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Photography | Canon A1 Review

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Canon A1 with FD 28mm f/2.8 lens

Canon A1 with FD 28mm f/2.8 lens


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Canon A1 Film Camera Review


Product Images

Canon A1 rear view

Canon A1 rear view


With digital cameras we are used to seeing an LCD and lots of controls on the back. In film days, unless you had a Data Back A, there was nothing.

The little slot on the back was designed to hold film information so that you didn't forget which type of film you had loaded. You simply tore off the part of the cardboard film box that had the relevant information and inserted it into the slot on the back of the camera.

There is one other little control that is obscured by the eye-cup in this image. A small level can be used to black out the viewfinder. If you are taking long exposure shots on a tripod this can help prevent stray light from entering the camera through the viewfinder.

Many modern cameras no longer have such a feature. Instead the manufacturer provides a small piece of rubber that you put over the viewfinder. The method used on the Canon A1 was a lot better.


Canon A1 bottom view

Canon A1 bottom view


There isn't a lot on the bottom, either. The four electrical connections are for a Motor Drive or Power Winder accessory. You can also see some alignment holes for these accessories.

When attaching a Motor Drive or Power Winder you remove the slotted cover with a coin, which provides access to the camera's internal winding mechanism.

When you come to the end of a roll of film you press the small recessed button on the bottom of the camera so that you can then wind the film back into the canister before sending it off to your local processing lab.

The only other thing on the bottom is a threaded hole so that you could mount the camera on a tripod.


Canon A1 front view

Canon A1 front view


Here you can see the classic FD mount. The grip on the left can be removed with a coin to give access to the battery compartment. The A1 uses a PX28L 6V battery. Unlike digital cameras whose batteries need to be charged almost daily, the battery on the A1 lasts for years because most functions on the camera are mechanical and the electrical parts use very little power.

The dial at the top on the left - just in front of the shutter release - is used to adjust aperture or shutter speed. It can be effectively disabled using the slider in front. Pushing the slider up blocks access to the dial.

On the top right is a PC sync socket for non-dedicated flash units, or so that you can use a Canon flash unit off camera. The one in the photo has its cap on. When the Canon T90 arrived later this feature was omitted.

There are two buttons and a lever on the side of the lens mount. The lever is the Stop-Down Lever. In normal circumstance the camera meters at the maximum aperture before adjusting the lens aperture.

If this lever is pushed in the camera meters at the aperture that is set on the lens, which entails adjusting the aperture ring on an FD lens away from the A (automatic) position.

Using the lever is also necessary when using non-FD lenses, such as FL or R lenses. This is a feature that I don't think I ever used.

The silver button is the Exposure Preview switch. Pressing this is the same as pushing the shutter release button halfway down. Pressing either button will show the exposure information on the red LCD in the viewfinder.

The black button above the silver button is the exposure memory switch. Pressing this will also preview the exposure, but it will also hold this information unlike the other two switches.

This enables you to meter on one part of a scene to get exposure information and to use the same settings on another part of the scene without new exposure information being used. On any camera, this is a useful feature.


Canon A1 top view

Canon A1 top view


First, a technical tip. When doing macro photography always clean the item being photographed first because dust and dirt show up very easily!


Canon A1 left-hand top view

Canon A1 left-hand top view


On the left is the ASA (ISO) dial, which must be set the same as your film speed. This dial is also used to set exposure compensation, if desired. The little button at the bottom must be pressed to adjust the exposure in order to prevent accidental adjustment. In the middle of the dial is the film winder. This opens up and is used to wind exposed film back into the canister.

The lever at the top is to turn the red LCD viewfinder display on and off. In the middle of this is the battery test button. When you press this down the small red LED next to the shutter release button should flash rapidly. If not, you need to change your battery.

The small white line you can see is the film plane.


Canon A1 AV mode

Canon A1 AV mode


Camera settings for modern cameras are shown on the rear LCD display, but despite having some clever internal electronics the Canon A1 was very mechanical. When you changed from Aperture Priority (AV) mode to Shutter Speed Priority (TV) mode, the dial also changed to show either aperture or shutter speed values. Very clever!


Canon A1 TV mode

Canon A1 TV mode


The big lever on the right winds the film to the next frame and also cocks the shutter mechanism. This action became second nature to film camera photographers and was very quick.

