The Canon A-1 Review: Everything You Need To Know

Written – 03/08/2023

I’ve been shooting film for over 7 years and over that time I’ve used a bunch of Canon A-1s and discovered the ins and outs of this little SLR.

The Canon A-1 is a classic SLR camera produced from 1978 to 1985 with shutter speeds ranging from 30 seconds to 1/1000th of a second. Housing some brilliant lenses, being semi-affordable and pretty reliable, the Canon A-1 is a really good SLR camera.

If you want to find out what it’s actually like to use an A-1, if it’s worth it, what its specs are and much, much more then carry on reading!


Mount – FD

Shutter speeds – 30s – 1/1000s

Format – 35mm

Flash Sync – 1/60

Flash – Hot shoe

Exposure – Auto, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority & Manual

Battery – 4LR44

ISO Range – 6 – 12800

Size – 92 x 141 x 48 mm

Weight – 620g

A Brief History Of The Canon A-1

Following the creation of the Canon AE-1 in 1976, competition between photography’s big dogs really began to hot up. New features were being added to cameras like it was going out of fashion and Canon knew they needed to keep on pushing to compete with Nikon.

Making a far better version of the AE-1 in all black, using slightly cheaper components to keep costs down was what they decided to do. And it’s up for debate as to whether they did that so well. The A-1 is technically Canon’s amateur range of cameras but it was judged for it’s lack of any higher shutter speeds and slow flash sync.

The A-1 was better in every way than the AE-1 but a lot of photographers at the time just weren’t too sure about it. The A-1 became the last of the A series as Canon moved with the times to the T90 and onwards.

But the question is, is the camera any good in the modern day? Is it worth the price? Let’s find out.

How Much Is The Canon A-1 Worth?

We’re in a strange situation where the Canon A-1 is worth around the same amount as the AE-1 despite the fact that the A-1 is better and a newer camera.

Generally, in the UK the price is around £140-180 for a Canon A-1 and you can expect to pay more if it has a 1.4 50mm lens or if it’s been expertly CLA’d. The price is similar for the Canon AE-1 and to compare it to other similar cameras, you’d be looking at about the same price for the Olympus OM2n or Nikon FM.

Is It Worth It?

Well, kinda yeah. Personally, if I had £180 to spend on a camera I’d probably buy the Nikon FM but if you like the A-1 and Canon lenses then I can’t really say that £180 for a good Canon camera isn’t worth it.

When you compare it to the AE-1 or AE-1 Programme, then I think it’s definitely worth it.

What Are Its Actual Attributes?

I think if you search the internet to try to understand what the A-1 does and whether it’ll suit you then you’ll be pretty confused, pretty quickly. It’s complicated but it’s also not clear where to find the information that you want or need. I hope to lay things out a little easier for you.

The Canon A-1 is an SLR camera that can house some great lenses, it can have an additional small grip that screws onto the side of it which is pretty common and of course, you can add a power winder to it.

It has auto-exposure, aperture priority, shutter priority and manual exposure which made it a world first when it was initially produced. These options make it a pretty intuitive camera to use despite the fact that there’s no autofocus.

The changes to exposure were some of the main changes from the Canon AE-1, that and the fact that they sold the camera in just black, no other colour.

An interesting aspect is that the Canon A-1 can have shutter speeds as long as 30 seconds, which a lot of other SLR’s of its time would not do. So, if you’re interested in long exposure then the A-1 could be the ideal option for you.

What Kind Of Photography Is The A-1 Best For?

While the Canon A-1 isn’t really considered a ‘professional’ film camera (or at least it wasn’t when it was first produced), it certainly has a lot of potential.

Personally, I’d say it’s a great option for street photography, especially with its all-black design and aperture priority/auto exposure (the only thing probably letting it down is the sound of the shutter).

Otherwise, it’s definitely a good option for beginners that want to get into learning how to use a film camera. It’d be good for portraits and maybe editorial (although I’d suggest a better quality camera), it’d be fine for landscapes (and the option of low shutter speeds would potentially give you some great shots).

It’s not the absolute best option for any type of photography really but it’s a solid enough option for sure.

Is The Canon A-1 Fully Mechanical?

The Canon A-1 isn’t fully mechanical, with its auto exposure, aperture priority, shutter priority and manual mode, it needs a battery to run.

You’ll find if you try to shoot the A-1 without a battery then it won’t shoot and of course, none of the other modes will work for it.

Good examples of fully mechanical cameras that I love are the Pentax K1000 and the Nikon FM.

Is The Canon A-1 Good For Beginners?

Yeah, I’d say the Canon A-1 is pretty ideal for beginner photographers that want to learn how to use an SLR.

With the array of modes available to shoot with, it’d be a helpful way to perhaps shoot in aperture priority and get the hang of everything. Personally, I learned by shooting in aperture priority first and it just helped me to focus on the stuff that mattered like actually getting the shot!

My ideal suggestion would be to grab an A-1 and a 50mm 1.8 lens and just get shooting!

If you are a beginner and you’re trying to learn more about film photography then take a look at this article I wrote!

What Kind Of Film Is Best For The A-1?

