Film is back! Well, sorta. OK, film never went anywhere, but like vinyl records did in the early 21st century, the steady decrease of film usage seems to have bottomed out and has started to increase again.
According to Ilford in an article published in February 2015, 30% of people shooting film are younger than 35. Think about that for a minute, someone who was 35 in 2015 was 15 years old in 1995. More than four years have passed since that article, so its plausible that the percentage is higher. That means that roughly a third of people using film today grew up in the digital age and likely never shot film before, and if they have, they were likely cheap point and shoot or disposable cameras when they were kids.
With an increase in interest among young photographers who might be looking to buy their first film camera, there is a lot of information out there from people making recommendations on what to buy. There are countless lists out there telling you what camera is a great first film camera that is cheap, easy to use, and reliable. Each of those articles make their own claim to have the best cameras for the beginner, but despite the variety, on nearly all of them, two models in particular show up the most often. The Canon AE-1 (or it’s later variant the AE-1 Program), and the Pentax K1000.
But don’t take my word for it, check these articles here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here….oh wait, and here too. That’s just the first two pages of a Google search. Of course other quality cameras made by Nikon, Olympus, Minolta, Rollei, Hasselblad, and many others regularly make these lists too, but for the same two models to be considered over and over again, there has to be something to it.
I’ve never actually written anything about either model, simply because there’s just so much information out there already, but I thought it was time that I took a look at these two oft-recommended cameras in what I’m calling the Student Camera Showdown!
Note: For the purposes of this article, I am treating the Canon AE-1 and AE-1 Program to be the same model. I make references to the AE-1 Program where relevant, but there’s enough that’s similar between the two to consider them the same.
Both cameras have horizontally traveling cloth focal plane shutters with a top speed of 1/1000 and a flash sync speed of 1/60. The K1000’s slowest available speed is 1 second, whereas the Canon can go down to 2 seconds, but frankly that’s not a major difference maker for most students, as slow shutter speeds would most likely be obtained using Bulb mode and a shutter release cable, which is available on both models.
The biggest difference in the shutters of the two cameras is not on the spec sheet, rather in how it’s operated. Both the AE-1 and AE-1 Program use a electromagnetically controlled shutter, whereas the K1000 goes old school with a fully mechanical shutter that is controlled by springs, levers, and for the slow speeds, a mechanical governor. Although electronic shutters are said to be more accurate, they are also more likely to fail over time and also require a battery to work, whereas the mechanical shutter in the K1000 works without the need for a battery, making it a far more reliable design.
I’m all for modern conveniences, and having an electronic shutter on a camera does not automatically make it inferior to a mechanical one, but we have the benefit of nearly 4 decades worth of history to look back on, and the K1000’s shutter almost always works, whereas the Canon’s has proven to be more temperamental. Making matters worse, every Canon AE-1 or AE-1 Program I’ve handled is very particular about which batteries they work with. Generic off brand batteries generally don’t fare well. You really need to use a freshly charged name brand battery for best results.
Winner: Pentax K1000
The Canon FD and Pentax K mounts are two of the most successful lens mounts ever made with an enormous variety of lenses available. Canon’s FD mount was a revised version of their original R-mount from 1959 and was used on Canon SLRs until 1990 with the release of the T60. Pentax’s K-mount didn’t make it’s debut until 1975, right before the release of the K1000, but is still being used by Ricoh/Pentax digital SLRs today. Canon’s FD mount was only ever used on Canon SLRs although a variety of third party lens makers produced lenses for them. The Pentax K-mount on the other hand was the preferred mount for many third party camera brands like Sears, Ricoh, Chinon, Vivitar, Cosina, Zenit, and many others making them extremely common.
Without looking at every single lens ever made by every company, it is possible that some examples of specific ultra wide or telephoto lenses exist for one system but not another, but for the focal lengths that any student would ever care about, the selection is huge and there is no clear winner here.
Some people prefer a bayonet mount over a breech lock, but the differences are negligible. I think that both lens systems are robust, easy to use, and produce quality images, so I’m calling this one a tie.
This one’s pretty easy as the Canon AE-1 is the far more featured camera with Shutter Priority Auto Exposure in the original model, and Full Program Auto Exposure in the later. The Canon’s meter is a Silicon Photo Diode which has increased sensitivity over the CdS in the Pentax, especially in low light. The Canon has an aperture readout in the viewfinder and electronic self timer, both features the K1000 lacks.
The K1000 is a manual everything camera without any automation of any kind. The meter is of the match needle type, and most of the earlier K1000s have a viewing screen with only a microprism circle. Later models did come with a split image rangefinder focus aide, but from my experience the earlier ones are much easier to find.
