The Rise and Fall of APS Film
APS film is a short lived film format that thrived during the nineties, a questionable era in the film industry when we saw a heap of random novelty film cameras and merchandise flooding our shelves. Although baggy jeans, scrunchies and bucket hats may gradually be creeping back into style, APS film will not be making a comeback (as far as we can tell).
As a film format, it can be quite a controversial topic with lots of mixed opinions and an ongoing debate surrounding the film. For the record, when I posted a picture of APS film on my story, the first response I got was 'Burn it!', so it's safe to say there are some strong opinions out there.
This article looks into the rise and fall of APS film - why does the topic cause such consternation in certain corners of the Internet - but also what are the positives to come from the innovation that the APS format brought to photography. Including a technical 'digital' term still in use today... Enjoy!
Kodak advantix 4100ix APS film camera
Kodak Mickey Mouse 110 film camera vintage
1998 vintage bugs bunny 110 film camera
7up can camera 35mm film camera
Supa Snaps Orange Monster 110 film camera
Postman Pat 35mm vintage film camera
Above is a collection of quirky 90s cameras from my one of my favourite online camera stores, Aperture Priority Who can be found on Depop. Aperture Priority is also a girl run store, so you will be supporting the female film community through your purchases! #sheheartsfilm 💪💜 I spoke to Jo who runs the store about her take on the cheap and cheerful cameras from the nineties.
"I grew up with cheap cameras... I had a Kodak advantix c450 (APS camera) the one with the flip up lens cover with a flash in the top. I loved that camera and the holiday photos were actually a revelation: so bright and sharp for people who had only used low-end cameras before .
Last year we tried a Minolta vectis and it’s such a shame that the film [APS] is hard to get/ hard to get develop and unfortunately we can’t guarantee the results. Kinda wish they made the film again, I only ever sell them for £5-10 because people of the drawbacks . There’s some quality designs in them though."
The Kodak Advantix c450 that Jo had growing up
Results from Jo's Minolta vectis experiments
The Rise of APS Film
APS film was first conceived in the 90s as a superior alternative to other cartridge film formats of the time, such as 126 and 110 film. Computers at the time were very expensive and not that developed, so the rise of digital camera technologies still felt some time away. It was marketed as the new modern film format that would make film photography simpler for hobbyists and beginners, particularly because of its small compact size and automated features.
APS film was launched on 1 January 1996, companies such as Minolta invested huge amount of money into its development, where as other companies (perhaps wisely considering how short lived the format was) stayed away, but the name lives on in the form of APS C sensors, more information coming on that later. (Thank you to Roger Driscoll from the APS Film Users Group on Facebook for helping me with the background history of APS film).
(c) Roger Driscoll with Kodak Advantix preview and a bottle of Budweiser
What does APS stand for?
APS- standing for Advanced Photo System was a film format that was first produced in 1996. It was marketed by Eastman Kodak under the brand name Advantix, by FujiFilm under the name Nexia, by Agfa under the name Futura and by Konica as Centuria. It was marketed as a modern new film to try, or even a "high-tech" alternative to the 110 format.
Understanding Frame Sizes and APS Film
To understand more about the APS film format, let's get some basic definitions out of the way. The modern digital term 'full frame' refers to the sensor being the same size as a single negative (or frame) on a 35mm roll of film. This is 24 x 26mm, hence the image sensor inside a "full frame" camera body is 24mm high and 36mm wide. This ratio of width to height of a sensor is known as the aspect ratio, this is what makes the proportions of each image, a 35mm full frame shot has a ratio of 3:2.
APS-C Senor Cameras
APS film frames are different to 35mm frames in that they measure 16.7x30.2mm, and although APS film didn't last very long, it is still used as terminology to describe digital frame formats. There are three different APS digital frame formats: H (high-definition), C (classic) and P (panorama). All three are smaller than the original APS and 35-mm film size, hence the term ‘cropped sensor’. The H format is the same ratio as the entire APS negative, while the C format has an aspect ratio of around 3:2, the same as in a full frame camera.
