Canon AL-1


At first glance, this is a normal 1960s SLR camera from Japan and there is little to distinguish it from most of the other SLR cameras in my collection. Once the basic functionality and ergonomics of a SLR camera were worked out there was not much point in changing things. Electronics in the late 1980s did change things quite a bit, of course, but this camera was right at the start of the electronics revolution.

Canon’s AL-1 dates from 1982 and is a part of Canon’s A series of cameras: A-1, AE-1, AE-1 program, AT-1, AV-1, AL-1. I have another A series Canon — the AT-1. Later T series cameras formed a half-way house between 1960s style and the modern style which Canon introduced in 1986 with their EOS cameras.

This is an A series camera – A standing for Automatic. The camera provides fully automatic exposure (aperture priority only) with manual override if required.

The biggest breakthrough with this camera is the focus system. Gone are the usual helpmeets such as micro prisms and split-image rangefinder. The focus screen is plain ground glass with a circle in the centre containing two square brackets which indicate the area that the exposure system works on (the circle) and the smaller area that the focus system works on (the square brackets). This is still a manual focus camera but with focus confirmation to aid those with poor focusing skills. I learnt my photography using a Zenit E which also had no focus aids so I don’t think this system will be of much use to me – but we shall see.

Time for my description. This camera body measures 142 by 87 by 48 mm and weighs 490g. The camera chassis is made from die-cast aluminium alloy. The camera appears to have chromed metal top and base plates but these are painted polycarbonate plastic which looks much like chrome plated brass. The main part of the body is covered with black leatherette. The battery compartment is black plastic and doubles as a small grip for the user’s right hand. Eyelets on the front corners allow a neck strap to be attached.

The top plate is ‘standard’. The film advance lever is on the right. When the camera is not in use, the lever sits flush with the top plate. In use, the lever sits proud at an angle of 30˚. The lever moves through 120º to advance the film one frame. This lever is on a ratchet so a number of short movements will work as well as one long movement. The lever is made from one piece of flat metal with a soft plastic thumb guard at the tip.

Just in front of this lever is the window to the frame counter. This counts up to 38 but 36 is the highest number displayed – 37 and 38 are just dots. Numbers 1, 12, 20, 24, and 36 are in orange as these were the standard film lengths back in the day. Even numbers are numbers, odd numbers are dots. The counter is reset to ‘S’ by opening the camera back. ‘S’ is actually minus 2.

Left of the film advance lever and at the front of the top plate is the shutter release button. This is black  metal and is threaded for a standard Gauthier cable release. Around this button is a three position switch. ‘L’ locks the shutter release button to prevent accidental firing of the shutter but the shutter can still be fired using a cable release. ‘A’ is the usual working position and ‘S’ is the delay action setting. If you use the ‘S’ setting, you get a ten second delay between pressing the shutter release button and the shutter firing — and a flashing red LED which is visible from both infant and above the camera. The last two seconds, the LED flashes much faster. This LED is just to the left of the shutter release button.

Next along the top plate is the shutter speed selector dial. This offers 1/15 to 1/1000 seconds plus B. The shutter is electronically controlled and will not work without good batteries. There is also an ‘A’ setting which is for automatic exposure. The speed selector dial moves freely between speeds including ‘A’ but to move out of ‘A’ necessitates pressing a button in the centre of the dial. This camera is intended to be used in ‘A’ where many more shutter speeds are available: from 2 seconds to 1/1000 second. 1/60 second is graced with a lightning flash as this is the flash synchronised speed. If using the camera in ‘A’ with a Canon flash, the shutter speed is automatically set to 1/60. The manually set speeds are exactly the set speed, but when in ‘A’ the camera can select the exact speed required, not just the marked speeds.

In the middle of the top plate, as usual, is the pentaprism hump. On the back of this is the viewfinder eyepiece. This measures 10 by 16 mm. Inside the viewfinder is the focus screen. As already mentioned, this screen is plain ground glass. As it is intended for the user to use the focus confirmation system, the established focus aids such as micro-prisms and split-image rangefinder are missing. In their place in the centre of the screen is a pair of square brackets to indicate the area that the focus confirmation system works on. As you manual focus the lens and approach good focus, one of the two red arrow LEDs at the bottom of the screen will light up. The arrows tell you which way to turn the lens in order to achieve good focus. Once good focus has been achieved, a circular green LED will light. This system works well but I, personally, would prefer either the micro-prisms or a split-image rangefinder.