I could argue that nothing the AE-1 offers is essential for a student, but if a long feature list, a more featured viewfinder, and auto exposure are your requirements then the AE-1 is the clear winner here. Upon it’s release, it was a triumph of engineering and helped catapult Canon as a dominant force in the consumer SLR market.
While the K1000 was no slouch, it catered to a different kind of customer.
Winner: Canon AE-1
For most people, the viewfinder would be considered a feature of the camera, but for me, a good viewfinder is a huge asset to me with my poor vision. While all SLRs offer through the lens composition, the amount of information, different types of focus aides and overall brightness can improve a shooting experience dramatically.
Comparing the two viewfinders, both are good, but the Canon’s is better. Not only is it noticeably brighter, but it offers an aperture readout (needle in the original AE-1 and red LED in the AE-1 Program) and both a microprism collar and split image rangefinder focus aide. While the Pentax viewfinder isn’t exactly dark, when looking through the two side by side, there is a noticeable difference. Most K1000s also lack a split image focus aide, which is curious considering this was a very common feature in SLRs in 1976 when this model was first released. I’ve read that later Chinese made K1000s eventually did get it, but I’ve never come across one.
Note: In the viewfinder images above, the brightness difference between the two cameras isn’t very noticeable, which is a result of how I capture these ‘through the viewfinder’ shots with my cell phone which tends to wash out any differences in brightness. Trust me, the AE-1 is brighter.
Also, in the group photos in this article, I show the AE-1 Program with a Canon f/1.4 lens which could make the images brighter, but for the viewfinder pics, I had a Canon f/1.8 lens mounted which although still faster than the Pentax’s f/2 rating, it should not make a noticeable difference in brightness.
If I had to choose a camera based solely on the viewfinder and nothing else, the decision would be very easy for me.
Winner: Canon AE-1
Both cameras have good ergonomics. Every essential control is exactly where you’d expect to find it with no quirky left-handed buttons or levers in odd ball locations. Both the shutter release and film advance levers fall naturally where your fingers expect them to be. Loading film into both cameras is exactly the same process with no unique or troublesome steps.
Both cameras are also reasonably compact with the K1000 having slightly taller shoulders and the AE-1 being slightly longer front to back, but nothing that screams ergonomic failure. At 590 grams without a lens, the Canon weighs almost exactly 100 grams less, making it a lighter camera that is easier to carry. I do believe that later Chinese made K1000s weigh less than earlier models due to an increased use of plastics, but I did not have one for this test.
I’ll just say that although there are very subtle differences between the two, there’s nothing significant enough to score either model a decisive victory here so I’m calling it a tie.
A sometimes overlooked characteristic of a product, how reliable or dependable an item generally is, should be a very important consideration when purchasing something. When buying a new appliance, computer, automobile, or any other large purchase, a savvy shopper will likely look up Consumer Reports ratings or read reviews online to read about other owners experiences with said product.
When buying something used, especially something in the realm of 30-40 years old, the reliability of the product is even more of a consideration. Of course, problems that are said to be common in one model may be completely absent in a specific example, or rampant in another, so this category comes with big helping of YMMV (Your Mileage May Vary).
With that said, I’ve handled a large number of Canon AE-1s and Pentax K1000s, and I can tell you with absolute certainty that many examples of both cameras still technically worked, there was one model that often had more issues than the other.
That model of course, is the AE-1. Being an electronic camera, there’s more to go wrong. The camera’s circuitry is entirely dependent on power, so if some previous owner left a battery in the chamber for decades and it leaked, it could corrode the wiring rendering the camera completely inoperable.
Even in instances where the camera still physically works, it’s still likely to have the dreaded “Canon Squeal” which is caused by lubricant that has dried up on the mirror dampener assembly which makes a horrific noise each time you fire the shutter. There are many tutorials online showing how to stop this squeal, many of which use methods I don’t approve of. I watched a few of these videos and in my opinion, this one does the best job of showing the repair both through the lens mount and the bottom of the camera. If you watch the video, you can hear a sample of the squeal at the :37 second mark.
Another issue with the AE-1 is the poorly designed battery compartment which is front and center on the front of the camera, behind a very cheaply made door that often breaks off. It is very common to find AE-1s with battery compartment issues, either due to corrosion or a broken door.
The Pentax K1000 on the other hand, can still suffer from a corroded battery compartment too, but being a fully mechanical camera, the camera will still fire with a corroded compartment. The K1000 only needs power for the match needle.
I’ve handled many K1000s and AE-1s over the years, and in my experience, the number of faults between the two is much higher on the Canon.
Winner: Pentax K1000
When it comes to SLR cameras, the performance of the camera largely depends on the quality of the lenses and the skill of the photographer. As these are are both cameras aimed at students, you could likely assume that the lens is the only measurable element of the camera’s performance.
As it is with nearly all Japanese optical companies, both Asahi Pentax and Canon were adept lens makers and pretty much any lens you’re likely to find for a Canon AE-1 or Pentax K1000 is going to be great.
