In 1991, Kodak, Fuji, Canon, Minolta and Nikon started working on a new film format, designed to address all of the supposed shortcomings of the 135 (24x36mm) format and bring a new lease of life to film before its replacement by digital technologies.
The development of the new format took longer than expected. The APS film format was officially launched in 1996, but the industry tried to force higher prices on consumers and botched the commercial launch.
Digital cameras became viable earlier than when everybody had anticipated, and as early as 1998, the camera manufacturers had come to the conclusion that the APS format was a lost cause.
The most emblematic APS camera, the Canon Elph (known as the Canon Ixus in Europe) was superseded by the first Digital Elph in Year 2000. In 2002, all the cameras manufacturers had reverted to 24x36mm or gone digital, and APS was dead.
Bad timing is often advanced as the main reason for the failure of APS, but it’s not the only one. Kodak and the big processing labs first positioned APS as a premium – understand more expensive – product. Processing an APS roll was 50% more expensive than a 135 cartridge, and the prints, although delivered in large and fancy boxes with index sheets, were generally not as good as what you could get with a conventional 24×36 camera. The smaller film format (the APS film surface area is only 56% of 135 film) and the decision to make 200 ISO the new standard film speed (amateur 135 film was usually 100 ISO) were primarily to blame for the lower quality of the prints.
To make the situation worse, APS cartridges once exposed were not that easy to get processed: deliberately or not, Kodak and Fuji had left the small processing labs and the minilabs out of the APS equation, and the films had to be sent to a few big processing plants. As a result, it was impossible to get APS prints in less than 48 hours. The situation improved over time, the premium charged for APS disappeared, but the harm was done and APS never recovered.
When APS was launched, very few cameras stood out: most were a simple adaptation of tried and tested 24×36 designs to the particularities of the new film format. Canon is probably the only manufacturer who developed an original concept with the Elph/Ixus. The model was very successful, and its modern digital derivatives are still selling like hot cakes nowadays.
Canon, Minolta and Nikon also launched APS SLRs. Minolta bet (and lost) the farm on a brand new line of Vectis S cameras (new bodies, new lens mount, new lenses), while Nikon and Canon proposed a few dedicated APS lenses on two new bodies but retained the lens mount of their 24×36 product line.
In terms of features, the three manufacturers positioned their cameras above the entry level 24×36 SLRs and priced them like advanced amateur 24×36 models. Their high price, compounded with the inherent quality challenges presented by the small film surface and the absence of slide or black-and-white film greatly limited the impact of the APS SLRs on the market, and retailers soon tried to get rid of them at fire sale prices.
Buying an APS camera today – even for a few dollars – is a very bad investment. While it’s very likely that 135 film will still be used and processed for many years to come, the future of APS is dimmer. The user base was never that large to begin with, and the category of users which composed the APS constituency has migrated to digital by now.
The last APS cameras were sold – new – in 2002, and I would not be surprised if Kodak and Fuji pulled the plug on APS in the next 2 years. Some of the cameras are interesting curiosities, but the drop-in load mechanism – which was part of the standard – is very fragile and does not age well.
For more about the APS film format