Canon AE-1 Program Review: My First Hand Experience

by Tom Shu

In this Canon AE-1 Program review, I’ll go over everything you need to know about what makes this camera so special and why it makes such a great film camera to start off with.

The camera was launched in 1981 as the new and improved version of the Canon AE-1 and came with a fully automatic program mode that made photography easy for everyone. 

Since the camera was so popular, you can easily find a body and lens combo in good condition on eBay for under $200. I bought my body and lens combo for around $120, but I wish I spent a little more money on a film tested version as mine had light leak issues. 

Prices have been increasing, so if you find one in your price range, get it now!

Things to Consider Before Buying a Film Camera

image of camera on white table

Film photography is slightly different from digital photography and there are a few things you should consider before getting your first film camera.

I’ve learned these lessons after countless hours of research so hopefully, this information will help you get started as quickly as possible and save you some money too!

  • Most importantly, you will have to find a Canon AE-1 Program that is in working condition. The Canon AE-1 Program is notorious for its foam seals deteriorating over time causing light leak problems, so it’s important to be extra diligent when buying this camera. 
  • You will have to consider how you’re going to develop and scan your film. You can either do it yourself or send it to a lab. I’ll get into the pros and cons of each below.
  • Lastly, you’ll need to find a local lab or online store where you can buy film. It’s always good to support your local lab whenever possible, but sometimes it’s more convenient and cheaper to buy through online stores.

Camera Condition and Light Leaks

image of dog with light leak with film

The light seals on the Canon AE-1 Program are known to deteriorate over time, which will cause light leak issues.

I ran into this issue first hand and actually didn’t know my Canon had a light leak issue until I shot and developed two rolls of film, so don’t be like me.

Learning from my own experience, there are a few things you can do to make sure you get a camera in good working condition:

  • Buy from a reputable film photography store whether that’s your local lab or an online store. Cameras sold from these retailers are usually the most expensive, but they will likely have replaced the back light seals and have tested it to make sure it’s in working condition.
  • If buying from eBay, ask the seller if the camera has been film tested or if it has had it’s light seals replaced.
  • If you find one for cheap and you’re unsure, you can run a test roll of film through it to check. If there are light leak issues, you can either replace the light seals yourself or send it to a Canon Repair Expert like this one for repairs.

If your camera has a light leak issue, here is what the pictures may look like.

image of light leak on film photo
image of light leak on film photo

Developing and Scanning Film

When you’re first starting out, my recommendation is to send your film to a professional lab to develop and scan. You will save a lot of time, get the best results, and can figure out if film photography is right for you.

The price for professional development and scanning is usually around $15 – $20 per roll of 35mm or 120 films. Some labs will also charge extra if you need to push or pull your film.

If you don’t have a professional lab who will develop and scan film around where you live, here are my favorite places to go to who take mail-in orders:

Eventually, you should definitely try to develop and scan your own film! There is an initial upfront cost for all the developing and scanning equipment, but after you have everything set-up, you can save a lot of money in the long run. It’s also much easier than I ever thought possible and if I can do it, you can definitely do it too.

Buying Film

photo of different film stocks

Buying film and trying to figure out which film stocks fit best with your photography style is one of the most fun parts of film photography. If you can, try to shoot with as many different film stocks as you can as each one has its own unique characteristics and color profile.

After many many hours of research, here are my favorite places to shop for film stocks and why:

  • The Shot on Film Store: They are offering free shipping on orders over $29 right now. Great selection, fair prices, and they are always happy to answer any questions.
  • Freestyle Photographic Supply: A huge supply of different film stocks. No free shipping.
  • Adorama: Free shipping options are available. Another good choice for a wide selection of film stock at a fair price.
  • Amazon: Amazon is kind of hit or miss, but you can find some pretty good deals sometimes. Plus, free shipping if you’re a Prime member.
  • eBay: eBay is a great place to look if you want to buy expired film stock to try.

