Canon A-1 or Fujica AX-5?

cameras-2-19

Launched in 1978, the  A-1 – the top of Canon’s  A line of cameras, (also composed of the AE-1, AE-1 Program, AV-1, AT-1 and AL-1), was the first single lens reflex camera to offer  three auto exposure modes (Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority and Program) in addition to the Manual mode. The A-1 accepts all Canon FD lenses and (stopped down) can also work with older FL  lenses. A feature loaded and intimidating camera with a very “muscular” design,  it was in fact well thought and easy to use. It sold in the millions.

The AX-5 was the top of Fujica’s new line of bayonet mount 35mm film cameras, launched in 1979 to replace the ST605, ST705 and AZ-1 screw mount cameras. Coming one year after the Canon A-1, the AX-5 offers almost the same feature set, but in a smaller and much more restrained package.

cameragx--5898
Fujica AX-5 (with Tamron 28mm f/2.5 lens).

The AX-5 accepted all Fujica’s newly launched “X-Fujinon” bayonet lenses but could only access the Shutter Priority and Program auto exposure modes when paired with  X-Fujinon “DM” lenses (which have the “A” position on the aperture ring). Lesser camera models (the AX-3 and the STX-1) were usually bundled with “FM” lenses, deprived of the “A” setting.

Back then: how did the two cameras compare?

  • cost and availability
    • the  “A” line of SLRs from Canon was a best seller (probably more than 10 million units were sold), the A-1 representing approximately 1/4th of the total volume. The cameras were widely distributed and competition between retailers played its role: the prices were very similar from one store to the other one, and moderate when compared to the AX-5.
    • Fuji’s retailer network was narrower than  Canon’s, and the AX-5 was the least successful model of Fujica’s “X” line. Retailers did not seem particularly interested in stocking or promoting it, and as a result it was significantly more expensive than the Canon A-1.
Canon A-1 vs Fujica AX-5 – the Canon is bulky and looks “professional”. The Fujica’s design is a bit toned down.
  •  size, weight, features and ergonomics
    • The AX-5 was available with a black or a silver finish, and is smaller and lighter than the A-1. It looks almost “feminine” next to the black-only and larger A-1, with its removable hand grip and its multitude of switches and levers.
    • The feature set of the two cameras is largely identical, with the Fujica only missing access to low shutter speeds (slowest is 2 sec, as opposed to 30 sec for A-1)
    • But the Fujica has far fewer switches and buttons and seems simpler to use. The implementation of the Fujica’s shutter speed and auto mode selection is inspired by the Canon’s, but marginally different:
      • in both cameras, the shutter speed knob has been replaced with a control wheel and the selected shutter speed is shown on a disk, visible through a small window on the top plate.
      • With the A-1, the aperture ring of the lens has to be set on the “A” position to operate in any of the automatic exposure modes (Shutter Priority, Aperture Priority and Program). There is a toggle switch on the front plate of the camera to chose between the Aperture Priority or the Shutter Priority and Program modes. When the photographer switches to Aperture Priority, the desired aperture is selected by rotating the control wheel, and displayed through the same small window on the top plate.
      • To operate in Aperture Priority mode with the AX-5, one has to set the aperture ring of the lens on the desired value, and select the Auto Exposure position with the control wheel. To operate with Shutter Priority or Program modes, one has to set the lens on the  “A” position, select the shutter speed (Shutter Priority) or a full Auto Exposure mode (understand Program) with the control wheel. .
    • On the AX-5, there are two positions on the control wheel for the Auto Exposure command: AE – the camera adjusts the exposure until to the last second, and AEL (auto-exposure lock): the camera will keep the exposure setting determined by the photographer as long as the shutter release button stays half pressed. Very convenient. The Canon A-1 has an exposure lock button on the left of the lens mount to the same effect.
    • The commands of the AX-5 don’t feel as solid as the Canon’s (and the Fujica’s control wheel is too small and protected by a tiny push button lock – not  pleasant to use).
a battle scared Canon A-1 in program mode (lens aperture ring on “A”, mode selector on “Tv”, control wheel on “P”
  • Viewfinder
    • Canon: numeric LEDs – easy to read even in the dark
    • Fujica – strange barrel distortion when wearing glasses – noticeable but not really penalizing when shooting pictures. speed and aperture scales and LEDs intertwined on the left of viewfinder – legible but a bit confusing at the beginning.
viewfinder
Canon A-1 – viewfinder (source MIR)
Fujica viewfinder (source: the Fujica brochure – 1979)
  • Shutter and metering system
    • horizontal cloth – comparable – 1/1000 sec synchro at 1/60e. A-1 goes to 30sec, Fujica up to 2sec only.
  • Lens selection:
    • Canon – uses Canon FD lenses (or FL stopped down). Canon’s catalog of FD lenses was very wide and had something for all types of photographers – from amateurs looking for zooms, up to pros looking for the lens that will make “the” picture that will differentiate them from their competitors. Naturally, compatible lenses of all levels of quality were also available.
    • Fujica X – Fuji’s catalog of lenses included 20 different models, primarily primes lenses from 17mm to 400 mm, and three zooms. The AX-5 could also use screw mount “universal” lenses with an adapter; most of the big vendors of third party lenses (Tamron, Makinon, Soligor, TOU, Komine…) manufactured lenses for the “X” mount, but if the scarcity of lenses today is any indication, anything other than the standard 50mm and the 135mm tele-objective sold in extremely low volumes.
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Fujica AX-5 – here in Program mode (AE set on the aperture ring of the lens, AE set on the shutter speed control wheel). Note the little shiny button on the left of the control wheel. It has to be pressed to leave the automatic modes.)