On the right of the focus screen is a list of shutter speeds — 2 s at the bottom and 1/1000 s at the top. With the shutter speed dial set to ‘A’, a needle will point to the automatically selected speed – you need to press the shutter release button half-way to activate this. If you have the shutter speed dial set to anything but ‘A’, the needle will point to the camera’s preferred speed but you are free to ignore this if you want to. Along the left hand edge of the speed list is a red line from 2 s to 1/30 s which is there to alert you to the fact that camera shake is likely and you should consider using a tripod. This red line also double as a battery check scale. Pressing the battery check button, the needle should rise to a position above this line.

On top of the pentaprism hump is the accessory shoe. This is an ISO hotshot with a central electrical contact. There is also a single Canon-specific contact for when using Canon’s own flash guns.

Left of the pentaprism hump is the rewind crank. This is the usual small folding crank. This also doubles as the catch for the camera back — pulling up on the crank releases the back. Around the rewind crank is a selector wheel for setting the film speed. This is in ASA only (ASA is essentially ISO) and ranges from 25 ASA to 1600 ASA. 25 ASA might seem a bit slow in this Digital age but Kodachrome was always a slow film and was made at 25 ASA. In order to move this selector wheel you first need to press a small chrome button by the wheel at the rear of the top plate. Also by this wheel/crank is a small black button at the front of the top plate. This is the battery test button mention a bit earlier. When you press this, the pointer for the shutter speeds in the viewfinder should point to above 1/60 s if the batteries are good.

Moving to the front of the camera. As always with an SLR camera, this is dominated by the lens mount. This is Canon’s FD mount which is a breech-lock bayonet mount. There are three bayonet lugs which are on the outside of the mount with a locating notch on the top lug. The breech-lock part refers to a locking ring on the lens which is turned to lock the lens in place rather than turning the whole lens. This lens mount is partially compatible with Canon’s earlier R and FL mounts.

Inside the mount are the usual three components that connect to the lens. On the right hand side is a lever that communicates the set aperture value to the exposure metering system. At the bottom of the mount is a lever that moves sideways when the shutter release button is pressed — this closes the iris diaphragm to its set value. In the bottom right hand corner (at about 5 o’clock) is a sprung pin. This pin transmits the maximum aperture of the lens to the metering system so that full aperture metering can work.

Also on the mount, at about 8 o’clock, is a small hole. This is to accommodate a pin on the lens which protrudes when the lens aperture ring is moved to either ‘o’ or ‘A’ (those two are the same – some lenses have ‘o’ and some ‘A’). This is the automatic aperture setting which is not supported on this AL-1 camera but the pin needs to be accommodated in case someone sets the lens aperture to ‘o’ or ‘A’. The camera’s manual warns you against trying to use the camera with the aperture set to either ‘o’ or ‘A’. My test film will show me why, perhaps.

Of more interest with this camera is the reflex mirror. At a quick glance, it looks as though the silvering on the mirror has become damaged. There is a network of fine lines all over the mirror. The lines are actually a closely calculated design — the lines are only partially silvered and allow a part of the light striking the mirror to pass through the mirror to a sensor beneath. This sensor is the focus sensor. This uses phase detection technology ( or so I am told) — if you want to know more about this, Google is your friend.

This focus assist system works well so long as there is sufficient detail contrast in the centre of the image. If the image under the two square brackets has low contrast, the focus assist system does not work at all. While the image is very unfocussed the focus assist system also does not work. As you turn the focus ring on the lens and approach good focus, one of the two red arrow LEDs at the bottom of the viewfinder will light — the arrow points in the direction that the focus ring needs to be turned to improve focus. When accurate focus is achieved the red LEDs go out and a central circular green LED lights. For me, the biggest drawback of this system is that you need to partially depress the shutter release button — and keep it partially depressed — while focusing. This isn’t really difficult, I just find it annoying and my finger on the shutter release button keeps relaxing and stopping the focus assist system from working.

On the top left of the lens mount (left as in when using the camera) is a chrome button on a black plastic base. This button is an exposure compensation button — Canon call it back light compensation. Pressing this increases the exposure by, it would appear, 1.5 stops. This adjusts for very bright backgrounds which will usually confuse the metering system and cause under exposure. On the front, near this button, is a small plaque with the letters ‘qF’ —quick focus.

On the other side of the lens mount is the battery compartment. This takes two AAA batteries which are both readily available and cheap. This battery compartment protrudes slightly from the front of the camera ( by about 10 mm) providing a grip for the photographer’s right hand.

