Kodak APS (Advanced Photo System)

by Philip Greenspun; created 1996

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Every ten years or so, Kodak decides that 35mm film is too good for consumers. They do a survey and find that "97% of pictures never get enlarged beyond 4x6". They conclude from this that the enormous 24x36mm swatch of film they've been selling you is excessive. Wouldn't you rather have half the image area? You'll barely notice the reduction in quality in a 4x6 print. And guess what, they'll charge you the same amount of money for film & processing despite the fact that they only have to use half the materials.

Kodak tried it in the 1970s with 110 cartridges. Image quality sucked so consumers rejected it. I've heard that the main reason for the bad quality was the lack of a pressure plate to keep the film flat.

Kodak tried it in the 1980s with the disc camera. They stuck tiny little pieces of film on the ends of plastic arms so that it was easy to rotate up to the next frame. Oh, yes, image quality was abysmal. Consumers rejected it.

My personal theory on what happened is that Kodak hired MBAs to do the surveys instead of photographers. Photographers know that one is lucky to take 10 great photographs a year. Forget 97% 4x6 prints; they'd be happy to throw out 99% of their negatives if they could get one more great picture. This is less true of casual photographers but even they probably have only a handful of images that they want to put up on the wall and look at every day.

The picture at right, part of my New York vignettes is about half of a 35mm Tri-X negative. I've had quite a few requests for enlargements. Had it been taken with a smaller format film, the grain would be the size of baseballs. The owl at left is a big bird. It was a snapshot in a zoo, now part of the infamous Heather Has Two Mommies. I never thought it would be a good image, but it turned out to be. I'm glad that I can enlarge it to 16x20. The owl deserves his wall space.

Half the size of 35mm

An APS negative is 56% the area of a 35mm negative. That's all that a serious photographer really needs to know about the format. Everything else is gadgetry.

If you want to be a little more exact, here are the dimensions of the various APS frames:

Bells & Whistles

Kodak did some cute things with APS that, had they been done with 35mm, would have been very nice. There is an optically clear but magnetically sensitive coating on the back of the APS film. The camera has a magnetic head like what you'd find in a floppy disk drive. It writes digital information on the magnetic coating. There is the obvious stuff like date and time and exposure settings. To help the processor, the use of flash is noted.

Communication with photo labs is expensive and they charge you for it. That's why a 4x6 machine print costs about 20 cents and getting one done at a pro lab, that sometimes won't even be as good, will cost you $20. APS lets you communicate with the photo lab by pushing buttons on the camera at exposure time. You can say "I want this to be panoramic", in which case the lab will print only from the center strip of the negative. You can say "I want this to be fake-zoomed", in which case the lab will print from only the center section of the negative, sort of as though you'd used a longer lens (except that image quality will be much lower because you're throwing away most of what was already a very small negative).

Film handling is better with APS. The cartridge is used to store processed negatives so they can't get dusty. You can use half a roll and then switch to a higher speed emulsion for night-time pictures, then switch back without going through leader-retrieval gymnastics like you'd have to with 35mm.

But they are making better film now

Aside from $millions in PR, the reason APS won't flop like 110 and the disc is that today we have films like Fuji Super G Plus. It really is possible to get an acceptable 8x10 print from a tiny negative. Kodak has even promised and delivered some improved emulsions in the APS format. However, any technology that makes APS film better is just as applicable to 35mm film. Fuji seems to be keeping its 35mm film right up to date with its new APS emulsions.

The Bottom Line

If you are reasonably serious about photography and are willing to be reasonably careful about choosing a lab and storing your negatives, 35mm is a better format. At least your images will have the potential to be great.

And now for a word from my vastly more intelligent friend...

... Kleanthes Koniaris who already has his Ph.D. (and it isn't in a sissy field like computer science, but rather in physics).

For weeks, I wondered "How can somebody as smart as Greenspun not realize the genius behind the APS system?" Eventually I realized the answer: Greenspun looks at gear through the eyes of a professional, while I look at gear through the eyes of a guy who wants to properly document his vacation. It turns out that we're both correct, and you have to decide what you want.

