The Canon AE-1 Program, the successor to the venerable Canon AE-1 Taking the ease of use of the AE-1 shutter priority mode and adding a great Program Mode. What’s program mode? Well glad you asked.
Program mode takes a hundred years of photography knowledge and puts in a dial. It allows the computer inside the camera to look at the available light, take the ISO of the film into account and then select the correct shutter speed and aperture for a perfectly exposed picture. All the photographer has to do is compose the subject and press the shutter release button. It couldn’t be easier than that.
You can probably find on of these cameras in your parents or grandparents basement/attic. It was one of the best selling cameras ever and was the entry level SLR for consumer shooters. It’s an aluminum body with a plastic top and bottom to save weight. It is commonly found in a black leatherette i.e. plastic, covering with the top and bottom plates being painted grey. There was also an all black model, these are slightly more rare, so you will probably pay a little more for them on eBay.
It has a cloth shutter that goes from 1 sec to 1/1000th of a second, which is plenty for most all shooting situations you might need it for. The shutter is released via an electromagnet so the camera does require a battery to operate. Luckily, it’s a 6V 28L or 28A battery which is still pretty common and easy to find. It’s the same battery used in dog collars with an electric fence. Here’s a link to them on Amazon: https://amzn.to/338G1VH (I get a small commission on sales on Amazon via this link. It helps support the site and my film habit) I recommend the L version as the lithium batteries tend to last longer in my experience. The battery is used for releasing the shutter and powering the light meter. So it only draws when you are pressing the shutter button. It’s not uncommon for a battery to last about a year with occasional use.
That does bring us to a couple of weak points with the camera, the battery is not necessarily the issue, but the door that covers it is. Canon used a brittle plastic door to cover the battery on the front of the camera. 99% of the time you will find these broken, since the included tool to pop the door open, the hot shoe cover, is usually lost. It doesn’t take much prying to open the door, or break it. Luckily for us, the included Action Grip helps keep a broken door closed, the AE-1 is not so lucky. The electromagnet is also known to fail. It’s not worth replacing since you will need to buy a working camera to fix it. Finally the shutter release gear. If you have been looking at film cameras for a little while you will have no doubt seen mentioned, the Canon Cough. The lubrication in these cameras breaks down after 40 years and the plastic gears seize up some. When you fire the shutter you will hear a squealing noise. This really doesn’t affect the operation of the camera all that much, mostly it’s annoying. I fix a lot of these, if you want to know how, just send me a message.
What sets the AE-1 Program apart from the AE-1? Really, just the program mode and the viewfinder. The meter in the AE-1 is an analog needle that shows what the camera thinks is the right aperture for the shutter speed selected. While the AE-1 Program has an LED that shows the aperture for the selected speed. In Program mode, it still shows the aperture, but no speed information is given. The AE-1 Program mode is stepless for shutter speed. In Program mode the camera will select the best aperture and speed combination, between 1 second and 1/1000th of second. If you choose to do shutter priority shooting, it works the same as the AE-1 Program. If you want to go manual. The meter will show what the camera thinks is the right aperture, but nothing about how the scene is metered. Manual with the AE-1 and AE-1 Program are not really easy. This camera wants to be shot in it’s auto modes and the information presented reflects that. While this doesn’t allow for a lot of creative control, it takes a lot of the guess work out of getting good exposures for the new comer.
Now that might seem like heresy. Film is supposed to be hard and unforgiving, right? I don’t agree. If we, as a film shooting community, want to get more people involved which will make the last couple of film producers continue to produce film. We need new people. Also, this is a fun hobby that attracts a lot of different people. The barrier to entry on getting good exposures should be low. It removes some of the frustration that might discourage them from keeping with it.
If you are looking for a first film camera the AE-1 Program is a great choice for a camera dripping with a vintage look that won’t punish you for not knowing what you are doing at first. Or if you are an experienced shooter and need a great second body for everyday carry, you can’t go wrong here either.
The fact this camera is usually priced less than it’s “less automatic” sibling the AE-1 makes it a great deal.