The base of the camera has connections for a power winder. These consist of two electrical contacts at one end and a mechanical connector to the film advance system at the other end. There is also a small locating hole at this end. The underneath of the battery compartment has the door which is poorly designed. The catch on my camera does not work at all and the door needs to be held shut with sticky tape. Looking at the Interweb, this would seem to be the usual case. Also on the base is a tripod socket — at this age it will be an ISO socket: 1/4 inch UNC thread. This is behind the lens mount — central on the base rather than in line with the centre of the lens. There is also a button in line with the internal sprocket shaft. This needs to be depressed to allow the film to be rewound into the film cassette. There is a white dot on this button which visibly moves so you can see the film being rewound — this is useful as you can stop rewinding as soon as the film leader has become detached from the take-up spool, leaving the leader outside the cassette. The downside to this is you need to keep your finger on the button while rewinding which makes seeing the dot difficult.

Opening the camera back is done by pulling up on the rewind crank. Inside, there are no surprises. The cassette chamber is on the left. There are no DX contacts here as Kodak did not introduce the DX system until the year after this AL-1 was introduced. The film gate is nice and large, helping to keep the film flat. Next along is the sprocket shaft which counts the sprocket holes in the film as the film is being advanced — eight holes equals one frame. At the right hand end is the take-up spool. This last has six slots for the film leader. The back has a good sized pressure plate to keep the film flat against the film gate. There is also a chrome roller to keep the film snug on the sprocket shaft.

Where the back fits the body, the join needs to be light tight. As this is a Japanese camera, the light tightness is achieved by having a flange on the back which fits into a groove on the body, with a black foam light seal in the groove. With time, these foam light seals degrade to a sticky goo. This has happened to my camera — these seals need to be replaced before I can use the camera. This is a fairly simple job to do and the foam can be bought cheaply on the Interweb. Also in this groove, at the top and between the sprocket shaft and take-up spool, is a very small button. When the back is closed, a small prong on the top flange of the back presses on this button and allow the frame counter to work. When the back is opened, this button is released and the frame counter resets to ‘S’.

The Lens

This camera came to me with a lens attached (not something that usually happens nowadays). It is not the kit lens that Canon supplied the camera with. It is a cheaper after-market lens from Sunagor. The focal length of the lens is 135 mm which is significantly longer than is usual for a walk-0about lens. I rather think that the person who sold me this camera sold the kit lens separately — a 50 mm ƒ/1.4 lens so would attract a good price — and attached a virtually worthless lens to sell the camera.

This lens looks to be well made — it is entirely made from aluminium alloy. When focusing, the entire lens more — no front cell focusing or internal focusing. The lens barrel does not turn when focusing so if you are using a graduated ND filter or a polarising filter, the filter does not need adjusting as you change focus —something many lenses fail at. I am aware that I just said that this is a worthless lens and then said how good the mechanics are. Unfortunately, the value of old lenses is mostly down to perceptions and Sunagor is not a well known or well respected maker of lenses – I could find nothing about their camera lenses on the Interweb — so they will not attract much attention from potential buyers. Actually, Sunagor do still exist and sell fairly cheap binoculars

Minimum focus is 1.5 m (or five feet) which is not too bad for a 135 mm lens and is close enough for nearly all amateur photography. The throw of the focus ring (the distance between 1.5 m and infinity) is around 220º which makes critical focus easy to achieve. This is why manually focusing a modern auto-focus lens is so hard — the focus throw on these modern lenses is about 30º making fine adjustments difficult.

Maximum aperture is ƒ/2.8 which is not extremely fast but certainly useable. I rarely go faster than ƒ/5.6 regardless of the maximum aperture available so a maximum aperture of ƒ/2.8 is not going to limit me at all. Minimum aperture is ƒ/16 which is more limiting but not very much so. If using the usual film speeds around in 1982 then the range of apertures and shutter speeds is fine for general use. There is an aperture setting on the aperture ring of ‘o’ which is for automatic exposure cameras which allows the camera to set the aperture. This ‘o’ setting will not work on this AL-1 camera and the manual warns you not to try to use it.

As camera lenses did at the time, there is a depth of field scale on the lens. As the camera has no depth of field preview facility, these scales are very useful. A nice feature is a built-in lens hood which can be pulled forward about 10 mm if required. Another feature that I have never noticed before is the angle of view of this lens is printed on the lens bezel: 18º diagonal field of view.

Published by John Margetts

I am a keen photographer who also collects cameras. I am retired with about 45 years photography experience.

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