Thursday, May 5, 2016

The Canon A-1: Wonderful, Ridiculous Machine

Released in 1978, the Canon A-1 was the first SLR in history to offer a full Program mode, allowing the camera to choose both the shutter speed and aperture and thus allowing the user to concentrate completely on getting the shot. I like historically significant cameras, so this one was on my list. I considered myself lucky when one popped up on Craigslist for a good price.

I was thinking about what a great deal I had gotten as I was driving home after buying my Canon A-1. I suppose I did get a good deal, although it wasn't quite the deal it seemed. The body came with the "Action Grip", three lenses, a generic flash, a cable release, user manual, and a camera bag that held everything. All of this for $60. I had noticed that the battery door was cracked, but replacement doors are cheap and this is a common issue, so I didn't worry too much about it.

After getting it home and looking more carefully, things initially seemed great. None of the normal scuff marks, scratches, dents, or brassing that you might see on a camera that's pushing 40 years old. The finish was perfect. It it weren't for the cracked battery door, I could have believed that this thing had never been used.

Then when I opened the battery door, I noticed that there was still a battery in the compartment and it was a corroded mess. It took some effort to eventually clean out the compartment enough to put a new battery in there, and even when I did it look a little more cleaning to get the contacts to start working. After that, I fired it up and quickly determined that I was dealing with the "Canon shutter squeak" next, something that is a bit common on older Canons after a few decades. I found several videos online suggesting ways to fix the issue, but this video by Fix Old Cameras was exactly what I needed.  I spent $8 on a good bottle of gear oil with a syringe tip, and had the mirror escapement oiled and sounding great in just a few minutes.

Of course, that couldn't be all of it.  I later noticed that one of the lenses (a Rokinon 28mm f/2.8) wouldn't stop down.  I actually figured out the problem with the lens after disassembling it, and I think I had it working, but once again (yes, this has happened to me before) I ran into problems getting it back into one piece. I even tried taking pictures of each step, but there were hidden components that just didn't want to cooperate, so after several hours I called time of death and stuck all of the pieces in a bag.

Still, I feel like the remaining components were worth more than $60, so I'm happy with the purchase.

The Camera

The A-1 is a beautiful camera. Only available in black, it's a solid, well-built testament to late 70's/early 80's style with its angular shapes and chunky controls. It has an electromagnetic shutter, so batteries are required for operation, but luckily these batteries are still widely available. The shutter supports speeds of 1/1000 all the way down to 30 seconds, plus bulb. The maximum flash sync speed is only 1/60, but I'm not really bothered by this because I rarely use a flash.

The viewfinder sports the standard horizontal split-prism rangefinder spot surrounded by a microprism collar, and the information display is simple and wonderfully dated. It uses an 7-segment red LED display comprised of dots (rather than full segments), and every time I see it, it triggers a very strong reaction in my brain, but for the life of me I can't actually recall the memory that it's associated with. I used to have something with a very similar display on it when I was a kid (the camera is almost as old as me, after all), but for the life of me I can't remember what it was. Maybe one day I'll remember. At any rate, the display shows the shutter speed and the aperture, as well as an "M" if the camera is in manual mode.

On the top of the camera you'll find a number of buttons and levers. There's the switch to go from shutter priority to aperture priority, and a setting dial that changes the aperture or shutter speed depending on the mode you're in.  Another lever switches the camera on and off, as well as setting the self timer. Under the film advance lever is a partially hidden switch that allows multiple exposures to be shot on a single frame by disengaging the film advance for one crank of the lever.

You've also got a battery check, and a dedicated switch that turns off the viewfinder display for some reason. A dial underneath the film rewind knob sets the ISO as well as +/- 2 stops of exposure compensation. Finally, a small switch near the eyepiece blacks out the viewfinder for long exposures.

The battery door is located on the front of the camera, near a switch whose sole purpose is to block changes to the setting dial. Opposite these is a PC terminal, an exposure hold button, an exposure preview button, and a lever that allows depth of field preview and stop-down metering.

