The Canon AE-1 is arguably the most popular 35mm film SLR in existence. It topped our list of most popular SLRs of 2022 by a wide margin, and we have people ask about them every single day. For whatever reason, this is the camera that symbolizes film photography to many people. Why is that?
Simply put, the AE-1 is everywhere. It was produced in massive numbers (almost 3 million per year from 1982 - 1984) backed by a successful marketing campaign by Canon. And why not? The AE-1 was the first 35mm SLR to feature microprocessor-driven auto exposure, after all. That’s a pretty cool marketing angle.
This success combined well with the AE-1’s main selling point: auto-exposure. This camera, with its automatic settings, low weight, and low cost compared to other AE cameras, made it easier for everyday people to take photos. The AE-1 got into the hands of people who otherwise wouldn’t have owned an SLR, and that means AE-1s can be found in family basements and drawers all over the world.
With abundance comes prominence. The Canon AE-1 has become a symbol for film photography in general and a standard answer to the “what 35mm SLR should I start with?” question. But is it the right choice for everyone?
The issue with buying the most popular models, like the AE-1, is that their price doesn’t necessarily reflect their objective features and qualities as a camera. If we priced all cameras according to what they were capable of, things like the Minolta Dynax 9 and Canon EOS-1v would be the most expensive out there, after all.
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If you’ve read the title, you’ll know the answer is yes. There are plenty of great cameras out there that can do what the AE-1 does without breaking the bank.
If you read our Olympus Mju-II Alternatives article, you’ll know how we do things around here. Instead of just listing a bunch of cameras, we’ll try to break down the most popular/important features that make the AE-1 stand out. Then, we’ll tell you a few cameras that also have those features.
When searching for a film camera, it’s important to understand why you want the camera you want. So read through this, decide which features matter most to you, and search accordingly.
One more note before we start; not every camera we mention will be cheaper than the AE-1. We're going to try to keep the list to cameras with similar (or lower) prices. We'll also try to avoid mentioning too many plasticky AF cameras, since a lot of the appeal of the AE-1 lies in its vintage, classic aesthetics. The AE-1 is made of plastic, though!
At the end of the day it’s up to you to decide your budget and what features you want in a camera.
With that out of the way, let’s go through some of the high points of the AE-1 and find cameras that can match (or exceed) it. We'll list some cameras at the end of each section and go more into detail on a few models towards the end of the piece.
The Canon AE-1
- Simple Auto-Exposure
- Many Available Lenses
- Small Size, Light Weight, Good Ergonomics
It’s right there in the name: The AE in AE-1 stands for auto exposure! This means the Canon AE-1 can pick settings for the photographer to ensure the photos come out properly. The AE-1 uses a shutter-priority system, where the photographer picks a shutter speed and the camera picks an aperture to go with it. In today’s world of fully automatic everything this may seem insignificant, but when the AE-1 released this was a big deal.
While the Canon AE-1 wasn’t the first 35mm SLR to feature auto-exposure (that honor goes to the Konica Auto Reflex), it did so in a simple, easy-to-understand way and with a microprocessor instead of the simpler electronic circuits or mechanical systems of earlier cameras.
Basically, the AE-1 was able to meter more accurately and intelligently than other cameras at the time.
But back on track, there are many other 35mm SLRs with auto exposure. There are some that even do it better than the AE-1. The shutter-priority system in the AE-1 doesn’t come naturally to everyone, with aperture priority generally being the preferred method for AE.
It is subjective, but most manufacturers made aperture priority cameras rather than shutter priority, so it's safe to say the public preferred Av mode to Tv.
There are many benefits to buying a camera that's easy to find. Namely, access to spare parts and ease of replacement/repair.
If you break a camera that’s hard to find, chances are you’ll have a hard time finding another working model. Repair may also be difficult, or impossible, to find. With a more popular model, many repair shops will keep spare parts and donor bodies on-hand in case your broken camera needs new parts.
The fact of the matter is that film cameras need service to work properly. After sitting unused for decades, many will stop working or require repair to work properly. Popular models will be the first and easiest to fix, since spare parts are around and there is a market for their repair. There can only be a market for repair if spare parts are available and people are willing to pay to repair a certain model.
So even though the Canon AE-1 is electronically-controlled, it’s likely easier to find a repair shop that will take it in than one that will repair an obscure mechanical camera.
