The Canon A-1 set standards in photography that lasted decades

At this point in 1978, Canon has been making cameras for 45 years when they released the the Kwanon (pronounced kannon), named after the Buddhist bodhisattva of mercy of the same name. With the AE-1 having been introduced just two years earlier Canon was setting their sights on users that didn’t need full manual control and, with the introduction of the A-1, introduced a new category of cameras with “PASM” exposure controls.

Design of the A-1

Canon A-1 battery
A-1 battery

The success of the Canon AE-1 helped to inform the new A-1, which incorporated many of the design features of the AE-1 but improved the durability of the camera by using metal gears and internals instead of the heavy use of plastic or chromed plastic. It also has a removable hand-grip on the right side of the camera body (mine is missing) which is extremely helpful when a larger lens is attached to the camera.

The A-1 is entirely dependent on batteries and will not function without them, which, given the fact that its exposure controls are all electronic is expected. There is no backup mechanical speed to save you if the batteries run out – so it’s best to keep a spare battery with you. Its power comes from a 6v PX28 battery, or 4 LR44 1.5v alkaline cells, kept in a battery compartment on the front of the A-1. It uses the same battery, and same battery door as the AE-1, although I have seen fewer A-1 cameras with broken doors than AE-1s: go figure.

adjustment dial

For first time users, the control terminology may be a little confusing. The exposure dial is set to Tv or Av; Shutter Priority (Tv) or Aperture Priority (Av). The part that trips most people up is that you adjust the shutter speed and aperture by a small dial on the right top. When in Tv mode, the dials allows you to change the shutter speed, and when in Av mode you adjust the aperture. A nice feature here is a little switch that slides up and blocks you from accidentally changing the setting. To make this work you have to set the exposure dial on the lens to “A” for automatic.

While the Canon A-1 also had plastic components, they were introduced into the design more thoughtfully. The top plate of the camera is plastic coated with black enamel while the bottom is brass. It ends up making the A-1 a bit heavier but it is still lightweight and compact compared to other designs of the time.

Shooting with the A-1

Even though the Canon A-1 is designed with complex electronic exposure controls the camera is easy to get used to and shoots very much like a modern camera. It’s very capable with shutter speeds from 30 seconds to 1/1000s, an ISO range from 6 to 12,800, exposure compensation, self timer (either 2 or 10 seconds), a finder window block (to block light during long exposures), depth of field (DoF) preview and double exposure. On the left side by the rewind lever there is a small button with a collar that is the battery test, but more importantly the main dial sets the film speed and exposure compensation.

exposure compensation settings
Exposure compensation

The exposure compensation might not work like you might assume at first glance. The scale uses the following rules: 1/4 = 2 stops underexposed, 1/2 = 1 stop underexposed, 1 is neutral, 2 = 1 stop overexposed and 2 = 2 stops overexposed with 1/3 stop movement in both directions. I find it more convoluted than just indicating positive or negative correction, but in the end it works the same.

The film advance is smooth and easy to operate, and if shooting fast is your cup of tea, then look for the Motor Drive MA or Power Winder A. You can also get battery packs to make this camera extremely heavy for those days you skipped your upper body work out. There is one thing to be careful of, just like the AE-1 the A-1 can suffer from a squealing film advance which means it needs to be lubricated or you risk damaging the film advance mechanism.

The Canon A-1 is a camera that wants to be used. It’s meter is extremely capable and you should just drop it in Aperture Priority (Av) and hit the streets, or trails; wherever you like to shoot. The Program (P) mode allows you just pick up the camera and shoot away. Set the camera to Shutter Priority (Tv) and turn the shutter speed dial to the green “P.” This places the camera in Programmed Auto Exposure mode. Your A-1 probably came with a Canon 50mm f/1.8 or the 50mm f/1.4 since those are the two standard lenses they were sold with. Canon lenses are excellent and you could hardly go wrong with either of those options. Since the Canon A-1 can be used with both the FD and FDn lenses there are a lot of options.

Canon Lenses

The A-1 will work with any Canon FD (1971) breech-lock mount or FDn (1979) bayonet mount lens, so there is a huge variety of lenses available to be used with the camera. It probably came standard with the 50mm f/1.8 or the 50mm f/1.4, but there are nearly 100 other FD lenses to choose from, and even more if you look at the newer FDn bayonet mount lenses.

Canon has always been known for their high quality optics. I have several Canon cameras and a Canon M39 mount lens on my Leica IIIf, and I love the results. I know a lot of folks that prefer Canon over Nikon or Olympus or whatever your flavor is, but I’ve never been able to really see any difference between Nikon and Canon or Olympus. The images that I have been shooting with the A-1 are crisp and clear all the way out to the edges; unless it’s your goal to look for those edge flaws. To me though, that’s the same as getting your face right up to a digital print and being like “Ha! I can see the pixels! This is a digital print.” Who looks at photography like that? Anyway, off track.

I’ve never been a big fan of the “nifty-fifty” that most camera kits come with. It’s too conservative, or normal, or something – I prefer lenses that are on the wide side. The Canon 28mm f/2 or the 35mm f/2 would be my pick to keep on the camera as it’s normal lens. It’s personal preference but I don’t often find myself wishing I had a longer lens on my camera.

In an earlier post I went through and cataloged a listing of all of the FD lenses that Canon produced along with their specs, so take a look and find a lens that fits your style.

You can hardly go wrong with any Canon lens, and if you happen to stumble upon a “Dream Lens“, just buy it.

Wrapping up

The Canon A-1 is a beast of a camera and really was in a class of it’s own making for a number of years. Canon was marketing it as a modern professional camera and was designed to make shooting more accurate and faster for the photographer using it. It’s an excellent example of using modern material judiciously and relying on older techniques and materials to combine into a truly unique camera.

It was the first electronically programmed SLR to deliver accurate exposures all without the photographers intervention, a feature we take for granted now. All of the other manufacturers were years behind Canon; Nikon in 1983 with the FA, Minolta in 1982 with the X-700 and Olympus in 1984 with the OM-2s.

The prices on these cameras are trending up again, so I wouldn’t wait around too long if you think you might want one. They are all over eBay, so finding one for around $150 or so should be pretty easy.



General

Canon A-1
Type : SLR – Single Lens Reflex
Lens Mount : FD and FDn mount
Operation :
Electronic
Format :
35mm
Finder FoV : 93.4%
Shutter :
Focal plane
Shutter Speeds :
B, 30s – 1/1000s
Shutter Remote : Mechanical
ISO Range : 6 – 12800
Shutter Lock : Yes
Self Timer : 2 & 10 seconds
Mirror Lock-up : No
DoF preview : Yes
Flash:
TTL
Flash Mount :
Hot shoe
Flash Sync : x – 1/60s
Multiple Exposure : Yes
Strap Lugs :
Yes
Battery : 6v PX28 battery, or 4 LR44 1.5v
Production :
1978 – 1982
Weight :
875g (with 50mm f/1.4)

Download the Canon A-1 manual

Accessories

Standard Eyecup : 4S
Magnifier S
Diopters : +3 to -4 available
Wireless Control : LC-1
Data Back A
Power Winder A
Motor Winder MA
Speedlight Flashes : 155A, 166A, 188A, 199A, 277T, 299T, 533G or 577G depending on needs.
Lens hoods in various sizes for the FD lenses
1.4x Teleconverter
2x Teleconverter (A & B models)
Close-up Bellows
Removable Screens : Microprism, Split focus, Matte, Matte Grid, Double Crosshairs

There are a large number of other accessories that Canon has produced that are more universal in nature as well. Close-up filters, filters, and straps.

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