The exact size of an APS-C digital sensor varies slightly depending on the camera manufacturer (see the diagram below for explanation). APS-C images sensors can be found in most digital SLR, mirrorless and compact systems cameras, so you will find that the selection of APS-C lenses and camera bodies dominate the market compared to their full frame counterparts.
APS-C is the size of a digital camera sensor. Most mirrorless digital cameras use it these days. Larger DSLR cameras have full frame sensors, the size of a 35mm negative
What is the Advantage of APS-C Frames?
Due to the cropped frame size, cameras that have APS-C sensors are much smaller, more compact and lighter than full frame cameras. If you like shooting street photography, the compactness of these cameras might be ideal and this was a big selling point of the APS film format. APS-C cameras and lenses are great for street photography because their more compact designs are smaller, lighter and less obtrusive for street photography, where you may want to remain more inconspicuous.
What made APS film so different from other film formats?
APS film was designed in cartridges that were made for fully automatic film loading. When the film was not in use it would automatically enclose the 24mm wide film. Even after developing, the film would be put back into the cartridge and returned to its photographer. The film was housed in a single spool 39mm long plastic cartridge and was available in 40, 25 and 15 exposure lengths, so there was a lot more choice than with other film formats.
The film had a transparent metal coating and the APS camera would use this information exchange (IX) system for recording information about each exposure. APS cameras wound and rewound automatically, and even inspired some of the lighter more compact 35mm point and shoot cameras that came out after them. Even more advanced was the fact that the slots on the films were protected by a light-proof door that meant that partially exposed films in certain cameras could be removed and used later, which is a pretty handy feature.
See the video above for an example of loading an APS camera, it does look incredibly simple! As someone who often has to re-load my camera multiple times, I can certainly see the appeal of the APS format.
Features of APS film
APS is a whole photography system within itself, and works a lot differently from traditional film formats. It was designed to make picture-taking simpler, with lots of automated features. Read about the key differences of APS film below!
- A magnetic coating on the film that means picture-taking data can be recorded. This was perhaps the most innovative feature of APS films, it allowed photofinishing equipment to read data about how the photos were taken and process and print the film accordingly. For example, different lighting conditions, the exposure and also features such as mid-roll change.
- This worked through a thin layer of magnetic coating that covered the entire film surface, it recorded lots of information such as the picture size chosen by the photographer and with some cameras even the light source (artificial, back lighting etc). APS processing equipment used this information for each individual frame, meaning it could optimise every single image and process it accordingly.
- The magnetic coasting was across the whole surface of the film, however the cameras and photofinishing equipment read and write data in very narrow tracks outside the image area, close to the edge of the film. The tracks couldn't be seen, but as the data is magnetically stored it is important not to place your film near any strong magnet as this could damage the data.
Date and Time Stamps
The magnetic coding on APS film meant they had another feature which could date and time code prints. This wasn't burned into the film, but recorded in the magnetic strips. The processing equipment could read this data, and print the dates on the back of your printed photographs, a very useful feature.
Some cameras also had the ability to record messages so that some processing equipment could put borders and other such things on your prints, like 'Happy Birthday!' Some may think this is gimmicky, but I think it is rather fun!
The smaller film size meant that APS cameras were smaller and more compact, which was a big advantage for a lot of shooters. The designs were neat and lots could easily slip into your pocket, making them ideal for hobbyists. They were also a lot lighter than 35mm cameras.
The biggest difference with APS film was its clever automated features. APS cameras had a film status indicator on the film cartridge that tells whether the film has been exposed or processed (see picture below). They also had an automatic reject that prevented loading exposed or processed film, an automatic film advance and rewind, a drop-in film cartridge for automatic loading and a mid-roll film change on some models of APS camera. All of these features meant that the photographer never needed to touch the film, which was a big advantage to many but a draw back to some who preferred to have more control over their film.