There are other cameras out there that were made in large quantities, though. Maybe even a few that sold more than the Canon AE-1!
Many Available Lenses
Canon used their FD mount (and its predecessor, the FL mount) from 1964 until 1992. They produced 134 different lenses for the system and received massive support from 3rd parties, likely due to the success of cameras like the AE-1. Because of this, there are many, many FD mount lenses out there.
This means that you can build a full suite of lenses without having to check eBay every day looking for obscure lenses. With some smaller mounts, it can be difficult to find focal lengths outside of 50mm, 28mm, and 135mm without spending a lot of money. With Canon FD, there are plenty of first party options, from the incredibly popular 20mm f2.8 SSC to the 35mm f3.5, and from the 100mm f2.8 to the 200mm f4.
Nowadays, though, first party Canon FD lenses have risen in price due to cinema users snatching them up. There are still tons of FD lenses available, from Canon and other manufacturers, but they’re not as cheap as they were 5 years ago. That’s important to keep in mind before investing in a system!
Small Size, Light Weight, & Good Ergonomics
I’ll get this out of the way: the Canon AE-1 is made of plastic. It’s plastic, treated with a special paint to feel as much like metal as possible. It’s fooled countless people, but as soon as you take an AE-1 apart it becomes abundantly clear that the external shell is plastic.
This may take away from the AE-1’s street cred, but it makes it lightweight and easy to carry around. We’d call it a worthwhile trade.
The Canon AE-1 isn’t the smallest SLR out there, but it’s smaller than many SLRs out there and has ergonomics buoyed by simple, intuitive controls. The large shutter speed dial around the film advance lever is easy to turn, and the decision to put the battery in the right grip gives the AE-1 a nice little ridge to hold onto. All the controls are in one spot, meaning a seasoned AE-1 user can use the camera (in shutter priority mode, at least) mostly without taking their eye away from the finder.
Canon took these good ergonomics into the AE-1 Program as well, even adding a removable grip to the right side for added comfort.
The Canon AE-1 is extremely popular because it took the world by storm when it was released. Whether that's because it's a great camera, because of Canon's successful marketing, or both, the AE-1 left an indellible mark on the camera industry that's still being felt today. It makes shooting simple without removing the vintage appeal that's undoubtedly a part of modern film photography. The AE-1, though, doesn’t necessarily do anything better than other SLRs.
That’s why it’s better to look at why the Canon AE-1 is popular rather than just believing the AE-1 is the best/only SLR because of its popularity. Some of what makes the AE-1 popular might not appeal to you. For example, if you prefer aperture priority auto exposure the AE-1 is not for you. If you’re on a budget, the AE-1’s price-to-features ratio isn’t the best either. Something like the Pentax ME Super can do everything the AE-1 can at a much lower price point.
It's important to keep in mind that only you can know what features matter most to you in a camera. Hopefully this list can help you understand your own needs and wants from a compact camera, and help push you in the right direction when shopping.
Now, let’s talk about some other SLRs in a bit more detail.
- Aperture priority auto exposure & manual modes
- Informative viewfinder
- Minolta MD mount
The Minolta X-700 might be the more popular model, but in some ways the X-500 is the superior camera. The biggest advantage the X-500 has is that it shows you your selected shutter speed in the viewfinder so you don’t have to take your eye away from your shot. The other big advantage is that the X-500 is considerably cheaper. If you don't mind losing fully programmed auto exposure, the X-500 is the way to go.
It’s also considerably cheaper than the Canon AE-1 despite offering more or less the same featureset. Minolta’s MD mount has some excellent lenses at a lower cost than Canon’s offerings as well, so the X-500 is a great budget alternative to the AE-1.
- Aperture priority auto-exposure & manual modes
- Metal design
- Informative viewfinder
- Nikon F mount
The Nikon FM & FE series of cameras are no-nonsense shooters that have earned their reputation as reliable, robust, and intuitive cameras. They’re not the best or flashiest, but they get the job done. Our mechanics all prefer Nikon cameras for a reason.
The FE is a great alternative to the AE-1 because it also offers auto-exposure in a compact package. While the FM is fully mechanical, the FE is probably a better user experience for most people. The FE also offers an excellent viewfinder, with full readout of selected shutter speed, recommended shutter speed, and aperture.
There’s also a case to be made for the FE’s predecessor, the Nikon EL2. It’s a truly underrated camera that basically works the same as an FE, or an AE-1 for that matter. The only downside is that it’s a bit larger and heavier. If you have bigger hands, though, you may even prefer the Nikon EL2.
