The Canon AV-1 is a Better Canon AE-1 (For Me)

The Canon AV-1 is a Better Canon AE-1 (For Me)

2000 1125 James Tocchio

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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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop Fstopcameras.com.

All stories by:James Tocchio
25 comments
  • A couple years ago I got the AV-1 with the 50 1.8 lens for about $10. Like you, I prefer the auto shutter over the auto aperture.
    Never had an interest to get an AE-1 since the AV does what I need.
    Couple weeks ago I picked up an A-1 body with the squeak for also about $10.

    • How could u get it for just 10$?

    • All I can say is….to each his own, tho I have not tried those two cameras my Canon AE1 Program can’t be touched. Depending on what I am shooting I have the option to choose what mode I select and I like options . I am surprised you did not complain about both cameras being plastic. In the meantime I am enjoying my Canon AE1 Program, Minolta X 700 as well as my Olympus OM1N so keep shooting shooters

  • Great pictures like every time.

  • Before I got my first auto-exposure camera I thought that I would prefer shutter priority. I found that I do not, aperture priority is more useful for me. I have an AE-1 Program and it’s ok but, like you, I think that the A1 is much the better camera, and usually cheaper too.

  • Another great article! Thanks. (“batter door” probably should be “better door”)

    • Fixed it to “battery” door as originally intended. Pretty ironic, considering how many battery doors are broken on AE-1s. I even have to fix them in this article…

      • Yes, a better battery door. You also fixed my initial misinterpretation. I originally thought you were referring to the back film compartment door. More irony. Thanks.

  • James, do you think that Canon removed the full manual mode from the AV-1 on purpose, as a way to keep it somehow subservient to the AE-1? Why would Canon make a shutter priority camera with full manual mode but not give their aperture priority camera the same capability? I agree with you, that the best of the Canon A-camera bunch is the A-1, because it does everything that all the other cameras do in one single package. I ended up inheriting my mother’s A-1 that she used back in the 80’s and 90’s for her advertising business. She dug it out of the attic after 20 years of storage, and after a CLA, I’ve been using it for a few years. I will say that I’ve never tried shooting in full Program mode. It’s just not my prefered method of shooting. If I want full Program, I’ll use a point and shoot or my Nikon F80 with autofocus. I will also say that full manual mode on a Canon A-1 is clunky and cumbersome since the viewfinder does not display the aperture you have selected, but rather the metered aperture the camera thinks is correct. You must take the camera away from your eye to make sure your aperture is set how you want when using an A-1 in full manual mode. I do think aperture and shutter priority is where the camera really shines. That being said, and also because the AE-1 and A-1 are both demanding what I think are rather ridiculous prices over the last few years, I’d probably be looking closely at the Canon AV-1 if I just had to have one of these Canon cameras.

    FWIW, the Minolta X-500/570 offers aperture priority shooting with full manual mode and a lovely full information viewfinder for similar prices (or less) than the AV-1. There is also the added benefit of the excellent Minolta MD lenses being generally cheaper than the equivalent Canon FD lenses, as prices for FD lenses have crept up along with the camera bodies they mount on. Just some food for thought.

    • I think that when Canon developed the AV-1 they were very concerned with the target price. The AE-1 and A1 were expensive cameras and I think that they were trying to make a cheaper option, more than anything else. Their website (the Canon Museum) mentions that price was a big factor in the camera’s design, so I think the commission of a full manual mode was a decision to reduce cost, more than anything else. I don’t think they were really worried about the AV1 cannibalizing sales from their other cameras. Either way they’d sell more lenses. Just my own personal assumptions here – I don’t have hard data.

      As for looking to Minolta for a truly great AV camera… well… Minolta is always the answer, isn’t it?

    • Also FWIW, the Minolta XG-M offers aperture priority with a manual mode at a similar price point, too. Albeit with a CdS meter.

  • I have a Canon AE-1 but when I want to shoot aperture priority with my Canon FD lenses, I went with the New Canon F-1 with it’s AE finder.

