The year was 1977 and I, supreme ruler of the ULTRAsomething empire, was just one of several thousand bell-bottomed, platform-shoed, polyester-bedecked high school doofuses with a ridiculous haircut and a father who had recently joined the voluminous ranks of proud new Canon AE-1 owners.
At the time, I paid very little attention to his new camera. Saying “cheese” while staring into its front lens element was, for me, absolutely no different than performing the same ritual for his old Yashica SLR. Besides, I wasn’t even remotely into cameras then. I had far more pressing interests: like writing 20+ minute prog rock songs in 13/4 time, and learning how to quote various Rachmaninoff musical phrases using only wild, squelching feedback.
Truth is, I barely remember the AE-1. I mostly recall my Dad complaining that it was too large, heavy and awkward to bother carrying. A perusal of old family slides reveals a marked decrease in the number of photos taken during the AE-1 years. If my memory is correct, a single roll of film once contained photos from two years’ worth of Christmases — not exactly what anyone would consider a prodigious output.
Although I recall my Dad being quite proud of the camera, I suspect he never really bonded with it. He took scores of great family photos with his older Yashica, but the quality level seemed to diminish precipitously with the arrival of the AE-1. Guided by my own modern photographic obsessions, 20/20 hindsight and father/son DNA similarities, I have a theory for why that was: automation made him sloppy.
It’s the same point I raise again and again in this blog: The more decisions you let the camera make, the less interesting your photos become. Beginning in the mid-1960’s, a smattering of esoteric cameras started to feature semi-automatic exposure capabilities, but Canon’s AE-1 was the first to deliver it to the masses. One had simply to set the lens’ aperture ring to “A” (for automatic), point the camera, and the built-in meter would send exposure data to the internal processor, which would then set the aperture for you. That’s right, the AE-1 was the first mainstream camera to feature Shutter Priority mode. Canon marketed this camera aggressively to amateur photographers, touting its ease of use and ability to create perfect exposures. But the problem then (as it is now) was that many photographers relied too heavily on this snazzy new feature — instantly forgetting everything they once knew about exposure — and chose to simply “let the camera decide what to do.” Consider, for example, the following two late-1970’s AE-1 photographs that my Dad took of yours truly:
In the first photo, it’s obvious that Dad let the camera’s built-in meter determine the exposure — failing to compensate for the backlighting of the scene, and thus underexposing my drummer, Ralph, along with the majority of his 10 zillion piece drum kit. In the next (flash) photo, we see that the camera’s center-weighted meter did what center-weighted meters do — expose for the middle of the frame. The camera paid little attention to the foreground object (me) since I resided at the edge of the frame, and thus failed to compensate for the flash overexposure on my face. Curiously, Dad seemed to pay as little attention to me as the camera (unless it was truly his intention to document my understated bedroom wallpaper for insurance reasons). I suspect that the half-way-toward-point-and-shoot simplicity of the AE-1 sometimes made him forget focussing was still a necessity — a problem Canon “rectified” with the advent of their auto-focus EOS series, a few years later.
Soon after the AE-1’s arrival, I left for college and spent four years trying to learn enough electrical engineering to become a music synthesizer designer. Somewhere in that span, Dad switched to an auto-focus point-and-shoot camera, and I never saw the AE-1 again…
… until two months ago when, on my visit to his Arizona home, he pulled it from a box and said, “is this worth anything?”
“On the open market? Not much.” I replied. “But to me? You bet! I’ll shoot anything I can load film into!”
And so began the resurrection of my Dad’s old Canon AE-1.
The camera probably hadn’t been out of its box in 30 years. Fortunately, Dad removed the battery before storing the camera, so there was absolutely no corrosion. Additionally, the Arizona climate helped prevent the growth of any mildew or fungus. Aside from the film door’s foam light seal, which had turned to goo, the camera looked exactly the same as it did in the late 1970’s. I rummaged through the box and dug out the three lenses he owned. One, a zoom of some sort, had a broken aperture blade, so it went back into the box. That left two primes: a Canon 50mm f/1.4 and a Promaster 28mm f/2.8. I popped the 50 on the camera, the 28 in my pocket, and hit the local drugstore to search for a battery and some Tri-X. Batteries they had. Tri-X, they never heard of. These were the Arizona suburbs, after all. So I made do with a 3-pack of Kodak BW400CL, which I’d been wanting to try anyway.
