Starting out: Canon A-1 or AE-1 Program? Lenses?

Discussion in 'Beginner Questions' started by madeleinemclean, Jun 21, 2020.

  1. I am looking to purchase either a Canon A-1 or AE-1 Program, although I am leaning more towards the A-1 based on my research. So any opinions on one vs the other would be great but I am more looking for advice on which lenses to purchase to start. Probably one or two each for landscape and for portrait.
    I have owned a 120mm film camera in the past but it has been a while and I would like to get back into it with a 35mm.
    Thanks in advance!
  2. If your choice is limited to the 2 then the A-1 and perhaps the 50mm f/1.8.
  3. SCL


    If $ is no object, I'd go for (in order) 50/1.8, 35/2.0 and a 135/2.0 or if the last is too far out of budget, a 100/2.0. Or if you want a zoom on the long end, it is hard to beat the 80-200/4 L (not the non L).
  4. Lenses are like tools in the tool box, we select different tools for different jobs. To aid you make your choice, consider these basic concepts.

    Lenses are often classified as ---- Wide-Angle ---- Normal ----- Telephoto --- Portrait. There are other grouping but let’s stick with these four categories.

    We are talking focal length, a measure of the power of a lens to magnify. Thus focal length is a basic property of a lens. We select lenses for our cameras based on the task at hand. For landscape pictures, we usually use a wide-angle. For everyday sharpshooting, we pick a normal lens. For sporting events and wildlife, we choose telephoto.

    You need to know that all these categories are keyed off from “normal”. So what is “normal” for my Canon 35mm camera? These roll film cameras are known as “full-frame”. The lens projects an image on the film and fits it between the film’s sprocket holes that line both images. Since traditional picture are rectangular, the 35mm camera lens makes an image that measures 24mm wide by 36mm long. In the English system this measurement is 1 inch by 1 3/8 inches. Well call this format size “full frame”. The label “normal” is assigned to a lens with a focal length that is approximately the same as the diagonal measure of the image rectangle. For the 24mm by 36mm image frame, this works out to 43 ¼mm. Camera makers deemed this value as weird. The industry standard is to round this value up to 50mm. Thus a lens, 50mm in focal length is deemed “normal” for a 35mm full frame. Defining “normal”, a lens that delivers what many consider the “human perspective”.

    Now wide-angle lenses often yield a picture that many classify as distorted as to perspective, This distortion is particularly noticeable when doing portraiture. Often the nose is rendered too large and the ears too small. These distortions, even when trivial make people say, “I don’t photograph well”, that’s not how I look. The telephoto also has a tendency to distort. This is what we call “compression”, foreground objects and background objects are often rendered in such a way that the more distant object seems too big. Let me add, for the vast majority of images, distortion does not play an major role. However, sometimes, perspective distortion quashes the beauty of the picture.

    OK for the full frame 35mm - Wide-angle is 70% of “normal and shorter = 35mm and shorter. Normal = about 50mm. Telephoto = about twice “normal” usually considered to be 100mm or longer.

    Now for portrait lenses: The industry has settled on about 105mm as the focal length of choice for distortion free portraiture.

    Let me add, photography is a mix of science and art. In art there are no rules, you are free to follow your heart.
    Ricochetrider likes this.
  5. alan_marcus +1

    Both are fine cameras and most copies in the market will still work well with a little cleaning up

    Canon A-1 (LINK)
    Canon AE-1P (link)
    Last edited: Jun 22, 2020
  6. Very quickly, without too much explanation: A-1, 28mm, 50mm, 105mm. Some would go 24mm, 35mm, 85mm. Many people say that the real standard lens is the 35, not the 50, but that's up to you.

    Either way, 35mm is not useful as a wide-angle, which is why I recommended a 28 as a complement to the 50.

    If you can find a good deal on an F-1, maybe consider it, too, although it's on the larger and heavier side. I have one and I rather like its feature set.

    Program mode is pointless for serious photographers, so feel free to ignore it when making purchasing decisions.
  7. An A-1 was my first "real" camera. At the time, when I was in high school and digital was making significant inroads in the pro and even serious amateur market but with still a consumer 35mm basis, an orphaned but excellent manual focus 35mm system made a lot of sense.

    I weighed the A-1 vs. AE-1 a lot, but ultimately the newer body, multi-mode exposure(even though I mostly used shutter priority, occasionally aperture priority-manual exposure is a pain on most multi-mode FD mount bodies) and those sexy LEDs in the viewfinder appealed to me. It served me well-I was actually playing with mine a bit earlier this evening, and it;s a camera I won't get rid of. Oh, it helped too that it only came in "professional" black :) . I ultimately shifted most of my shooting to a T90 when I wanted one of the most advanced manual focus cameras made, and F-1s(both the original and New variety) for solid build quality, versatility, and especially on the New F-1 my favorite manual exposure meter read-out of all time.

