Canon AE-1 Program Review

The Canon AE-1 Program is an absolutely legendary camera. I haven’t come across another camera that I love using anywhere near quite as much as it.

The AE-1 combines all the components an SLR should have in a nice tight little package. I love it so much because it is one of their earliest cameras that will allow you to shoot on full auto mode (an absolute necessity for some street photography shots).

The earlier cameras, the AE-1 and A-1 had to be manually adjusted and so you risk missing that decisive moment while adjusting the settings, and if you shoot without adjusting then the risk is overexposing or underexposing the shot.

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Ergonomics

The Canon AE-1 Program was just made to fit in the hand of its user. Whenever I’m out shooting it just feels like the camera is an extension of my arm – my hand is a glove and the camera is my hand.

You know what I mean?

It has this finger grip section, a seemingly insignificant design feature – but I would pay almost the price of the camera itself to have it installed on all my other cameras.

The camera can rest in your hand so comfortably while wandering the streets, while most others I’m consciously aware that I gripping on for dear life so the camera doesn’t slip out of my hand. Sure, a slight exaggeration, but I’m sure you know what I mean.

Canon AE-1 Program Review

Why Is Everyone Getting The Canon AE-1 Program?

These cameras are a significant part of Canon’s history; they are the foundation of the consumer shift in perception from amateur to professional quality cameras. That maybe Canon could challenge Nikon in the quality of product and price point. Because this wasn’t always the case – Nikon was once the Lord of the camera market.

If you are looking for an entry level camera. You can’t beat this for the price. You can pick up a lens and body combination in good condition for around $120. The camera is perfect for beginners and intermediate level users.

For some insight into the batteries that power the system, you can check out this article. Basically, you’ll get around a year out of each battery, and if you need something that lasts longer for those long exposure night shots, you can rig up an inexpensive hack.

Canon AE-1 Program Ergonomic

Why Should I Get It?

There are so many reasons:

  • Historical significance
  • The camera has killer looks, it could seduce anyone (colours are available in full black or with silver trim)
  • It’s perfect to learn on
  • It’s simple to use with automatic mode
  • The camera is cheap as chips
  • Has all the basic necessities like timer, exposure lock, shutter priority, aperture priority and full manual mode
  • Robust and sturdy as hell (I can throw it in my backpack and throw the backpack around without any stress of it breaking)
  • Travelling – if it gets stolen, buy a new one (they’re so cheap)

Why Shouldn’t I Get It?

If you want to be different. And I mean, shooting on a 35mm camera is already quite different because the majority of the population is shooting digital. But if you really want to be unique then get something a little less common like the Pentax K1000 or Olympus … Still great cameras of around the same era as the AE-1 Program, but just a little less common.

The Canon AE-1 Program is probably the most popular 35mm camera for film enthusiasts today (at the entry level price point, otherwise we’d be talking Leica).

Canon AE-1 Program

Where Can I Get It From?

Ebay is usually a good option – it’s cheaper but it comes with a little extra risk. I bought a Canon AE-1 Program from eBay and had to fight tooth and nail with the seller to try to return it. They feigned ignorance and sold me a dodgy camera, there were mechanical issues with the shutter. After developing my first roll of film with the camera, everything came back way underexposed. So I took the camera to a specialist and he informed me the cost of fixing the shutter was more than the camera itself was worth with it fixed. So make sure you always buy quality.

In the end, I had to open a buyer dispute with eBay and they eventually refunded my money. You can be saved by this option, but it’s best to avoid getting in these situations in the first place. The trick is to try and find a reputable seller with plenty of reviews, I got too cocky and bought from a private seller who had very few reviews.

Amazon is also a good option, you’ll find plenty of cameras on there with many that have had a service and overhaul.

What Lens Should I Get?

The Canon AE-1 Program takes FD mount lenses.

The 50mm f/1.4. It will cost you a little extra and it’s worth it.

If you want to go the cheapest option roll with the 50mm f/1.8, it’s around 2/3 of the price.

28mm f/2.8. A great wide angle lens, essential for tight spots.

