If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it. A good philosophy, and one that Canon kept in mind when designing the follow-up to their massively successful AE-1 SLR. After five years of that machine’s unprecedented sales success, Canon unveiled an evolutionary camera that respectfully harkened to their most important SLR, and even retained its name.
I’m talking about the AE-1 Program, and while I feel this is an over-simplification, many describe the AE-1 Program as an AE-1 with Program mode added on. That’s not necessarily wrong, but I believe there’s enough of a difference between the two machines that they each deserve careful consideration.
The AE-1 Program presents enough small changes to really distinguish itself from its older brother. And though the changes seem at first to be subtle, they’re impactful enough that after just a few days of shooting it’s easy to see that one of these cameras is clearly better than the other. But which is it? Which Canon is the one to own?
The evolutionary nature of the AE-1 Program precludes the necessity of an exhaustive, individual review. For those wondering over the essence of the camera (how it’s built, how it handles and shoots, etc.) head over to our review of its progenitor. Instead of retreading that well-worn earth, let’s take a close look at where the cameras differ from one another, and where the new design strengthens (or weakens) the AE-1P in comparison to the older machine.
Aesthetically speaking, each of you will need to decide which camera looks best on your own. To me, the AE-1 Program is simply a refined version of the AE-1. It retains that camera’s core construction and dimensions, while shedding some extraneous bevels and design flourishes. A good example of this can be seen when we examine each camera’s nameplate. While the nameplate on the AE-1 is a protruding, stepped plate, the AE-1P’s is simplified. Rather than the logo being stamped on a separate moulding, it’s stamped directly into the pentaprism, foregoing any extra angles.
On balance, the AE-1 Program seems somehow less retro than the AE-1. Granted, it is newer by half a decade, but it’s still a retro machine. Even so, it looks somehow more contemporary than it actually is. This may or may not hurt the camera in today’s market where vintage appeal is so highly prized. But let’s not confuse things. Sure, it looks less classic than the AE-1, but there’s no denying the AE-1 Program still looks like a classic film camera; and that’s a good thing.
When holding each camera in the hand they both seem quite similar at first blush. But dig a bit deeper and we start to see that the numerous small evolutions add up to a massive difference in usability between the two.
The first improvement one notices is the implementation of the AE-1 Program’s ASA/ISO selector. While the original AE-1’s ISO selector was finicky, annoying, and prone to breaking, the AE-1P’s is a comparative gift from the gods. No longer does one have to fiddle to push the film advance lever out of the way while pulling up on a tiny plunger-style knurled ring surrounding the shutter-speed selector. Adjusting the ISO on the AE-1 Program is as simple as pressing a button and moving a lever. It’s easy, and for those who’ve experienced the pain of the older AE-1’s method, it’s amazing.
Another welcome ergonomic improvement is found in the placement of the AE-1 Program’s shutter speed selector dial. This dial is mounted further inward toward the center of the top plate, whereas the AE-1’s dial is as close to the outer edge as possible. On the older machine, changing shutter speed can be an arthritis-inducing irritant, while the newer camera’s dial is perfectly positioned for effortless fingertip adjustments.
But it doesn’t stop at just levers and dials. The boys at Canon improved the very foundation of their most popular SLR’s ergonomics by incorporating a mounting point for the Canon Action Grip. This grip, first introduced as an accessory available to A-1 shooters, gives the AE-1P a much improved grip over the grip-less AE-1. But not only does it make the camera more comfortable to hold, it also serves to protect the battery door, a part of the AE-1 that’s notorious for breaking, and annoying to repair.
But not everything about the AE-1P feels better than the AE-1. The shutter lock lever that was so delightfully mechanically on the original AE-1 has been replaced with a flimsy, plastic lever. This lever, a carry-over from the A-1, is prone to breaking even with normal use. It’s just a cheaper part, and that’s a shame. The AE-1P’s depth-of-field preview control is similarly of lower quality compared with that of the AE-1, and while I’ve not noticed a proclivity for breakage, it just doesn’t feel as sturdy as that of the prior model.
On the whole, the AE-1 Program looks and feels better than its predecessor. But then again, the AE-1 was never bad looking, and it worked pretty damn well, too. So is there any real reason to favor the AE-1P over the AE-1? In a word; yes. And the first reason becomes clear the moment we look through the viewfinder.
The AE-1 Program showcases Canon’s brightest, and largest viewfinder ever installed on a manual focus Canon camera. It’s essentially the same as the VF used on the professional-grade F-1. The standard package includes Canon’s matte focusing screen with built-in split image rangefinder patch and micro-prism focusing band. Photo-geek speak translation: it’s easier and faster to focus with the AE-1 Program than it is with any other Canon SLR that came before.