Really, this depends on what you’re shooting as all film stocks are made for different things. However, if you want to get the most out of your Canon A-1 then I’d suggest shooting something like Kodak Portra 400 as it’s a super high-quality film stock that won’t let you down.

Obviously, there are so many different types of film that it’s hard to actually say what would be best for your particular style. Other film stocks that I’d suggest are Cinestill 800T, Fuji Superia XTRA and Kodak Tri-X.

Does It Have Autofocus?

The A-1 does not have autofocus, the T90 that came afterwards does have but the A-1 is still a manual focus system. So for all those purists that hate automation, it’s an ideal camera.

What Are The Best Lenses For The Canon A-1?

Okay so the Canon A series has a lot of good lenses available, so I’m just going to give you a list of some of the best lenses that you can use for the A-1.

50mm 1.4 FD Lens, this is the Mac daddy of Canon lenses, a super fast, super sharp lens at a fairly reasonable price. It’s a great lens but you don’t necessarily need to stop down to 1.4.

50mm 1.8 FD Lens, the 1.8 lens is a great, affordable 50mm lens.

28mm 2.8 FD Lens is another great option for those wider shots.

35mm 2.8 FD Lens is a better option for things like street photography where you want things to be a bit wide without too much distortion.

85mm 1.8 FD Lens is an ideal lens for classic portraits.

I’d personally go for the 50mm 1.4 lens and the 28mm 2.8 lens if I just wanted to get a nice little setup!

How To Use The Canon A-1

To remove the lens just twist the silver metal part at the bottom of the lens counterclockwise until the red dots line up, then pull it off. Putting it back on is just as simple – align the red dots again, push the lens on, and then twist the silver part clockwise.

Opening the battery compartment is a breeze. Usually, you can use your nails to pop open the small door on the left side of the lens. If it’s a bit tricky, you can poke at the little switch with something else to help open it. Sometimes, getting the batteries out of the compartment can be a bit stubborn, so you might need to poke something inside to get them out.

For the self-timer, twist the shutter button on the outside all the way around to ‘S,’ which is marked on the front of the lever. The starting position is ‘A’ for regular shooting, and to the right of that is ‘L’ to lock the shutter button (to avoid accidental shots).

Adjusting the shutter speeds is super simple. Just use the dial on the right side with the numbers 2 – 1000 and rotate it to select your desired speed.

Changing the ASA/ISO is right there on the same ring as the rewind lever. To change it, pull the outer ring of the dial upwards and then rotate it to choose the right ISO.

To change the aperture, check the lens from the top view – you’ll see numbers from 2.8 to 22, or something similar. Just rotate this ring to select your desired aperture. If you prefer shutter priority mode, push the small button about 1cm away from the letter ‘A’ and rotate it until it’s on ‘A.’

To focus just rotate the end of the lens until your image looks sharp. The white and orange numbers show the focus distance in feet and meters, and they also indicate the closest focus distance, which is around 0.4 meters in this case.

Attaching a flash is simple. Slide it into the hotshoe on the top-middle of the prism. When using flash, make sure you use the correct flash sync speed.

To rewind your film, just use the winder on the left side of the top and turn it clockwise. Before you do this, press in the spool release located at the bottom of the camera – it’s a small black button with a white spot on it.

Common Faults With The Canon A-1

Unfortunately due to the A-1’s age and its electrical nature, several typical issues need to be considered to ensure you acquire a high-quality camera.

Canon Cough is frequently encountered in Canon A series cameras. Fortunately, this issue can be easily fixed with the right to ls, and you can find a guide on how to do it here. Ignoring the Canon Cough can lead to persistent noise and adversely affect the camera’s shutter speeds.

Damage to the battery door, particularly the bottom corner, may even result in a missing door. While this can be addressed by finding a replacement door in good condition, the battery can still stay in place securely.

Faulty electrics are not uncommon in the A-1, posing a risk to the camera’s functionality. If the electronics are compromised, you may face difficulty getting the camera to work again. It’ll probably cost more to fix than the camera’s value. Signs of faulty electrics include unresponsive shutter buttons despite the light meter reacting to light or the light meter failing to respond altogether. In this case, seeking assistance from resources like ‘Fix Old Cameras’ on YouTube might be helpful.

Fungus or dust in your lenses, as they are quite common. While small amounts may not significantly impact image quality, excessive buildup should be addressed promptly.

Finally, light seals which is a common issue in old SLR cameras. If you notice light leaks in your images, it’s essential to replace the light seals, a straightforward process you can learn how to do here.

Final Word

I really like the Canon A-1 as a basic, semi-affordable SLR camera that does the job. It’s a pretty ideal beginner camera and I can’t really knock it for what it is.

Would I use the A-1? Probably not, perhaps only for the super long exposures I could do with it.

Thanks, enjoy yourselves and take care.

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  1. Thanks for your article. One thing, though: “The A-1 does not have autofocus, the T90 that came afterwards does have”. Nope, the T90 can only focus manually.

    1. Hey John! Thanks for your comment, that was my oversight! I’ll update the article. I knew the T90 could house MF lenses but I must have thought that it was built to be an AF camera!

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