You can venture into longer focal length lenses like the 135mm f/3.5 fixed, they usually run quite cheap. You might be able to get one for $20. It’s cool for using here and there, great to experiment with, I would mostly use it for surf shots or close-ups in sporting arenas when you’ve got nosebleed section seats. Otherwise, I haven’t used it for a good year now.

I pretty much leave the 50mm f/1.4 on there.

Quality Of Shots

A couple of photos I’ve taken with my Canon AE-1 Program.

How To Use The Canon AE-1 Program

How To Use Canon AE-1 Program

I’ve made a few diagrams and instructions to show you how to use the Canon AE-1 Program and what each of the buttons do. It’s a fairly easy camera to use with a few extra features for more advanced photography techniques.

Canon AE-1 Program Diagrams

Canon AE-1 Program Diagram
Canon AE-1 Program Diagram

Loading The Battery

The battery on the Canon AE-1 Program is really simple to change.

1. Remove The Fingergrip

Canon AE-1 Program Ergonomic

 

2. Open Battery Terminal

Canon AE-1 Program Battery Terminal

 

3. Replace With A 6V Battery

Canon AE-1 Program Battery

Some earlier Canon AE-1 Program models don’t come with a finger grip so you can get straight into the battery compartment.

If you have a finger grip on yours, you must first remove it then you will be able to get access.

If you take a close-up look a the battery compartment there is a little release button you have to press in order to get the door to open.

Battery Compartment Release Button
Battery Compartment Release Button

I’m sure for plenty of people this button is too small to open with just your fingers (and for good reason you don’t want to accidentally bump it and have the door swinging open while out shooting).

I have to use a pointed object like the end of a pen to get it to open.

Use 4LR44 6V battery with positive terminal at the top.

How To Check The Battery

Battery Check Button
Battery Check Button

Checking the battery is a breeze, simply press and hold the battery check button on the top plate of the camera and listen to how many times it beeps.

The fantastic thing about the Canon AE-1 Program’s battery check is that it also tells you how good the battery is – so you know roughly how much longer you can keep shooting with it.

If you are hearing six – ten or more beeps, then the camera battery is healthy and strong.

If you hear only 3-4 beeps then start thinking about changing the battery soon.

Battery Check
Make sure it’s on A or S when checking the battery.

Any less than this and the battery will be dead soon!

If the battery check isn’t working make sure that the camera is set to either A or S on the right side of the top plate.

If it’s on L (for lock) the battery check won’t work.

 

Changing Lenses

Lens Release Button
Lens Release Button

In order to change the lenses press and hold the lens release button as shown in the image to the right and rotate the lens anti-clockwise.

Once you’ve got the lens off, then all you have to do is match up the red dot on the body of the Canon AE-1 Program with the red dot on the top of the lens.

1. Line Up The Red Dots

Changing Lenses

 

2. Rotate Clockwise

Rotate Slightly

 

3. Turn Until It Clicks

You Will Hear A Click When It is on

The lens will be in place when you hear a distinct click. At this point you will be unable to rotate the lens any further.

Loading Film

Rather than trying to read instructions on loading film, watch this video.

Setting The ASA

Changing ASA Settings
Matching ASA and ISO

Before you start shooting there’s one last thing you need to

Unless you plan on pushing or pulling your film during development, ensuring these settings match will mean you get correct exposure on your film.

You’ll be able to find the ISO on your film packaging.

Change the ASA settings by depressing the silver button and at the same time sliding the dial around to get the required number to match up with the green mark.

In this instance, I have my camera set to ASA of 800 to match my Portra 800 ISO film.

Shooting Modes

The Canon AE-1 Program has four possible shooting modes. These are:

  • Fully automatic
  • Shutter priority
  • Aperture priority
  • Fully manual

Each of these will be discussed in the next few sections.

Fully Automatic Mode

Fully automatic mode is great if this is the first time you’ve picked up a camera or are new to analog film photography.

It’s also really useful if you need to shoot quick scenes, this can be highly relevant to street photography.

In order to shoot on fully automatic mode, all you need to do is place the shutter speed dial on the green ‘Program’ and move the aperture ring to the green ‘A’.