Under the big lever the small lever is the Multiple Exposure Lever. If you press this in before pulling back the big lever the shutter mechanism was cocked without advancing the film. You could therefore expose multiple images on the same negative.

The main switch has four position. The red L is Lock and is used when the camera is off to prevent battery drainage. Moving the switch to A turns on the camera. The 2 and 10 are automatic timer delays for the same value in seconds.

The small red LED on the top of the camera is for the battery test and it also flashes when using the self-timer function. It flashes slowly at first and then more rapidly just before the shutter is about to be released.

The frame counter records how many exposures have been taken. We are spoiled these days being able to take hundreds of photos using one memory card. Back in the film days, you needed to change your film after every 36 shots (or even less).


Canon A1 with FD 28mm f/2.8 lens

Canon A1 with Canon FD 28mm f/2.8 lens

Sample Images

A few photos taken with the Canon A1. Of course, there was no EXIF information with film as there is with digital and I wasn't in the habit of recording technical details on paper when I shot film. I therefore can't tell you the aperture and shutter speed settings for any of these images.

Although I did occasionally use other types of film, most of my shooting was done with Kodak Gold ASA/ISO 200. With some shots I have a fairly good idea which lens I used and a rough idea of the date.

Whereas image quality is related directly to the sensor inside a digital camera, film cameras had no direct effect on IQ. Image quality was determined by the lens and film used, and all the camera had to do was to make sure the exposure was correct.


Canon FD 28mm f/2.8 | Samui Island, Thailand - 1987

Canon FD 28mm f/2.8 | Samui Island, Thailand - 1987


Canon FD 28mm f/2.8 | Samui Island, Thailand - 1987

Canon FD 28mm f/2.8 | Samui Island, Thailand - 1987


Canon FD 28mm f/2.8 | Las Vegas, USA - 1991

Canon FD 28mm f/2.8 | Las Vegas, USA - 1991


Canon FD 28mm f/2.8 | Las Vegas, USA - 1991

Canon FD 28mm f/2.8 | Las Vegas, USA - 1991




Most of the pages in this 'Photography' section of my website contain my thoughts and impressions of various pieces of current equipment (mostly with sample images) and they are designed to help others who are making purchasing decisions. However, this page isn't at all like that.

The Canon A1 was the first serious camera I owned and it was given to me as a 21st birthday gift from my parents in 1982. I used it for about 18 years. In 2000 I went on a trip to South Africa and wanted a second body. I bought a Canon T90 (an amazing camera) and it so blew me away that I didn't use my A1 after that.

In 2003 I left the UK and went to live in Thailand, leaving all my film gear behind, and shortly after that I bought my first DSLR - a Canon 10D.

In 2017 my mother passed away and I made a brief trip back to the UK. I managed to retrieve some of my old film gear, as well as a pile of old negatives, including my beloved Canon A1.

This page is mainly a trip down memory lane, but if you have (or are thinking of getting) a Canon A1 there is also information about the camera, including instructions on how to use it.

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The Canon A1

It is only in recent years that technology has made the enormous strides that we take for granted now. However, you only have to go back to the 1980's and 1990's when it was a completely different world.

There was no Internet, no mobile phones, personal computers were prehistoric compared to the machines of today, and technology of all kinds was only very basic.

Nowadays, the technology used in the Canon A1 wouldn't impress anyone, but when I started using it in 1982 I distinctly remember hardly being able to believe it did the things it did.

The Canon AE-1 could be used in shutter speed priority mode. The AE-1 Program could be used in shutter speed priority or fully automatic mode. The Canon AV-1 could be used in aperture priority mode.

But ... the Canon A1 could shoot in all of these modes. In camera terms it really was the technological behemoth of its day.

The A1 uses a Canon FD mount, therefore there is no autofocus and the lens diaphragm for aperture control is changed by a mechanical link from the camera body. Despite this, the system works quickly and very reliably.

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I can't photograph the inside of the viewfinder, but I can explain it. In the middle is a Microprism Ring and Split-Image Rangefinder. Everyone uses autofocus these days, but in the manual focus days this type of focusing screen was essential for achieving the correct focus.

At the bottom of the viewfinder - and quite revolutionary for its time - is a red LCD display. Upon pressing the shutter release button halfway, this shows the shutter speed and aperture.