Now

  • reliability
    • Canon: built more solidly than the rest of the “A” series, – not only on the outside, but also inside (people who have opened both can testify that the A-1 contains more metallic components than its lesser brothers). The textile shutter may require some TLC (the cameras are almost 40 years old now)
    • Fujica : reliability was questionable back then, with an electro-mecanic shutter release that did not age well at all  (capacitor issues after a few years). Today, unless you’re only looking for a paper weight, only buy a camera tested by the seller, with fresh batteries. The batteries are of a very common type, and “not having a battery to test” is not a valid excuse.
  •  scarcity
    • Canon A-1 – relatively easy to find – they were produced in huge numbers and have been reliable – there are still plenty of them waiting for you.
    • Fujica AX-5 – difficult to find in good condition, in particular in the US. More abundant in Germany and central Europe, sometimes under a retailer’s label such as Porst (the AX-5 is the same camera as Porst’s CR-7). Because the market is so small,  prices for models tested and in working order can go up to  $150.
  • battery
    • Both cameras use the same 6v battery- still widely available today in alkaline, silver oxide and lithium variants. Silver Oxide is probably the best compromise.
    • None of the cameras works without a battery – no shutter release, no film advance – lots of people must have believed that their camera was broken when it was just asking for a new battery.
  • Lens selection
    • Canon: Abundant offer of great lenses at reasonable prices (Canon FD). Equally abundant offer of third party lenses, including in very exclusive brands like Angenieux.
    • Fujica: The AX-5 was launched in parallel to a new line of lenses, and none were really successful on the marketplace. Today, it is difficult to find anything which is not a 50mm or a 135mm lens. When you can find them, original Fujica X-Fujinon lenses with the renown EBC coating are expensive. Wide angle lenses or fast zooms are even more scarce and reach Leica R or Contax price levels.

Conclusion:

  • For an active film  photographer, it’s a no brainer – Canon A-1 cameras are abundant, lenses are easy to find and relatively cheap, and the A-1 is not inferior to the AX-5 in any significant way. The A-1 is the most satisfying pick in Canon’s “A” line, and the best choice in today’s comparison.
  • Fuji is a respected brand in the photography business (their medium format cameras and their current digital offerings have a cult like following). But Fuji’s aura does not extend to the Fujica AX cameras, who have lived an obscure life. For the collector of anything Fuji, the AX-5 is an interesting challenge: finding one that works is not super easy, and buying lenses is outright difficult. For an active photographer, the Fujica AX-5 has good sides: the camera is perfectly usable, it is light and compact, and presents simple and logical commands – but it does not feel as solid as the A-1, and looks more like a souped-up mid level SLR than a true enthusiast or pro camera. And in any case, because of the scarcity of X-Fujinon lenses,  – the real good ones have even become an object of speculation – none of the Fujica “X” cameras can be considered a reasonable choice for an active film photographer.

