It's a camera of lore and of legend, that the deep pocketed (and perhaps foolhardy among us) will shell out handsome sums of money to acquire, that some film photography websites will dangle as a giveaway to boost their social media presence in an attempt to lure in more clicks, and that has become synonymous with a rather lemming-like tendency of many amateur film photographers to have a camera model that is "in."
This oft-heralded (and perhaps more often despised) model is none other than Canon's AE-1 model of 1976, a handsomely crafted machine that was groundbreaking 40 years ago, and has since found new favor as a defining instrument of many of today's film photographers. The supply and demand aspects of this model have caused its price to be higher than most other cameras of similar spec and build quality. I've actually seen AE-1 models going for more than the more advanced A-1 Canon models.
But Canon's stable of cameras of this era go well beyond the AE-1 model and its more full featured sibling. In fact, the coveted pricey AE-1 lacks a certain key bit of desirable functionality that is the specialty of an all but forgotten sibling in Canon's lineup: the 1979 vintage Canon AV-1.
The look of the Canon AV-1 is rather plain yet elegant, but doesn't come across as cheap like some entry level SLR's might.
Despite a moniker that suggests "audio-video," the AV-1 is an easy to use SLR camera whose main selling point is the availability of "Aperture Priority" auto-exposure, something absent with the "Shutter-Priority" auto exposure of the AE-1 or its successor: the AE-1P.
The AV-1 was Canon's entry level model in their SLR lineup from its introduction through the early 1980's, and was priced at a little more than a third of the cost of the A line's flagship, the A-1, and a bit more than than half the cost of the popular AE-1. The camera was even 20% cheaper than the entirely manual AT-1 model.
Putting these price tags aside, the AV-1 still comes off as a well made, albeit basic SLR model. The camera seemed largely geared towards being an affordable entry way to the world of Canon SLR cameras for the amateur who would largely be looking to aim, focus, and shoot. The only decision to be made when using an AV-1 is the aperture setting of a photo, with auto-exposure determining and displaying the resulting shutter speed. It may well have been one of the best values in cameras at the time, giving access to Canon's esteemed FD lineup of lenses and providing an easy to use auto-exposure arrangement at a modest price.
The top deck of the Canon AV-1 shown above lacks much in the ways of bells and whistles and instead keeps controls simple. The main control dial, seen in closer detail below, is as simple as A-B-C, or more accurately Auto-Bulb-Flash. Self timer using either the auto or flash settings is also accessible by this dial, unlike many SLR's with a separate mechanism.
This access comes with some trade offs, particularly with the lack of manual settings, or at least the vast majority of them. The main dial offers two shutter speed settings: 1/60: designed for use with electronic flash (though not required), and a Bulb setting for night time exposures, particularly handy given the maximum auto-exposure time is 2 seconds. Otherwise, the only other manual adjustments one can make are to adjust the ISO as a manual compensation for exposure, or to use the nondescript EV compensation button to boost exposure by 1 1/2 stops in the event of backlight.
In addition, the AV-1 features no AE lock button or other niceties that those using more modern SLR cameras have come to accept as standard features. One simply puts a bit of trust in its heavily centerweighted metering pattern, selects their aperture (regrettably not visible in the viewfinder), and focuses using the nice split microprism ring before firing away.
An unmarked "easter egg" of sorts is the little metal button near the lens mount to add 1.5 stops of exposure in backlight situations, as seen above. Keeping in spirit with the clean and no-nonsense looks of its build, the viewfinder of the AV-1, seen below is clear and bright, with only a shutter speed readout in the display. Note the maximum auto shutter speed of 2 seconds.
The experience with the AV-1 while not jaw dropping, is surprisingly easy and nimble given its limitations. The shutter speed indicator is always within easy view, unlike many later SLR's that force you to peer into your peripherals to read the settings, while the shutter release and film advance feel perfectly well made for the tasks they perform - perhaps not buttery soft like the Olympus OM-2, but certainly adequate nonetheless. As a result, you don't need to shell out the money for an AE-1 if you want to experience that trademark Canon "squeak."
My first experiences with the AV-1 were admittedly a bit rushed, first meandering through Downtown DC on an abbreviated lunch, and then taking a quick detour on the way home as evening light levels waned in late January. The basic shooting flow of the AV-1 actually was optimal for such harried conditions, as I was able to settle on a few scenes to snap, and the AV-1 efficiently went into action to snap each one without any seeming complaint or complication.
Despite not having a whole lot of input in the exposure decisions of my shots, the results from the AV-1 were quite good, if not outstanding at times. Given that I picked this camera up off a Craigslist ad for $20, I was certainly pleased with all that I was seeing from this basic camera.
Amid diminishing daylight, I didn't know what I'd get on 200 speed film on the 1.7 lens, but the results came out quite nicely.
As darkness creeps up upon Middletown, the AV-1 snaps its scenes with an unnerving confidence, resulting in some scenes rendered perfectly for the situation. This was shot at box speed.
With a Kiron 28-105 lens mounted and shot at f/4.5, the Canon worked quite well.
Not as good results from this lens wide open however.
Quick snap on the way to the train in a downpour. The one bad shot of the entire batch, but more the result of my own shakiness than any fault of this camera.
Under rather dreary light and complete shadow, the Canon manages a respectable showing in these January conditions.
Despite my shakiness on the one train station shot, the camera is a good size and weight for hand held photography in modest light. All of my Middletown shots came out fine.
The AV-1 lacks niceties such as an AE lock button, something I might have used on this shot while shooting this shot, but the AV-1 handled the scene wonderfully despite this.
Vignetting on this shot is the result of the Kiron lens.
Focused on the shadow of the numbers in the foreground, I was pretty pleased at my impromptu attempt to garner some "creativity" on the fly.
Shots in a sculpture garden were not terribly challenging for the exposure system, but the camera did fine.
The film and camera worked well in scenes of both light and shadow.
Focusing the AV-1 is a snap thanks to the split image pentraprism.
Stopped down for a sunny 16 style of exposure, the AV-1 worked just fine, as it did on the entire roll.
The camera handily took a pretty wide range of lighting situations and mastered them on the Fuji color negative film. I'm not entirely certain I'd have quite as much blind faith in shooting on slide film on the AV-1, but generally feel this camera would do fine with most situations and films thrown its way.
Admittedly, the AV-1 isn't as "sexy" as some of its contemporaries in Canon's lineup. It lacks the mythic presence of its mid-grade sibling, as well as most of the manual control of the rest of the A series lineup. However, given that the AV-1 returns some exceptional images, I really can't say that these extra features are significantly missed in the vast majority of cases. Given that the main variable I like to change from image to image is aperture which the AV-1 readily allows, and given that the AV-1 does an exceptional job with its automatic exposure, this camera makes a great camera to take along to compose and shoot photos without an excess amount of fiddling.
The result is a camera that offers the perfect degree of control and ease of use as a take-along to snap some images of exceptional quality, particularly when time is of the essence. The sexy crowd can keep their AE-1's, as I am content to cherish its overlooked sibling. This Canon will certainly be a contender for confident quick snapping when my focus is more upon the subjects than on having the "full photographic experience."