Canon A-1 35mm SLR: Manual Merriment


The Canon A-1 35mm SLR is the top-of-the-line model for the A-series of SLR cameras made by Canon in the 1970s and 1980s. The A-series was known for its sophisticated metering systems and auto exposure modes.

image from here

I use the Canon A-1 most often now for macro photography ever since my wife gave me a set of used extension tubes for Christmas a few years back. The A-1 is solidly built, manual focus, 35mm analog camera which made its debut in April, 1978. It was the flagship of the A-series of cameras which also include the AE-1 and the AE-1P. The AE stands for auto-exposure, the cameras ability to read the light and adjust camera settings internally to get properly exposed photos time and time again. The A-1 is a little bit different. It cannot be used as a simple point, focus, and shoot camera. You must have some knowledge of photography to use this camera. At the very least the user must set it to either aperture priority or shutter priority and then select either the aperture of shutter speed depending on the choice. Although the camera brags five AE modes, every one of them can be manually overridden allowing the photographer complete creative control. Unlike its cousins in the A-series, the A-1 has exposure compensation to a ± 2 f/stops. There is also an exposure memory switch for temporary exposure compensations. And, of course, the feature that every Lomographer loves—a switch for multiple exposures. In fact, the A-1 allows for unlimited multiple exposures.

Another great feature of this camera is the extraordinarily wide metering range and film sensitivity range. Films from ISO 6-12,800 can be used—of course try finding film at the two extremes! For those that develop their own film, this sensitivity gives you the ability to push and pull your film to your heart’s content. Its metering range is EV -2 to EV 18. If you do not know what that means, don’t worry. The camera can still get a meter reading in very dark or very bright conditions. Shutter speeds range from 30 seconds to 1/1000th of a second, plus bulb, and two timer choices of 2 seconds and 10 seconds.

The field-of-view-only viewfinder makes the A-1 special too. It shows only what will be in the photograph, nothing more, nothing less. Most viewfinders show less than what will be in the final image. My EOS-3 viewfinder shows 97% of what will be in the picture which is pretty good, especially compared to the beloved Holga whose viewfinder shows maybe 75-80% of the final picture. The 100% viewfinder of the A-1 is one of the reasons I like to use it for macro photography where extraneous object ruin the shot.

Like several other A-series cameras, the A-1 can use the full range of manual focus FD lenses with the bayonet mount. There are some 50 Canon lenses alone for this camera and many more after-market lenses made by companies such as Tokina, Tamron, Sigma, and Vivitar to name some of the better brands. Vivitar Series 1 lenses are probably the best of this group and rival some of the Canon lenses in quality. Like most professional quality cameras, the A-1 does not have a pop-up or built in flash. Instead it has a hotshoe that accepts a variety of flashes. Canon’s Speedlite flashes were designed specifically with the A-series in mind. The best of the Speedlite flashes is the 199A. (This is a great flash to own because it is fully synchronized with the A-1 but can also be set manually and used with Holga without over-exposing!) After market flashes were developed for the A-1and its cousins and can be found pretty cheaply on-line.

Having previously owned both the AE-1 and the (my original camera) the AE-1P, I can confidently state that the A-1 is the “Cadillac” of the group, especially for Lomographers who want to shoot in their own unique way. Exposure compensation and unlimited multiple exposures make it a great Lomo camera when you want to make sure your subjects are in focus. AE-1s and AE-1Ps can be bought more cheaply, but an A-1 in tip-top shape is worth every penny, or Euro for that matter. But hey, I love cameras—all of them!

written by altprocess on 2009-03-23 in #reviews #35mm #multiple-exposures #canon-a-1 #manual-focus #fd-lenses #exposure-compensation


  1. vicuna
    vicuna ·

    great review!!

  2. oldskool_rider
    oldskool_rider ·

    i agree, great review, a lot of clever technical stuff and a great gallery to prove that this is surely a great camera!!

  3. eyecon
    eyecon ·

    This is my favorite SLR - I owned already two. One give up, so I bought a second one. And since lenses are so cheap I bought a telezoom and a wide angle zoom both are about 50 Euro each.

    I can only agree with altprocess - this baby is the Mercedes S class when it comes to oldschool SLR -

    Try to get your hands on a winder and you can concentrate on your shooting without transport the film manually....

  4. stouf
    stouf ·

    Excellent review and beautiful gallery ! It's a nice camera for sure !

  5. rater
    rater ·

    Great review, I am now convinced that I will not be happy until I have one canon A-1!

  6. coca
    coca ·

    great review!, i have one too, it's a great camera

  7. reneg88
    reneg88 ·

    damnit! now i want one!

  8. dont_think
    dont_think ·

    I love taking pictures with this camera here if you want check out my galleries……

  9. caroni
    caroni ·

    very nice articel and pictures. i use my lovely the ae-1black body.

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