  • Please, may I ask you a question ?
    Do you recommend this camera for a beginner, or for a beginner in street photography? Because I have seen this camera with a lens can be find at nearly 100 $.
    Thank You.

    • Absolutely. It is a perfect camera for beginners who are willing to learn about aperture and how it changes depth of field, which is a pretty easy concept to learn and effectively gives just the right amount of artistic control.

  • Another reason to love the AV-1 is the high-magnification (0.87x with 50mm lens) viewfinder. Mount a 55mm lens on the camera, like a Canon 55/1.2, and suddenly you have a life-sized 1:1 viewfinder (0.87 X 55/50 = 0.96), meaning you can shoot with both eyes open!

  • I was a Canon FD-mount user back in the day, having owned at various times the Canon TL, FT, AE-I Program, A-1, and T-90. I saw your review and wondered why I had overlooked the AV-1. Your article refreshed my memory about the lack of a manual mode, which must have been a deal breaker for me. The AE-1 Program had shutter priority but the A-1 and T-90 had both shutter and aperture priority as well as full manual mode. I grew to prefer aperture priority. Consequently, I can understand the appeal of the AV-1. But unfortunately the lack of a manual mode made it kind of glorified point and shoot camera. Nonetheless, your article was a fun walk down memory lane with a camera system that I used to really enjoy.

  • Ahhh….I did not know about this camera. In 1984 I went to the camera shop intending to buy an AE1, as many of my friends had one, but left the shop the proud owner of a Contax 139Q. Which I still have. Aperture priority, with exposure compensation, exposure lock and fully manual. What more could a photographer want???

  • Totally agree with you James. The shutter priority was never my thing (I experienced it on the Cannot QL17 GIII, excellent camera by the way, but never get used to the shutter priority), and thus I wasn’t really interested in the AE1. But I recently acquired an AV1 and was stunned by the simplicity and efficiency of this camera. So, I decided to lend it to one of my students who wanted to learn how to shoot analog, and he enjoys it a lot!. Simple, robust, capable of delivering great exposures and an excellent FD lens, what else do you need! 🙂

  • Sounds like the AV-1 is very similar to the Pentax ME. I really enjoyed the ME, it just made taking pics fun. Sold all my Pentax gear though cuz just had too much stuff (LX, MX, ME, SuperA, K2)

  • Love the AV-1, of which I have two! It has a (kinda) manual mode, but you have to know how to tweak ith the ISO setting.
    Did I mention I love this camera?

  • Ha my fave was the evil sister AT-1 which was shutter priority. Better for action photographers, not artistic types 😉

    • I have most of the Canon FD cameras. The AT-1 is usually my favorite. Everyone thinks autoexposure is faster, but not when you want to do exposure compensation. On a match needle exposure system you just bias exposure with either aperture or shutter, as you like.

  • This article makes me realise how truly trailblazing and ahead of their time Konica was when it launched the shutter priority original auto-reflex in 65 then the autoreflex with auto exposure and TTL metering in 68! Taken this way Canon was slow to the market

  • The AL-1 is a better AV-1. It has the aperture-preferred exposure you like, and it adds a manual mode and a focus confirmation LED (which works surprisingly well). Downside is that it has a battery door that is even more likely to break than most Canon A series cameras. I’ve owned almost all FD cameras and the AL-1 is enough to be in my current rotation. I love it!

    By the way, I find it interesting that folks who like aperture-preferred exposure talk about desire to manage aperture (and thus depth of field). I’ve always found the shutter-preferred cameras to be the best for that since the aperture is displayed in the viewfinder. You can keep your eye at the viewfinder and change exposure and always know what aperture will be used. I find aperture-preferred cameras to be better at tracking shutter speed. Of course, for the blessed cameras that show you BOTH shutter and aperture in the viewfinder, your point makes more sense to me (hello A-1 and T-90).

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James Tocchio

James Tocchio is a writer and photographer, and the founder of Casual Photophile. He’s spent years researching, collecting, and shooting classic and collectible cameras. In addition to his work here, he’s also the founder of the online camera shop Fstopcameras.com.

All stories by:James Tocchio