Canon A-1: the first complete SLR

In the 1980s, Canon introduced the first SLR camera that had all automatic and manual modes. This laid the foundation for the definitive design of the still camera as we know it today. A tool for everyone and with an incredible range of accessories. Still sought after today but above all affordable.

Canon is since 1934 a well-known and respected brand in the world of photography. It is a multinational company that specializes in manufacturing a wide range of cameras, lenses, and other imaging products. Canon cameras are known for their high-quality, even today in a competing image sensor industry. They always came up with highly innovative and advanced features and user-friendly interfaces for their products. Some interesting facts are that at first they copied the Leica ideas and also strongly believed in a market for rangefinders (like their famous Canon 7), they invented a semi-transparent stationary mirror in SLR’s which enabled the taking of pictures through the mirror. In 1971 they introduced the F-1, a high-end SLR camera, and the famous and very expanding FD-lens range and in 1976, Canon launched the famous Canon AE-1, the world’s first camera with an embedded micro-computer, which next to the A-1 are the most popular in the vintage segment.

The Canon A-1 comes after the popular AE-1 and is a 35mm single-lens reflex (SLR) film camera that was introduced by Canon in 1978. It was a popular and highly regarded camera, known for its advanced features and versatility. The A-1 was the first SLR camera to incorporate automatic exposure modes, including shutter-priority, aperture-priority, and programmed autoexposure. It also featured a fully electronic shutter, through-the-lens (TTL) metering, and interchangeable lenses. The A-1 offered photographers a wide range of creative control and was widely used by professionals and enthusiasts alike. It was produced in Japan from 1978 to 1985. The camera features a horizontal cloth-curtain focal-plane shutter with a speed range of 30 to 1/1000 second, including bulb mode, and flash synchronization at 1/60 second. The Canon A-1 features a distinctive “Program” mode, where photographers can rely on the camera’s microprocessor to automatically calculate the optimal exposure based on the light meter input. In this mode, there is no need for manual selection of shutter speed and lens aperture to control motion and depth of field, as the A-1 takes care of these adjustments automatically.

The A-1 was exclusively available in black, setting it apart from other SLRs of that time. The initial kit set contained the Canon FD 50mm f/1.4 SSC lens. The A-1 is compatible with a wide range of lenses utilizing either the Canon FD breech lock mount (introduced in 1971) or the Canon New FD pseudo-bayonet mount (also known as the FDn mount, introduced in 1979). Additionally, it has limited compatibility with earlier FL lenses and select lenses from the older R (or Canomatic) series, although with some functionality limitations.

There was a wide selection of approximately 55 Canon FD lenses available for purchase, offering photographers a range of focal lengths and functionalities. These lenses spanned from a 7.5mm f/5.6 fisheye to an FD 800mm f/5.6 telephoto, encompassing various options with maximum apertures up to f/1.2. Additionally, Canon offered a line of L-series lenses known for their exceptional quality.

The A-1 camera was complemented by many accessories, including the Canon motor drive MA, which enabled automatic film advance at a speed of up to 5 frames per second. Other accessories included the Canon Databack A (see picture), allowing sequential numbering or date stamping on the film, several Canon Speedlight flashes and for instance a vertical angel viewer.

The A-1 operates on battery power (one still available 4LR44 or PX-28). Besides the mentioned exposure modes, it includes a fifth mode called “stopped down AE,” which allows the photographer to manually adjust the aperture while the camera selects the appropriate shutter speed based on the actual light reading. The A-1 therefore stands out as the first SLR to incorporate all four of the now-standard PASM exposure modes. Its viewfinder is equipped with a alphanumeric LED display located at the bottom, providing exposure information based on readings from the built-in silicon photocell light meter. The camera supports center-weighted average metering as its sole metering mode. Additionally, the focusing screen features Canon’s standard split image rangefinder and microprism collar to assist with achieving accurate focus.

Upon its release in early 1978, the A-1 got considerable media attention, although not all reviews were favorable. Some professional photographers expressed concerns about the ‘durability’ of its consumer-grade mechanical and electronic components when subjected to frequent and demanding usage. Traditionalist photographers voiced their ‘discontent’ with what they saw as an excessive amount of automation, believing it detracted from the artistic aspect of photography (!). However, the A-1’s automated features resonated with many budget-conscious amateur photographers, leading to strong sales figures. The camera is very similar to the series of that other Japanese brand, Minolta. Both brands have had especially great success among amateur photographers eager to adorn themselves with a semi-professional camera. The “real” photographers especially wanted to be seen with a Nikon. Still, Canon quality is downright comparable to Nikon. Also bolder and faster incorporating innovations into new models. This makes the Canon vintage camera and lenses highly sought after, they have been produced in large consumer numbers and can still enjoy great popularity on Ebay and other Internet buying platforms. Just also because they are (barring some top model lenses:)) affordable. They are the ‘cameras in black’, attractive also because of their somewhat more compact size, weight and somewhat ‘gorgeous’ appearance in the traditional vintage camera offerings.

The A-1 is a great option due to its abundance of features, which are not commonly found in other SLR film cameras from that time period. The many functions the A-1 houses are described in detail in the manual available for download through Mike Butkus. Its compact body provides a comfortable experience for your hands and neck, without causing excessive strain. Additionally, it boasts a large and clear viewfinder that enhances the user’s confidence. With its solid and reliable construction, along with its stunning black design, owning and using the A-1 becomes a no brainer.

4 Replies to “Canon A-1: the first complete SLR”

  1. I bought my A1 way back in 1981 and have shot weddings, senior pictures, models, etc. I still use it today although I’ve retired from professional use. It’s, in my opinion the best camera from that time period. It’s brought me over 40 years of reliability and still going strong.

    1. Couldn’t agree with you more. It remains one of the most innovative SLR’s of its time. I am a serious amateur and used the A-1 with the 17 mm F 4, 28 mm F 2, 200 mm F4.0 macro, 300 mm F 2.8 Tokina and 800 mm F 5.6 Canon for nature and wildlife photography. The metering was excellent and this resulted in colours being reproduced on the Kodachrome slide films and Kodak colour negative films. I too purchased my A-1 from the US in 1982 and despite its forty one years , the Camera functions flawlessly.

  2. Has mine from new back in 1984, I have FD 50mm F1.8 and FD 50mm F1.4 Canon lens, plus 70 to 210mm Bell & Howell, a Canon FD 28mm F2.8, a Super-Paragon PMC 135mm F1. 8 FL lens, a Canon 188 speedlight and a Canon cable release.
    The battery door and grip got damaged but I managed to get a replacement grip, and its only the battery door that has small amount of damage now. What did happen while it was in storage some time ago was all the foam seals including the mirror stop started to dissolve, they became liquid like and so I stripped it part down and replaced them all with a replacement kit.
    The camera and all the lenses all work perfectly and I doubt it has shot more than 10,000 shots.
    In the last 10 years I have become much more interested in photography and my DLSR Nikon D750 gets a fare amount of use, but I have no intention of selling my Canon, it’s in mint condition other than the battery cover.

  3. Hmm, not really! Minolta were the first with virtually everything, including AF. The pinnacle of their achievements was the XM from memory. Sony knew what they were doing when they bought them, innovation and fabulous Rokkor optics.

    But Nikon still lead the pack. The f2as rarely surpassed as the best mechanical slr ever..f3, well, ok! …and back on track with the superb f4 onwards….their fm2/fe2 were superb performers, and they all had one thing in common. Built like tanks and superb reliability.

    Nikon optics remain a gold standard….

    But they all recorded images. It’s the photographer that really counts?

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