Everybody knows the AE-1 and AE-1 Program. Maybe that’s because Canon produced so many of them. In reviews of this camera, they mention it was one of the products that opened the world of SLR to an average consumer. Nowadays young photographers may keep warm memories of their parents’ (or grandparents’) cameras when they are looking for 35mm gear to buy, so maybe that’s what still keeps these cameras so popular. For more advanced features people are looking at A-1 or the F-1. Definitely less popular are AV-1 and AT-1, since they are just less advanced than the above-mentioned models.

But what about the Canon AL-1? I could find maybe 2 reviews posted a few years ago and nothing on YouTube. My personal opinion: it’s a very underrated camera. With this post, I didn’t want to write a detailed review (you can find a few blog posts actually), but to draw attention to a very overlooked machine. So, here are a few reasons youmight consider at least trying this camera:

The Quick Focus feature

Very few cameras made in the ’80s (before the major auto-focus introduction) have this neat capability (to name a few, Olympus OM30, Pentax ME-F and maybe some cameras from Minolta). So what is Canon’s Quick Focus? It’s not the auto-focus we know. I guess it’s the very first iteration of making focus more “smart” before it went to its advanced level later in the ’80s.

AL-1 came out in 1982 and there was nothing like that done before. Basically, the camera is nicely hinting you in a viewfinder about how well you are doing with focusing. Green light means “OK”, while red arrows show direction for the focus adjustment.

If you wear glasses and it’s not very convenient to shoot with them or in general you don’t like the split-screen focusing, Quick Focus might be very helpful.

Conventional AAA batteries

Yes, you don’t change batteries in manual cameras so frequently (they are used to trigger the light meter and the shutter). But still, it’s a quite rare and expensive power supply used in almost all A series of Canon (I mean battery standard with a number of names – S1325, 4SR44, S28PX, V28PX etc.). You don’t have to become an expert in archaic battery standards with AL-1, because it’s powered by the AAA, which you can get at almost any store nearby and it’s relatively cheap.

Handgrip. To my knowledge, AE-1, AE-1 Program, and A-1 have detachable hand grips. But once you grab the AL-1, you’ll get the feeling it’s a completely different thing. The camera’s grip is a bit bigger here because actually it’s a battery compartment. In the hand it feels much closer to devices of the 90’s era, when ergonomics took over the aesthetics (in my opinion). But with AL-1 we have a manual camera with a winder, knob, shutter speed dial… everything we love the cameras of the ’70-’80s for.

Proper aperture priority mode. Maybe here it makes sense to recap how Canon A-series devices are different (and similar) between each other. Less famous AV-1 is a solely aperture priority camera, which might limit your creativity to some point. AT-1 is a full manual camera with a match needle metering system, but the shutter is electronic. Most full manual cameras are valued for its reliability and ability to shoot without the battery (like Pentax MX or Nikon FM), but it’s not the case here.

The famous AE-1 and AE-1 Program are convenient to shoot in shutter speed priority or full Program. They are designed this way (AE-1 and AE-1P are showing you the aperture in a viewfinder). But this mode might not be in favor for all of us. For me personally, it feels weird having no control over the aperture during ordinary everyday shooting. I’m not catching fast-moving objects or taking pictures of sports events on a regular basis, where shutter priority comes useful. In AL-1 in Auto mode, you can adjust the aperture while watching how the shutter speed changes in a viewfinder (same match needle as in AT-1, for example).

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It’s perfect for me and similar to how it’s handled in most cameras made by Pentax and Nikon for example. In conclusion, I would maybe even call this camera the one which has the most convenient features of all A-series. Important note: I’m not comparing it against the A-1, which is almost a professional-grade device.

The price

I found mine with a 35-70mm Canon zoom lens, flash, Canon power winder and a bunch of filters on German eBay for 50 Euros. The cosmetic condition was 10/10.

You just spent a few minutes reading how great the Canon AL-1 is, but there are downsides and one should mention those when talking about this device. Battery compartment door… It’s broken on almost all the copies you can find on eBay. People say it was broken after several months of use after the purchase. The good news is that failure is almost always about the door getting too loose and it’s easy to fix with reinforced adhesive tape. Of course, it might not look cool to some of you, but it’s perfectly fine for me.

Before I wrap things up, time for some more sample photos on Kodak Ultramax 400:

So that’s all I wanted to share with you about this camera. Other functions of AL-1 are much similar (or the same) to what you can experience with other A-series Canon bodies. The camera is well-damped (but not like the Nikon FA for example), the shutter isn’t noisy (but not as quiet as AE-1 Program), film advance mechanism is smooth (but can’t be compared to Pentax M bodies).

As I already mentioned, you can Google a few nicely detailed reviews. But if you are already familiar with any camera of the Canon A-series, this small article should give you a great overview of why AL-1 can be considered as a nice and underrated device.

For my part, I sold my AL-1 about a year ago and I miss it a bit. The only reason I sold it? It was hard to get used to the fact that the lens’ aperture ring is rotated in an opposite direction compared to my regular workhorse Pentax and Nikon SLRs.

In this case, opposites didn’t attract 😉

~ Alex

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About the author

Alex Nevelychko

Carrying a camera with me 24/7 and capturing moments on film. I believe the limitations of analogue format help me to focus only on what matters the most in the process of photography.

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  1. The AL-1 was my first camera. My Dad bought it for me from Sears with a 50mm 1.8. I used it for many years and I still have it but don’t use it much anymore. My battery door is original and has never given me an issue.