Let’s talk about a film camera: the Canon AE-1.
If you are a photo enthusiast, you must have heard about this camera before. If not, then you should have, because the Canon AE-1 is a classic from Canon.
This is the camera that fueled my passion for photography in my teenage years. While not being my first camera – that title goes to the Olympus Trip 35 that one day I will feature here as well – the Canon AE-1 is the camera that got me serious about photography.
This was originally my dad’s camera. He bought it in Hong Kong in the 70’s in a fishy camera store in Tsim Sha Tsui as a grey import. It had no valid warranty and was cheaper than the legit ones.
My dad was always into saving pennies, so he thought it was worth the risk. And well, let’s say he was right, since this camera worked flawlessly for several decades.
As a teenager, I borrowed this camera from my dad until it sort of became mine. I did many experiments with it and I still recall setting it on a faulty sub-standard tripod from a friend for my first long exposure shots at night together with my dad.
We had the cheapest shutter release cable and we didn’t even have a chronograph – or a wrist watch! – to count the exposure time. We set the shutter in B mode (bulb) and counted the seconds out loud together. “1, 2, 3, …”. It was about getting the basics right to make things work. A lesson for life, in some way. And it was fun.
People nowadays talk and do things that are totally unnecessary and become stupid distractions. Plus they spend incredible amounts of money with it. Apart from not bringing a solution to the problem, they become part of the problem. There is so much unnecessary stuff surrounding us nowadays.
I guess this can be applied to pretty much everything in life, but concerning photography we have ridiculous specs and functions that digital cameras bring with them now. Focusing modes that will automatically pinpoint your subject’s closest eye, a shutter that will trigger automatically when the subject smiles. How ridiculous and non-sensical things had become.
With my dad he only cared about the absolute essential to make things work. And things did work under his watch. This is where I come from. I embrace technology that will make my life easier. I reject useless bells and whistles that complicate my life for no substantial benefit. Namely controlling your lights at home through an app in your smartphone. This sort of rubbish.
This camera was acquired with a good set of primes: a Canon FD 28mm f/2.8 and a Canon FD 50mm f/1.8. My dad knew where to spend the money. As the saying goes, cut the fat, not the meat.
These lenses were both superb. I didn’t know much about primes and specs like sharpness, fast apertures, bokeh, corner vignette… Attributes we discuss ad nauseam nowadays. I knew nothing about this because I didn’t have to. All I knew was the 28mm and 50mm were good for what I was doing. I would bring both lenses with me and switch them quite often.
When I turned 18, I moved to Portugal and brought the Canon AE-1 and both lenses with me. Travelling around the world across the continents or just shooting for my university projects in Portugal, this camera was always with me and very useful.
My fellows at the university liked this camera. It looked the part, it was vintage. Most art students in Europe are into that intellectual vintage arty-farty look, so this camera made sense to them. It was unique as most were either using cheap point & shoots or the latest Nikon or Canon SLRs with plastic bodies and kit zooms.
The Canon AE-1, which is made mostly of metal, looked the part. Everybody wanted to check and hold the camera. And when they looked through the viewfinder, they would go “WOW !”. Yes, the viewfinder is large and bright, so much better than the peepholes from their entry levels SLRs.
The Canon AE-1 is a mechanical camera. There is no auto-focus nor film advance motor. You have to pull the lever to advance the film and re-cock the mechanical shutter. But it has a small battery to support the metering. So while being a mechanical camera, it has internal metering and you can shoot in shutter priority, aperture priority or full-auto mode. It was quite advanced for its time.
This camera also provides depth-of-field preview, old school style. You push a lever and the aperture blades in the lens will close to the selected aperture. The view from the viewfinder will turn darker due to this.
EVFs and digital sensors nowadays can provide TTL live view, of course. More convenient? Yes. Now, we are getting into the EVF vs OVF debate. Both have pros and cons, both are good and bad in their own ways.
But the mechanical old school style DOF preview is a good way to understand the basics because you see things happening mechanically, you see the aperture blades closing in front of your eyes, blocking the light. As the view turns darker, you check the DOF. Simple.
Then there is manual focus. I shot for years with manual focus. The Canon AE-1 has a split screen system for focusing. Easy and reliable. Most importantly, it worked. Period.
People nowadays discuss AF speed and AF technology. They miss photos and blame slow AF or a dumb AF that failed to focus on their kids running at full speed like a cheetah. Then they search for a better camera with better specs. A Sony A7 perhaps. And spend time discussing specs in online forums.
They expect the digital camera with super AF speed, smart functions and computing power stronger than a space shuttle to solve everything. They never think about enhancing their skills or a strategy to shoot better. Technique and experience? Nope. Just blame the camera.
I tell you what, just check the photos below. With the Canon AE-1, manual focusing and a slow average zoom lens, we took these excellent photos of Macau Grand Prix cars at speed. Not kitchen knife sharp focus, I admit, but enough for our needs and nice moving bokeh as well. Yes, it’s cool to have AF, I appreciate a fast and accurate AF, who doesn’t.
But there was a time when we lived without AF, without cutting-edge technology. We pre-focused, we used depth-of-field, we had our way to sort things out and do the job. We did not complain about our camera gear. Things worked and we were happy.
And by the way, why do we need super sharp focus anyway? The level of sharpness people demand from their lenses nowadays is unnecessary and absurd. A bourgeois luxury.
As fit as the Canon AE-1 was for my needs, I was at year 4 when I told my dad I needed a new camera. I needed the convenience of a zoom lens for my field projects. I wanted the comfort of auto focus and auto film advance. I wanted a modern camera. So my dad got me a Canon EOS 500N. Yes, a plastic entry-level SLR with a kit lens and a peephole viewfinder. I knew nothing about cameras back then and I thought this was better. Well, it was certainly lighter and the zoom lens made my life easier.
Everything is relative.
With this event, the Canon AE-1 went to my brother, who was about to finish his Dentistry degree. So the camera changed department, it went from shooting architecture to shooting dental stuff.
Accordingly, my dad bought a set of macro lenses so my brother could shoot his patients teeth. This was late 90’s, the FD mount long discontinued by Canon. The macro set was second hand from third party brands, including a magnifying lens extender and mount adapters to gel everything together. It was a bit Frankenstein, but it worked.
Looking back, thinking about all this puts a smile on my face. I will always associate this Canon AE-1 with my dad, with my family, with my childhood.
Hence this camera is like this loyal servant to the family, originally working with the patriarch then helping him oversee the next generation abroad. Yes, call me romantic and full of shit, but this is how I like to see things in life. Some objects follow you for years, for decades, and you build this affection because you went to so many places together, you share memories together and you realise they are more than mere objects that exist just to perform a function.
At the turn of the millennium, digital arrived and my brother no longer needed the Canon AE-1. It was sent back to me and I remember the day we were reunited. ~It would be a stretch to say I got emotional. Let’s say I took a deep breath while holding it in my hands.
Long time, so many memories.
Occasionally I would still load a roll of negative and go out shooting. The cloth shutter is so smooth, the sound so pleasant and familiar to my ears. But with my hectic life now, I can’t recall the last time I took it out.
At present, the Canon AE-1 sits proudly in my living room’s camera display shelf, together with other younger digital cameras. It’s enjoying a well deserved retirement after five decades of service around the world. When friends come to my place, it often gets the attention and I never get tired of telling the story behind this camera that you had just read.
Cheers to this.