The Canon A-1 has a serious fan club, photographers who consider it the best film camera ever built. A few examples:

http://lewiscollard.com/cameras/canon-a-1/

https://www.casualphotophile.com/2015/04/20/canon-a-1-camera-review/


Rooftop terrace – Atlanta skyline – Fujica AX-5 – Tamron 28mm f/2.5 – Kodak Ektar

What camera for the film renaissance (part II): SLRs from 1975-1985: my picks

Film is back. At least if Kodak and Ilford are to be believed.

To my taste, the best single reflex cameras (shooting film) were made in the 1975-1985 decade. Cameras sold earlier were a bit too limited (metering), too big and too quirky, and cameras made later are more autofocus robots. Not that I refuse to benefit from the advances of technology – it’s just that if I want to use the most technologically advanced camera I can afford,  I shoot digital.

The list of my picks is not a catalog. I’m writing about cameras and camera systems I’ve really used – and learned to know over the years on multiple photo shoots. This list does not include any camera from Minolta, Konica, Fujica, Leica, … because I’ve never owned and used the SLRs they were selling between 1975 and 1985.

Canon :

Canon FT/QL and A-1
Canon FT/QL and A-1 – the A-1 is clearly my preferred Canon camera in the FD mount family.
  • FT/FTb: the FT/QL  was launched in the mid 1960’s and the FTb that replaced it was produced until the launch of the AE1 in 1977. Both  suffer from the limitations of a camera from the sixties (they need mercury batteries, they have CdS meters, they’re large and heavy with dim viewfinders). The FT is a stopped-down-metering camera and works with the FL lenses, while the FTb offers full aperture metering with the FD lenses.
  • AE-1/A-1/AT-1, AV-1, AE-1 Program – they were the best selling cameras of their time, they were generally reliable, and there still are tons of them around here. Which one you pick is a matter of taste, they differ primarily by the type of exposure metering system they use. They all share a  textile shutter which must have been cheap to manufacture, but is limited to 1/1000 sec with a flash sync speed of 1/60.
  • They were mass produced and designed to a price point – they don’t exude the same quality feeling as a Nikon FE2 or an Olympus OM-2. Little things like battery doors are fragile. But the metering system can be trusted and they’re pleasant to use.
  • Of all the A series cameras, the Canon A-1 has the strongest personality,. It’s the  most capable, and the one I prefer.

    Canon A-1 - the control wheel (on the top late) and the control wheel lock on the front of the body
    Canon A-1 – the control wheel (on the top late) and the control wheel lock on the front of the body
  • The Canon AV-1 is typical of a time when camera makers believed that spec’d down cameras were easier to use and had a better chance of bringing  amateurs to serious photography. It’s as cheap as it can get, but there are much better options in Canon’s lineup for aspiring photographers.
  • They benefit from a wide selection of good and very good FD lenses,  still available on the second hand market at very affordable prices.

Nikon:

Nikon FE2 and F3 - my pick in the Nikon family
Nikon FE2 and F3 – my picks in the Nikon family
  • Nikkormat FT/FTn/FT2/FT3 – Initially launched in the mid 1960’s – it was regularly updated until the FT3 was replaced by the FM in 1977. It suffers from some of the limitations of a camera from the sixties (size, weight, CdS meters), but always supported full aperture metering, and  the most recent models ( FT2 and FT3) work with silver oxide batteries.
    Nikkormat FT-N
    Nikkormat FT-N
    • All Nikkormat are built like tanks and rock solid. If you can live with the weight (750g body only) and the very unusual position of the commands (shutter speed ring, film speed selector), the FT3 is still perfectly usable as an everyday camera.
    • It’s not necessarily the case for the earlier models (FT and FTn): the process to follow in order to mount a lens on the camera was progressively simplified by Nikon. It is really kludgy on the FT/FTn bodies: you have to follow a bizarre sequence to pair the lens with the metering system of the body – that’s the “indexing”.  With the FT3 and AI lenses, indexing has become transparent.
  • Nikon FM. Brassing on the edges of the top plate cover - no plastic here.
    Nikon FM. Brassing on the edges of the top plate cover – no plastic here.

