For the uninitiated, SLR cameras work under the principle that the photographer peers through the main lens when framing his shot. What he sees in the viewfinder is the image that will end up on film. This works though a quickly-moving mirror that flips up at the magic moment to expose the film. (This explains the classic "moment of darkness" that accompanies the shwick-shwack noise we associate with photography. Think of every movie in which someone takes a picture.)
The A1 was a magnificent camera, offering a level of flexibility that attracted amateurs and professionals. Exposure could be aperture-priority or shutter-priority, meaning the photographer could choose the size of the lens opening or the shutter speed, and the camera would calculate the appropriate other measurement. Best of all, it had a "Program" setting, for which both shutter and aperture were automatic. All measurements showed up in the viewfinder in small, perfect red LED numbers, just below the image. It felt space-age at the time, and still feels clear and precise.
It had features galore, too many to name here. You could stop-down the lens, actually closing the aperture to see the exact depth of field for your shot. Two self-timers. Exposure compensation. Double exposure!
Over two summers, I took charge of the Canon. We added a polarizer -- great for shots with water or sky. We bought special-effect filters from Cokin, a pre-Photoshop way to mask out parts of a shot and surround a face with flowers or change colors, all done in the camera without a computer. I still have a perfectly masked photo of myself playing cards against myself, a twelve year old me in both sides of the frame. Ah, the fun of the self-timer, the double exposure tab, and the Cokin filters! In high school, the Canon and I shot night skies, friends suspended mid-air over swimming pools, parties and pets.
My father had less success with the A1 than I did. Not for lack of trying, he found the tiny dials and mysterious abbreviations a bit baffling. Eventually he switched to easier point-and-shoots, and now has a magnificent little Sony digital with which he makes artistic close-ups of printed pages, his own Polariods, and shopping-mall trashcans. He blows up tiny corners of the frames to make spectacular abstract prints. Amazingly, he does this without a computer -- a nice reminder of the in-camera effects we used to get from the Cokin filters.
Last year my dad presented me with the Canon and all its accessories, thousands of dollars of gorgeous equipment in mint condition, now worth only a few hundred on eBay. He has gone completely digital. My photography remains a mix: I have a point-and-shoot digital, my stereoscopic slide cameras from the 1950's, and a new digital Canon camcorder to capture the baby. Unfortunately, I see no place at the table for my first love, the Canon A1.
Today's SLR has auto-focus, auto-exposure, modes for fast action and nighttime skylines, auto-bracketing, white balance manipulation, and more. Most importantly, they are all digital. The lure of hundreds of photos on one chip, no wasted film, cropping and editing on the computer is too strong for me. My next camera will be a digital SLR, capable of everything the A1 did but without the constraints of film. I will never run another roll through the Canon.
Should I sell you on eBay or let you sleep in endless retirement in the closet?
You taught me the true joy of photograpy. You taught me to consider the light and the dark. Stopping-down the lens taught me the concept of depth-of-field better than a semester of photography class. 36-exposure rolls of film taught me to take care with each shot. Farewell, my old friend, made obsolete by the digital revolution.