For the normal user, you have a shutter speed dial, a film advance lever, and the shutter release button which pretty much all you need. Set the shutter to 'Program', the lens aperture to 'A', focus, confirm that the exposure is correct with the viewfinder’s built-in display, and fire away. A three position level located on the top right corner of the top plate operates as the main switch of the camera - 'A' sets the camera operation on, 'L' locks up all active circuits, and 'S' is for self-timer photography.
Canon AE-1 Review - The Best Film Camera for Beginners
The camera's electronics and electromagnets are powered by one 4SR44, PX28A, A544, K28A, V34PX, 4LR44, or L544 alkaline batteries. The focusing screen on the AE-1 Program is brighter than any previous focusing screen on any Canon manual focus camera, allowing the user to focus with greater ease with slower lenses (up to f/5.6). It is the same focusing screen design that is used in the newest model of the top-of-the-line Canon F-1 (known as the New F-1).
It was also said that the program features of the AE-1P have resulted in the camera having more electronic gremlins and is considered more difficult to repair than earlier model A-series cameras.
Using the Camera
Using the camera in its AE Program mode is really a breeze. All you have to do is to set the shutter speed dial to 'Program', the lens aperture setting to 'A', focus, confirm that the exposure is correct with the viewfinder’s built-in display, and fire away. It is almost the perfect point-and-shoot as long as you remember that this is not an autofocus camera, you still have to use the focus ring to get the right distance for the image to be in focus.
Another thing which has been mentioned on the net is the incredible battery life of the single battery that the camera uses - one that is still operable after the camera has been in storage for about 20 years. The camera won’t work without a battery though, as it needs the power to release the shutter and for the metering system to work. I suppose it doesn’t hurt to keep a spare battery handy, even if it’ll be years before you actually need to use it.
Adventures in Film Photography: The Canon AE-1 Program
Canon AE-1 Program