One more thing of note is Nikon’s lens mount. The F mount has been in use from 1959 until today with only a few changes, so manual focus Nikon SLRs have arguably the widest range of lenses available to them of any system. On top of this, Nikon made their focusing system backwards from other companies, so cinema conversions for Nikon lenses are less common than with FD lenses. This keeps prices down and will likely future-proof the system compared to Canon FD glass.
Pentax ME Super
- Aperture priority auto-exposure & manual modes
- Metal body
- Compact Size
- Pentax K mount
The Pentax ME Super is as underrated as they come. This compact model from Pentax sells for almost a third of what the Canon AE-1 does, yet has basically the same featureset. The ME Super is really at home in aperture priority mode, though, with the manual mode’s buttons lagging behind the AE-1’s lovely shutter speed dial.
That being said, aperture priority is still generally more intuitive and useful than the shutter priority operation of the AE-1.
Where the ME Super really shines is in size. It’s absolutely tiny compared to the AE-1 or the other cameras I’ve mentioned. With the right lens (like the 40mm f2.8 pancake) the ME Super is downright pocketable.
Speaking of lenses, Pentax’s K mount is possibly the best mount for people on a budget. K mount lenses are abundant and varied because it was an “open mount” with multiple manufacturers making cameras and lenses for it.
Usually, third party companies would only make accessory lenses for a mount. In Canon FD, for example, you’d be hard-pressed to find any 50mm, 35mm, or 100mm lenses made by third party companies like Tamron, Sigma, or Vivitar.
Because Pentax K was an open mount, companies like Cosina, Ricoh, and Chinon produced tons of cameras for it. That means there are budget options for basically every focal length under the sun. It’s probably easier to build a suite of lenses in Pentax K than any other system.
- Aperture priority auto-exposure & manual modes
- Metal body
- Compact Size
- Olympus OM mount
Olympus basically invented the compact SLR when they released the OM-1 in 1972, but the OM-2 is the camera that can best match the AE-1. This electronic camera manages to fit an advanced metering system, aperture-priority AE, and an electronic shutter into the same body that houses the mechanical OM-1.
The OM-2 isn’t as small as the Pentax ME Super, but it offers easy access to manual settings much like the AE-1. For some people, the OM-2’s lens barrel-mounted shutter speed ring is actually more intuitive than any other system. When you mount a lens to the OM-2, you have access to shutter speed, focus, and aperture right next to one another.
The OM-1 & OM-2 are also well-known for their excellent, bright viewfinders. These finders are surprisingly big for such small cameras and feature a useful match-needle light meter. The best part of the OM-2’s finder, though, is that it changes depending on what mode you have selected.
When you’re in manual mode, it functions like a normal match needle. Simply adjust settings until the needle is in the middle of a + and a - to get proper exposure. In auto mode, though, the display switches to reveal shutter speeds. Then the needle indicates which shutter speed the camera will pick based on the aperture you have selected.
Compared to the AE-1, this is super useful. The AE-1’s aperture readout doesn’t change depending on your mode, and thus requires taking your eye away from the finder a lot when you want to shoot manually.
We’ve talked about a lot of cameras today, including the famous Canon AE-1. This compact camera has captured the hearts (and wallets) of many photographers, especially newcomers.
We’ve gone through some key features of the AE-1 and named some cameras that can replicate those features. While none of them will give the exact combination of these features as the Canon AE-1, all will be great cameras and take great photos if used properly.
It’s important to note, though, that there are other excellent SLRs besides the ones on this list. For the sake of space, I can’t list every single good SLR. Many of them have similar features, or cheaper models that accomplish similar things. The AE-1 even has two lesser models, in the manual-only AT-1 and aperture-priority only AV-1. Depending on your wants, needs, and budget, these cheaper models may be better for you.
So that’s a big takeaway here: most SLRs are good and will get the job done. The more important things to consider are your budget and what lenses you want to use. Canon FD is quite a widespread and flexible mount, but there are other options that maybe have a specific lens you’d want or are a bit cheaper.
My advice to you? Check out the popular models, figure out why people like them, and then hunt for cheaper cameras that can scratch the same itch. They’re out there, I promise. You can shop on our site for SLRs, or sign up for our email list to receive weekly notifications of our new stock.