once in my life. Every so often tough, something will come along that surprises me and makes me realize that for all of my experience, I certainly don't know everything and there are plenty of surprises left for me.

When a friend of mine recently decided to move across the country he left me a box of old camera gear he no longer wanted. Mostly old dirty lens filters, a darkroom thermometer, a non-functioning polaroid, that sort of thing. However there was one gem in the analogue "grab bag" in the form of a very beat up old Canon A-1. I had honestly never heard of an A-1 before and based on the model name I just assumed it was a maybe a lower grade version of the incredibly popular AE-1. Oh no... I was wrong. I was very very wrong. 

It turns out the A-1 was actually Canon's most advanced and modern SLR in the "A" series line of cameras produced throughout the seventies and early eighties. It shares a lot in the sense of size and styling similarities with the popular AE-1 and AE-1 "Program" however it only came in an all black body and feels quite a bit heavier hinting at better quality construction. Like the AE-1 it takes the full line of Canon FD mount lenses which I am learning very quickly are of exceptional quality for a very tiny price tag. Where it is different from most SLR's made in the seventies is its functionality. The A-1 offers fully manual, aperture priority, shutter priority, and fully automatic exposure modes!! In addition the A-1 offers exposure compensation, auto-exposure lock, self timer (in two and ten second options), multi-exposure, a viewfinder blackout switch, depth of field preview...the list goes on and on. Extremely impressive considering every function is accessible through a physical switch or dial on the camera body.

Using the A-1 is a bit of a strange experience. One quickly gets the sense that is was the precursor to Canon's design philosophy we all now think of as standard with the modern EOS line. Apertures and shutter speeds are controlled through the camera body via a display window (all analogue readout, not an LCD) and a jog wheel on the front of the camera body. It seemed a little strange at first and I kept wanting to adjust my aperture on the lens barrel, but once I got it into my head to adjust my exposure settings more like a modern digital SLR I found it to be intuitive.

One little feature that I like about the A-1 is that the control wheel on the front of the camera body can be covered and locked via a plastic switch. So if I want to set the camera to f/2.8 on aperture priority mode I can do so and then lock the wheel to prevent my settings from changing. Pretty cool!! I think this is a feature that should definitely be looked into with modern digital SLR's and mirrorless camera bodies. 

Canon A-1 with 35mm f/2 and Ilford FP4

My favorite aspect of the A-1 is the viewfinder. For a decades old SLR it is very bright and clear, one of the best I've ever seen. Focus is assisted through a split prism which is very intuitive and useful. Along the bottom of the viewfinder selected shutter speed and f/stop are displayed via illuminated LCD lights. All of this is good and respectable, but what really puts it over the top for me is the fact that you can turn the information display OFF! If I want an uncluttered and a view completely distraction free all I have to do is flip a switch on the top plate of the camera and viola, I've got one. I absolutely adore the ease at which I can take advantage of this and for me it makes the picture taking experience really enjoyable.  

I admit that my A-1 was victim to the infamous "shutter squeak" that many Canon cameras from this era seem to have. Whenever I would release the shutter the camera sounded like it had a bad case of asthma exhibiting a pitiful sound. A quick Google search revealed that the sound was not coming from the shutter at all, but instead the gear mechanisms for the mirror. It didn't seem to affect my pictures at all, but I did a search on YouTube and found a very easy repair which appears to have temporarily fixed the problem. In time I'll be taking this camera in for a good cleaning and adjustment, but for now it is working well enough for my needs. 

Canon A-1 with 35mm f/2 and Kodak Ektar film

Taking a quick look on eBay I notice the A-1 tends to go for about half the cost of the AE-1 even though it has a much stronger feature set and is made from better materials. If I had to guess a reason behind this I would say it is likely the fact that the A-1 does not have the silver and black finish of the AE-1 (not to mention every other SLR from the seventies) and therefore does not look as "retro". It's either that or a lot of photographers have simply never heard of it, up until recently myself included. Either way, I would highly recommend the A-1 as a good starter SLR or a good light durable camera for a film buff to travel with.