Since I already talked about the lenses earlier in this article, I’ll just say that both cameras are just as capable of amazing and terrible shots, but whatever types of images you get from them, it won’t be the camera’s fault.
Here are galleries of sample images shot in both of the cameras reviewed in this article on fresh Fuji 200 film. The first is from the K1000.
This second gallery is from the AE-1 Program on the same film.
I could have flip-flopped these two galleries and you likely would have never noticed as both cameras are very capable of making excellent photographs.
The price you pay for something is the ultimate factor of value. If you pay more for something, you should expect to get more for it, right? Since we’re talking about old cameras here, I thought it makes sense to compare both the prices these cameras likely originally sold for and what you can expect to pay for them today.
Both the Canon AE-1 and Pentax K1000 made their debuts in 1976 which means comparing their prices should be pretty easy, and while that’s true, its worth noting that upon their release, the two cameras were targeted at different market segments. The Pentax K1000 was an entry level camera that was intended to introduce the world to Pentax’s new K-mount. The Canon AE-1 was a sophisticated electronic camera, aiming to bring 35mm SLR quality and shutter priority automatic exposure to the masses.
I was unable to find any ads from 1976 specifically stating the MSRPs for both, but I did find a 1977-78 Sears catalog that had both cameras listed in it and the differences aren’t even close.
The K1000, being the more basic camera, had a retail (not MSRP) price of $154.50 with the SMC Pentax 50mm f/2 lens, and the Canon AE-1 was priced more than a hundred dollars more at $279.50, over an 80% increase. When adjusted for inflation, these prices compare to about $650 and $1165 today.
It was clear that a customer looking for cameras in the K1000’s price range, likely would have not considered the AE-1 as it would have been well out of their price range. Curiously, Canon did have a lower end version of the AE-1 without AE called the AT-1, but it was only $40 cheaper, selling for $239.50.
So even though it is clear that these two cameras didn’t compete for the same types of customers back then, they certainly do today as the Canon AE-1 and Pentax K1000 are two of the most commonly recommended “student film cameras”, so let’s look at what you can buy them for today. For that, we’ll use sold prices on eBay. I used an eBay price tracking program called Bidvoy that searches for prices of goods sold on eBay in any given time period. I searched for both cameras sold via auction (not Buy It Now) over the past 6 months.
Looking at the average of all auctions over the last 6 months, one thing that immediately stands out to me is that there were more than double the number of AE-1s sold over K1000s, suggesting there are far more of them out there. This by itself might suggest that the AE-1 is the more “popular” camera simply due to there being a larger supply of them.
The average price of the AE-1 compared to the K1000 is $76.47 to $65.07, a difference of $11.40, or 17.5%.
To most people, a difference of barely over $10 isn’t much, especially when looking to buy something like a camera, so you might argue that the prices for the two cameras are effectively the same. But with such a huge disparity of price when the first came out, and a 17.5% price difference today, both in favor of the K1000, I think it’s safe to say that for the past 43 years, the K1000 has been the value king between the two.
Winner: Pentax K1000
Regardless of what I say in this article, there are legions of fans of the Canon AE-1 and Pentax K1000. These were both extremely popular cameras that sold well for a very long time, and they wouldn’t have done that if they weren’t any good.
I own both of these cameras, and have made some really great photographs with each, so you might even say that comparing the two makes no sense at all, but since this is the Internet and people like to compare things, I feel as though I’m obligated to you to pick my favorite 35mm student camera. If I’m being perfectly honest, I don’t even know that if allowed to choose what I think is the best student camera from every camera ever made, that I would pick either of these two. I might go with a Minolta SRT-101, a Nikon FM2, a Pentax MX, or even a rangefinder, but none of those cameras rarely top the most recommended cameras like these two do.
Both the Pentax K1000 and Canon AE-1 have an outstanding selection of cheap and well made lenses, they both have excellent ergonomics that don’t require much in the way of reading a user manual to master, and they each are very easy to use and capable of making excellent photographs. But when it comes to recommending something to the first time film photographer, for me, value, simplicity, and reliability are three things that win me over, and in those categories, the Pentax K1000 wins all three. It’s cheap, simple, and reliable, all things that a student should covet over electronic wizardry.
Could a student do well with a Canon AE-1? Sure! Millions have, but I just think that the K1000 is the perfect student camera. You can pick it right off that table at your local thrift shop or garage sale, dust it off, load in some film, and without even thinking about putting in a battery, start shooting it and more than likely it’s going to do fine. I just can’t say that about the AE-1.
What do you think about my recommendation? Do you agree or disagree? Let me know in the comments section below.
Believe it or not, I’ve never written full scale reviews for either of these reviews, but many other people have. Here are a few of my favorites.