Quirky But Enjoyable

There are things about the A-1 that really make me scratch my head.  

  • Why is there an exposure preview button? The only reference to it in the manual suggests that it performs the exact same function as pressing the shutter release button down half way. Yet this button is on the front of the camera on the opposite side.
  • Then there's the exposure lock. Sure it's a great feature to have, but it only works for as long as you're physically holding the button down. If you release it before you trigger the shutter, your exposure is going to be off. That means you need to have two buttons pressed simultaneously, with no hands left available to adjust focus.
  • The battery door was a pretty poor design in my opinion, and yet it lasted for years in the AE-1, the A-1, and the AE-1P. They're known for breaking because you're supposed to dig underneath the door with a fingernail for a latch and then pull up on the door. Of course, if you haven't fully unlatched it you run the risk of breaking something when you pull up on it.
  • What's the point of a separate switch whose sole purpose is to turn off the viewfinder display? Does anyone actually use that?
  • I'm not really sure why they needed to allow setting the aperture on the camera body, when the lens has aperture settings already on it. The aperture settings on the lens are only used for manual mode (since the setting dial needs to set the shutter speed). In every other case, the lens needs to be in "A" mode. If you're in aperture priority mode and you are also setting the aperture manually on the lens, the setting on the camera takes priority.
  • The switch that blocks operation of the setting dial is weird... it's not particularly easy to change the shutter speed or aperture accidentally, so I don't see a reason for this.
Then there's the big one.  My favorite. Depth of field preview in aperture priority, shutter priority, or program mode. Let's say you're in one of these modes and you'd like to check the depth of field. You can't do this directly because the lens is in "A" mode. So here's what you have to do:

  1. Take the lens out of "A" mode and set the aperture on the lens to the aperture you want to check the depth of field with.
  2. Press in on the DoF preview lever.
  3. Look through the viewfinder to verify depth of field.
  4. Pull the DoF preview lever back out into its normal position.
  5. Set the lens back into "A" mode.  You would think that you would be done, but you're not.
  6. This creates an error condition in which all the viewfinder displays is "EEEE EE" regardless of what you're trying to do. You can no longer take photos, and even turning the camera off and back on is no help.
  7. To clear the error, you need to operate the lever that turns on multiple exposures, and then crank the film advance lever.
  8. Now you can use your camera again.
That's an awful lot of steps (although if you're in manual mode this doesn't apply). This whole process is documented in the manual, which makes me wonder why they didn't actually try to streamline it a bit.

On the other hand, I never really use DoF preview, so I guess I'm not too worried about that.

At this point, maybe the A-1 sounds a little ridiculous, but all things considered it is really a great camera. It's a solid, dependable machine that mostly stays out of your way but can easily jump in and help out when you want it to. I've carried it around with me a lot lately, switching between it and my Nikon FM2n, and it really has proven itself as a great all-around camera.

The A-1 Viewfinder Display
Metering is excellent, offering a range of EV -2 to EV 18 (f/1.4, ISO 100) while the FM2n only supports EV 1 to EV 18, despite being several years newer. The viewfinder display is nicer too, since it's always visible. Most of the viewfinders of this era are dependent upon ambient light for the information to be visible, whether it be numbers sticking out into the viewfinder frame or a periscope viewer like the Nikon.  The A-1's display is not only independently lit, but it changes brightness based on the scene so as not to overpower it.

Bottom line: if you're in the market for an FD mount camera and you don't want to spend the money on an F1, you can't go wrong with the A-1.  In fact, you might even be able to find one cheaper than the ubiquitous AE-1 despite the A-1 being a better camera, because nostalgia is ignorant of value.

1 comment:

  1. What a wonderful article on the A-1 - probably is the greatest manual focus SLR ever made. But still, as you so precisely point out, not perfect. The metering, viewfinder LCD display and the fact that focus turns "the right way" makes it way lot better than it's competitors from Nikon, in my opinion.