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

I’ve worked with many Canon AE-1s and over the years I’ve discovered the pros and cons of this brilliant SLR.

The Canon AE-1 was one of the most popular SLR cameras ever produced, it was advertised so heavily that Canon has sold an incredible 5.7 million units since its release in 1976. The AE-1 was the first microprocessor-equipped SLR so it can be shot in shutter priority as well as fully manual. This camera is recognizable the world over, but how does it perform in 2024? And how much should you be paying for it?

If you want to know how this camera compares to others, how much you should be paying, some of its common issues and much more then read on!

The Overview

Over the last five years that I’ve been trading and fixing cameras, I’ve come across about fifty or so Canon AE-1s. I always like getting them in because they’re so popular, they usually don’t need too much doing to them and they’re fairly reliable.

Personally, I don’t think the AE-1 is really my kind of camera, there’s just something that I don’t like about FD lenses (I’m sorry everyone), and for my kind of work, the AE-1 is far too entry-level.

But I have taken the AE-1 out for a spin quite a few times, most memorably during lockdown when there wasn’t much else to do. I loaded it up with a bit of Kodak Colorplus 200 and took it for a spin.

Perhaps the biggest selling points for me are that the AE-1 is pretty affordable and that it has shutter priority. Any camera that can give you the option between fully manual and partially automated is a good camera in my book.

There’s definitely an amateur feel to the AE-1, with some of the plastic buttons and dials, but surprisingly, it’s rare that I’ve ever seen any of these plastic parts damaged. Despite having seen a lot of these cameras over the years, the main problem is usually the electronics.

I enjoyed shooting the AE-1 enough, but as you’ll see in the rest of the article, there’s a lot to consider when looking at this camera.

Canon AE-1 Specs

Mount – FD

Format – 35mm

ISO/ASA – 25-3200

Shutter Speeds – 2 Seconds -1/1000th of a second

Battery – 4LR44 – 6V

Exposure – Manual exposure/Shutter Priority

Focusing – Manual Focusing

Flash – Hotshoe

How Much Is The Canon AE-1 Worth?

Currently, the Canon AE-1 is worth $175-225 or £150-180 without a lens. This camera can be purchased for less however it’s fairly risky due to the fact that there are a few common problems with this model. It’s worth spending a bit more and making sure that you have a fully working camera.

How Does The AE-1 Compare To The A1?

Both the Canon AE-1 and A1 were incredibly popular cameras and if you’re looking to buy one then it’s likely that you’re trying to see which of these two is better. Read more about the Canon A-1 here!

Price (2022)$175-225$200-250
Battery4LR44 – 6V4LR44 – 6V
Ease Of UseMedium EaseFairly Easy
Chance Of FaultMedium/HighMedium
Shutter Speeds2 Seconds -1/1000th30 Seconds – 1/1000th
Use Without BatteryNoNo
Flash Sync1/601/60
Comparison of the AE-1 and A1

There isn’t much that sets the Canon AE-1 and A1. The A1 is typically a more expensive camera but I think it generally has a slight edge over the AE-1 because it’s a newer camera which means it’s slightly less likely to have one of many common issues. The A1 also looks much nicer and has a much better aesthetic to the light meter.

Personally, I would choose the A1 but that’s purely for aesthetics and the light meter. If these things don’t bother you and you want to pay a little bit less, the AE-1 is a good choice.

In fairness though, there’s nothing wrong with the AE-1, the differences are very slight and they don’t make any difference to your final image. The AE-1 and A1 take the same brilliant lenses and this levels the playing field. Also, functionally, there isn’t much difference in the way you use these two cameras.

Personally, I would choose the A1 but that’s purely for aesthetics and the light meter of the A1. If these things don’t bother you and you want to pay a little bit less, the AE-1 is a fine choice.

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

The Canon AE-1 is best for all kinds of photography, it’s suited for street photography, documentary photography, portrait, travel, editorial and much more. Since it has a hot shoe you can use a flash, so this camera is suited to all sorts. Obviously, from a client perception point of view, this camera doesn’t really have a ‘wow factor’, so that’s something to bear in mind if you were to use it for anything client-facing like portrait or editorial work.

This camera is ideal for someone who is trying to learn film photography, the shutter priority mode makes it a lot easier for amateurs to take better shots without having to worry about the rest of the settings. This camera really lends itself to a beginner.

Is The Canon AE-1 Fully Manual?

You can use the AE-1 fully manually or in shutter priority mode. This means the AE-1 is perfect for beginner photographers who want to learn how to use an SLR. The AE-1 shutter priority mode is much easier to use than just shooting fully manually, you just choose a shutter speed and the camera will choose the correct aperture.

What Kind Of Film Stock Is Best For The AE-1?

The best film stock for the Canon AE-1 is Kodak Portra 400 due to its versatility. Portra 400 is quite expensive, so Kodak Gold is a great alternative for beautiful yellow hues, this is most ideal for travel type shooting.