    Nikon FM – Nikon’s first compact semi-auto exposure camera. Built like a small tank, it was often used as a backup camera by pros shooting in very taxing situations. It’s a modern camera (conventional ergonomics, LEDs in the viewfinder) but the commands are a bit stiff and the viewfinder seems small in comparison to an Olympus OM or even a Canon AE-1. The metal blade shutter is solid, but limited to 1/1000 sec. If you buy now, try and find an FM2. If I did not already own the FE2, I would try and find an FM3A. That being said, if I had to pick one of the cameras I own to bring to an extreme expedition, that would be the FM.

  • Nikon FE : Aperture Priority Automatic. Feels as old as the FM (slow shutter, small viewfinder). I would surely buy the FE2 for a very little more.
  • Nikon F3 : an all time favorite: great ergonomics, incredibly vast viewfinder, smooth commands, good shutter (1/2000 sec). Launched in 1980, it was produced for 21 years in parallel with the F4 and F5 that were supposed to replace it. The flash system is specific to the F3. All in all, a very pleasant camera to use, compact, rock solid, but also really heavy.
  • Nikon FE2 – an evolution of the FE, launched in 1982. It has the same small viewfinder as the FM and the FE. But apart from that it’s a winner: great build quality, great ergonomics, smooth commands,  great shutters (1/4000, sync @1/250), modern flash system. My favorite when I’m visiting a new place or a new country, and need to take a break from digital.

    Nikon FE2 - the titanium honeycomb shutter blades of the early copies (like this one) was replaced later on with aluminum ones (for environmental concerns)
    Nikon FE2 – the titanium honeycomb shutter blades of the early copies (like this one) was replaced later on with aluminum ones (for environmental concerns)
  • Nikon FA – an evolution of the FE2 with an additional shutter priority exposure mode and matrix metering. It’s already too complex in my opinion – the matrix metering is perplexing (you never understand what it’s doing) and because the camera is supposed to know better, there is no memorization of the exposure in auto mode.

    Nikon FA with motor drive - an impressive rig.
    Nikon FA with motor drive – an impressive rig.
  • EM, FG
    – plasticky entry level cameras with limited shutter performance – abundant but not recommended. Buy an FE2 instead.
Nikon FG - More looks than substance
Nikon FG – More looks than substance
  • Nikon FM2 and FM3A – The FM2 is an evolution of the FM with a better shutter, while the FM3A is an evolution of the FE2, with a shutter working in two modes: electronic when the camera is set in aperture priority auto-exposure mode, and purely mechanic (no battery needed) in semi-auto mode. Compact, light and solid – the cameras to bring with you in the most extreme expeditions. The FM2 is somehow affordable, but the FM3A is a recent camera, produced for a short time in relatively limited volumes, and tends to be expensive.

All Nikons benefit from a huge selection and an abundant supply of good lenses, with some form of upwards and downwards compatibility (they’ve been using the same bayonet mount since 1959). Similarly, flash compatibility with current systems is also maintained for most bodies (FE2 and more recent)

Nikon F3 with an autofocus lens bought for a modern digital camera. But it cannot work with the AF-S zoom mounted on the D80.
Nikon often offers some form of compatibility between bodies and lenses from different generations. Nikon F3 works perfectly with an autofocus lens bought for a modern digital camera. But it cannot work with the AF-S zoom mounted on the D80.

The Olympus OM series

When they launched the OM-1, Olympus tried to position it as a camera for reporters, and managed to sell a few copies to leading American newspapers. But at that time, the press photographers did not buy their equipment, they received if for free from the newspaper, and had little incentive to treat their gear carefully. The little Olympus failed the tests, and the press photographers returned to  their Nikons – not as sexy but built like the proverbial tanks. Or so goes the legend.

In any case, if the Olympus cameras were not widely adopted by reporters, they found a following with scientists, researchers or ethnographers, who liked the compactness of the camera bodies and the quality of the lenses.

In the subsequent years, Olympus developed two lines of products – the “one-digit” OM cameras  OM-2, OM-3, OM-4 for the enthusiasts and the professionals, and the “two-digit” OM-10, OM-20 and so on for beginners and amateurs. Let’s focus on the single digit cameras.

