Through the 1960s and 1970s, many significant features were added to the 35mm SLR, chief among them open-aperture through-the-lens metering and automatic exposure. But nobody had achieved automatic focus in an interchangeable-lens 35mm SLR.
Minolta fully cracked this nut in 1985 with the Maxxum 7000 by placing focusing motors inside the camera. This became the norm and seems like the obvious solution today. But during the early 1980s, manufacturers tried other approaches. The first autofocus 35mm SLR was actually the 1981 Pentax ME-F, but it took a breathtakingly expensive motorized lens. Both Nikon and Canon tried similar approaches in the early ’80s. But even before that, Canon tried something even more different: a camera that required you to focus manually, but told you when your subject was in focus. That camera, the AL-1, came in 1982.
Canon called it the Quick Focusing (QF) system: when you look into the AL-1’s viewfinder, left and right red arrows tell you the center of the frame is not in focus. You turn the lens’s focusing ring in the direction of the arrow until a green dot appears; et voilà, perfect focus. This wasn’t any faster than using the camera’s focusing screen, but for someone with less than perfect vision I suppose it could be more accurate. This system uses a weird-looking etched pattern on the mirror to direct light to three CCDs, which use contrast to judge focus. This system was only a stopgap measure: the EOS camera, with autofocus motors in the body, was already being designed.
The AL-1 was reasonably well specified. It offered manual exposure and aperture-priority autoexposure (odd for Canon, which favored shutter-priority), a cloth focal-plane shutter that operated from 1/15 to 1/1000 sec in manual mode and steplessly from 2 sec to 1/1000 sec in aperture-priority mode, and the ability to take film from ASA 25 to 1600.
My AL-1 suffers from an extremely common problem: the battery door latch is broken. After I loaded two AAA batteries to power the meter and the focusing system, I taped the door shut with a long strip of clear packing tape. Then I loaded some Fujicolor 200 and went to town. Literally: I took it downtown.
My AL-1 came with a 28mm f/3.5 Canon FD lens. This was the least of Canon’s 28mm lenses; offerings at f/2.8 and at f/2 are better known and better loved. But as you can see, it delivers good sharpness and detail right out to the corners. This is the entrance to Roberts Park United Methodist Church in downtown Indianapolis. I see a bit of barrel distortion in this shot.
Every shot on my test roll was slightly overexposed, suggesting a meter that needs calibrating. A little tweaking in Photoshop fixed exposure on every frame, though. Notice the twisting effect from left to right in this shot, which seems to be the bane of 28mm lenses. The glass-faced building in the distance is gold in real life. It’s quite striking. I’m not sure why that doesn’t show very well in this photo. I worked in that building almost 20 years ago.
A few of my distant downtown shots had tons of sky above and pavement below. I cropped this one to 16:9 to minimize that effect. I don’t think I’ve ever used that crop ratio before! This is the back of the brutalist Minton-Capeheart Federal Building.
The AL-1 came along on my Michigan Road trip at the end of July. This is the Dairy Queen in Shelbyville.
And this is part of the tool mural painted on the side of one of the Angie’s List buildings. I love how the door is incorporated into the paintbrush, and those two posts are painted to look like pencils.
To finish the roll, I switched to a 50mm f/1.8 Canon FD lens I already had and shot some flowers in my yard. I like this lens’s characteristics a lot more than those of the 28mm lens. But I have to admit, I like all of my Nikon lenses better than either of these. Here are some daisies.
And here is some phlox, which is far more fragrant in real life than in photographs. That’s some nice bokeh.
To see more photos, check out my Canon AL-1 gallery.
I know I’m not grooving on a camera when it’s two months from the day I load film to the day I rewind that roll. The AL-1 is competent enough and easy enough to use, but it just sparked no joy in me. I liked my other two FD-mount cameras, the AE-1 Program and the T70, better. Even with my middle-aged eyes, I guess I just don’t need help focusing. A split-image viewfinder still does the job just fine for me.
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