The design of APS film was completely different to other formats:
- It was a thinner film with no film leader.
- The new base material of the film was made to be stronger than 35mm films and also had improved scratch resistance through the use of protective coatings. Although, the negatives were hardly ever handled and were returned enclosed in the original film cartridge, so the advantages of this may be slightly lost.
- APS film had more exposures per roll than 35mm, it was available in 40, 25 and 15 exposure lengths.
- The film had an indexed print with thumbnail images of each picture on the roll, numbered to match a number on the film cartridge.
- The canisters which enclosed the film had a locking light-tight door on the film cartridge that opened automatically inside the camera.
- You had the choice of three print sizes when taking pictures. And it used a visual Indicator canister so you new what stage your film was in (see picture below).
Photo kindly sent to me by Mike Gutterman, another APS fan.
"[APS] was a great concept that was a bit too late with the digital photography revolution looming on the horizon."
We have spoken about the advantages of APS film, one of the main ones being it small and compact design, which resulted in equally compact and light weight cameras! Have a look at this reel below by @xmstyle at just how small an APS camera can be.
(c) xmstyle Fuji Tiara iX Aps film camera
The smaller film had a knock on effect- smaller cameras and therefore smaller lenses were needed. The smaller camera size meant that smaller optics were used to provide similar angles of view. A typical APS camera is 40mm compared with a 50mm lens being the standard size of 35mm cameras. This means that APS lenses 125% smaller than 35mm lenses (40mm versus 50mm). This percentage can be applied to other APS and 35mm comparisons, multiply the APS by 1.25 to get the equivalent focal length for 35mm having the same angle of view.
Lots of big names came out with APS cameras when the film was first introduced, including Canon, Nikon and Minolta who all made SLRs for the film format. They each made some quality cameras (Canon EOS IX, Nikon Pronea 6i, Minolta Vectis S-1) and a slightly simplified version (Canon EOS IX Lite, Nikon Pronea S, Minolta Vectis S100). All these cameras allowed for exposure compensation (as does the Contax Tix) which is very important, especially now as all the remaining APS film is expired and expired film is often helped by overexposing the film. There were a few other APS cameras that offered exposure compensation- the Konica BM-S 100 and the Olympus Centurion (and probably the Fuji clone of the Centurion) that offer a +1.5EV backlighting compensation button.
The most well known APS cameras of the time were the Kodak Advantix (the same camera Jo from Aperture Priority mentioned at the start of the blog) or Canon Elph cameras, but the Contax TiX is pretty much universally considered the best point-and-shoot APS film camera. Even a few disposable APS cameras were made!
Roger's Contax TiX
Roger's disposable APS camera, one of the few survivors!
(c) Roger Driscoll
An APS-Digital Hybrid?
(c) Gerald Vogels Kodak Advantix Preview with retail box and accessories
One of the more unique APS cameras of the time was Kodak Advantix Preview. It had a screen on the back that would show you the photo you took, almost bridging the gap between film and digital technologies. The downside being that it only showed you the photo AFTER you took it, so you couldn't look at the result and then decide whether or not to commit a frame to it.
Thanks again to Timm Kerwin and Roger Driscoll from the APS Film Users Facebook group for their input into this section.
Kodak Advantix Preview 2001 Advert
APS Print Size
APS cameras are also different in that they can take pictures in three different sizes. You even have the ability to take pictures in different sizes across the roll of film. Processing costs would vary depending on what size you chose.
The three sizes are:
- CLASSIC (C) - yielding 3.5" by 5" (88.9 mm by 127 mm) or 4" by 6" (102 mm by 152 mm) prints
- GROUP or HIGH DEFINITION (H) - 3.5" by 6" (88.9 mm by 152 mm) or 4" by 7" (102 mm by 178 mm) prints
- PANORAMIC (P) - 3.5" by 8.5" (88.9 mm by 216 mm) or 4" by 11.5" (102 mm by 292.7 mm) prints.
