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ROLL CALL: THE HEXA•PHOTO•CYBERNETIC A-1
An old friend (re)joins the stable... ● 15/02/2021

BY ROBERT FALCONER

Hello, old friend.

The very first 35mm SLR camera I ever owned was a Canon EF (more here), beginning in 1977. It was my system for the first seven years of my serious forays into photography, until I switched to Nikon in 1984. In 1981 I purchased a Canon A1, because it had an option for a motor drive, something the EF lacked. I haven't shot with a Canon 35mm camera since 1984. And while I kept the Canon EF for sentimental reasons, I sold the A1 to help fund the Nikon F3.

Well, a lovely mint A1 has found its way back into my possession. And as I work those familiar controls from so long ago, I am reminded of just what a great SLR this really was, from the multiple exposure modes (one of the first two cameras to sport that feature), to the numerical LED readout at the bottom of the viewfinder for your aperture and shutter speed; everything you needed back then, nothing you didn't. In fact, that LED readout is turning out to be an absolute godsend these days, as my eyes are not as perfect as they were 40 years ago when I was just a young pup. 

Canon (and to a slightly lesser extent, Minolta) was really the first manufacturer by 1976 to increasingly build cameras almost fully dependent on electronics (and batteries). The A1 (and AE-1) were the first cameras to kick off this trend, a trend that would lead them to eventually introduce the EOS system in 1987. Meanwhile, over at Nikon, the FE series bodies retained a bit more mechanical control, and were thus also a bit more rugged and reliable, particularly over time, IMHO.

None of which takes away from the A1, however. This camera is still a marvel of 1970s engineering. Controls feel direct, positive and responsive, just as they should on any quality photographic instrument. One thing that I am struck by, however, is how relatively small and light these cameras were. It's not something I recall thinking to myself back in the day. And it's likely because today's DSLRs, particularly the pro bodies—owing to the sheer number of features packed into them—have grown almost cartoonishly large by comparison. The advent of mirrorless cameras like the Fujifilm X-T4 have gotten us approximately back to that 1970s size (if not weight) once again (and in Fujifilm's case, back to proper dials and control knobs, if you happen to covet that sort of interface—I do).

Just to fix this in time: the A1 was released in April of 1978. The number one song on the charts that month was "Night Fever" by the Bee Gees; the Oscar for Best Picture was awarded to Annie Hall; and Jimmy Carter was President of the United States. Yeah, THAT long ago. :O

Nevertheless, I'm enjoying this old classic so much that I may just press it into service, along with my Nikon F2AS, to shoot a few rolls of Fujifilm Acros B&W film as part of some vintage material that's required for the film project I am currently working on.

I am frequently reminded of how spoiled we are today. While the A1 heralded a new era in 35mm film photography when it was introduced ("hexa-photo-cybernetic" was one of the advertising tag lines) my Fujifilm X-Series cameras can shoot circles around it. It's not just that the digital sensor is light years beyond 35mm film in terms of IQ, but now I can photograph hundreds (or even thousands) of frames instead of just 36, see what I've got immediately, shoot in lower light, rely on face and eye detect AF to nail focus, and choose what film stock and "ASA" I want—all directly in the camera. Today's cameras are no longer just merely the mechanism, but the medium as well; such was the result of our transition from celluloid to silicon.

"A chimpanzee and three trainees could run her." And I probably don't even need the trainees. Of course, there's far more to photography than just pushing a button, but as the years tick by, a few nannies to assist one through some of the more laborious bits that sometimes distract one from the moment is always welcome.

Since this particular blog chapter is a work in progress, I'm going to continue adding to this page as images are produced from this camera, and I'll do some shots of the A1 with the Motor Drive MA attached in a future post, and possibly even with its stablemate, the Canon EF. So if you're interested, be sure to bookmark this page and check back again down the road...