    Most of my early experience was with a 50mm f/1.8. I had a typical 80s off-brand Vivitar 70-210 that I found difficult to use because it was so slow. I also had a Soligor 21mm lens that I didn't appreciate how good it was at the time and sold it before I learned to use it properly(I later added a Canon 20mm f/2.8, which became one of my most used lenses, but I really would have been fine all along with that Soligor).
  8. The A-1 is a camera that I would love to have but never to use. It's a nice looking camera. Functionally it's OK but not so good for manual. I don't like the half stop increment. I have 2 199A flashes for it but they don't seem to set the aperture correctly.
  9. I have an old AE-1 Program. It could use a CLA but on occasion it, with the 50mm f1.8 lens, has rendered some sweet and magical -if a wee bit fuzzy- results.

    Honestly tho these days my tastes run more toward fully mechanical cameras, or cameras that use a battery for metering only.
    One battery fail resulting in missed opportunities is one too many!
  10. William Michael

    William Michael Moderator Staff Member

    Between the two cameras, I'd buy an A-1.

    Zoom lenses were coming into their own during that period and Canon made great inroads apropos performance: depending upon availability and amount that you're willing to spend, a Canon New FD 20~35 F/3.5L and a Canon New FD 35 to 105 F/3.5~4 would make a good quality kit.

    If you want to stick with Primes, probably more easily got and also cheaper, then something near a 24mm and an 85mm would be a good pair: for a triplet, I like 24mm, 85mm and 135mm.


    Re portraiture - The "perspective distortion" commented upon is not intrinsic to the lens's Focal Length; it is a factor of Camera Viewpoint, often noted when Portraits are made with Wide Angle Lenses, because, the camera is situated close to the Subject. The point being, Portraits, (without distortions of human shape) can be made with WA Lenses, and often are, especially those often termed 'Environmental Portraits'. Similarly 'Street Portraiture' has existed for years, quite often exponents preferring a 35mm Lens (on 135 Format).

  11. I would go for the FTb, but it uses the same lenses, so you could switch later.

    As above, I always like the 35mm lens instead of 50mm, but your choice on that one.
  12. PapaTango

    PapaTango Itinerant Philosopher

    I started out my affair with Canon in the early 70s. First up was an FT-QL that served me well for years. This was followed up in the early 80s with an AE-1, and then a couple of years later the AE-1P. I eventually acquired a couple of used A-1 bodies, and a selection of accessories such as motor drives, backs, and other items.

    Although I have fond memories of each body, my suggestion is to go with the A-1. More versatility. Make sure that the dreaded bearing 'squeak' has been repaired--or plan to do some DIY repair (lots of instructions and video on the web) or have it done. Not that complicated. The prices are surprising--looking at Fleabay I see lots of good deals including kit bundles (lenses, filters, flashes, etcetera) in the under $200 range.

    Go for it!
  13. Back when the A-1 and AE1-P were in their prime, the standard lens package was a 50. 28. and a 135. Later, an 80-200 took the place of the 135. For me, I have come to use the 35mm as my standard lens with the 100mm as my second most used.

    These days my most used in order are:

    1) 35mm
    2) 100mm
    3) 50mm macro
    4) 20mm
    5) 28mm f2.0 ( I love that lens)
    6) 200mm
    The rest are not used all that much. They include a 50mm f1.4, 300mm f4.0, and a 500 f5.6, 135 f 2.5
  14. I agree with Bebu in his post above. 50mm is a good beginning lens, and that doesn't mean its inferior. But being a so called "normal" lens, it roughly presents the view similar to how the natural eye sees. With the Cannon 50 1.8 you will be able to practice depth-of-field, low light etc. When I was in school, every beginning photo class required a camera that would work all manually as a way to learn basic exposure and how to handle the camera. That would be my recommendation. Also, 50 mm glass is often the least expensive lens in a makers lens line. I would start with just the one lens, and use it til you know it. After a while you will organically figure out what you might want in the way of additional lenses.
  15. I bought an A-1 with the 50mm f/1.4 in 1981, a year or so later I added the classic 35-105 f/3.5 Macro which covered about 98% of what I typically shoot.

    A dozen years after that I acquired a 35-70 f/3.5-4.5 Macro from a friend. At the time that was sneered at as being very plasticky and definitely has some distortion at the zoom extremes, but it's about the size of the 50mm 1.4 and has given an excellent account of itself as a compact "walking around" lens for travel and such.

    I have in more recent times acquired 70-210 and 100-300mm zooms for some specific projects. I mostly shoot medium format B&W these days, but still give the A-1 an occasional workout. Via inheritance or acquisition from friends I have an F-1 and AE-1 body, a Canon 50mm f/1.8, and a 3rd party 28mm lens, and a macro bellows among my FD goodies. I also have the adapter to run FD lenses on my EOS M5! Much of the FD gear is quite decent quality and reasonable (almost ridiculously so) price-wise.

    I agree with the advice above to buy one near-normal lens and work with it a little to figure out your next step.
  16. one thing to be said, those old 500mm lenses really do make one miss the old days

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