1976: The Canon AE-1 Ignites The Amateur Photography World
By James Grahame
The Canon AE-1 was a groundbreaking amateur SLR camera. It appeared in 1976, sporting clever microprocessor controlled automatic exposure. Around 5 million AE-1s were produced, helping to give the Canon brand a much needed boost against arch-rival Nikon.
However, the truly revolutionary thing about the AE-1 was the way it was built. Although it looks like a hefty metal device, the body is injection
molded ABS plastic with inexpensive metal plating. This approach dramatically
reduced costs and simplified assembly. To further simplify the design, Canon replaced as many mechanical components as possible with electronic equivalents. The final result was an extremely capable SLR within the price range of serious amateurs, with an original Japanese list price of 81,000 Yen ($275) equipped with a 50mm lens.
The AE-1 seems almost quaint in comparison to modern DSLRs, but it stood head and shoulders above its competition throughout the late 1970s. There was only a single exposure indicator needle in the viewfinder. The original model had only a single shutter-priority exposure mode (great for sports, not so great for artistic depth of field manipulation). That changed in 1981 with the arrival of the more versatile AE-1 Program, and the AE-1 remained on the market until the mid-1980s.
The AE-1 had a lasting legacy in the camera industry, as manufacturers introduced increasingly advanced electronic metering and focusing sytems. In the end, they managed to do away with film completely as cameras became highly specialized imaging computers. Oddly enough, I still shoot film and often find myself shooting in manual mode. Old habits die hard.
The Big Commercial Success: Canon AE-1