We Review the Final Canon A Series Camera, the Canon AL-1

We Review the Final Canon A Series Camera, the Canon AL-1

2000 1125 Jonathan Ma

Despite the fact that I began my photography career shooting Canon digital cameras, and despite Canon’s A series 35mm film SLRs having sold over 11 million units in total between the years 1976 and 1984, and despite the Canon AE-1’s well-earned reputation for introducing SLR photography to millions of people, I’ve never been a fan of the Canon A series.

Perhaps it’s the plastic, the light build quality, or the vague tolerances; my first film cameras were the Nikon F and a Leica R4, both beautifully built in durable metal. Perhaps it’s the 100% reliance on batteries; without batteries, all Canon A-series are practically useless. Or perhaps it’s the belief that these cameras, especially the AE-1 and AE-1 Program, are over-hyped and consequently priced higher than more capable cameras.

Whatever the reason, until recently, I’d never used an A series Canon. When I finally decided to use one, I started incongruously with the last of the bunch, the final A series camera made, 1982’s Canon AL-1.

What is the Canon AL-1?

Before I go off on a tangent, let’s review the basics of the Canon AL-1.

The Canon AL-1 was introduced in March of 1982, and was the final model of the A-series. Like its predecessor, the AV-1, it was predominantly an aperture-priority auto-exposure. The auto-exposure mode operates with step-less speeds from 2 seconds to 1/1000th second. However, it improved upon the AV-1; where the AV-1 only offered user-selectable speeds of 1/60th of a second and bulb mode, the AL-1 offers seven user-selectable shutter speeds from 1/15th to 1/1000th second, along with bulb mode. This makes the AL-1 a camera that’s really capable of manual exposure.

Common with all other A-series models, the AL-1 features a horizontally-running cloth shutter, Canon’s FD mount, and accepts all FD and FL mount lenses. The light meter’s ASA sensitivity ranges from 25 to 1600 and the camera is powered by two AAA batteries in its grip. Accessories for the A-series, such as motor drives, are also compatible with this camera. Pretty basic stuff.

Though being on the lower end of the A-series, Canon ensured that the last A-series model was not another bottom-of-the-bucket model by adding forward-looking technology in an ever-increasing world of automation.

A bold “QF” emblem sits on the front of the camera body, which stands for “Quick Focus,” a manual focus assist system that tells users when the viewfinder image is in focus. Two red LED arrows at the bottom of the viewfinder indicate which direction the photographer should turn the focus ring on the lens to acquire focus. A green dot indicates correct focus. A small rectangle in the middle of the focusing screen is the focus point.

This focusing system utilized three CCD arrays which read light contrast through the mirror, which has an etched pattern on the reflective surface for this purpose. The Quick Focus system was Canon’s first experiment with electronic focusing aids, and while this system was far from being an actual autofocus system, it paved the way for the modern contrast detection AF system. Canon aimed this system to those who had trouble focusing through the viewfinder (aka poor eyesight, like yours truly).

Ultimately, the first successful mass market autofocus 35mm SLR was released in 1985 in the form of the Minolta Maxxum 7000 – and ironically Minolta included something extremely similar to Canon’s Quick Focus system whenever that camera is used in manual focus mode. Canon attempted to further explore autofocus technology in their T80 in 1985 (reviewed on this site five years ago). Canon would eventually abandon the FD mount altogether and focus on their new lens and mount system, built with autofocus in mind, in 1987: the Canon EOS system.

Impressions

I’ll be honest: I bought the AL-1 because I was curious about shooting an A-series camera (and was procrastinating during finals week). Despite my negative impressions of them, I decided to give one a try. I wasn’t too keen on paying for an AE-1 at current market values, so I knew I had to go with a model that not a lot of people knew about. My local camera shop just happened to have an AL-1 with a 50mm f/1.8 lens and Canon Power Winder A2 in great condition.

Broken battery doors are super common with A-series cameras, but this problem is the worst on the AL-1. Practically all eBay listings for this camera mention a broken battery door. Unlike the other Canon A models, this battery door is needed to complete the circuit for the batteries. The door itself is a very thin piece of plastic that is constantly being pushed on by the batteries inside the grip; some sources say Canon accidentally made the battery chamber too small. Surprisingly (and luckily), the one I got still has an intact battery door. Closing the door after inserting batteries was low-key kind of nerve wracking since the tension from the contacts on the other end was pretty strong, and the battery door bulges when the compartment is loaded and closed.