Numerous personal impediments have prevented me from shooting much these past couple of months, but I did manage to push two of the three rolls of Kodak BW400CL through the camera. And, while none of these photos have any aesthetic value other than to “test” the AE-1’s operation, taking them has allowed me to form several impressions:
1: It’s now been 18 years since I bought my first digital camera and I still prefer the look of film for any photo that doesn’t require massive resolving power in order to succeed as an image. I think I can safely say that the ubiquitous, modern, bayer-pattern digital sensor is just not the “be all, end all” solution for me.
2: There’s just something soul-satisfying about thumbing a camera’s film advance lever — each flick is like putting an exclamation point on the 1000-word photo you just took.
3: The AE-1 is almost exactly the same size as my Leica M bodies. Compared to the big, bulbous, behemoth SLRs of today, the AE-1 is quite petit. Frankly, if they still made SLRs like this, I’d be inclined to shoot with them a lot more frequently. And, honestly, I’ll probably take more “keepers” with this 35 year-old film SLR than I will with my digital K-5.
4: That 50mm FD lens rocks! Stopped down a few notches, it shames any of the EOS-era lenses I once owned.
5: Wide open, that 50mm FD lens is softer than overcooked spaghetti — but in a surprisingly pleasant way. So pleasant, in fact, that I sometimes find myself looking for subjects that will benefit from the dreaminess inherent in the f/1.4 aperture.
6: The ProMaster 28mm lens was a disappointment. I still don’t know who, exactly, made this lens. Some sites suggest Tamron and others opine Cosina. Either way, I found its corner quality far too lacking for me to bother using it again. I don’t think the lens is actually damaged — rather, it appears to have always been this way, and you can plainly see the edge defocussing even in this old 1980 photograph of my college apartment.
7: Much to my surprise, I ended up liking the BW400CL film! Who knew? I thought it would annoy me that, since it’s a C41 film, I couldn’t develop it myself. But I must admit: dropping it off at a drugstore and picking it up the next day felt joyfully, lazily decadent. And the results are superb. It won’t be replacing my refrigerator full of Tri-X any time soon, but the film had scads of dynamic range, and a very minimal amount of grain when I exposed it properly.
8: Speaking of exposure, the AE-1’s internal meter was deadly accurate. Normally, I expose either by eye or by handheld meter. But when I do rely on in-camera metering, I much prefer the type of old-school center-weighted metering that the AE-1 offers. In my mind, modern matrix/scene type meters give too much exposure control to the camera and not enough to the photographer.
9: In its day, Canon marketed the AE-1 as the “amateur” alternative to its professional F-1 35mm SLR, and readily admitted to the “cheapening” of some components. But from my perspective some 35 years later, there is nothing cheap about this camera’s build quality. While I’d probably be reluctant to take it to a war zone and pump dozens of rolls of film a day through it, I’ve seen many modern “pro” cameras with build qualities nowhere near as good as the AE-1’s.
Ultimately, I find the combination of the Canon AE-1 and its 50mm f/1.4 FD lens to be a truly satisfying marriage. A quick search of the internet indicates there are hundreds of copies of this camera/lens combination available for about $150. I’m sure there are thousands more in people’s garages and basements, just waiting to be rescued and resurrected for even less money. Even at E-bay prices, I would consider the AE-1 to be an absolute steal for anyone interested in engaging (or re-engaging) with film.
So Dad, if you’re reading this (and I know you are), thanks for using this camera so sparingly and for storing it so carefully for the past thirty years. It’s found a permanent home amongst my camera collection and, should you be wondering, the answer is “no, you can’t have it back now.”
©2012 grEGORy simpson
ABOUT THESE PHOTOS: All the black & white photos were shot by me, using the Canon AE-1 with a Canon FD 50mm f/1.4 lens and Kodak BW400CL film, which was developed at the local drugstore and scanned using my Plustek 7600i scanner and Silverfast Ai software. The color photos were shot by my Dad over 30 years ago using this same camera.
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