The Canon A-1 in Thailand

The Canon A-1 35mm Film Camera in Thailand

It used to be that one of the delights of visiting the UK occasionally was to fetch the  things that one could not get abroad. Yet for the last decade this notion has become outdated. Consumer technology, new motorcycle designs, fashionable recipies, and other trends often originate in South-East Asia, and in Thailand in particular. As the Thai people have had more disposable income over the past decade, so they have been able to realize their interests. One of which is photography.

To know Thailand is to know King Bhumibol. Since his death in October 2016, his influence continues to permeate the culture. It is no matter from which side of the political spectrum he is considered; whether royalist or democrat, reformist or anti-monarchist, or from the simple perspective of young or old, the late King and his life-long work shapes Thailand to this day.

King Bhumibol with the Canon A-1. Credit: Source unknown.

The King was a man of wide interests, an accomplished jazz musician, a boat builder and sailor, and a photographer. Irrespective of whether the latter was the product of necessity - he needed to record the work being done on the many projects he oversaw throughout the country - no portrait of the King is complete without including his camera. And in the early 1980's that camera was the Canon A-1.

The Canon A-1 was the most sophisticated 35mm camera of its day. Production started in April 1978 and signalled Canon's move from fully mechanical cameras. It pioneered the use of electronics to produce a camera with multiple modes; automatic, aperture priority, shutter priority, and manual. Without moving his eye from the viewfinder the photographer could switch mode, with the added refinement of shutter speed and aperture displayed in red LED's along the bottom edge of the viewfinder screen. It was a break-through.

Canon A-1
Canon A-1 with Tokina RMC FD 28mm f/2.8 manual focus lens.

Embedded in the design was the concept of stepless shutter speeds. If the camera's light meter determined that a non-tradional shutter speed was called for, it was used. It took Nikon six more years to produce a camera with similar functionality, the Nikon FA.

So when a friend of mine asked whether I could bring a Canon A-1 from the UK I was only too happy. "Do you mind if I use it?" I asked. "Of course not," came the reply.

Via stunning serendipity a roll of 35mm colour negative film literally fell out of a bag into my lap as I went through some old photography gear. It must have been in there since about 1987. I loaded it into the camera.

Pigeon in St James' Park, London, July 2021 taken with 1987 Sainsbury Colour Print Film on a 1978 Canon A-1
Pigeon in St.James' Park, London.
Canon A-1 with 1987 Sainsbury CPF. Credit: James Patrick/Lightspell.pro

The effect of more than thirty years on colour negative film is unpredictable. That the film was Sainsbury's CPF, a budget film marketed by a UK supermarket, made it an experiment. I have written up how the colours and contast were affected by age over on 35mm [link to follow].

Overall, the Sainsbury CPF had an interesting look and opened my mind to the delight of using aged film. It also showed that the Canon A-1 was working.

On arrival in Bangkok I loaded a roll of Fujicolor C200. Comparing scans of the Fujifilm online with Kodak Gold, I felt the greens and blues of the film might suit Thailand. The Fujifilm also exhibits slightly less grain than the Kodak film which would give a smoother look to the landscapes and portraits I had in mind.

The Chao Praya river, Bangkok, photographed with the Canon A-1 and Canon FD 135mm
The Chao Praya river, Bangkok, photographed with the Canon A-1 and Tokina FD 28mm on Fujifilm C200 35mm film. Metering set to Auto. Credit: C.Thongsong.

"Yes. It really is that good."

It would be fair to say that the results were far better than I expected. Most impressively, the venerable A-1's metering system was very accurate. All of the photographs on the roll would make useable prints. Paired with the Fujifilm C200, the exposures suited the tone of the film which gave a sublime texture to the rainy season clouds and a slick sheen to the water of the Chao Phraya. The strengths of modern film chemistry were evident. Contrast, sharpness, and grain were very well controlled.

I had carried two FD mount lenses from London. I need a bit more time to assess the wideangle Tokina FD 28mm. Initial impressions are that it is sharp with low levels of distortion. It would benefit from a lens hood.

In all the photographs that used it, the Canon FD 135mm f/3.5 S.C. (II) lens was superb. With the lightest weight of Canon's many 135mm lenses it has a built in lens hood,  smooth focusing and nicely weighted aperture ring.

The 135mm was a delight to use. What I noticed was its sharpness. Witness the model's eye in the photograph below. A close-up reveals outstanding detail. 

 

Canon A-1 with 135mm f/3.5 lens
Canon A-1 with Canon FD 135mm f/3.5 S.C. (II). Manual exposure based on the camera's metering. Credit: James Patrick/Lightspell.pro

The two photographs above are straight from the scanner without any digital intervention whatsoever. All of the photographs were handheld using daylight. Please feel free to download them to examine the filmic look at your leisure. (On a small screen device you might want to switch your browser to "desktop view" to avoid image down-scaling by the webserver.)

The difference between the aged supermarket "Colour Print Film" and the modern Fujifilm C200 is enormous. As for the quality of Canon's work, its excellence is for all to see. The Canon A-1 armed with a Canon FD lens - and thereby Automatic, Aperture Priority, Shutter Priority, and Manual modes - is a huge achievement. It is a camera as useable today as it was when the designers first conceived of its outrageous advantages in the 1970's. A technological leader that propelled the Japanese camera manufacturer ahead of its peers and the previously dominant Europeans.

There remains one thing I'd like to do with the Canon A-1.

As I passed through London to catch the flight to Phuket, I called in at the Photographer's Gallery in Ramillies Street1 off Oxford Street to pick up a roll of Ilford's XP2 Super. Personally I love Fuji's Acros 100 but it could wait; it's expensive in London and cheap in Bangkok. As an alternative the XP2, a black and white film that is developed in a C41 colour process, is famed for its sharpness, fine grain, and wide exposure latitude. With complete confidence in the A-1's metering and the excellence of the Canon FD 135mm lens, I would love to shoot some portraits.

Wat Arun over the Chao Phraya by C.Thongsong
Wat Arun over the Chao Phraya. Canon A-1 with Canon FD 135mm f/3.5 S.C. (II) lens, Fujifilm C200 35mm film, full scan with levels & curve adjustment.

1. For those who visit London occasionally, the Gallery moved from Great Newport Street to its new location in 2012. I know. I went there first.

2. In the intervening time, ASA (American Standards Association) became the international standard you know as ISO.