Canon AL-1 “Quick Focus” — Another step toward the modern camera

Discussion in 'Modern Film Cameras' started by jdm_von_weinberg, Aug 21, 2014.

  1. Canon AL-1 “Quick Focus” — Another step toward the modern camera

    March 1982
    Kadlubek Nr. CAN0660
    This could go here or into Canon FD, but my point is the progress being made toward the autofocus cameras, rather than as an example of Canon technology, per se.

    The camera has a contrast detection focus system using 3 linear CCD arrays in the base of the camera that make it easier to “quick focus”.
    Here are the evolutionary/revolutionary steps:
    • Canon AL-1 (March 1982) - linear CCD array focus confirmation system
    • Canon T80 AF lenses - focus motors built into the lenses. (April 1985) - focus assist with regular FD lenses, AF with special AC model lenses (linear CCD and motor built into lens).
    • Canon T90 - wonderful FD camera with fantastic features — essentially an manual focus EOS camera. (1986) - “pioneered … user interface, industrial design, and high level of automation” - Wikipedia on T90

    Put these together and you have the first EOS film cameras.

    I’ve done reports on the others, but realized that there is always “just one more”. However, after this report, I can promise that I will not do another AF report, unless of course, ….


    I saw this one just a few days ago on eBay, bought it (about 1.5-2 pizzas in cost), and it came after only three days. Fortunately the vendor had warned me that he was shipping it in a Canon AE-1 box, or I would have panicked. However, that box will come in handy for my actual AE-1 shelf queen (maybe this winter sometime).

    When I extracted the camera, it looked virtually new. Just enough on it to show no one had ‘cleaned it up’ in some furious fashion (the bane of many an old camera).

    It uses two AAA batteries so I plugged in some that I had just bought and the camera came to life (i.e., the battery tester worked). As a person who has shot a lot of A-series cameras, I didn’t need the clean original manual that came with it (along with the eye cup and hotshoe protector. Oh no.

    I fiddled with it, and everything worked but the film advance lever. OH NO. Well, obviously I am an OLD A-series user, since I forgot to set the camera to A instead of L (which interestingly, stands for ‘lock’).

    Hmm. I shoot off a couple of screen shots for the leader, but the exposures seemed a little, well, funny. Glance at camera instructions and notice for the first time a small box with text in it:

  3. Ah. This one is aperture-preferred [and, of course, by setting both speed and aperture a manual exposure system]

    Not to drag it out any more than I already have, I discovered a very useful page later on in the manual. This is a visual checklist “before shooting”. These old ‘automated’ cameras had a lot of things to be checked before flight. A little more “involvement” than just turning the ‘on’ switch to the right setting.

  4. Since the “raison d’être” of this camera is its focus assist, here we get to the point.
    Here is the camera without the lens.
  5. used a roll of Fujicolor 200 for this test shoot, as the film box suggests. Note the mirror in the picture, here, closer up:

  6. Here is the focus system

  7. The viewfinder is a matte screen with a central focusing point (1) as shown here. When focus is attained, the center circle lights up green. The red arrows show which way to turn the lens to achieve focus. It is recommended that the lens barrel be turned/jiggled until the center light stays green with minor adjustments.

  8. The plain screen outside the focus point, didn’t seem all that crisp to me, so this is probably a camera on which to use the feature, for better or for worse. It seems precise enough in theory, how does it work in practice?


    I shot the camera at my default woods scene, the Lake on the Campus. Nearly 100 degrees F today, so I didn’t feel like going too far.

    I used my Canon FD 50mm f/1.4 lens and Fujicolor 200 film.

    In this first shot, I was shooting at f/1.4 and focusing on the particular nut shown by the arrow. My good scanner is down and out, so these are scanned at 2400 ppi on a Canoscan 9000F flatbed scanner. It does well enough to demonstrate generalities, but I need to find a replacement 4000 ppi scanner.

  9. BTW, I do really like the bokeh and other characteristics of this FD lens. Here is another view wide open of some seed pods (arrow at focus point).

  10. Close up distances do fairly well, then. Here is an intermediate distance shot, The focus, stopped down about half way, was on the turtle (again, arrow). The original is sharper than this low-level scan, of course.
  11. And finally, at infinity.