Further one-upping the original AE-1, the AE-1P allows the shooter to swap focusing screens to any one of eight optional screens. Want a grid-pattern screen? No problem. How about a crosshair or scale screen? No issues there. And furthermore, these screens are replaceable by the end-user while other cameras, the A-1 included, require the job be done by factory technicians.
And if that weren’t enough, Canon further ups the ante with another big viewfinder innovation. While both cameras display a light-meter reading within the viewfinder, the AE-1 Program uses a bright, illuminated LED to showcase information with the AE-1 employing a comparatively archaic analog needle system. While both do the job, the LEDs in the AE-1P are more responsive and easier to see in challenging lighting situations.
These improvements to the VF pair with the ergonomic improvements to help create a shooting experience that’s much more relaxed and streamlined when compared to the experience offered by the AE-1. While the older camera can at times be clunky, finicky, and sluggish, the AE-1P goes a long way toward speeding things up and smoothing things out.
But wait, I’ve not even talked about the AE-1 Program’s finest improvement. What about the big innovation that gives it its name?
Yes, the AE-1 Program allows for shooting in Program mode. For those not in the know, switching to Program mode allows the camera to automatically select the shutter speed and aperture that will result in a perfectly exposed photo every time. What this means is that for a whole segment of would-be photographers who may be too intimidated to shoot film or manual cameras, there’s no longer anything to worry about.
Using the AE-1 Program in Program mode, one is essentially holding an incredibly powerful and optically sophisticated point-and-shoot camera. Just point, shoot, and make amazing photos. It’s easy, and it works great too, since Canon’s metering system is rarely confused. If new shooters do nothing more than read the manual and remember the dos and don’ts of making a decent shot, there’s no reason the AE-1P will ever produce anything other than great photos.
When it comes to Program shooting there’s no comparison. The AE-1 simply does not offer Program mode. With that camera, shooters are stuck with shutter-priority or full-manual mode. The AE-1P offers all this, and more.
The remainder of the two cameras’ spec-sheets read like a photo-copy. Features and tech-specs couldn’t be more similar. The shutters are both the cloth-plane, horizontally traveling mechanisms that range from 2 seconds to 1/1000th, plus Bulb mode. Film loading and rewind are the same, batteries are the same, metering system is the same, construction materials are the same… you get the idea.
Both cameras use Canon’s ubiquitous FD mount, so lens selection is massive enough to satisfy any photographer. From wide-angle to telephoto, Canon’s lenses rarely disappoint. Standard issue on both is the FD 50mm F/1.8, a lens we reviewed and found to be quite excellent. Find an AE-1P with this lens and you’ve got yourself a seriously capable photographic tool that’s ready to grow and expand with you.
Before I wrap up, it should be noted that the AE-1 Program’s ancestral ties to the AE-1 bring with it some reliability issues. Back with a vengeance is the weakness imparted through Canon’s over-reliance on late-70s circuitry. Through rough usage, fragile ribbon cables and delicate solder (seen here) can easily give up the fight, leaving you with a super-stylish paper-weight.
The newer camera suffers the same liabilities as the AE-1 when it comes to shutter speed limitations. The maximum speed of 1/1000th of a second can be a bit slow in bright light when shooting wide open, as is done with some styles of outdoor portrait photography. Flash sync speed is slow for both machines at 1/60th, further limiting things for shooters who need a fill flash in the day-time.
Finally, the same lubricants used in the AE-1’s mirror assembly are used again in the AE-1P. As such, AE-1P buyers should remain wary of the infamous and dreaded “Canon Squeal”. But, as with all cameras, buy a copy that’s been properly stored and cared for and there’s little to worry about where reliability is concerned. Alternately, buy one from our own F-Stop Cameras and enjoy an uncommon guarantee.
The AE-1 Program is another classic from Canon. More than just an AE-1 with Program mode, it’s a camera that offers more features, is better looking, and provides superior ergonomics compared with its older brother. Is it better than its forbear? I think so. But I also know that for some people, the AE-1 is the best camera in the world.
Which of the two cameras you’ll fall in love with will likely come down to the way you want to shoot. If you think you’ll never use Program mode, perhaps the AE-1 is best for you. If you plan on doing a lot of low-light shooting and need a brighter VF, maybe opt for the Program. I can’t make the decision for you, but both machines are so great that you’ll inevitably love whichever one you pick.
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