I don’t get along with the Canon AE-1. Despite that venerable camera’s historically groundbreaking design, despite its original unprecedented sales success, and despite its continued popularity today, I just don’t like it. And I don’t like it for exactly one reason; the Canon AE-1 is made to operate in shutter priority semi-auto mode (with manual override option), and as a photographer who almost exclusively shoots in aperture priority semi-auto I have tended to prefer cameras by camera makers that have prioritized this mode in their designs – namely, Minolta, Pentax, and (most of all) Nikon.
But I do love many things about the Canon AE-1, besides. It’s a beautiful camera with excellent proportions, near-perfect controls, simplicity of design, a capable metering system, wonderful lenses, and a great viewfinder. Would it not lock me out of my preferred shooting mode it would indeed be a great fit in my hands.
Which is why I’m at least mildly interested in the Canon AV-1.
Lead Up to the AV-1
The 1970s saw an intense push by Japanese camera manufacturers to add computer automation into their 35mm SLR cameras. The biggest innovation of the decade was auto-exposure, a technology which allowed cameras to measure the light entering the camera’s lens and automatically calculate the parameters of shutter speed or aperture to make a correct exposure.
Limitations in the computer technology of the day and the electro-mechanical nature of the machines of the early 1970s, however, meant that most of these new cameras could not calculate and automatically set both the lens aperture and camera’s shutter speed. Instead, camera makers chose to have their cameras calculate one, or the other, and control that particular parameter in a semi-auto exposure mode.
To illustrate how this works, for those who don’t know, we’ll use the Canon AE-1, which was one of the first cameras to ever offer auto-exposure (this is, incidentally, where the camera gets its name – Auto-Exposure 1).
The user of an AE-1 sets the ISO dial of the camera to that of the film that’s been loaded. Load some 400 ISO Ilford HP5 and spin the dial to 400. Easy enough. Next, the user simply selects the desired shutter speed for every shot, and when he or she presses the shutter release, the camera calculates the light streaming into the lens against the ISO and shutter speed values set by the user and selects the appropriate lens aperture which will result in a correct exposure.
These days, this is pretty basic stuff. But in 1976, when the AE-1 debuted, it signaled a big shift in what users could expect an SLR camera to deliver. From that moment on, every manufacturer raced to have the best auto-exposure mode (or modes).
Canon chose that their early auto-exposure cameras would focus on automatically calculating the lens aperture while leaving the user to choose shutter speed – hence the term shutter priority and the shutter priority Canon AE-1.
In 1977, the year following the launch of the AE-1, Minolta (ever the trailblazer) launched the first SLR with both aperture priority and shutter priority in a single camera with the Minolta XD11. Canon responded in 1978 with the A1, the first camera to offer both aperture priority, shutter priority, and full Program AE (a mode in which the camera calculates and automatically sets both aperture and shutter speed).
But even as the shutter priority Canon AE-1 was selling unprecedented numbers, according to Canon’s camera museum, many users in the USA and Europe preferred the aperture priority modes found in the cameras of competing brands like Pentax, Nikon, and Minolta.
So they made their own 35mm film SLR which natively shot in aperture priority mode; the Canon AV-1.
What is the Canon AV-1?
The Canon AV-1 has been reductively described as “a Canon AE-1 that operates in aperture priority mode.” And that’s superficially correct. But that description misses some finer points. The Canon AV-1 is not exactly an AE-1 with a different mode. And despite this article’s headline, which boldly states that the AV-1 is a better AE-1 (which is true, in a few ways) the AV-1 also lacks some features of the AE-1 that would make it inferior for some photographers.
But let’s take a closer look. Three short paragraphs. That should do it.
The Canon AV-1 is just like the AE-1 in that it’s body and chassis are almost identical in size and function. Manual film advance and rewind are controlled by the same knobs and levers. The shutter operates at identical speeds (though as you’ll read shortly, the AV-1 has an edge). The viewfinders are practically identical in size, brightness, and the information which is displayed. Both cameras mount the same lenses (Canon FD), both use the same battery, and they both share the same metering methodology and sensitivity (center-weighted average, EV 1-18). Smaller details are shared as well. Briefly these include a backlight compensation button, AE lock button, an automatic film frame counter and memo tab.
But the Canon AV-1 is better than the AE-1 in at least a few ways. The first is that its automatic shutter is step-less. This means that the camera can calculate exposures not just to the nearest marked shutter speed (ie. 1/60th, 1/30th, 1/15th of a second, etc.) but to fractions of those times as well (ie. 1/50th, 1/20th, 1/13th of a second, etc.). And the greatest advantage the AV-1 has over the AE-1 is, of course, being able to shoot in aperture priority mode. I should also mention that the AV-1 has a much stronger battery door, a common (though hardly catastrophic) failure point on the AE-1 (and later A-1). Oh, and the AV-1 is comparatively inexpensive.
But let’s also be clear that the Canon AV-1 is worse than the AE-1 in one major way; it lacks a manual mode. The Canon AV-1 can only shoot in aperture priority while the AE-1 allows shutter priority and full manual control. (The AV-1 does have a 1/60th of a second mode and bulb mode, but anyone who tells you that a single selectable shutter speed equates to manual controls is wildly overstating things.)
The Canon AV-1 Today
Shooting the Canon AV-1 is effortless and fluid. Simply frame our shot, manually focus with those smooth, beautiful Canon FD lenses, select the desired lens aperture for our desired depth of field, and fire. The camera does the rest and we make a great photo. It feels great in the hands, with beautiful proportions, a classic style, and nice heftiness. We can even hack exposure compensation by easily rotating the ISO dial from shot to shot, and the backlight compensation switch works great. So, yeah, it does a lot of things right.
Most important of these things done right is its native shooting mode. For photographers, like me, who care deeply about controlling our depth of field and drawing the viewers eye to this or that portion of a photo, the AV-1 is a really good Canon A-series camera. It allows us more creative control (as it pertains to depth of field) than the does the AE-1. We can also buy an AV-1 for half the cost of an AE-1, so that’s something.
But on balance, the AV-1 isn’t going to dethrone the Canon AE-1 as Canon’s most popular (or best) 35mm film SLR. For a certain type of shooter, it could be a great choice. And for anyone, really, it’s a great camera. But it’s not the best.
I headlined this article with the idea that the Canon AV-1 is a better Canon AE-1 (for me), and it is. But I’ll admit that that headline is a bit clickbait-y. It’s true that I do, indeed, prefer the Canon AV-1 over the AE-1. But if I really wanted a classic 1970s Canon to shoot in my preferred aperture priority mode, I’d skip both the AE-1 and AV-1 alike and buy the best A-series camera that Canon ever made. I’d buy the Canon A-1.
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