Canon "A" Series Cameras

The “A” Series Cameras

n April of 1976 Canon released the AE-1 camera and introduced automatic exposure to the Canon line of cameras. When this camera came out TTL manual metering was the method in use. Auto exposure models existed but they were at the top end of the market and made in very small numbers. They were expensive to produce and to buy. That all changed with the AE-1.

The “A” cameras represented a complete overhaul of Canon’s line of SLR cameras. Controlled by a micro computer in the camera, a new innovation at the time, the “A” series, the AE-1, AT-1, A-1, AV-1, AE-1P and the AL-1, changed the face of consumer cameras. These were also the first Canon cameras to require a battery to operate. Automatic exposure had arrived.

The cameras were all of aluminum alloy body with an injection molded acrylonitrile-butadiene-styrene (for this read “plastic”) top cover. Canon went to pains to conceal the use of plastic by giving this top cover either a satin chrome or black metallic feel and finish. They were never intended as “pro” cameras, although many ended up in professional use, but rather were aimed at the newcomer market. The “A” series were the first SLR’s purchased in the millions.

Extensive use of automation, simplified design and the use of less expensive parts, all making for an easy to use camera of considerable sophistication that was affordable was a winning combination. With this camera series, Canon was on the way to overtaking its old nemesis, Nikon.

“A” Series Cameras and their Introduction Dates

The “A” Series began in 1976 with the AE-1 and continued until 1982 with the AL-1 which was the last in the series. These were electronically operated cameras and required a battery not only for the light meter but to control the shutter as well. Without the battery they will not function at all.

AE-1 (Chrome) 1976 AV-1  (Black) 1979
AE-1  (Black) 1976 AE-1 Program (Chrome) 1981
 AT-1  (Chrome) 1977  AE-1 Programe  (Black) 1981
A-1  (Black) 1978 AL-1 QF  (Chrome) 1982
AV-1  (Chrome) 1979 AL-1 QQF  (Black) 1982

A Few Auto Exposure Terms

Starting with the AE-1 Canon started down the road to fully automatic cameras. But that was a slow evolution in features through many models of camera. This is as good a point as any to look at some of the terms and processes that come up when discussing this evolving technology.

TTL  (Through the Lens) Metering

At first cameras had no means of measuring light. That was done by guessing and experience and then by light meters. When I started taking pictures in the 1950’s I had a light meter which I carried with me. Then cameras came out with a light meter attached to them. And finally the light meter was built into the camera body. The Canon rangefinder Model 7 had such a light meter. So did the Canonflex RM. But those light meters could not see what the lens saw. They measured light coming from the general direction the camera was pointing. In most cases this was enough but in some it was not.

In April of 1965 Canon introduced the Pellix camera in which the light meter was actually inside the camera measuring the light that arrived through the lens. This was the the beginning of what was to become the standard across the industry: true Through the Lens (TTL) Metering.

On early cameras the shutter and/or aperture were set by the operator. When light meters were first mounted on cameras they were still not part of the work flow. They measured the light but they did not communicate with the camera. The photographer still set the shutter speed and aperture based on the light reading. Even with the first TTL light meters, the exposure was still set manually. It was with the AE-1 that Canon actually had the camera take part in setting the exposure.

This is the Selector Dial on a modern 60D camera. The setting above the Green Square Symbol provide maximum control over the camera. 

Aperture Priority (Av)

Aperture Priority is an exposure method employed on modern cameras. In this mode of exposure setting, the lens Aperture is set by the photographer and then the shutter speed is adjusted automatically by the camera to obtain correct exposure.

On Canon cameras this setting is indicated by “Av” (an abbreviation for Aperture Value) on the selector dial. This allows the photographer to control his depth of field himself and not leave it to the camera.

Shutter Priority (Tv)

With Shutter Priority the shutter speed is set by the photographer and the Aperture is adjusted for correct exposure. This setting is indicated by Tv (short for Time Value) on the selector dial.

This would be used, say, in sports photography where the photographer wants to ensure a high shutter speed in fast moving situations. Once set, the camera will not try to change it. It will adjust the incoming light with just the aperture setting.

Program Mode (P)

Program Mode simply means that the camera itself will set the shutter or aperture, or both. On Canon cameras this setting was indicated by the letter P (for Program). It operated in a slightly different manner on various models but it always involved the camera selecting at least one of the variables itself.

Automatic Mode (A)

On Canon cameras this is indicated by a green rectangle on the selector dial. In this mode the camera selects all the variables by itself, automatically, without intervention from the photographer. Most experienced photographers stay away from this mode of operation because they want more control over their pictures. However, for inexperienced customers who want to be able to shoot “snapshots” without having to learn a bunch of controls and theory, this mode is a blessing.

Manual Mode (M)

Manual Mode (M) is indicated by an M on the selector dial and in this mode the operator selects all of the settings himself and any programmed or automatic features are disabled.

PASM Exposure

You may come across the expression “PASM” which is simply an acronym for Program, Aperture Priority (Av on Canon), Shutter Priority (Tv on Canon), and Manual. It means that the camera offers all of these basic modes of exposure.

Center-Weighted Metering

Not only are there different modes of auto exposure, but there are different ways in which the cameras measure the light. The lens takes in a scene but what part of that scene is actually measured? Well, that depends.

If the light is measured towards the center of the scene, with most emphasis taken from the center and less influence taken from the edge of the scene, the method is called center-weighted metering. This was an early method of metering and it is the only mode found on many older cameras.

Spot Metering

Spot metering is exactly what it says: a spot is chosen in the scene and the measurement is taken from it. This allows for very precise measurement of an area so that you can chose what in the scene is recorded in the most detail. This is favoured by people who like to exercise maximum control over the image. It is useful, for instance, in a strongly back lighted image. It allows you to set the exposure for the foreground image which may be in shadow.

Partial Metering

Partial metering is like spot metering except the spot that the camera samples is larger.

Evaluative Metering

Evaluative metering is Canon’s term. Nikon uses “matrix metering” and Pentax and Sony use “multi-segment metering” to describe the same thing. The viewfinder is divided up into zones and measurements are taken for each zone. The recommended exposure is then weighted towards the zone nearest the chosen auto focus point.

Cameras in the Collection

But, enough of the simple explainations. I know they are almost too trivial to mention but hey may help someone figure it all out. I remeber when I didn’t know any of this stuff.

Here are some of the A Series cameras in the Collection:

Canon AE-1 Camera

Canon AE-1

1st microprocessor SLR
April 1976 thru 1984
Canon AT-1 Camera

Canon AT-1

AE-1 without Auto Exposure
Introduced December 1976
Canon A-1 camera
C-14, C-15, C-17

Canon A-1

Programmed Auto Exposure
April 1978 thru 1985
Canon AL-1 Camera
C-76 and C-118

Canon AL-1

Introduced March 1982
Canon AV-1 Camera

Canon AV-1

Aperture Value Exposure
1979 thru mid-80’s
Canon AV-1 Black

Canon AV-1 Black

The same Camera in Black
1979 thru mid-80’s
Canon AL-1 Camera

Canon AE-1 Program

Introduced 1981
Canon Logo I am not in any way connected to or supported by Canon. I chose their camera line and have stayed with it. I cannot recall why. But a Nikon camera is fine technology and takes a wonderful picture. So too with Sony and the others. But I have been happy with Canon and so I have begun my collection here. One day I may add other brands to my range interest. But that is for another day.