It’s easy to see why the Canon AE-1 Program is still one of the most popular 35mm film cameras. The camera is jam-packed with features, it’s very easy to use and you get access to Canon’s incredible line of FD lenses.

There are some slight differences between the other popular Canon A-series cameras, so let’s go over those first, and then we’ll get into the features.

Canon AE-1 Program vs Canon AE-1 vs Canon A-1

It’s good to know the differences between the other more popular Canon A-series cameras because you’ll probably come across them when you’re researching for your Canon AE-1 Program. 

The Canon AE-1 is the predecessor of the Canon AE-1 Program so it shares the most similarities. The Canon A-1 is geared more towards the professional photographer so it has some advanced features not found on the Canon AE-1 Program or Canon AE-1.

Here are the main differences between these cameras that you should consider:

  • The built-in light meter on both the Canon AE-1 Program and Canon A-1 is a LED readout versus the match-needle indicator on the Canon AE-1.
  • You get the action grip battery cover on both the Canon AE-1 Program and Canon A-1.
  • Both the Canon AE-1 Program and Canon A-1 feature a fully automatic mode and shutter speed priority mode while the Canon AE-1 only has shutter priority.
  • The Canon A-1 also features aperture priority while the Canon AE-1 Program does not have aperture priority.
  • The Canon A-1 shutter speed range is from 30 seconds to 1/1000 of a second versus 2 seconds to 1/1000 of a second on the Canon AE-1 Program and Canon AE-1
  • The ISO/ASA adjustment on the Canon A-1 can go all the way up to 12,800. The max ISO/ASA on the Canon AE-1 Program and Canon AE-1 is 3200.

Camera Features

Automatic Modes

up close image of camera dial

One of the most innovative features of this camera, especially when it was first introduced is its automatic shooting modes when used with Canon FD lenses. The camera features a fully automatic program mode and shutter speed priority mode. 

In fully automatic mode, the camera will choose both the shutter speed and aperture settings based on the exposure reading. To use the camera in automatic mode, all you have to do is set your lens aperture to “A” and your shutter speed to “Program”.

In shutter speed priority mode, the camera will select the best aperture based on the shutter speed you have selected. To use your camera is shutter speed priority mode, all you have to do is set your lens aperture to “A” and select your shutter speed.

Built-In Light Meter

The camera has a built-in through the lens (TTL) center-weighted light meter that is very easy to use. The camera and the light meter run off of a common 6V battery like this one and you initiate the light meter reading by half-pressing the shutter. 

In manual mode, the camera’s light meter works off of shutter speed priority. So, when you half-press the shutter to get the light meter reading, the camera will indicate what aperture it believes will give you the proper exposure based on the shutter speed you have chosen.

I have found the light meter to be very accurate, but it could also depend on the condition of the Canon AE-1 Program that you pick up. An easy way to double-check the light meter reading is through a phone light meter app like this one.

Battery Check Indicator

image of camera dial

There is a nice little battery check indicator next to the rewind lever on this camera which will let you know when your battery power is getting low. 

When you push down on the battery check indicator button, it will beep 6 or more times per second if you have a good amount of battery life left and will beep about 3 times or less if your battery is running low.

According to the instruction manual, your battery should last about 1 year with normal use.

Bright and Clear Viewfinder with Split Microprism

To help you nail focus, the camera features an extremely easy to use split micro prism inside its bright viewfinder. When your subject is out of focus you will clearly see it split into two. 

As you turn your focusing ring, you will see the split micro prism coming together. Your subject is in focus once the top and bottom levels of the split micro prism match up.

You do also have the option to change to one of the 7 different focusing screens Canon has made for this camera if you don’t like the split micro prism it comes with.

The next section covers each focusing screen in more detail.

Interchangeble Focusing Screens

source: canon ae-1 program manual

There are 7 different focusing screens you can customize your camera with, but you will have to check on eBay to see what is available.