If the FD lens aperture ring is not in the A position, an M is shown in the display to indicate that the lens aperture control is in manual mode.

Unlike modern digital cameras that can adjust the ISO automatically, with film cameras ASA speed was depending on which type of film you had loaded.

If the camera cannot achieve the correct exposure for some reason (the scene is too dark or you have selected an inappropriate aperture of shutter speed value) the display flashes.

If you put the camera into Bulb mode (select B while in TV mode) this is shown as 'buLb' in the display. The display will also show 'EEEE EE' if there is an error. This normally happens because you have used the Stop Down Lever incorrectly.

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How To Use In Various Shooting Modes

First, ensure that you have a working battery and that the camera is turned on by selecting the white A on the top right of the camera. If the lever is on the red L the camera is locked and nothing will work.

The camera will also work if the lever is on the 2 or 10, but there will be a delay of 2 or 10 seconds after you press the shutter button. This may or may not be desirable.

  • Program. The most straightforward mode is fully automatic. Put the lens aperture ring on A, put the camera in TV mode, and turn the dial to the green P. The camera will select what it believes to be the best aperture and shutter speed for the scene. Unlike digital cameras, of course, the ISO is fixed depending on what film you are using.
  • Shutter speed priority. With the lens aperture ring on A and the camera in TV mode, select the shutter speed you require. The camera will automatically select the appropriate aperture to achieve the correct exposure.
  • Aperture priority. With the lens aperture ring on A and the camera in AV mode, select the aperture you require. The camera will automatically select the appropriate shutter speed to achieve the correct exposure.
  • Manual. Put the camera in TV mode and select the shutter speed you require. Then turn the aperture ring on the lens away from the A position to the aperture you require. An M will appear in the viewfinder. If the scene is too dark or too bright for the settings you have chosen, the LCD display inside the viewfinder will flash.
  • Bulb. With the camera set to TV mode and the dial on B the shutter will remain open for as long as you press the shutter release button. Be aware that this drains the battery and that it won't work if you have a weak battery.

It is not possible with the Canon A1 to select various kinds of metering modes as it is on later cameras, such as the Canon T90 (spot metering, evaluative, centre-weighted, etc).

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The Canon A1 could be personalised for individual photographers quite extensively using various accessories. Here are a few, although this probably isn't a complete list.

  • Nowadays, Canon's biggest advantage over its DSLR rivals is the huge number of EF lenses that are available. That was also the case in the manual focus days with FD lenses. There was a huge range and lenses available for all types of photography.
  • The Data Back A could replace the plain rear door over the film housing. This had three dials for year, month and day and turning on the Data Back A would add the pre-set date to each photo.
  • The standard A1 had a manual film winder, but the winding process could be automated with the addition of a power winder or motor drive accessory. I had a Winder A for my Canon A1 and it should still be in the UK somewhere.
  • The focusing screen could be changed, but this had to be done by the Canon service centre.
  • A range of dedicated Speedlite flash units was available. I have a Speedlite 199A for my A1.
  • I believe (not completely sure) that underwater housings were available, but I think they were made by third parties. These must have been quite a feat of engineering with so many manual controls, including focus.
  • I purchased a Canon LC-1 Wireless Controller for my A1, but never actually used it. The receiver is attached to the camera hot shoe and obviously it needs to be used in conjunction with a Power Winder or Motor Drive. The operating range is about 60m and there are three channels so that if someone else is using one nearby there won't be interference.

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These ancient film cameras are now just museum pieces and things that old people, such as myself, like to reminisce over. They were fantastic in their day, but the world has moved on and nowadays even smartphones have cameras that give better results.

Just as there are people who maintain that music recorded in grooves cut into vinyl discs sounds better than music recorded on high end digital equipment, there are those who claim that photos recorded on film look better than digital photos. I disagree.

When I retrieved my Canon A1 I also retrieved a lot of old film negatives and went about the process of scanning them in. I was hoping to see some fantastic results, but the images were far worse than even the first generation digital cameras of the late 1990's.

Old manual-focus lenses can still be useful and they work well with Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens Cameras (MILCs). But who wants to buy film and pay out for processing and scanning costs when the end results won't be anywhere near as good as a mediocre digital camera?

If you want to look at some of the old film negatives that I scanned in using an Epson Perfection V600 Photo scanner, go to this page and follow the links.

Film Archives

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