1976. A watershed moment in the history of the SLR (single-lens-reflex) camera. The year when, depending on your point of view, camera design and manufacturing quality began its slide into a pit of oblivion, or ushered in a new era of affordability and convenience, opening the doors of SLRdom to a whole new audience. Or maybe, like me, you can feel a bit of both ;-). Either way, the camera responsible is none other than the Canon AE-1, the best-selling film SLR of all time.
To appreciate the impact that the AE-1 had on 35mm photography, it serves us well to remember the context of its arrival and subsequent domination of the market. Prior to the AE-1, SLRs had been the choice of professionals (particularly photojournalists) and enthusiasts, people who were not interested just in snapshots, but in the craft and art of photography. Having control over the different parameters of exposure was very high on their list of priorities and the SLR gave them that, as well as access to a wide variety of lenses and accessories. For the average consumer, whose top priorities are convenience and affordability, that was waayy too much camera for waaayyy too much money! Thus the conundrum Canon was facing by 1974: a small, nearly-saturated enthusiast SLR market versus a huge consumer (mass) market that up to this point was untouchable for reasons of cost and convenience. What could be done?
The First Camera With a Computer
In order to enter the mass market with what would become the AE-1, Canon would have to make it relatively affordable and as convenient to use as possible, while still retaining enough performance to outperform compact cameras and keep up with existing SLRs...and create a desire in consumers to have it.....and hopefully, convert some of those consumers into enthusiasts who would buy more lenses and accessories (bwahahahaha!) A tall order. But not impossible. So, in January of 1974, a product development team was formed under the "New Model X Development Plan". Sounds suitably mysterious ;-). 28 months later, the AE-1 was introduced and it had the mass market squarely in its split-image rangefinder's sights. How had Canon conquered the challenges of affordability and convenience?
Let's examine affordability first. There were three ways that Canon chose to achieve this: 1) simplify the design, 2) use cheaper materials, and 3) lower labor costs. We will now examine how each of these tactics was implemented.
Design simplification. Until the AE-1, SLRs had mainly used mechanical (analog) means to control their various processes. This required complex systems of levers, gears, springs, and other mechanical actuators. Canon's engineers sought to replace as many of these systems as the technology of the day permitted with electronics (i.e. using electronic actuators as opposed to mechanical ones). This led to the greatest innovation of the AE-1: the first use of a microprocessor (computer) in an SLR. Canon had collaborated with Texas Instruments to improve the microprocessors in its calculators and was now able to apply these advances to its groundbreaking new camera. So effective was this new technology that the engineers were able to eliminate 300 parts (20-25%) from the AE-1 over previous models. It also enabled them to create a more modular design, breaking the camera down into 5 main and 25 sub modules that made for a simpler assembly process. It was definitely a more affordable camera to produce.
Lower-cost materials. This was probably the most controversial decision that the development team made, and not just in the minds of die-hard (or is that die-cast?) enthusiasts. Even Canon's own Sales Department was skeptical. Why? To further reduce production costs, the AE-1 team decided to implement greater use of PLASTICS (Horrors!) in the camera. And not just internally, but even for the exterior top plate (Sacrilege!!). It was enough to leave an FTb or EF owner holding themselves and rocking in a corner! This was what especially worried Sales, as they felt that buyers would not settle for a plastic-bodied SLR. Which was not an unrealistic fear, as even today, most of us tend to equate quality with copious amounts of heavy metal. They realized that it would not be enough to simulate the look of metal, but also its tactile impression of feeling cool to the touch. But the engineers had a few tricks up their sleeves. Very cleverly (or diabolically) they developed a method of applying a layer containing iron oxide to the plastic plate before the final coat of silver or black paint. How successful was this subterfuge? Judging by how many were sold and by the fact that even today, there are reviewers that claim the AE-1 has an all-metal exterior, it's safe to say they pulled it off. Not to mention that the other SLR makers adopted the same construction techniques for most of their consumer models in short order ;-).
Canon's engineers also opted for a cheaper horizontal-travelling shutter instead of the higher-end vertical-travel shutter of the previous top amateur model, the EF. The viewfinder display was simpler, only displaying the aperture set by the camera in automatic mode, with a flashing LED to warn of under-exposure, and an LED "M" that flashed when the lens aperture ring was not set to "A" for auto exposure (this was a camera meant to be used in automatic mode, with manual control a distant second). The set shutter speed and actual aperture settings were not displayed in the viewfinder when in manual mode, only the camera-recommended aperture setting, another cost-cutting measure. Mirror-lock-up (MLU) and multiple exposure capability were also eliminated.
Reduced labor costs. The final method Canon adopted to bring affordability to the AE-1 was the extensive use of automation in the assembly of the camera bodies. This fell hand-in-hand with the first tactic of simplifying the design. Different modules and sub-assemblies were designed from the start to permit robots to replace humans at certain points in the assembly process. Robots cost less to operate than humans. This process of automation has continued at Canon for four decades, to the point where they are now automating their lens assembly lines to an extent once thought impossible. It is also evident in the designs of their lens assemblies, which enable this greater use of automation. The benefits are: more consistency from item to item, and it is a way to lower/maintain the costs of products in an inflationary economic system. The result of all three of these cost-cutting (or euphemistically, "value engineering") measures was a camera that would now allow Canon to exploit the mass-market for the first time with an SLR. Now, what about the convenience end of it?
