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Canon A1

April 1978

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Canon A-1 was an advanced amateur level, interchangeable lens, 35 mm film, single-lens reflex (SLR) camera. It was manufactured by Canon Camera K. K. (today Canon Incorporated) in Japan from April 1978 to 1985. It used a rather pedestrian, horizontal cloth-curtain focal plane shutter with a speed range of 30 to 1/1000th second plus bulb and flash X-sync of 1/60th second. It had dimensions of 92 mm height, 141 mm width, 48 mm depth and 620 g weight. Unlike most SLRs of the time, it was available in only one color; all black. The introductory US list price for the body plus Canon FD 50 mm f/1.4 SSC lens was $625. Note that SLRs usually sold for 30 to 40 percent below list price.

The A-1 is a historically significant camera. It was the first SLR to offer an electronically controlled programmed autoexposure mode. Instead of the photographer picking a shutter speed to freeze or blur motion and choosing a lens aperture f-stop to control depth of field (focus), the A-1 had a microprocessor computer programmed to automatically select a compromise exposure from light meter input. Virtually all cameras today have some sort of program mode or modes, although there was a price to be paid for this first-generation technology and complexity in terms of shorter service life and increased malfunction.

The A-1 accepts any lens with the Canon FD breech lock mount (introduced in 1971) or Canon New FD pseudo-bayonet mount (sometimes called the FDn mount, introduced 1976). This excludes all of Canon's EF bayonet mount autofocus lenses (introduced 1987). During the late 1970s, there were approximately 40 Canon FD lenses available for purchase. They ranged from a Fisheye FD 15 mm f/2.8 SSC to a FD 800 mm f/5.6 SSC telephoto. Accessories for the A-1 included the Canon Motor Drive MA (automatic film advance up to 5 frames per second), the Canon Databack A (sequential numbering or date stamping on the film), and the Canon Speedlight 155A (guide number 56/17 (feet/meters) at ASA/ISO 100) and Canon Speedlight 199A (guide number 98/30 (feet/meters) at ASA/ISO 100) electronic flashes.

The A-1 was a battery powered (one 4LR44 or PX-28) microprocessor controlled manual focus SLR with manual exposure control or shutter priority, aperture priority or programmed autoexposure. The fifth mode is "stopped down AE" in which the apperture is closed and alterable by the photographer and the camera selects the shutter speed based on the actual light reading - this differs from aperture priority in which the apperture is not closed until a photograph is taken and the shutter speed is calculated based on the light measured through the fully open aperture. Stopped down AE is therefore useful if you are concerned about depth of field & focus or if you are concerned about the accuracy of exposure. It was the first SLR to have all four of the now standard PASM exposure modes. It had a viewfinder exposure information system using a six digit, seven segment per digit, red alphanumeric LED display on the bottom of the viewfinder to indicate the readings of the built-in centerweighted, silicon photocell light meter. The focusing screen also had Canon's standard split image rangefinder and microprism collar focusing aids.

Beginning with the amateur level Canon AE-1 of 1976, there was a complete overhaul of the entire Canon SLR line. The 1970s and 1980s were an era of intense competition between the major SLR brands: Canon, Nikon, Minolta, Pentax and Olympus. Between circa 1975 to 1985, there was a dramatic shift away from heavy all-metal manual mechanical camera bodies to much more compact bodies with integrated circuit (IC) electronic automation. In addition, because of rapid advances in electronics, the brands continually leap frogged each other with models having new or more automatic features, and less expensive components and assembly. The industry was trying to expand out from the saturated high-end professional market and appeal to the large mass of low-end amateur photographers itching to move up from compact automatic leaf shutter rangefinder cameras to the more "glamorous" SLR but were intimidated by the need to learn all the gritty details of operating a traditional SLR.

Although Canon Camera K. K. had been making fine quality 35 mm cameras for decades, it had always been overshadowed by archrival Nippon Kokagu K. K. and their Nikon cameras. While Canonets easily led in the amateur compact fixed-lens rangefinder market (where Nikons did not compete), Canon SLRs had far less cachet than Nikon SLRs. Because of its unrivaled reputation for worksmanship, assembly quality, tight tolerances and material build, Nikon held a stranglehold on the prestigious professional SLR market that competitors could not break and amateur Nikon SLRs basked in their glow.

The A-1 was the high technology standard bearer of the landmark Canon amateur level A-series SLRs. The other members of the A-series were the Canon AE-1 (released 1976), AT-1 (1977), AV-1 (1979), AE-1 Program (1981) and AL-1 (1982). They all used the same compact aluminum alloy chassis, but with differing feature levels and outer cosmetic acrylonitrile-butadiene-stryrene (ABS) plastic panels. By sharing most major components, and an inexpensive horizontal cloth-curtain shutter, costs could be amortized over a larger production run. The A-1 represented Canon's bid to defeat Nikon through the more features and cheapest price, at the cost of component quality and service life.