Ofcourse, it is also possible to print 35mm frames in different sizes, but the feature on the APS camera that allowed you to choose the ratio as you were shooting made this much easier.
Why does APS Film Wind Up the Film Community?
APS film gets a lot of stick in the film community, but from my research I am going to go out there with the controversial opinion that APS film looks amazing! I love the sound of all its automated features and think it has some clever designs to it. However, the overall quality of APS film is not great, it has a lower resolution to 35mm film and grainier results, but who doesn't love a bit of grain?
Some of the apparent advantages of APS film, were definite draw backs to other shooters. For example, the fact that APS didn't allow the shooter to load their own film. This would have made it much easier and simpler for beginners, but for some this was seen as having a lack of control over your film. Some of the joys of film photography is its tactile nature, and APS certainly separated the photographer from their film with its automatic features.
Others didn't like the 'weird' crop aspect of APS. Although it wasn't necessarily weird, just a different ratio than what photographers were used to. Some APS cameras had a print format switch (see image below) that allowed you to change between Classic (C), Group/ HDTV (H), and Panoramic (P) formats.
Paul's Kodak Advantix F350
With APS film the negatives were kept in the cartridge, there was no easy way to get to a negative to check them, which is what I imagine put a lot of the more traditional film photographers off APS film, because darkroom prints etc would have been trickier. But this would have definitely been an advantage for hobby photographers, who most likely didn't even look at the negatives once they got their prints back. It meant you had to find a new way of archiving your negatives, but on the other hand it meant that they were protected from getting dusty or scratched.
Another interesting reason that the film community gets annoyed with APS is that it was impossible to get a free 37th frame, I was quite amused when I read this. 35mm cameras could vary so much between models that film manufactures always had to include a few free frames in the films. This meant that every canister of film could always give at least the amount of frames advertised. Photographers always try and get their moeny's worth with film, and could occasionally get 37, 38, 39 and on rare occasions even 40 exposures from their roll of 35mm film, especially if you load it in the dark. However, the electronic mechanisms of automated APS film meant that this was impossible and you would always get the exact amount of exposures advertised.
Despite the brilliant cameras I mentioned above, some photographers felt there was a lack of a 'serious' camera for the film format. There was never a 'pro' level camera introduced by the big names such as Nikon or Canon, however APS film was marketed to make film photography simpler for beginners and hobbyists, so this is hardly surprising.
I also spoke to Marina, our resident lab technician about her experiences with APS film and whether she ever had a go at developing it in some of the many labs she has worked in over the years. By the sounds of it, the APS developing process was a lot more complicated than other formats, mainly due to the fact that the film had to be removed, and then put back in to its cartridge, so I don't think it was very popular with lab technicians.
So, there seems to be a few reasons why APS film winds up the film community, but having spoken to some fans of the film format I see no issue with it at all! The way a photographer chooses their camera, is the same way a painter might choose a specific paint or brush. It is a creative choice and one of the joys of film photography is the incredible number of creative avenues we can take.
What is the Image Quality like of APS Film Photos? Featuring Mrs Wonderland
APS film is smaller than other formats, so as can be expected there is a lower resolution and overall image quality. This is the same for all film formats, the smaller you go, the more the image quality degrades, for example 110 film can be particularly grainy, but this can be an artistic choice and not always a bad thing. Particularly as it is unlikely any APS photographers were blowing up their images to massive sizes, or doing huge dark room prints. APS film was designed for beginners and hobbyists who I don't think would have minded a bit of extra grain.
Another thing to consider if you are a present day APS shooter is that you are not only dealing with an overall lower image quality, but now the fact that any APS film you can find today will be expired. Expired film often degrades the image quality, can give unusual colour tints and other unexpected effects.
Below are some APS photos shot by Lucy McKay AKA Mrs Wonderland from her photography project 'Through Robin's Eyes'. As you can see from the images they are quite grainy and the resolution could be better, but considering this is on expired film it's not too bad. I still think APS can make for some lovely, nostalgic photos- great for capturing family moments like these.