Marketing the AE-1
Right from the start, Canon wanted the AE-1 to be as easy to use as possible. So it was designed to do as much of the thinking (i.e. calculating exposure) for the user as could be managed at the time. The convenience factor loomed large. If the average consumer felt that the camera was too complex, they simply would not buy it. So how could Canon appeal to the desire of the snapshooter to get great results without all the effort that it took with traditional manual SLRs. Like this:
Canon's masterstroke was to use national TV and print advertising featuring athletes. Notice what was stated or implied in both commercials:
Ahhh, advertising, isn't it great? And it worked! Canon sold almost 1.2 million AE-1s in the first 20 months that it was available after its April 1976 introduction. That definitely got the attention of the other manufacturers and they quickly developed their own consumer targeted models:
Olympus would not stand idly by, either. In 1979, they released their first consumer model, the OM-10. We could not find a production number, but there was no doubt of the target:
Sounds eerily familiar, doesn't it? To emphasize how the impact of the AE-1 was unprecedented in the SLR industry, note a few comparisons. We will take these comparisons on the same time scale as the AE-1's nine-year sales run, although some of these models were produced for a longer time. Prior to the AE-1, the Pentax Spotmatic was the best-selling amateur SLR in history, with 2.6 million sold in its first nine years, and a three-year peak from 1967-69 of 1.4 million units. There were over 5.7 million AE-1s produced with a three-year peak from 1978-80 of 2.7 million. The only other SLR with a 3-year peak above 2 million units was the successor to the AE-1, the AE-1 Program, which was actually sold alongside it because of the AE-1's continued popularity. It had overall sales of at least 3.3 million in just 4 years of production with a 3-year peak from 1982-84 of 2.7 million. There would be over 28 million consumer market SLRs sold worldwide between 1976 and 1985 by just Canon, Minolta, Pentax, and Nikon, and Canon had over 30% of that total. The consumer-level SLR had a meteoric rise with the AE-1 at its head. But there's something about meteors...they burn up, and so would the mass market for affordable SLRs. But we'll leave that for another day.
So, is it worth it to grab one of these now 40-year young machines? Unequivocally...it depends. If you are into "brass & glass", an EF (partial electronic shutter) or an FTb (mechanical shutter) will be better choices in the Canon FD-mount world. Otherwise, the AE-1 can still be a powerful photographic tool (provided you keep it fed with batteries ;-)).That many AE-1s are still functional is quite impressive, but there are some things to be aware of. Just Google "canon squeal" and you'll find plenty of advice on how to eliminate the number one complaint with A-series cameras. It actually is caused by dried-out lubricant on the mirror flywheel damper assembly, which is not too difficult to remedy if you have a proper JIS cross-point screwdriver and a fine oiler with a curvable tip. If that sounds like too much for you, some repairmen will still work on an A-series and the fix can be done in minutes. More problematic are glitchy electronics. Basically, if there is any doubt in your mind about a particular body, don't bother. There are plenty to choose from.
Batteries are an important subject: ALWAYS carry SPARES!!! The AE-1 is a brick (as in LEGO) without them. Many people use 6-volt 4LR44 alkalines because they are the most common & cheapest, and they will do the job, but you may want to buy a few at a time. There are still 4SR44 silver-oxide batteries readily available online for a little more money, but far better performance. They have a much more stable falloff curve than alkalines and are more cold-resistant if you are in a cold climate. The ultimate cells for cold-weather are Duracell's 28L lithiums, but they will cost more, generally $7 to $12 USD apiece. Just be mindful that other components of the camera may be affected adversely by extreme cold-weather use. One other thing about batteries concerns the battery door on the front of the camera: it is a notable weak point, so inspect it closely when purchasing and treat it gently when using the camera. Other than that, just making sure everything functions smoothly, like the film advance, shutter speed dial, and all other levers and switches and you should be on your way.
Prices are quite robust on online auction sites for the AE-1, but there are plenty to be found in thrift stores, at garage sales, and in family members' closets and attics. Many people find the ergonomics of the AE-1 Program to be better than the original, so handling both before buying is advisable. The Program also features a brighter viewfinder with interchangeable screens and LED readouts versus the swinging needle of the AE-1. The grip, shutter speed dial placement, ISO adjustment, and obviously Program in addition to Shutter-priority auto-exposure mode also differentiate the two models.
Even though the AE-1 was a computerized marvel in its day, it can easily supply a much more basic experience than any DSLR today. It can help you to slow down, analyze composition and exposure more carefully, and feel more a part of your photographic journey. Not a bad legacy for the first "Plastic Fantastic" SLR :-).
Canon Camera Museum: History Hall 1976-86
Canon Camera Museum: Camera Hall Film Cameras AE-1
Photography in Malaysia: Modern Classic SLR Series The Canon AE-1
KniPPsen virtual camera and photo museum: Project SLR production numbers
Canon AE-1 Instruction Manual @ www.butkus.org
Canon AE-1 Program Instruction Manual @ www.stevespages.com
Photography in Malaysia: Modern Classic SLR Series The Canon AE-1 Program
Picture credits: commons.wikimedia.org
Suffers from a quarter-century and counting film and manual focus SLR addiction. Has recently expanded into 1980's AF point and shoots, and (gack!) '90s SLRs. He even mixes in some digital. Definitely a sick man.