Canon A1 – a fiddly festival of controls that’s surprisingly lovely to use

I wrote about my Canon SLR collection a while ago. The A1 was an obvious gap between the match-needles and dials of the Fs and the computers, buttons and LCDs of the Ts.

By the alchemy of eBay I transmuted three broken mobile phones into one very nice Canon A1. Gap filled.

With an equivalent lens and the same film any of the Canon film SLRs will produce pictures of exactly the same quality.

What’s different about them is how easy a camera makes it to get the exposure you want. The A1 makes a really good job of it – when it first came out in 1978 it must have been a revelation.

All the modes

For the first time there was a computer in the camera that gave you the full gamut of AE modes – manual, full program, aperture priority and shutter priority. If you want you can just point, focus and shoot.

There’s an interesting dual-purpose dial that you use either to set the aperture or the shutter speed – depending on whether you want aperture or shutter priority. There’s a ‘P’ option on the shutter scale for full program mode. The lens’s aperture ring only moves off ‘A’ for full manual mode.

It’s a bit odd not using the lens’s aperture ring for aperture priority, but you get used to it pretty quickly.

Less easy to get used to is the finger-shredding aperture/shutter control wheel. In fact, all the controls are small, solid, positive, sharp and finger hurting. None-the-less, here it is, the control wheel. Precursor to the super-useful control wheel found on later Canon SLRs.

The viewfinder is as big and bright as any other Canon SLR, and is decked out with an LED display showing shutter and aperture – brilliant. You have to hold the shutter button or one of the two exposure preview buttons to get the LEDs to light up though.


Two exposure preview buttons… indeed.

One gives you a preview and locks the exposure (as long as you hold it firmly down), the other just gives you a preview. They fall easily to hand (well, finger) at the side of the lens mount. But why two buttons?

Given the shutter button gives you an exposure preview, why not just a lock button? There are more elegant, less buttony solutions. Generally, the camera is small and dense and looks over buttoned.

But using it is lovely. It’s a nice size and weight.

I find myself taking it down from my eye to set the aperture or shutter – it’s more comfortable than holding down a preview button so you can see what you are doing in the finder – but that’s fine. Slows you down a bit. And if you want to be all street shooter, just put it in auto.

I was shooting with it the other day and finished a film. I had my EOS 1n with me with some shots left in it and thought I’d better use those up before loading another into the A1 – I hate having cameras lying around with films stuck in them. (30 something years is my record for leaving a film in a camera.)

Much as I love the 1n and its super-convenient ease of use I instantly missed using the A1. Nuff said.


The A1 in the Canon camera museum:


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