You will need a special tool, but most focusing screens that you buy should include the tool:

  • A. Microprism: matte/fresnel field with microprism rangefinder in the center of the screen. Best for general photography when using F/5.6 or larger.
  • B. New Split: matte/fresnel field with split-image rangefinder spot in the center of the screen. Best for all-around general photography.
  • C. All Matte: matte/fresnel field with a clear matte center spot. Best for macro or telephoto photography
  • D. Matte/Section: same as C with the addition of horizontal and vertical reference lines. Best for architectural photography.
  • H. Matte/Scale: matte/fresnel field with a fine matte center and horizontal and vertical scales in millimeters. Best for close-ups, macro photography, or any type of photography where you need to know the size of the subject.
  • I. Double Cross-hair Reticle: matte/fresnel field with a 5mm clear center spot with a double cross-hair reticle. Best for astrophotography.
  • L. Cross Split Image: matte/fresnel field with a cross split image in the center of the screen. Good for general photography.

Access to Canon FD Lenses

up close image of camera lens

One of the best parts about this camera is that it uses Canon FD lenses, so there is a huge variety of high quality, well-priced lenses that work with this camera.

You will usually see two different Canon FD Lenses on the market. The older Canon FD lenses with a silver breech-lock mount and the newer Canon FD lenses with a bayonet-style mount that is labeled as “nFD”

The seller will usually put this information in the listing, but if they don’t, the easiest way to tell the two apart is by the silver breech-lock on the older Canon FD lenses.

Here are some of my favorite lenses for the Canon AE-1 Program. 

Shutter Speed Range

up close image of camera dial

The shutter speed range is from 2 seconds to 1/1000 of a second and the flash sync speed is 1/60 of a second.

The shutter speed range is not as wide as the Canon A-1 which has a range of 30 seconds to 1/1000 of a second, but it does have bulb mode for any situation where you want to extend the shutter speed past 2 seconds.

The max shutter speed of 1/1000 of a second is pretty common for 35mm film cameras in this price range.

ISO (ASA) Range

up close image of camera dial

The ISO range is from 12 to 3,200 which is a good enough range if you ever want to push or overexpose most standard film stocks by at least 3 stops. 

If you ever want to go past ISO 3,200, you can always use a phone app or external light meter to get your light meter readings.

Built-In Self-Timer

up close image of camera dial

The camera includes a 10-second self-timer which is nice if you’re taking a long exposure or if you want to do self-portraits. All you have to do to use the self-timer is flip the main camera switch to “S” and hit the shutter button.

When you press the shutter button, you will hear the camera start to beep. When the timer gets close to firing the shutter, the beeps will get faster. 

Just remember that to use it, you will have to have advanced the film first.

Camera Lock Mode

up close image of camera dial

The main camera switch also features a camera lock mode. When in camera lock mode, the shutter will not fire and the meter is turned off. It’s definitely a nice feature to have after you’re done shooting and you want to make sure the camera doesn’t accidentally go off.

You can still advance the film when you have locked the camera, but you won’t be able to fire the shutter button.

Depth of Field (DOF) Preview

up close image of camera dial

This is another very cool feature to have. The depth of field preview allows you to see what your depth of field in your composition looks like depending on the aperture you have selected.

The reason this is useful is that what you see in your viewfinder is typically not what the photo is going to look like.

With an optical viewfinder like the one in this camera, the viewfinder image that you see is with a wide-open aperture. The aperture only stops down to the aperture you have selected when you take the photo.

The depth of field (DOF) preview button is on the right side of the lens when you’re facing the camera. To use it, you flip the latch up and then push it towards your lens. This will stop down your aperture.

In order for the depth of field (DOF) preview to work with the current aperture you have set, you need to advance your film first. If you don’t advance your film, the depth of field (DOF) preview will show your previous aperture.

Auto Exposure Lock Button

image of arrow pointing to camera button

The auto-exposure lock is a useful feature if you will ever be shooting in one of the automatic modes as it will allow you to set exposure on a specific part of your composition.

It is located on the right side of the camera above the depth of field (DOF) preview button. It is the black button without the silver ring. 