The Hidden World of APS
(c) Timm Kerwin Minolta Vectis Weathermatic Zoom, Kodak Advantix Ultra Zoom 400 (expired 04/2004)
(c) Timm Kerwin Sunset Beach, North Carolina. Contax Tix Fuji Nexia D100 (expired 09.2004)
(c) Timm Kerwin Abstract chair stack. Minolta Vectis Weathermatic Zoom, Kodak Advantix Ultra Zoom 400 (expired 04/2004)
There are more APS shooters out there than I thought! I had to do a bit of digging but of course found a Facebook group dedicated to the world of APS shooting, called the APS Film Users Group, and it is 461 members strong! I felt like a bit of an imposter joining, but it is all for research purposes and the group were very welcoming.
According to the group, a lot of APS users now resort to home developing as labs are harder to find that will process this rare format. However, a problem with home developing is then how to digitise your negatives as they are a different size to standard scanner inserts. Timm Kerwin, the admin of the Facebook group in fact modified a reel and bought an APS film holder for his scanner so he could scan his film at home too, an alternative option is to 'scan' with a digital SLR and device such as the Pixl-latr. .
Timm Kerwin's adapted APS reels, with APS on the left and 35mm on the right
Hear directly from an APS shooter!
I had the pleasure of speaking to Morag Perkins, a proud APS shooter on why she uses the format and her experiences with the film. Morag tells me that she wrote these answers whilst listening to 90s music as it seemed appropriate!
What got you into APS film?
I was offered an old APS compact camera and some film by a friend of a friend - the camera turned out to be a bust, but it gave me the nudge I needed to pick up a cheap APS camera and give the format a try. I have a weakness for those unfashionable late 90s/early 2000s plastic cameras, and also for odd and tiny film formats, so APS certainly appealed! I very quickly realised that I love working in that 16:9 aspect ratio, and it all followed from there.
Which cameras do you shoot APS with?
I have a Canon EOS IX and it’s little brother, the IX Lite. Oddly enough, I actually prefer the Lite version to work with. They’re both proper Canon EF mount SLRs, so they have decent metering and all the control you might want - and I can use my existing lenses! My favourite lens to use is the Canon 100mm f2.8 macro, but there’s also plenty of scope to use an adapter and play with some really improbable combinations, like a Helios 44-M on APS film!
Canon EOS IX
How difficult is it to find APS film and get it developed nowadays?
The trouble with APS is it was doomed from the start - the Betamax of film formats! It came on the scene right before digital took off, so it was never going to last, and APS film manufacturing was discontinued in 2011. You can still find it easily enough on eBay and occasionally from film retailers, but most of it is maybe 15-20 years out of date, and often poorly stored. Occasionally you might get lucky and come across some that has been cold stored, but there is less and less of that left - if you see some, grab it!
The best way to approach APS is to accept that much of your film will be gubbed - expect fogging, grain, and potentially wacky colour shifts - the trick is to embrace that and roll with it! Sometimes the results will surprise you. If you can, try to get a camera that allows you to set the ISO or has some sort of exposure compensation so that you can compensate for the age of the film. If your camera won’t do that, try pushing the film a stop or two when processing.
It’s technically quite difficult to produce APS film, and the market for it is likely to be very small, so to be honest I’m not that optimistic about any of the film manufacturers producing new APS film stock - although I’d be delighted if they did! (Looking at you Lomography…!)
If you’re not too bothered about those whizzy special APS features like cropping and captions, I’ve found it relatively easy to get APS film processed - my regular lab will do it no problem (my regular lab is Photo Hippo), and it’s not significantly more expensive than 35mm processing. You get the negatives back neatly stored inside the canister and a set of uncropped 16:9 scans, which I’m quite happy with.
