Canon AT-1 – the polycarbonate FTb?

Something strange happened to the Canon AT-1 recently – it has become sought after.

When the AE-1 was establishing sales record for reflex cameras, its little brother, the AT-1, was struggling on the marketplace (Canon did not even bother selling it in Japan) and it remained until recently an under-appreciated camera.

The AE-1 was the undisputed star of the new Canon A line-up, the real successor of the FTb. The AT-1 was a bit of an afterthought, developed for cost conscious photographers who did not trust auto-exposure systems. With the same shell, the same electromagnetic shutter command and the same accessories as the AE-1, the AT-1 had some of the attributes of a modern camera, but its CdS meter (as opposed to the Silicon cell of its siblings) and its semi- auto exposure system with matching needle inherited from the FTb anchored it in the past. Contrarily to the FTb (and to almost any other semi-automatic camera), it could not operate at all without batteries – because of its electromagnetic shutter command.

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The large shutter speed selector and the shutter release are very smooth.

The electromagnetic shutter has its advantages (soft shutter release, smooth shutter speed knob, automatic selection of flash sync speed when a Canon Speedlite is mounted on the camera), but the ability to operate without batteries has always been a huge selling point with users of semi-automatic cameras. The AT-1 was not meeting this basic requirement, and it could explain why it remained under appreciated for so long.

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the timer of the shutter release is electronic – much more reliable than the fragile mechanical timer of conventional semi-auto cameras.

Before buying a good copy recently on eBay, I never had  used one. When I bought my first semi-auto SLR a long time ago, I only had eyes for the Nikon FM and for the Pentax MX – for the record that’s the Pentax I ended up buying, the Nikon was far too expensive. At that time, Canon’s marketing pressure was completely focused on the AE-1 and as far as I can remember, I did not even look at the AT-1. In any case, in comparison to the Nikon and the Pentax (with their LEDs and GASP metering cells),  the AT-1 would have looked too primitive to me.

  • Weight, Size and ergonomics
    The AT-1 shares its general dimensions and layout with the AE-1. The construction is similar (with some components like the prism housing using a mixed polycarbonate and copper plating construction). It’s not the most compact camera of its generation (the honor goes to the Olympus OM-1) but it’s not significantly larger or heavier – all the cameras of this generation (1975-1980) are more or less the same size. The AT-1 is one of the simplest conventional cameras you can find – the on/off switch on the left, the large and smooth shutter speed dial on the right, a large shutter release button – that’s all.
  • Viewfinder
    The viewfinder is relatively large with enough eye relief for photographers wearing glasses (larger than on a Nikon FM/FE, for instance). And because the viewfinder does not provide any information about the shutter speed or the aperture at the periphery of the frame, the eye of the photographer can remain focused on the center of the frame, which makes the viewfinder seem larger than it is. The focusing screen is not as clear as what you find on a comparable Nikon camera, but it’s fine enough. The split-image telemeter and the micro-prisms are present, and focusing is easy. The two needles of the metering system are located at the bottom right angle of the viewfinder, and are easy to read as well.
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Very simple viewfinder – and a perfect implementation of the old “matching needle” semi-auto metering.
  • Metering system
    Based on a CdS cell, it’s one generation behind the Silicon or GASP cells that Fujica, Nikon or Pentax were installing on their semi-auto cameras in the second half of the Seventies. CdS cells are supposed to be less sensitive in low light, and to suffer from a memory effect (they need 30 seconds to adjust when you move to a low light scene immediately after a bright scene). The matching needle mechanism is very easy to read (when there is enough light) but is not as easy to read as LEDs if the scene is dark.According to Canon, the camera uses some form of average/center weighted metering (I could not find any further explanation).  In my experience, it does not seem to be as selective as the cell of a FTb (or of a T90 in the “partial selective” mode), and most of the images, including those with a large bright blue sky, are correctly exposed.
  • Battery
    Like all the cameras of the A series (AE-1, A-1, AL-1,…), the AT-1 relies on a relatively easy to find (and cheap) 6v battery. This battery is available in an alkaline and in a silver oxide version. As explained before, the camera can’t operate without a battery.
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The AT-1 does not work without this battery.
  • Compatibility
    Canon manufactured tens of millions of FL and FD lenses, that the AT-1 will happily support. FD lenses used to be cheap until the advent of mirrorless cameras and the development of FD to Sony FE lens mount adapters made them popular again. Truly exceptional lenses (the L series) are now seriously expensive, but cheaper alternatives abound. Most of the Canon accessories (winder, flash) can be shared with the AE-1 or A-1 models.
  • Reliability
    Compared to the multi-auto-exposure and auto-focus cameras launched in the following decade, the AT-1 is a very simple machine. With the A series, Canon had introduced new design and manufacturing methods, with significantly more plastic and electronic components that before, but Canon’s engineers did a good job and the cameras of that family don’t have a bad reputation when it comes to reliability. Over time, cameras of the Canon A family can be affected with the squeaky shutter syndrome, but I’ve not found anything on the Internet showing that the AT-1 is affected (my copy is not). In any case, the AT-1 was not designed for war correspondents or National Geographic photographers taking tens of thousands of photos per year in impossible lications; it was an entry level camera designed for cost conscious amateurs, and it does not seem to have betrayed its targeted audience.
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Canin’s platform strategy – in the foreground the Canon AV-1 (automatic, aperture preferred), the AT-1 (semi-auto) in the background. Both were positioned under the flagship AE-1 model and share the chassis with their bigger brother.
  • Scarcity and price
    With only 520,000 copies manufactured between Dec 1976 and 1985 (to be compared with 9,700,000 AE-1/AE-1 Program during the same period), the AT-1 was not very popular – for a Canon SLR, that is.  Today, with the AE-1 and the AE-1 Program becoming seriously expensive (for mass market SLRs of the early eighties), the AT-1 suddenly becomes a sort of next best option for people eager to use Canon FD lenses, and not willing to spend more than $50.00.
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Narbonne (France) – Christmas market – Canon AT-1

Conclusion

Compared to its more expensive siblings of the Canon A family (AE-1, AE-1 Program, A-1), the AT-1 is a very simple camera – but to my surprise, it did not feel like an excessively spec’d down camera, and happened to be very pleasant to use.

The viewfinder is large and bright, and focusing is easy thanks to a combination of micro-prism and split image telemeter. The shutter speed dial is large and smooth, which makes it easy to adjust the exposure by changing the shutter speed (the shutter speed dial is generally very stiff on semi-auto/mechanical cameras, but the AT-1 benefits from its electromagnetic  shutter command).

Nothing important is missing (it has an electronic timer for “selfies” and a depth of field preview button) and little details taken over from the AE-1 make the life of the photographer easier. Even though it retains the metering and the on/off switch of the FTb, it feels like a much more modern camera than its famous ancestor, its only limitation being the lack of any information about shutter speed or aperture in the viewfinder.

In the Canon family, there are more elaborate cameras for users of Canon FD lenses. Their performance may be better (more precise metering, faster shutter, larger viewfinder), but they’re also less flexible and – for some of them – not as reliable. Simpler and offering more control over the exposure than the AE-1, lighter and not as expensive as the A-1, more reliable than the T90, it’s a very good camera to go back to the basics.


MIR – Canon AT-1 Specs


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Narbonne (France) – Christmas decorations – Canon AT-1
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Landscape of the Corbieres (France). Canon AT-1
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The Eiffel Tower in the backyard – Lezignan-Corbieres (France). Canon AT-1, FD 24mm lens.