Beginner 35mm Camera Shootout: Canon AE-1 vs Pentax K1000
Which camera should you choose between two of the most commonly recommended cameras for analog photography beginners?
The Canon AE-1 represents the first electronically-controlled automatic exposure camera released. Has aperture priority and program automatic exposure modes in addition to fully manual mode.
The Pentax K1000 is a mechanical camera based on the Pentax Spotmatic. It has almost no camera features and was manufactured for over 20 years. The main difference being the Pentax K1000 uses Pentax K-mount lenses, while the Spotmatic uses M42 lenses.
A battery can be used to power the light meter, but the shutter does not need battery power to function. As such, the camera can only be operated in manual mode.
Canon AE-1 Pros
- Auto and Aperture Priority mode.
- Uses Canon FD lenses.
- Film loading is easy.
Canon sold more than a million copies of the AE-1. That’s why you’re likely to encounter so many people that owned one in the past and are still a fan. Having different shooting modes can be nice if you do not want to shoot all of your photos in manual mode.
One often overlooked benefit of selling so many copies is that you’ll be able to easily find answers to any questions you may have about the Canon AE-1 with a simple web search.
The Canon FD lens selection is excellent and not as expensive as the Pentax options. You should be able to find and lens focal length you want for your Canon AE-1.
Canon AE-1 Cons
- Requires a battery (4LR44) to function.
- The light meter is often inaccurate.
- Can suffer from electronic failures.
- No real upgrade path or lens cross-compatibility with a DSLR.
Most of the cons of the Canon AE-1 have to do with problems revolving around the electronics in the camera. It was the first camera released (1976) with a built-in microprocessor computer to be widely available to consumers.
Due to how old the camera is and the design, problems are something that is to be expected.
Another thing to pay attention to is if an old mercury battery has been left in the camera, make sure to dispose of it properly. You’ll also want to keep a spare battery with the camera as battery life will likely be 10-20 rolls of film.
Pentax K1000 Pros
- Workhorse durability.
- Uses Pentax K-mount lenses.
- Works without a battery.
- Easy to upgrade camera body and lenses are compatible with DSLRs.
The Pentax K1000 was and likely still is the most popular choice for beginner photography classes. For many people it was their first SLR camera. It has all the basic functions a photographer needs to take photographs.
A lack of features means the camera is very durable. This was important in an education environment where a school might have dozens of SLRs that they didn’t want to have to constantly get repaired.
With no built-in shooting aids, a photographer has to understand photographic concepts, such as exposure, in order to get the shot they want. The Pentax K1000 is an excellent camera to improve the level of your photography skills.
Pentax K1000 Cons
- Can only be used in manual mode.
- Loading film is more difficult.
- No mirror lockup, depth of field preview, self-timer, or other features for advanced features..
The Pentax K1000 is a fully mechanical camera which means it is more likely to have inconsistent or inaccurate shutter speeds.
The Pentax lens selection is excellent, but don’t expect to find any deals. The lens mount is also used on DSLR cameras, which increases the level of interest in the lenses.
The Pentax K1000 has a better build quality and fewer parts. With the only electronics being the light meter, there is less that can go wrong with the Pentax K1000.
Plus, the K1000 was manufactured until 1997, so bodies aren’t as old as the Canon AE-1. A way to get around this is to buy a Canon AE-1 Program or other Canon film camera that uses a similar body style, as they will be newer.
Plastic with a metallic finish was used to create the top plate for the AE-1. It has held up well, but rough treatment of a camera will cause cracks or other damage.
Enough time has past since the AE-1’s release that they are beginning to show their age. Grease drying out causes the mirror dampener to make a squeak.
When comparing the Canon AE-1 vs the Pentax K1000 in terms of the condition of used camera bodies available today, the K1000 is the clear winner.
Availability of Parts
Parts are no longer being produced for either camera. Spare parts will come from broken cameras.
Beyond finding parts, you have to find someone to perform repairs. There aren’t very many people with the skills to repair 35mm film cameras. The cost of labor will likely be more than the value of either camera.
Lens Selection - PK vs FD Mounts
There are more choices for Pentax K mount lenses, as a modified version of the mount is still being used in Pentax DSLRs. This makes it easier to find specialty lenses, such as macro or wide angle. However, the availability comes at a price premium, which can make them unaffordable compared to the FD mount lenses for the Canon AE-1.
That’s not to say you’ll have trouble finding lenses for the Canon AE-1. Canon produced a complete lineup of lenses for the FD mount.
Older FL mount lenses can be used on the AE-1. The drawback is that FL lenses will need to be used in manual mode with stopped down metering.
Usability & Ergonomics
Both cameras are similar in size and weight. The only major difference is the battery door on the front of the Canon AE-1.
I do not find I am able to get as comfortable a grip on the AE-1 as I can on the K1000. Though, the difference is not high up on my reasons to pick on camera over the other.
Which is the Better Value?
A strong renewed interest in analog photography has led to prices steadily increasing. Both cameras are highly recommended. People overlooking higher-end cameras has caused them to be overpriced.
The K1000 is slightly less expensive than the AE-1. You should be able to find one with a 50mm f/1.8 lens for around $100.
A Pentax MX was the flagship camera at the time the K1000 was released. For almost the same price, I wouldn’t take a K1000 over the MX.
Canon AE-1’s with a 50mm f/1.8 lens are going to cost around or a bit over $100. The newer Canon AE-1 Program can often be had for less. For $50 you could get a T90, which is the last professional-grade FD-mount camera.
Ability to Upgrade
If you plan on owning more than one lens, the differences in the ability to upgrade is one of the important things to consider when comparing the Canon AE-1 to the Pentax K1000.
The Pentax K1000 has more room to upgrade within the system. Pentax was producing 35mm film SLRs until 2006. Lenses can still be used with many of the DSLRs Pentax has produced.
Cameras like the Pentax MX, LX, PZ-1P, and MZ-S are all good upgrades. Additionally, you’ll have the ability to pick the amount of technology built into a camera body.
Canon introduced the EOS mount in 1987, which had autofocus, and that was the end of the FD-mount. Other than the short-lived Canon T80, there are no other FD-mount cameras capable of autofocus.
Upgrade options are the Canon AE-1 Program, new F-1, AV-1, T60, and T90. The only true upgrades would be the new F-1 and T90.
There is also the option of not using a film SLR camera and adapting lenses to a digital mirrorless camera. This is an excellent way to get additional use out of lenses.
Which to Choose?
Neither. Buy a higher-end or newer camera in the system of your choice. Due to both cameras spending a couple of decades at the top of camera recommendation lists, there isn’t much of a difference in price for higher-end cameras.
I would rather have a Pentax MX over the K1000. For the Canon AE-1 I would rather have a Canon A-1 or T90.
In terms of systems, Pentax has more to offer. Going with Canon EOS over FD is another option, but you’ll lose out on a great manual focusing experience. Nikon 35mm SLRs are also great, but more expensive.
If you already own one of the cameras or found a deal, keep using it. The differences aren’t enough to jump systems unless there are specific features that you must have.
Here are some 35mm film cameras that should be considered as alternatives. Manual focus Nikon cameras are going to offer a nicer shooting experience than the Pentax K1000 or Canon AE-1, but also come with higher prices.
Olympus made some great cameras and are often overlooked. One advantage Olympus lenses have over Canon or Pentax lenses is that they tend to be smaller and more compact.
- Nikon FE
- Nikon FM
- Nikon FM2
- Olympus OM-1
- Olympus OM-4