Olympus OM-2s and Olympus OM-2n
Olympus OM-2s and Olympus OM-2n. I loved the OM-2s Program until I started shooting with the OM-2n. So simple. A favorite.
  • Olympus OM-1 – it must have made quite an impression in 1971. It is incredibly compact, has a giant viewfinder, a very well thought ergonomics, and feels like a precision instrument. Its shutter is a bit limited today (1/1000 sec) and it requires mercury batteries which are not  available any more.  I would buy an OM-2 instead.

    Olympus OM-1n MD - a very clean copy.
    Olympus OM-1n MD – a very clean copy.
  • OM-2 – same body and general layout as the OM1, but with aperture priority auto-exposure mode and modern silver oxide batteries. It was also the first SLR with a modern TTL flash metering system. It’s a pleasure to use: the commands are precise and smooth, the mirror and the shutter don’t vibrate (I’ve shot at 1/15 sec without a tripod). There is no exposure memorization in auto mode (but it’s easy to switch to semi-auto). Another of my favorites – when I know I’m going to shoot in low light without a tripod- in exhibits and museums for instance, that’s the one I bring with me.
  • Olympus OM2-S Program/OM-3/OM4 – close derivatives of the OM1/OM2 –  with a new body and an improved metering system. Unfortunately this generation of cameras  was plagued by battery drain issues. And because it provides more information at the periphery, and offers a dioptric corrector, the viewfinder gives the impression of being smaller.  The  OM3t/OM4t  addressed the electronics issues of their predecessors, and are sought by fanatics of the zone system because of all the possibilities of the metering system (spot and average metering, exposure for high lights, low lights). Nice tools for passionate photographers.
  • Olympus OM-2000 – the ugly duckling of the family, this semi-auto camera was designed and manufactured by Cosina. It shares the OM lens mount of the family, but has nothing of the grace of a “one-digit” OM. It’s a bit plasticky, the LEDs in the viewfinder are crude, but it offers spot and average metering like its siblings – and it simply works. The ergonomics are conventional, and the metallic vertical shutter is completely different from the  horizontal textile shutter of the other OM bodies (flash sync 1/125, 1/2000 sec).
    Olympus OM-2000 - Apart from the lens mount, not much in common with the OM series
    Olympus OM-2000 – Apart from the lens mount, not much in common with the OM series
    Olympus OM-2000 - the Spot metering selector
    Olympus OM-2000 – the Spot metering selector

    Olympus OM-2000 (top) and Olympus OM-2 - nothing in common (an OM motor drive can not be attached to the OM-2000)
    Olympus OM-2000 (top) and Olympus OM-2 – nothing in common (an OM motor drive cannot be attached to the OM-2000)
  • The Olympus “Zuiko” lenses have a great reputation, but the selection and the second hand availability tend to be narrower than with Canon or Nikon: OM cameras were bought more by amateurs and enthusiasts than by pros, and in smaller numbers.  Olympus used to offer 3 models of lenses for the same focal length, and the slowest f/3.5 lenses are by far the most common. The lenses opening at f/2.8 or f/2  are rare, and very expensive.
  • the slow textile shutter is a limitation to all OM cameras (1/60 flash sync for all models, 1/1000 sec for OM1, OM2 and OM2 SP)

Pentax

Pentax Spotmatic SP with 35mm f/2 lens
Pentax Spotmatic SP with 35mm f/2 lens
  • the original Spotmatic – launched in 1964, received a limited refresh in 1971 and was updated more significantly in 1973 (to become the Spotmatic F, with full aperture metering and a new set of lenses). The Spotmatics form a nice line of cameras (innovative when they were launched, relatively compact and well finished), and they were produced in large quantities. But they’re too old to be considered in this category. They were replaced by the first K bodies (KM, KX, K2) in 1975, when Pentax introduced the K bayonet mount. The KX and K2 had a short life (replaced by the MX and ME in 1977), but the K1000 (a simplified version of the semi-auto KM introduced in 1976) would be manufactured until 1996, and would become the camera most recommended for “learners”.
  • the Pentax MX was my first serious camera,  a long time ago. It was a very compact and modern semi-auto camera in its heyday – with a nice and robust metal casing. Its closest competitor (technically) was the Nikon FM (but at that time Nikon cameras were more expensive than anything but a Leica, and I could not afford it). I kept the MX for fifteen years,  but the camera was not that reliable now that I think about it: I had issues with the frame counter, the timer, and a faulty stabilization circuit in the metering system that could not be fixed sealed its fate. I liked the lenses, though (the 35-70 zoom was very good).
  • the ME, ME Super were even more compact than the MX, offered aperture priority exposure but were not as enthusiast friendly as the MX. There was no speed knob but touch buttons to change the shutter speed, and no depth of field preview. The Super A/Super A Program were probably the most enthusiast friendly of that generation – but I never used them and can’t comment.
  • There is a good lens selection under the Pentax brand. Prices tended to be moderate when they were new, and it’s still the case today. Pentax tried to impose their K bayonet  as the new “universal” mount. They did not completely succeed, but many second tier vendors adopted the K-mount (Cosina, Ricoh, Vivitar and the usual distributor labels) and third party good quality lenses are abundant and affordable.
  • I did not mention brands like Contax, Fujica, Leica  or Minolta. Not that I don’t like their cameras, but I’ve never really used the manual focus SLRs they were manufacturing in those years.