If you want “proper” APS processing with the original machines that give you all the features, then that’s a bit trickier to find, but I believe there are a couple of labs that will still do it.
Finally, a few people have successfully processed their own APS at home - it’s just regular C41 process, but you may need to hack a set of reels to load the film into your tank!
What do you like to APS film and how does it compare to other film formats- do you prefer it?
Well, I’ve already mentioned that I love that 16:9 native aspect ratio!
The other big upside is the cameras! Because good film is so hard to find now, the cameras can be easily bought for next to nothing - and the thing is, many of them are great! APS came right at the end of the film era, and it was touted as the next big thing so the manufacturers threw a lot of their latest whizzy tech into those cameras.
That EOS IX is a top of the range SLR, with excellent build quality and pretty much all the features you might want - and I picked it up from eBay in pristine condition for about £15. Even a Contax TIX can be had for far less than it’s fashionable 35mm cousins, and it’s likely to stay that way for a while, at least until one of the Kardashians takes up APS.
I often opt for APS precisely because of it’s haphazard nature. I’m a terrible perfectionist and I care too much what other people will think - APS can be the perfect antidote to that. The results you get might be a complete write off, that’s the risk you take - but it’s a great way to make you care a bit less about getting it right or impressing people and just go with the flow. Here’s the thing though; sometimes the results turn out great! I’ve had rolls of 20 year old APS film that captured the feel of a particular day like nothing else could. Sometimes really grainy fogged film just…works.
Unless some new film stock appears some day, I’m never going to use APS for Serious Photography. If I’m looking for lots of choice of fresh film and precise, predictable results then it’s 35mm all the way. But when it’s just for fun or to blow off steam then APS is one of my most enjoyable options and I will reach for it fairly regularly! Every batch of film I send off to the lab has at least one roll of APS in it these days.
…and did I mention the aspect ratio?
What would you say to people who aren’t convinced?
If you’re wondering if APS is right for you - I’d say: understand the limitations. Know what you’re getting. It’s a small film format (sub 35mm) and the most of the available film is terrible. But if those things don’t worry you too much, go for it! It’s cheap to get into, probably much more accessible than you think, and it’s enormous fun! You’ve really got nothing to lose except your dignity!
If unpredictable results aren’t your thing and you want precision and high quality, there are plenty of other film formats and plenty of premium fresh film stocks available that will give you just the results you are looking for. Each to their own and all that.
I’ll be over here though, exploring the forest in the rain with some unlikely APS camera/lens combination and a roll of faded film somebody found in the back of a cupboard…and loving it!
Photos from Morag's walk shot on an IX on 100mm macro (slides 1 and 2) and a Helios lens (3)
Where can I buy APS film?
Trick question! APS film is all expired now so it can be tricky to find, I would suggest having a search on ebay or joining the APS Film Users Facebook group for some more tips. You could even speak to Timm, he seems to have a big APS hoard, see below.
(c) Timm Kerwin
Where can I develop APS film?
There are a few labs left that will develop APS film, you could try Photo Hippo, ASDA, Photo-express or take Timm's approach and have a go at home developing.
The Fall of APS Film
There were several reasons that APS film was discontinued in 2011. The main reason being that digital technologies were taking over. The quality of digital cameras was increasing whilst there prices were falling, so digital became the more popular option. In January 2004, Kodak announced it was ceasing APS camera production. Both Fuji and Kodak, the last two manufacturers of APS film, discontinued production in 2011.
On top of this, APS film was much more complicated for labs to develop. It required new expensive machines to process the film. They charged more to process APS film to pay for the investment in the new equipment, which I can imagine put a lot of film shooters off.
Love it or hate it, it seems that there are still some dedicated APS fans among us and its memory shall be living on for a while yet. Having done a lot of research for this blogs, I feel that the demise of APS film was partially due to bad timing, it came along just before digital technologies took off so didn't stand much of a chance. But it had some really great features that have informed camera technologies since. APS film, gone but certainly not forgotten.