    Lens and Focus system in complete agreement.
  12. There are some important caveats to the use of the system, pretty well appreciated by Canon:
  13. It’s a good start on (auto)focus and a very credible early effort. As it was, the camera worked beautifully and the focus confirmation, well enough.
    I have pretty well covered the growth of autofocus (summary at ), but there are a few outliers and hard-to-find ones still out there, so I promise nothing.
    Am meistens, fertig gemacht.
  14. Interesting, the viewfinder indicators are similar to what early AF cameras such as Pentax ME-F or SF had. I wasn't aware there were some manual focus bodies with similar capability.
  15. I saw an AL-1 at a local flea market a few years ago. I'd been on a quest to pick up copies of Canon cameras that I had traded in on newer models over the years, got most of them. Since I had never heard of the AL-1, I thought it might be a neat one for my collection, although I had never owned one.
    Was going to offer the seller $20.00, asked how much he wanted for it - $5.00 he says - sold! Came with a 50mm f/1.8 lens, beat up never ready case, and a broken Canon 80-200mm zoom. Looked like it had been dropped on its nose, filter ring was pushed in, hard to focus. Won't focus close or far, assume it jumped the internals in the fall. Set that aside.
    Anyway I discovered the battery door on the AL-1 would not stay closed, the plastic nub that held it closed was worn down. Found a new one on eBay for around $12.00, got it installed. So far so good. Didn't have a manual, but the focus arrows were fairly obvious, except the center green dot did not illuminate. But turning the focusing ring one way then the other until the green arrows went out seemed to indicate focus.
    Never did shoot film with it, nor with the other FD cameras I've collected. Finally sold the AL-1 to a fellow who posted an ad on a local online site looking for older Canons. I assume he'll get more out of it than I would.
  16. Forgot to put in the links above to some of my earlier reports for anyone who finds this later on:
    Canon T80
    Canon T90
  17. As a Canon collector I was curious about the curious AL-1 and so bought one a couple of years ago when I came across an example in good condition. I am surpised that the focus indication is quite accurate and consistent given a subject of reasonable contrast.
  18. That's an interesting article, Jos.
    Here's the first page of the list of articles there. Lots of good stuff, much of it on "how to shoot X," but lots for us gearheads too.
  19. By the way, here are some other links and sources on this camera

    Wiki knows best, mostly:
    The well-appreciated MIR site:

    A review in Modern Photography, August, 1982. pdfs, I guess, are now am strengsten verboten here.

    Butkus has the manual, pay him his $3 if you use his services.

    Google at link has pdf service manuals listed.
  20. My wife has one of these, but hasn't used it in years. Somehow the battery door is cracked and won't stay closed. I must repair it and try it now.
  21. I think replacements for the battery door (may be unique to this camera, not sure) are available for about US$15. I looked, just in case, when I bought this one. The battery door problem was a common theme in many of the cameras of this time period. My Canon AE-1 had a broken door, for example. It turned out to be the least of its problems, but that is another story.
  22. Yeah, I've found replacements for similar prices but my wife isn't really interested in the camera as she was drawn over to the "digital side" some years back. She has the 50mm f1.8 lens and a Prospec (Sigma) 70-210 f4-5.6 zoom. Since the door is cracked, but not broken in parts, I might be able to glue it. May try that soon.
    Nice results, btw.
  23. Not sure but wasn't it Minolta the revolutionized the AF on film SLR's ?
  24. Wikipedia says - "
    The first mass-produced autofocus camera was the Konica C35 AF, a simple point and shoot model released in 1977. The Polaroid SX-70 Sonar OneStep was the first autofocus single-lens reflex camera, released in 1978. The Pentax ME-F, which used focus sensors in the camera body coupled with a motorized lens, became the first autofocus 35 mm SLR in 1981. In 1983 Nikon released the F3AF, their first autofocus camera, which was based on a similar concept to the ME-F. The Minolta 7000, released in 1985, was the first SLR with an integrated autofocus system, meaning both the AF sensors and the drive motor were housed in the camera body, as well as an integrated film advance winder — which was to become the standard configuration for SLR cameras from this manufacturer, and also Nikon abandoned their F3AF system and integrated the autofocus-motor and sensors in the body. Canon, however, elected to develop their EOS system with motorised lenses instead. In 1992, Nikon changed back to lens integrated motors with their AF-I and AF-S range of lenses; today their entry-level DSLRs do not have a focus motor in the body due to a broad range of available lenses." --
  25. To some extent, I've been there, done that. :|
    My report on the Konica C35AF at
    Minolta Maxxum 7000 at
    Nikon 2020 (=F501) at

    Canon's 1st AF lens
    and others detailed at and with links
  26. love my Canon AL-1 bodies have two ... easy to maintain or re-furbish plus they use all the glorious FD glass !
  27. oh, about that battery door ... I've seen some wild fixes that work. One of my (least) favorites is mounting a Canon A Winder (no, don't use an A-2 winder as the design will not work) which keeps the camera battery door shut if its been compromised. My local camera repair shop has fixed my body at a reasonable cost. I am a Canon A body junkie having every one but the AT.
  28. JDM,
    Another wonderful fact-filled post.
    It must have been my arrogance in owning the Canon A-1 that I never followed what Canon was doing with its other A series cameras. This looks like one I will have to try. I just got another A-1 and also an EF that will occupy my time for awhile but will keep my eyes open for an AL-1.
    I scanned the Modern Photography August 1982 test of the AL-1. Here is the link.
    They also test the 50mm f/1.4 and the 50mm f/1.2 non-aspheric.
  29. Thanks, Marc.
    The comment by the Canon engineer that this was the ideal-sized camera, has something to it.
    I like my other A-series cameras, but this one was dandy to shoot with, just felt good in the hands.
  30. That's a Beautiful camera !
  31. My camera budget is about $10, so a $15 door isn't useful.
    Do doors from other models fit?
  32. As far as I'm concerned, the AL-1 was the best A series camera because it had both aperture-priority autoexposure and manual metering information in the viewfinder. The damned battery cover was one of the poorest things Canon ever devised. Too much saki for the engineers, I suppose. I replaced mine once, and it broke after a year. I've bought two more and I need to get it fixed again.

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