The A-1 caused a sensation when it was released. Most photographers were amazed at its advanced features, years ahead of the competition, but not all comments were positive. Professional photographers worried about the long term reliability of its consumer-level mechanical and electronic components under heavy daily use, the relatively slow flash sync and top shutter speeds. Traditionalist photographers complained about an "excess" of automation ruining the art of photography. However, automation turned out to be the right way to entice many new amateur photographers on a budget, and paid off very well for Canon.

The Canon A-1 was a runaway best seller, as it offered new SLR buyers considerable features and value for the price. It was fairly reliable for its day in amateur usage, although nowhere near as well-built as Nikon's semi-professional line of 35mm SLR cameras, and the shutters and mirror linkage remain weak points to this day. But as competitors brought out their own programmed SLRs (such as the Nikon FA (released 1983), the Minolta X-700 (1982), Pentax Super Program (in the USA/Canada; Super A, rest of the world; 1983), the Olympus OM-2S Program (1984) and even the Ricoh XR-P (1984)), the A-1 began to show its age. This is especially true for its elderly (even for the time) horizontal cloth-curtain shutter, viewfinder information display and autoflash control. The A-1 really did need to be replaced when the Canon T90 came out in 1985. Time has inevitably taken a toll on the A-1's consumer-level mechanical and electronic components, with a resulting increase in malfunctions and the dreaded "Canon squeak". Canon's abandonment of the FD lens mount for the EOS design also had a significant effect on demand for the A-1 on the used market. But it is still regarded as one of the most fascinating SLRs of its generation.

Canon Camera Museum

The A-1 was the top-of-the-line A-series camera. (The AE-1 was the first in this series.) It was a sophisticated electronic camera with all-digital control.

Besides the shutter speed-priority AE and aperture-priority AE modes, it featured the first fully automatic program AE mode, preset aperture-priority AE, and Speedlite AE mode.

The viewfinder information was also easy to read with a 7-segment red LED readout. The control settings were displayed at the same time which made it very useful.

Besides Power Winder A, developed at the same time as the AE-1, accessories for the A-1 included the compact Motor Drive MA which attained a maximum shooting speed of 5 fps. This Motor Drive had a convenient vertical-grip shutter button. Also, there was the Speedlite 199A which had bounce flash capability.The A-1's body had a fine black finish.


Type 35mm focal-plane shutter SLR camera
Picture Size 24 x 36 mm
Normal Lens Canon FD 55mm f/1.2 SSC, FD 50mm f/1.4 SSC
Lens Mount FD mount
Shutter Four-axis, horizontal-travel focal-plane shutter with cloth curtains. X, B, 30, 15, 8, 4, 2, 1, 1/2, 1/4, 1/8, 1/15, 1/30, 1/60, 1/125, 1/250, 1/500, 1/1000 sec. All speeds controlled electronically. Built-in self-timer (with 2- and 10-sec. delay and blinking LED). Multiple exposures enabled with a lever. Electronic shutter release.
Flash Sync X-sync automatic-switching sync contacts with German socket and hot shoe.
Viewfinder Fixed eye-level pentaprism. 0.83x magnification, 93.4% vertical coverage, 95.3% horizontal coverage. Split-image rangefinder encircled by microprism rangefinder at center of fresnel matte screen. Eyepiece shutter provided. Six interchangeable focusing screens optional (installed by service personnel). The standard screen was later replaced by the brighter and sharper Laser Matte screen.
Digital readout with 7-segment red LED for shutter speed, aperture, dedicated Speedlite flash-ready, manual settings, and warning displays.
Metering &
Exposure Control
SPC for TTL full-aperture centerweighted averaging metering or TTL stopped-down metering. Exposure compensation range of 2 EV. AE lock provided. Five AE modes: Shutter speed-priority AE, aperture-priority AE, program AE, preset aperture-priority AE, and Speedlite AE (with dedicated Speedlite). The mode is set with a selector dial. Metering range at ISO 100 and f/1.4: EV -2 - 18. Film speed range from ISO 6 to 12800 in 1/3 steps.
Power Source One 4G-13 6 V mercury oxide battery or 4LR44 alkaline battery. Battery check with button and blinking LED.
Film Loading &
Slotted take-up spool. Advances with camera-top lever's 120 stroke (partial strokes enabled). Ready position at 30.
Frame Counter Counts up. Resets automatically when camera back is opened. Counts down during rewind.
Film Rewind Camera-top crank
Dimensions &
141 x 92 x 48 mm, 620 g
Data from Canon Camera Museum