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.
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. A battery can be used to power the light meter, but the shutter does not need power to function. As such, the camera can only be operated in manual.
Canon AE-1 Pros
- Aperture Priority and Auto modes.
- Uses Canon FD lenses.
- Film loading is easy.
- Requires a battery (4LR44) to function.
- Can suffer for electronic failures.
- No upgrade path.
Pentax K1000 Pros
- Workhorse durability.
- Uses Pentax PK lenses.
- Works without a battery.
- Easy to upgrade camera body or lenses.
- Can only be used in manual mode.
- Loading film is more difficult.
- No mirror lockup, depth of field preview, or other features.
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 camera. Plus, the K1000 was manufactured until 1997, so bodies aren't as old as the Canon AE-1.
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.
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.
Availability of Parts
Parts are no longer being produced for either camera. Spare parts 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 PK lenses, as a modified version of the mount is still being used by Pentax. 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.
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
The 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 viable upgrades. You can pick the level of technology you want included.
Canon introduced the EOS mount in 1987, 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 new F-1, AV-1, AE-1 Program, T50, T60, and T90. While that's a long list, there are not many notable features added to those cameras.
Which to Choose?
Neither. Buy a higher-end or newer camera in the system of your choice. I would rather have a Pentax MX over the K1000 or T90 over the AE-1.
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.