The main idea behind an APS camera is that it is idiot-proof and it takes fantastic vacation pictures in sizes like 4x6", 4x7", or even 4x12".

Film Canister

There is no leader on the film canister, it is an elliptical prism. You never see your negatives, they also reside inside the canister. Each canister is uniquely identified by a six-digit serial number marked on the outside for humans and magnetically written on the film for the processor. The cartridge also displays one of four icons: unexposed (circle), half-exposed (half-circle), exposed ("x"), and developed (box). Canisters are available with 15, 25 and 40 exposures.

The magnetic surface on the film holds your bits, so be careful to keep it away from things that will erase your credit cards or floppy disks! (My local WalMart always tries to put my developed film on a plate that warns "WILL ERASE YOUR CREDIT CARDS" and I always manage to stop them just in time!) Neither Fuji nor Kodak warns against this hazard, but it would seem to be common sense to avoid magnetic fields.

[Comment received from one of my moles inside the Kodak research labs: "The magnetic particles used in APS file are similar to the particles used in Super VHS tape: They have a coercivity (Hc), i.e., field required to erase them, of about 900 Oersteds, three times the 300 Oersteds coercivity of credit cards and standard bias audio cassettes. Those nasty plates on the checkout counter have fields of around 300 Oe, enough to erase your credit cards and do funny things to audio tapes, but they shouldn't affect APS film. Of course I wouldn't take unnecessary risks, but if you get distracted by the same old photos of Jon Benet or princess Di, you probably won't have anything to worry about."]

Index Prints

Processed APS film comes with 4x7" sheet of index prints showing the roll ID (and bar codes, time stamps, etc). Each index print is numbered so you can say "I want to reprint picture #39 from roll ID850-939."


Prints come in 4x6" (classical), 4x7" (HDTV) and 4x12" (panoramic). Classical means "crop the sides," while panoramic means "crop the top and bottom." The form-factor is recorded when you take the picture, but you can override your choice when reprinting. WalMart charges me $.25 for each 4x6", and I believe that the price goes up to $.44 for a 4x12".

Printed on the back of each photo is the ID number of the roll, the picture number, the time of exposure (optional), as well as camera-specific printing. For example, my Canon ELPH can print "Happy birthday" (or four other phrases) in one of five languages. This printing is done by the developing machines, which read the magnetic bits off the back of each frame. I'm thinking of setting the camera to write "I love you" on the back of my prints in Japanese. The camera can also write hints to the printing machines (like "I didn't get as much light as I wanted"), so most of your vacation pictures are keepers.


I bought a Canon ELPH for $295 from B&H Photo. It is tiny, with a sexy black leather case. Girls find it very cute and tiny and always ask where they can get one. The viewfinder automatically masks itselfs to match the mode (classical, HDTV, or panoramic), which is nice, but the viewfinder corners are blurry. The only other thing that I dislike about the camera is that I sometimes press the "on/off" button by accident. This makes the lens extend and stretches the leather case, but hasn't caused the camera to fail.

The LCD display is always on showing you the time. I set the time to Universal Time (UT, also known as GMT), since I don't have to change it when on vacation---I just have to remember what time zone I was in (i.e., where I was!). For example, I'm looking at a picture of a dinosaur taken at the Minnesota Zoo at 5:40pm on 96/6/22, and I believe that Minnesota is -5 from GMT, so the local time was 12:40pm. Easy, huh?

You load/unload the ELPH (like all APS cameras) through a hatch, and I am sure that anybody can do it. My camera cannot do mid-roll swapping, but it will not load exposed film, etc.


If you want to fill up photo books and send 4"x or 5"x prints to relatives, APS is for you. If you tend to be caught without a camera, APS is for you. Compare my Canon ELPH to Philip's Yashica T4 Super and you will be amazed by the size difference---but mine has a zoom as well!

If you want enormous enlargements to hang on your wall, APS is not for you.


Text and pictures copyright 1989-1996 Philip Greenspun