More information about cameras of the 1975-1985 era

There is an abundance of Web sites, blogs and forums dedicated to film cameras of the 1975-1985 era. They tend to come and go.

A very good source of information on Nikon, Olympus and Canon cameras has been around for years: Photography in Malaysia (MIR)


Piedmont Park - November 2016 - Canon A-1 - Canon FD 35-105
Atlanta – Piedmont Park – November 2016 – Canon A-1 – Canon FD 35-105

The Canon A-1: there’s no better film camera for Canon’s FD lenses

In 1976, Canon launched the AE-1, an automatic camera with  shutter speed priority automatic exposure. It was a very capable, judiciously priced camera which sold in excess of 1 million units. It was driven by a microprocessor, and Canon took advantage of the flexibility of its architecture to derive rapidly more models – the AT-1 (semi auto) in 1977, the AV-1 (aperture priority automatic in 1978), the AE-1 Program in 1981, and the AL-1 (a camera with an electronic focus assist system) in 1982. The A-1, launched in 1978, was the top of the “A” line, and was the first system camera to combine 3 types of exposure automation modes – shutter priority, aperture priority and program, in the same body.

Canon A-1. Still impressive after all these years.
Canon A-1. Still impressive after all these years.

Until the launch of the A-1 (and of Minolta’s XD-7 at about the same time), an auto-exposure camera only operated in one mode. Minolta, Nikon and Pentax were in the  “Aperture Priority” camp  (the photographer selects the aperture, the camera sets the shutter speed automatically), while Canon and Konica were defending “shutter priority” (the photographer selects the shutter speed, and the camera sets the aperture automatically). Each camera manufacturer was presenting the solution it had picked as the best, but the truth is that a photographer could have benefited from Aperture Priority one day (if he was shooting landscapes, for instance) and from Shutter Priority another day (when he was shooting sports events, for instance). With the A-1, Canon not only offered Aperture and Shutter Priority modes (which required the user to pick the most appropriate mode and set the aperture or the speed accordingly), but also a program mode, where the camera automatically selected the Aperture and Shutter speed combination, without any intervention from the photographer.

Canon A-1 - battery check, exposure memorization, depth of field preview - buttons, switches and cursors
Canon A-1 – battery check, exposure memorization, depth of field preview – buttons, switches and cursors

Today, most of the “A” series cameras of Canon are still abundant and cheap – they were manufactured in huge quantities, and they have withstood the test of time much better than most of their less reliable competitors. With the exception of the A-1 which has a stronger personality, the cameras of the “A” generation are rather unremarkable. They’re not big  (but not as small as the Olympus OM cameras), their build quality is good, but not exceptional (compared to a Nikon FM or FE of the same vintage, they feel plasticky), the view finder is large and luminous enough – but … not exceptional (you guessed it right). They need a battery to work, but the battery is an easy to find a 6v alcaline or silver oxide battery. They’re easy to use, and in the hands of a moderately competent photographer, will produce good pictures.

The A-1 is a bit different. It was designed as Canon’s top of the line, and it was intimidating when it was launched (there had never been so many buttons and switches and cursors on a camera). But the controls were very logically implemented and the learning curve must have been short. Canon’s implementation of the controls for the three automatic exposure modes was very clever and was a decisive step towards the modern ergonomics (control wheel and LCD) of the Canon T90 and its EOS successors.

