Canon AL-1

18 comments on Canon AL-1
4 minutes

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 yet 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 AL-1

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.

Canon AL-1

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.

By the way, if you like manual-focus Canon SLRs I’ve reviewed a few others: the AE-1 Program (here), the FT QL (here), and the T70 (here). You might also like my reviews of the EOS 630 (here), the EOS 650 (here) and the EOS A2e (here). Or just check out all of my camera reviews here.

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. Not surprising.

Roberts Park

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.

Wheeler Mission

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.

Angie's List campus

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 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.

If you like old film cameras, check out all of my reviews here!
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18 responses to “Canon AL-1”

  1. Christopher Smith Avatar
    Christopher Smith

    Nice article and nice photos. The mid 70’s to mid 80’s was good time for cameras. I have the A1 from the same model range which is a lovely camera.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thanks so much Christopher! I was curious about the focusing aid on this camera, so I bought it. Now I know: not worth it.

  2. Sam Avatar

    Very nice shots, crisp and colorful, great post! I’m not surprised though that the camera doesn’t jive with you, for some reason this model doesn’t seem to get a lot of love. I suppose with the AE-1 and A-1 around people just pass right over this, but it’s good to see cameras like this get some attention :-)

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Thanks Sam! I was surprised even to find one of these. I picked it up for a song. I’m always willing to give an unloved camera a tumble.

    2. Andy Umbo Avatar
      Andy Umbo

      Gotta say, for Canon, the FTb was the best. I actually was collecting them in the 90’s (sadly got rid of them), and was having one tuned and re-rubbered at a repair shop, and a Japanese man came out from the back when I came to pick it up, and told me never to get rid of it; he had worked for Canon for years and said it was one of their best manual cameras. The AE-1’s and A-1’s were “plasticy”, dependent on electronics, and for the “new generation” of photo people that just didn’t want to know how to read an exposure! (look where digital has taken us there). Also have to say, the f/3.5 wide angles were no slouches, from almost every camera manufacturer. I know the Pentax f/3.5’s wide angles were some of their sharpest lenses. The 35mm lens was one of my most used in the the 35mm format, and Nikon couldn’t seem to make a sharp one! I tried the 2.8, the 2, and the 1.4, and none of them were ‘sharp’, wish they made a 3.5 at that time. I also loved the “breech-lock” Canon lenses over the later series. Looks like you have one here. I always tried to buy the last series breech-locks that still had the multi-coating (S.S.C.?) They DID seem to always loosen up, tho, the focus always seeming to rattle with age. I think Canon packed ’em with grease for s smooth ‘feel’, and when they dried up, they really needed to be repacked.

      1. Jim Grey Avatar

        I have a Canon FT (non-b, FL mount) and found it to be a beast of a camera. I’m sure I could drop it 10 stories onto concrete, pick it up, and shoot. I found it to be a little stiff to use, but maybe mine just needs CLA. It does need the shutter adjusted, to be sure. Here’s my review:

        I picked up a TLb not long ago and will be trying it out here soon.

        Thanks for the vote of confidence on the 28mm 3.5s. I’ve got a Pentax 28mm, I think a 2.8, and it’s no slouch either. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Pentax 28 3.5!

        1. Andy Umbo Avatar
          Andy Umbo

          I think KEH has a K-Mount Pentax 28mm f/3.5 for sale right now! Meanwhile, here’s a review of the 35mm f/3.5:

          People always compare the Pentax stuff, even back in the screw mount days, to German glass. It certainly seem the f/3.5 stuff has high ratings.

      2. Kodachromeguy Avatar

        “dependent on electronics, and for the “new generation” of photo people that just didn’t want to know how to read an exposure! (look where digital has taken us there). “. Bwhaahaa, that is so true, but we better not go there. You know the howls of protest that you’ll get from the digital crowd.

        Back to real cameras: I’d like to put in a good word for the Nikkormat. I think it was on par quality-wise and in robustness with the FTb.

        A second recommendation: the 35mm f/3.5 Takumar is superb.


  3. pesoto74 Avatar

    Interesting article. I don’t think I ever heard of this camera.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I hadn’t heard of it either until I came upon this one!

  4. Shaun Nelson Avatar

    Fun camera! I had no idea this one existed. Thanks for sharing your knowledge of early AF cameras.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I’m pretty good at scouring the Internet for info and synthesizing it into a post! :-)

  5. bodegabayf2 Avatar

    It is interesting how some cameras, while really capable, just don’t hit the sweet spot for an individual.

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      I wish I could describe what it is that makes a camera not work for me. Sometimes one just doesn’t and that’s that.

  6. Alex N Avatar
    Alex N

    I had AE-1 Program and I have the AL-1. I do like more the shutter speed info in a viewfinder (like in other proper cameras from Pentax or Nikon). But when in general AL-1 feels a bit cheaper in hands than AE-1P. Maybe a winder mechanics that sounds not that solid. Or maybe my device needs CLA :)

    1. Jim Grey Avatar

      Hm. I probably should have shot the two cameras at roughly the same time so I could have compared them!

  7. […] ReviewAE-1 Program: Review, PhotosAF35ML (Super Sure Shot): ReviewAL-1: ReviewCanonet 28: ReviewCanonet Junior: ReviewCanonet QL17 G-III: Review, PhotosDial 35-2: ReviewEOS 630: […]

  8. […] can check out the reviews by other awesome camera reviewers! Mike Eckman – Canon AL-1 Review Down the Road – Canon AL-1 Review Emulsive – The Canon AL-1: Do opposites attract Peter Vis – Canon AL-1 Review 678 […]

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