Auto Shutter

Program
Program Mode

 

Auto Aperture

Automatic Aperture
Automatic Aperture

When shooting on program mode (fully auto) you will be able to see the chosen aperture through the viewfinder, but not the shutter speed.

This can have some implications if for instance, you are trying to shoot a moving object, albeit slow, you might end up with a blurred image as a result because the camera has chosen a slow shutter speed.

This isn’t usually the case, but it’s times like this that using shutter priority would be the preferred option.

The other warning when shooting in this mode is that when there is not enough light to correctly expose an image, the viewfinder will start flashing in the lower right corner of the viewfinder.

In this case, you don’t really know how underexposed the image is going to be. You just know it will be underexposed.

Shutter Priority Mode

In order to shoot shutter priority, keep the lens on the green A and move the shutter dial to your speed of choice.

Having this setting means that the camera will adjust the aperture settings to match the shutter speed you have entered in order to get the correct exposure.

I won’t touch on the details as to why you might want to use shutter priority, but you can check out the reasons here.

If the shutter speed is too fast such that the camera can’t get a correct exposure, you will get a flashing 1 in the viewfinder screen.

You will be able to check out the setting if you depress the shutter release button gently and feel a slight resistance. This activates the light meter, but does not capture a photograph.

In this instance, you should change the settings or slow the shutter speed down.

Aperture Priority Mode

In order to shoot aperture priority, simply move the shutter dial to the green program mark and move the aperture to your desired setting.

The camera will take into account your aperture setting when metering the image and adjust the shutter speed accordingly.

In a similar manner to the shutter priority mode, if the camera can’t get enough light and the image will be underexposed you will be warned by a flashing 1 in the viewfinder. Slightly depress the shutter release button in order to see what is going on.

Manual

Shooting manual is simple.

Set either your desired shutter speed or aperture and compose your image.

In the viewfinder, you will see the recommended aperture.

Tweak either your shutter speed setting or aperture setting until the reading in the viewfinder matches the aperture setting on the camera.

Using The Self Timer

Self Timer
Self Timer

Just as easy as waking up in the morning is using the self-timer on the Canon AE-1 Program.

All you have to do is slide the lever onto the ‘s’ on the top right of the camera plate.

Once you hit the shutter release button you’ll hear 16 slow beeps before a few in rapid succession.

At the end of those slow beeps, you’ve probably got 2 – 3 seconds to pull your face together for the photo.

I haven’t timed it, I’m just estimating.

If you need to cancel the self-time because someone’s trying to photobomb the shot of your squad, politely tell them to hit the dusty trail then run over to your trusty Canon and slam that finger on the battery check button.

This will reset the camera so you can regroup after such a rude intrusion.

BONUS TIP: Use the little plastic bit you should have in your hot shoe to cover the viewfinder. This will make sure the exposure is super-accurate as it prevents any light from filtering in through the viewfinder throwing off the light meter.

How To Lock The Camera When Not In Use

When you aren’t using the camera you can move that sliding lever thing onto ‘L’ which means lock. 

This stops any electrons flowing through the circuit so the light meter won’t be activated, the battery check won’t work or anything else that might drain the battery.

If you don’t plan on shooting for more than a month then it’s recommended to remove the battery to stop any potential drainage.

Depth of Field Preview

DOF Preview
DOF Preview

The Depth of Field (DOF) preview button is located on the right side of the lens looking toward the front of the camera.

You have to pull the latch up then push it across towards the lens to make it work.

For a great article that goes into detail about why you might want to use a DOF preview button you can follow the link here.

Auto Exposure Lock

AE Lock Button
AE Lock Button

The auto exposure (AE) lock is located just above the DOF preview on the front of the camera.

Don’t confuse it with the exposure preview button that sits below it with the silver ring!

In order to lock the exposure, you need to have your finger depressing the shutter release button so that the light meter is activated.

Once the light meter is engaged and you have the camera pointed towards the area of interest, press the AE lock button to store the exposure settings, then compose your image.

This is a somewhat more advanced setting, but has real benefits in portrait photography if you have a bright backdrop.

You can read more about how, why, when and where to use it here.

Rewinding The Film After Shooting A Roll

The first time I rewound a roll of film I completely fluffed it up like an absolute n00b.