In order to operate in auto-exposure mode, first set the lens’ aperture ring  to “A”. Then move the mode switch to “Av” (Aperture priority) and select the aperture with the control wheel, or set the mode switch to “Tv” (Shutter priority), and use the control wheel to select the shutter speed (from 30 sec to 1/1000 sec.). The Program Mode is accessible from the “Tv” position – there is no dedicated position of the mode switch for the Program Mode.

Canon A-1 - Shutter Priority Mode and Program Mode. The photographer can not pick the aperture, so the aperture dial is hidden and only the shutter speed values are shown.
Canon A-1 – Shutter Priority Mode and Program Mode. The photographer can not pick the aperture, so the aperture dial is hidden and only the shutter speed values are shown.

Canon’s implementation of the multi-mode auto exposure is more user friendly that Nikon’s. When they launched the FA (5 years after the A-1), Nikon kept the conventional shutter speed knob next to the mode selector. In the picture above, the camera is set in Aperture Priority Mode (the photographer selects the aperture and the camera picks the shutter speed, that could be anything from a few seconds to 1/4000 second), but the shutter speed knob still shows 1/250, which can be  misleading.

Today, the A-1 is still a very good tool. It offers all sorts of controls (exposure memorization, depth of field preview, multiple exposure of the same frame) and its only limitation is its shutter. Film is now significantly faster than in 1978 (200 or 400 ISO is the new normal), and a shutter with a fastest speed of  1/1000 can be a limitation.

The “T” models that followed were ugly plastic bricks controlled by push buttons – with the exception of the T90 which is a beautiful precursor of the EOS models, but suffers from reliability issues (sticky shutter).

In my opinion, the A-1 is the last great camera using FD lenses that can still be used today. It is not a beautiful piece of classical photographic machinery like a Canon F-1, but it’s a solid and very capable tool, that a photographer trained on modern “control wheel” SLRs will learn how to use easily.

cameras-2-11
Canon A-1. The control wheel is used to change the lens aperture or the shutter speed in auto mode
cameras-2-9
Canon A-1. The mode switch is in the “Av” position – the photographer can only pick the aperture and that’s what’s displayed on the mode dial.
Nikon FA detail of the shutter speed knob and PSAM selector
On the Nikon FA, the value displayed on the shutter speed will not necessarily be used to take the picture. The camera is set in “A” (aperture priority) mode and the shutter speed will be determined by the electronics of the camera.

What were the competitors doing when Canon was launching the AE-1 and the A-1?

The Nikon cameras of 1978 were conventional semi auto and aperture-priority auto exposure cameras.

  • Nikon was selling three models, the F2, FM and FE, with AI lenses.
  • The AI bayonet mount could not have supported Shutter Priority and Program modes. A new variant of the Nikon F mount, the AI-S,  was  launched in parallel with the FG and FA, the multi-auto cameras of 1983.

In 1978, Pentax was selling the ME/MX cameras with the K mount (not capable of supporting Shutter Priority and Program modes).

  • The bayonet mount was revised in 1983 to become the  KA for the launch of the Pentax Super A.
  • The Super-A was Pentax’s only manual focus reflex camera supporting the same 3 auto-exposure modes as the Canon A-1.

In 1978 Minolta was selling the XD-7 and its derivatives (dual auto, but no Program mode) in addition to a line of Aperture Priority cameras.

  • Minolta’s MD lenses  (launched in 1977) benefited from an updated version of the SR mount and could support cameras with Shutter Priority auto-exposure in addition to the Aperture Priority mode that the MC lenses already supported
  • The first Minolta SLR to offer also a Program Mode was the X-700 in 1981.
  • Interestingly none of those newer generation “X” models offered the 3 auto-exposure modes of the A-1: the shutter priority mode was missing.

With its 3 auto-exposure modes, the Canon A-1 was definitely unique among the system cameras of the Big 4.

Midtown Atlanta from Piedmont Park - Canon A-1 - 35-105 Zoom -
Midtown Atlanta from Piedmont Park – Canon A-1 – 35-105 Zoom – My father in law is the original owner of the camera. Nice gift. Thank you.