To use the auto-exposure lock, you point your camera at the area of the image that you want to expose for, press the auto exposure lock button to store the exposure information into your camera, recompose your image while keeping the button pressed and take the photo.

Exposure Preview Button

image of arrow pointing to camera button

The exposure preview button sits below the auto exposure lock button and is the black button with the silver ring. The exposure preview will show you what aperture the camera thinks will give you the best exposure.

It functions in the same way as half-pressing your shutter, but it is nice to have another button to preview exposure with.

Memo Holder

picture of back of camera on white table

There is a memo holder on the back of the camera where you can write down and store information. 

One of my favorite ways to use it is to tear off the flap of the film box and keep it in the memo holder as a reminder of the film that is in the camera.

Action Grip Battery Cover

up close image of camera grip
up close image of camera grip

The action grip battery cover comes standard on the Canon AE-1 Program, so make sure the one you’re looking at has one before buying it. 

The action grip covers the battery compartment and creates a much more ergonomic fit when you’re handling the camera.

Biggest Negative - Plastic Build Quality

up close image of canon ae-1 program logo

This is one of the biggest downsides of the camera.

Many of the components on this camera are made of plastic which gives it a more plasticky feel than other cameras like the Pentax K1000 (Made in Japan).

Another Negative - Fully Battery Operated

image of battery in camera

Another downside of this camera is that all the camera functions are battery-powered. Once you’re out of battery, you cannot advance the film, take photos, or use the light meter.

Some cameras like the Pentax K1000 are fully mechanical, so you can take photos and advance the film without battery power.

Additional Accessories Available

Source: Canon AE-1 Program Manual

There is a huge ecosystem of additional Canon made accessories for this camera if you want to customize your set up even more.

Here are just some of the accessories that were made for this camera. If you want to see what’s available now, the best place to check is eBay. 

  • Canon Power Winder A2: allows you to shoot at 2 frames per second.
  • Canon Motor Drive MA: allows you to shoot at up to 4 frames per second.
  • Canon Wireless Controller LC-1: allows you to fire the camera remotely.
  • Canon Data Back A: records the date in the lower right-hand corner of the photo.

Film Suggestions

Any film stock that you put through this camera will look great! However, after trying a bunch of film stocks out, these are my favorites for the Canon AE-1 Program so far.

If you want more information about each of these film stocks and to see some sample photos, make sure to check out my Best Film for the Canon AE-1 article.

image of camera on white table

Overall, the Canon AE-1 Program is a great film camera to start out with especially if you want a camera that is more feature-rich.

For usually under $200 (for a body and lens in good condition), you get a camera that has all the automatic functions that you might need, helpful extra features like the battery check indicator and depth of field (DOF) preview, and a huge selection of high-quality Canon FD lenses to choose from.

Of course, the downside is that the camera build is more plasticy and it’s light seals are prone to deterioration. However, if you can get one at a good price which has just been serviced or one that has been film tested, you really can’t go wrong.

PROS

  • Built-in automatic modes such as full program automatic and shutter speed priority.
  • A huge selection of high quality reasonably priced Canon FD lenses to choose from.
  • Additional features such as the built-in self-timer, depth of field (DOF) preview, battery check indicator, and full camera lock mode.
  • Very customizable with a large ecosystem of Canon accessories and interchangeable focus screens.

CONS

  • The light meter isn’t as intuitive as a match-needle light meter, but once you get used to it, it’s very easy to use.
  • Most of the camera components are made of plastic giving it a very plasticy feel. This is even more obvious when you compare it to the full metal build of a camera like the Pentax K1000 (made in Japan version).
  • The light seals on this camera are known to deteriorate over time causing light leak issues if it has not been serviced recently.
  • Battery operated so you will not be able to use the camera without a battery.

Sample Images Taken with the Canon AE-1 Program

image of a store front
image of front of KFC
image of inside of a hamburger stand
image of tree line with clouds and moon
image of two peoples shadows
image of ford truck at sunset
image of dog on a couch with shadows
image of clouds at sunset

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