I’ve owned two Canon AE-1 Programs over the years, one I bought for just $30 and another that was given to me. I’d been on the hunt for its predecessor, the Canon AE-1, but never found one at a price I was willing to pay.
The 1976 AE-1 was the first SLR to be controlled by a microprocessor. It was also among the first SLRs to rely heavily on plastics in its manufacture, all the way down to the tiny mechanical bits inside. In comparison, Pentax’s seminal K1000 SLR, also introduced in 1976, is all mechanical and all metal.
Canon introduced the AE-1 Program in 1981. It adds programmed autoexposure to the AE-1. It features a cloth-curtain shutter with speeds up to 1/1000 sec, flash synchronization at 1/60 sec, a big, bright viewfinder with an interchangeable split/microprism focusing screen, and compatibility with the entire range of good Canon FD-mount lenses, all in a body more compact than other contemporary SLRs. It’s not as small as my Pentax ME or my Olympus OM-1, but it feels right-sized in my hands.
The AE-1 Program won’t run without a battery. Mine came with a functioning 6V 4LR44, which goes behind the grip on the front. I’ve read elsewhere that you can use four 1.5V LR44 batteries, instead; those button batteries are easier to find than the 4LR44. Makes sense that four LR44 batteries make one 4LR44. Take care accessing the battery compartment, which is behind the grip on the camera’s front. The grip and battery door are well known to break easily. The battery door on my first AE-1 was broken, but the grip held it down all right.
If you like SLRs of this ilk you might also enjoy my reviews of the Canon AL-1 (here), the Nikon N2000 (here), the Minolta Maxxum 7000 (here), the Canon T70 (here), and the Nikon FA (here). Or check out all of my camera reviews here.
The AE-1 Program was most often sold with the FD 50mm f/1.8 lens; one was attached the first AE-1 Program I owned. I had reason to be Downtown, so I took the AE-1 Program along with Arista Premium 400 inside. I’ve never taken a carriage ride around downtown. The jehus wait for passengers on the circle, which is the heart of Indianapolis.
Circle Tower is my favorite building on the circle. Anything built on the circle has to have a curved front; only Christ Church Cathedral is exempted (or rather grandfathered, as this 1857 church predates this requirement). Built in 1930 and faced in Indiana limestone, Circle Tower is an art-deco wonder. Years ago there was an elegant restaurant on one of the upper floors. I miss it, in no small part because it was my excuse to go inside this building.
The glass Artsgarden hovers over the intersection of Washington St. (the National and Michigan Roads) and Illinois St. The AE-1’s center-weighted through-the-lens light meter struggled with the sun bouncing off the Artsgarden, but a little Photoshopping brought it back from being blown out.
I brought the AE-1 Program along one Good Friday when my church carried the cross through the neighborhood. I owned a 35-105mm f/3.2-4.0 Vivitar SMS zoom lens, which I attached for the day. Trusty Fujicolor 200 was inside the camera.
In the church’s neighborhood is a pocket park with an honest-to-goodness automobile planted butt-end into the ground. I leave my AE-1 Program in Program mode all the time, because try as I might I can’t get used to shutter-priority shooting. I took to aperture priority like a duck takes to water.
Finally, I brought the AE-1 to a car show, with that 50/1.8 mounted and Agfa Vista 200 inside. By this time, my AE-1 had developed that shutter squeal that is so common to these. It didn’t affect its operation, it was just noisy.
I’m more a Pentax fan than anything else, and I love my Nikons. Canon SLRs have never grabbed me in the same way. But I like the AE-1 Program best of all of the ones I’ve tried. It is light and easy to carry, the controls are all smooth and where you expect them to be, and it delivers the goods roll after roll.
But oh, that shutter squeal. So annoying. On this car-show trip, however, it did attract another film shooter to me. He recognized that squeal straightaway. He proudly showed me the Canon film SLR he was shooting that day.
If you’d like to see more, check out my Canon AE-1 Program gallery.
My AE-1 Program is a winner – easy and fun to shoot, yielding pleasing results. The center-weighted meter isn’t perfect but if you learn its ways you’ll get good exposures. Both the AE-1 and AE-1 Program are also known for electronics gremlins that can be expensive to repair. Here’s hoping mine keeps working for a long time.
If you like old film cameras, check out all of my reviews here!
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