That was years ago and I’ve learned some harsh lessons since.

Once you’ve finished the roll of film you’ll find that you can no longer advance any film using the film advance lever.

Don’t force it to try move to the next frame for God’s sake! When you hit a tough resistance you’ve finished the roll.

Once this has happened, flip the camera to its underbelly and press this little black button.

This releases the spindle that the film has collected on and allows it to be rewound back into the cartridge.

Once you’ve pressed this button, then you can flip up the film rewind lever and turn it clockwise to collect the film back in the cartridge.

Hit The Film Rewind Button

Film Rewind Button
Film Rewind Button

Turn The Film Rewind Lever

Film Rewind Lever
Film Rewind Lever

The first time I tried to rewind the film, I didn’t press the button and I forced the rewind lever so hard the film actually snapped.

Then I made an even bigger mistake and opened the back in broad daylight to see what had happened.

Rookie much?

We’ve all been there.

If you’ve got any other questions about how to use the Canon AE-1 Program don’t hesitate to get in touch with me and I’ll see what I can do to help!

Summary

If you can find one with a 50mm lens and 28mm wide angle lens then you’ve got a killer set-up that will cover 90% of what you will be shooting.

I hope this Canon AE-1 Program review has helped you further decide on your 35mm camera of choice.

Any questions or comments, please let me know below!

#keepfilmalive

Want one? Get your Canon AE-1 Program from eBay or Amazon.

James Grundy

I’ve been photographing for 13 years and have a penchant for 35mm and medium format film. Black and white street photography is my go-to. My work has been featured in online and print media through a few publications like Shutterstock, Brooklyn Resource Mag, Off The Rails and Collective Quarterly.

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7 thoughts on “Canon AE-1 Program Review

  1. Hi James!

    I just got my Canon-AE 1 program last week. The lens I got with the camera is a 50mm f1.4. With that being said, I am a complete beginner to film photography and how each of the shooting modes work. Which mode do you usually shoot in? I am going to Chicago in 2 weeks and would like to have some clear, awesome shots.

    1. Kate fantastic news! You’ll have plenty of fun with the camera. Sorry if I go over a few things you already know, just want to ensure your first roll comes out superb!

      First things first, make sure that the ASA (the little green numbers) on the top left of the camera match the speed of your film. So if you’ve got Kodak Tri-x 400, make sure it’s on number 400 on the camera. Here’s some suggestions for how to shoot with the camera:

      1. If you want to play it safe, shoot in Auto – Make sure it’s on the green A on the lens and the green program on the shutter speed dial. All you have to do then is focus and shoot, it will do the rest.
      2. If you want some nice portraits with delicious, creamy bokeh, turn the aperture dial down to 1.4, 2 or 2.8. At 1.4 the depth of field will be very narrow (very little will be in focus), so just be careful – it will be hard to focus on what you want.
      3. If you’re shooting something that’s moving, street performers or the like and don’t want any blur, move the shutter speed dial onto 1000 and keep aperture on the green A.
      4. If you’re shooting landscape or cityscape I suppose, move the aperture ring to 22 and have the shutter dial on program. Generally you want as much of these scenes in focus.

      Another warning, if you look through the lens and see a 1.4 with a green P flashing, it means the shot will be underexposed. You will need to either slow down the shutter speed, or open up the aperture (lower the number the more open the aperture).

      Remember these are all guidelines not gospel, so feel free to experiment yourself.. it’s half the fun!

      Let me know how you go, I’d be keen to see what your shots and Chicago look like 🙂

  2. This aperture priority mode, is it a hack? I thought the AE-1P didn’t have this feature. That being said, I’ve seen others claim that this method works for them

  3. Great summary and review! I love my Canon AE-1 Program, it’s the camera that comes every where with me. I had a question on the depth of field function and recently read something on “resetting” the aperture when going back to using “A.” I rarely use the auto function on the camera but is this something you have any knowledge on? Want to ensure I’m not missing anything when using the depth of field. Thanks so much!

  4. Dear James, I have a new Canon AE-1 Program that I received as a gift 30 years ago. I never used it once. What sale price should I ask for it. Thanks. -Todd

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