The APS Film Format

Harbor of Porsall, Britany (France). Minolta Vectis S1
Harbor of Porsall, Britany (France). Minolta Vectis S1
135 (24x36) and APS format cartridges
135 (24×36) and APS format cartridges. The APS cartridge is more “intelligent” than the conventional 135 film container. An icon at the bottom of the cartridge shows the status of the film (new, partially exposed, totally exposed, processed) and a magnetic strip at the back of the film records the camera’s setup and the user’s preferences, in particular the form factor of each print (APS-C, H or P)

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The most emblematic APS camera, the Canon Elph (known as the Canon Ixus in Europe) was superseded by the first Digital Elph in Year 2000.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.

APS Index sheet - Costo - July 2008
APS Index sheet – Costo – July 2008 Index sheets were an APS innovation, soon available also to 24×36 film users. Note that some vignettes show crop lines. The images will be printed in the APS-C format (3×2 form factor). The other images will be printed in the default APS-H format (16×9 form factor). Another crop format, APS-P, was used for panoramic pictures, but is not shown on this index sheet.

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. 

APS Cameras

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.

Minolta Vectis S1
Minolta Vectis S1 The Minolta Vectis S1, with a 22-80 f:4-5.6 zoom. The 28-56 kit zoom was fragile and crappy and the 200 ISO film a bit grainy, but with a decent lens like this 22-80 and a slower 100 ISO film, the S1 formed a compact package and produced very nice pictures. The lens mount was specific to the camera, and the lenses can not be reused on so the called APS-C digital cameras produced in recent years by Konica-Minolta or Sony. This Vectis ended in the trash can (drop-in load mechanism broken) but the lens still had some value and was sold on eBay a few years ago.

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.

Pointe St Matthieu - Britany (France) July 2003 - Minolta Vectis S1
Pointe St Matthieu – Britany (France) July 2003 – Minolta Vectis S1

For more about the APS film format

Another point of view on the APS debacle, courtesy of Ken Rockwell.


One thought on “The APS Film Format

  1. I find the APS story very interesting – it’s amazing how much effort was put into developing it but the benefits did not outweigh the costs so it never took hold.

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