First of all, the Canon AE-1 Program (or AE-1P) appeared in 1981, as a successor to the very popular AE-1 that came out in 1976. At the time, few cameras had full automation, or Program mode, which made the AE-1P an improvement over the AE-1, which, like many Canon SLRs, were shutter-priority in the automated mode. The AE-1P also has manual and shutter-priority too, but I'll bet most users shot in full program mode, with the camera choosing the right shutter speed/aperture setting, allowing you to focus solely on your subject. For frame of reference, the Nikon FE2 came out in 1983, and it replaced the Nikon FE that appeared in 1978. Both of those cameras are Aperture-Priority and Manual mode cameras that are among my favorite manual Nikons. The user still had to select an aperture, and the camera the shutter speed. The Canon AE-1P basically did away with that user choice thing, because dammit, the metering is VERY good, and in full program mode, I have found every exposure to be what I wanted.
This particular example of the AE-1P is all black, making it look like a sleek and professional camera. It uses FD lenses, and I shot it with a Canon 50mm f/1.8, Canon 85mm f/1.8, and a Canon 24mm f/2.8 lens, as well as a crazy Sigma 16mm semi-fisheye lens. When the Canon AE-1P was new, it was selling for around $300 in the US. I bought a Pentax MG around 1983 at a Service merchandise store, and had I chosen a Canon AE-1P instead (or a Nikon FE2), I wonder what directions my photography may have gone. While the Pentax SLR was a pretty competent beginner SLR, it was aperture priority only, with no real manual control, except at 1/100 sec. It's obvious to me now that the AE-1P was a game-changing SLR, coming out at a time when competitors were also exploring automation, but not all at the same level of excellence.
Initially, I found that I was overthinking when I shot with this camera. Without reading the manual,I assumed that the S setting was for Shutter-priority, but then realized it was for the Self-timer. I was always wondering if it was working properly, of course. The shutter has just a bit of a wheeze, but seems to work just fine. I see the aperture reading but not the shutter speed in the readout in the viewfinder, which was initially disconcerting. After I developed the first roll of b&w film, my fears were laid to rest, and I just composed and shot with the camera in full Program mode.
Viewfinder - The viewfinder of the AE-1P is bright and the center focus area is easily used, with the split image rangefinder surrounded by a microprism rangefinder. That's a good thing in a camera that has been designed to move the attention to the composition, and not the controls.
Handling - I can't find fault with the camera's ergonomics, as the right-hand grip is well-placed and not too big. The film advance lever is smooth and easy to operate, and the shutter button is well-placed.
Controls - Everything is where it needs to be. However, the S setting on the top deck still wants me to think that it's not for self-timer. Usually, the self-timer is located on the front of an SLR, but of course, Canon likes to confound people by moving things around. The A-1 also had the same feature with controls around the advance lever. The stop-down lever on the front is rather awkward in use, and I'll bet few people actually used it. If there is a control that is missing, it would be exposure compensation.
I can see why this camera was so popular. Put in a roll of 35mm film, select the ISO setting, and start shooting. Compose and shoot. While this camera's Nikon equivalent is the tiny Nikon EM, the EM did not have any sort of useful manual mode. The Canon AE-1P is heftier, and in most aspects, a far better camera. The Canon AE-1P was made for those that want to shoot images with great results, and I have to say that the camera achieved that. I am no Canon fanboy -- Canon was awful in flash technology, and could never be consistent with control design and placement, even in the EOS film era. However, with the AE-1 and AE-1P, Canon hit a price point and performance point that was ahead of Nikon's offerings - at least in the consumer market. In the end, though, Canon's complexity was a problem, and cameras like the AE-1 and AE-1P suffer from the effect of age on electronic components, and squealing shutters. I believe that Canon should have gone with the well-proven and very reliable Copal-Square vertical metal shutters (used on the Canon EF!) that Nikon used. It wasn't until the T series that Canon abandoned the horizontal cloth shutters for good. Overall, the Canon AE-1P is a great SLR, and if you find one that works well, buy it. It's a great street and travel camera, since all you have to do is focus and press the the shutter button to get the shot. Is it a good learning tool for a class? No. A Canon FTb QL is a great camera to learn on. However, it's a great camera to give a kid to shoot with, as the learning curve is very short.
I hope to shoot more with this body, and with some Ektachrome later on. I'll be busier than ever in the coming weeks as we prepare for our move to NC, so it may be a while before the AE-1P gets any use. I'll probably not be blogging a whole lot either, but we shall see!