If you are shooting faster moving things then Portra 800 or Cinestill 800T is a great alternative, although Cinestill 800T is specifically for nighttime or artificial light. For Black and White film, Ilford HP5 is a good stock to use for the AE-1.

If you want to buy some film and you’re not sure what to buy or where then this article will solve all of your problems.

If you want to save money, it’s a good idea to use out-of-date film, which can still provide some very good shots.

How To Use The AE-1

The AE-1 is a fairly simple camera to use once you get the hang of it. Until then, I’ll cover all of the important things that you need to know about how to use it.

To Remove The Lens you have to twist the silver metal part at the base of the lens anti-clockwise until both red dots line up, then you can pull it away. To put the lens back on, you must line the red dots up again and push the lens on, then twist the silver part at the base of the lens clockwise.

To Open The Battery Compartment you can usually use your nails to open the small door located to the left of the lens. If you struggle you can use something else to poke at the little switch in order to open the door. The batteries can sometimes be hard to remove from the battery compartment, you may need to poke something inside to get the battery out.

To Activate Self Timer, the outside of the shutter button rotates, you must rotate it all the way around to ‘S’ which is labelled around the front of the lever. The starting position for the lever is ‘A’ which is for normal shooting and to the right of that is ‘L’ to lock the shutter button (usually to stop you from accidentally taking any shots.

To Control The Shutter Speeds you simply have to use the dial on the right-hand side which has the numbers 2 – 1000 on it. Simply rotate the dial to choose your desired shutter speed.

To Change the ASA/ISO, you’ll see that on the same dial as the shutter speed, there is a small window with green numbers inside, these numbers are your ISO. To change the ISO, you must pull upwards on the silver outer ring of the dial, then rotate it to choose the correct shutter speed.

To change the aperture, look at the lens from the top view, you’ll see numbers from 1.8 to 16, or similar. Rotate this ring to choose the aperture that you want. You can also shoot this camera in shutter priority by pushing in the small button about 1cm away from the letter ‘A’ and rotating it until it is in the ‘A’ position.

To focus, you simply have to rotate the end of the lens until you find your image is in focus. You will see numbers in white and orange, the white is in Feet and the orange is in meters, this shows you at what distance you are currently focussing on. It also shows you how close is the closest you can focus, which, in this case, is 0.6 meters, or 2 feet.

To Attach a Flash you simply have to slide it into the hotshoe, located on the top middle of the prism. When using flash, ensure you are using it at the correct flash sync speed.

To Rewind Your Film, you just need to use the winder on the left-hand side of the top and rotate it clockwise. Before you do this, ensure that the spool release is pressed in, this is located on the bottom of the camera, it’s a small black button with a white spot on it.

To load and unload film is fairly easy but I think it’s much better to show it in video form:

Video On How To Load Film

The AE-1s Common Faults

Unfortunately, because the AE-1 is quite old and it is quite an electrical camera, there are a few common faults for you to look out for to ensure you’re getting a quality camera.

Canon Cough is one of the most common Canon A series issues. Luckily Canon cough is easy to fix if you have the right tools, you can find out how to do it here. If left untreated it will continue to make its famous noise and it will negatively impact your camera’s shutter speeds.

Damage to the battery door is also quite common for an AE-1, usually, the bottom corner of the battery door can end up damaged and in some instances, the door may be missing completely. This is not the end of the world as the battery does sit in position quite nicely. You can replace the door but you would obviously have to find another door in good condition, you would be able to find out how to replace the door on YouTube.

Faulty electrics are not uncommon for the AE-1 and this is one of the risks for this camera, once the electrics are faulty, you’ll really struggle to get this camera going again and if you send it to be fixed, it may cost more than the camera is worth. Sometimes, you may put the battery in and the light meter may react to light but the shutter button just won’t press (obviously, check if you have it locked and check that you’ve wound on before assuming it’s broken). If that’s the case, there’s something wrong electronically. Also, if the light meter won’t respond, that’s a sign there’s something wrong. In which case, your best bet is to try ‘Fix Old Cameras’ on YouTube, to see if you can find anything that helps.

Otherwise, you have to look out for fungus or dust in your lenses as you do with all SLR cameras, fungus and dust are very common, they don’t always make your lens too bad to use, but after a certain point, it’s far too much!

You’ll also probably need to replace your light seals which is very common in old SLR cameras. If you are getting light leaks in your images then you definitely need to replace your light seals which is very easy to do as you can see here.

Final Word

The AE-1 is a great SLR camera and it was popular for a good reason. In this day and age though, I think there are much better and more reliable alternatives for a better price, something like the Nikon FM surpasses the AE-1 in my opinion and it’s a very similar price. That being said, it’s still a very good camera that will help you to learn more and more about shooting film professionally.

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