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Canon should make a digital mirrorless version of its famous AE-1 camera

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Winding back the clock could help the company catch up

emiliokuffer/Flickr

In the last few years we've seen a distinct trend in photography: the rise of mirrorless cameras. With fewer moving parts, these cameras are smaller, lighter, and less imposing than their DSLR cousins. They're also quieter and offer faster performance.

Somehow, Canon — which has dominated global camera sales for the last 13 years — has almost completely missed this trend. Global mirrorless camera sales were up 16.5 percent this year, while DSLR sales were down 15 percent. Yet Canon has just one line of mirrorless camera to its name, the Canon EOS M series, and it's done a poor job of cultivating these cameras since their inception in 2012. (For instance, the company has somehow only afforded them a very meager lens lineup for the M series, even though Canon's DSLR lens system is reputable and vast.)

Canon has largely missed another recent trend, too, which is the application of retro film camera stylings on modern camera bodies. Companies like Fujifilm and Olympus have owned this style in the last few years, releasing top quality digital mirrorless cameras that — thanks to brushed metal finishes, metal knobs, and rubber grips — are also easily mistaken for their film camera progenitors.

A digital AE-1 could kill two birds with one stone

Those are two big swings-and-misses. But there's a very clear way that Canon could course correct for both: make a digital mirrorless version of the Canon AE-1, one of the (if not the) company's most popular legacy SLR film cameras.

The Canon AE-1 was introduced in 1976 and, for all intents and purposes, it became the camera that most easily pops into the minds of photography enthusiasts when they think of film SLRs. (The AE-1 is also, anecdotally, one of the most popular cameras among high school and college students who are taking their first film photography courses.) Its chrome-and-black design was iconic, and alongside Nikon's F series, it helped inspire similar cameras from companies like Minolta and Olympus.

Fujifilm X100T

Popular modern day cameras like the Fujifilm X100T borrow their retro design from the era inspired by the AE-1.

It's this era of photography that companies like Fujifilm are borrowing their designs from, and it's an obvious next step for Canon. Taking the popular AE-1 design and digitizing it would give them a recognizable entry in the mirrorless market (something it definitely doesn't have with the M series, which is widely ignored). It could play off the popularity of similarly-styled mirrorless cameras like the Fujifilm X100T or X-T1, and it would also open the door wide for more of Canon's legacy designs to follow suit, like the A-1 or the F-1.

Canon is rumored to be making a big push in the mirrorless market in 2016, and it will have a decent presence at CES, so who knows? Maybe the company is already working on a similar idea. What’s clear is that Canon needs to do something; the company's profits were down 21 percent in 2015. By making a retrofuture play at the mirrorless market, Canon can right the ship.