Despite being much lighter than my other cameras, the AL-1 still feels well-balanced with a chunky grip that feels very comfortable. The motor drive added considerable heft to the kit; I removed the winder from the body since I prefer that manual film advance action. Though some plastic components feel fragile and cheap, the camera feels reasonably sturdy. Nowhere close to Nikon or Leica, but sturdy enough. I loaded a roll of Kodak Gold and headed to downtown Los Angeles.

Coming from the Minolta XD11 and XG-M, the AL-1’s aperture-priority meter feels familiar. A needle  on the far right edge of the viewfinder image area points towards the shutter speed that the camera will choose when the camera is set on aperture-priority. In manual mode, the needle denotes which shutter speed you need to set the camera at for the proper exposure.

The meter activates when the shutter button is pressed halfway, followed by the Quick Focus system shortly after, indicating if the scene is properly focused or the direction in which the photographer should turn the focus ring to achieve proper focus. Though the focus area (denoted by a small black rectangular outline in the center of the viewfinder) is relatively small, I was surprised that the Quick Focus system worked quite nicely. The focusing aid practically ensures the focus area is in sharp focus and this thing proved that it was far from just being a gimmick. It was quite a useful feature that facilitated quicker and more accurate manual focusing.

Though it may sound limiting, having just seven user-selectable shutter speeds from 1/15th to 1/1000th seconds along with bulb is a non-issue. Besides my tendency to happily leave the camera on aperture-priority autoexposure, I rarely go below 1/60th second handheld on any SLR. The fact that Canon added this little touch to a camera based off of the AV-1, showed their commitment in producing a camera distinctively different from the other A-series cameras while expanding on creative control options for all levels of photographers.

One thing that I definitely was not used to, compared to my main 35mm SLRs, was that set shutter speed and aperture settings are not visible in the viewfinder. Given that the AL-1 was a lower end camera on the A-series, this was not shocking. However, since there is nothing in the viewfinder that told me I was on the manual speeds rather than auto, there were a few times that I would be shooting a scene with a shutter speed too slow or too fast for a proper exposure. Not a huge problem (and mostly my fault) but it is something to note.

Other than that, the AL-1 feels like another A series Canon, just perhaps with even more plastics. The included lens, a 50mm f/1.8, is a pretty standard nifty-fifty and since Canon made astronomic amounts in different versions, these are plentiful and cheap. Obviously not as prestigious as Canon L lenses, but certainly not the worst.

Final Thoughts

In the end, the AL-1 just is not for me. That’s not to say that this is a bad camera at all (to each their own, personal preferences). The Quick Focus system indeed works very well beyond being a gimmick, and I’m sure it is super useful when shooting large aperture lenses. Though its successors were much more forward-looking, the AL-1 was a solid foundational step towards innovation.

The camera is perfect for those just dipping their toes in analog photography or those looking for an upgrade from their film point-and-shoot cameras to explore more creative possibilities. Unlike its technically better older siblings, the AE-1 Program and flagship A-1, specifically, the AL-1 is strong in that it’s still relatively unknown on social media, and therefore can be had at prices much lower than those hyped cameras. Just remember to find one with an intact battery door, or have some tape on hand.

Buy your own Canon AL-1 on eBay here

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Jonathan Ma

Jonathan Ma is a photographer and artist based in Los Angeles, who majored and graduated from UCLA in 2020. Jonathan is currently a pre-medical student who loves photography and always has a camera.

All stories by:Jonathan Ma
1 comment
  • Sounds very similar to the (Japan only) Minolta X600, which has a similar focus confirmation (and mirror etch pattern), AA batteries instead of the usual coin cell, A-mode etc. I prefer the more advanced X500/X570 (not the P-mode X700) though when going light or I want TTL-flash, but it’s still fun. Otherwise the XD7/XD11, XE/XE7/XE1 or one of the better SRT models…

    The X600 was Minolta’s step to before going really into AF with the Alpha/Maxxum/Dynax 7000.

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Jonathan Ma

Jonathan Ma is a photographer and artist based in Los Angeles, who majored and graduated from UCLA in 2020. Jonathan is currently a pre-medical student who loves photography and always has a camera.

All stories by:Jonathan Ma