APS
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APS Film in 2021 – A Guide to Shooting, Developing and Scanning – By Bob Janes

May 27, 2021

My dad has always been a bit of a hoarder. However, there comes a point where even a 93 year-old has a clear out of old magazines. I think he was able to do this because he didn’t have to throw them out himself. Instead, he could pass them on to the next generation of hoarder – me. Part of his hoard: A Practical Photography supplement from 1996 has the title: “The complete guide to the Advanced Photo System”. The banner at the top of the cover says “PHOTOGRAPHY IS CHANGING FOREVER”.

Photography and change

Photography did change. Within a few brief years digital cameras started to become commonplace. Manufacturers discontinued new film cameras one by one. Photographic film survived, but the Advanced Photo System (APS) did not. Kodak stopped making APS cameras in 2004. By 2012 both Fujifilm and Kodak, the last two suppliers of APS film, had ceased production. No-one has made APS film since then. Cue the tumbleweed.

APS Cartridge

Even the outside of the APS cassette is brimming with information which can be read by humans or machines as required. Each film is identified as a type with a length, ISO value and, in those last 6 digits (527-590), as a unique film, able to be identified against all others of the same type.

Unprecedented co-operation

All the major film and camera manufacturers co-operated in an unprecedented manner to develop the APS system. APS film is highly specified and manufactured. It sits in a sophisticated cassette with light seals and locking mechanisms. Some cameras read and write information onto a magnetic layer on the film. Two perforations per frame accurately position each image. People post instructions on the internet about how to slit available film formats to size and reload cassettes and cartridges for most film formats. Not APS; it’s just not hack-friendly.

APS cartridge

The APS cassette could also give you information about the state of the film inside, from 1 (circle) – unexposed, 2 (half-circle) – partially exposed, 3 (cross) fully exposed, and 4 (rectangle) -processed. The little tab in the bottom right corner would be punched in after processing to tell the camera not to expose onto the film (a bit like the tab on a VHS cassette). In the top left corner, looking a bit like an upside-down skull is the socket for opening the light-trap.

Everything passes

Even the newest APS films expired years ago. You can still buy outdated film on auction sites, but once that is gone, it is gone and there is unlikely to be any more. Without film, APS cameras will end their days as expensive paperweights.

In 2010 Kodak announced that Kodachrome processing would end. It was a complex and impractical process, but I, like many others, mourned its passing. I shot a couple of rolls for old-time’s sake. Kodachrome is a pillar of photographic history. APS is not in the same league, but as an official ‘Grumpy old man’, I’m a sucker for a wallow in nostalgia.

In 1989 Mark Carwardine and the great Douglas Adams made a series of documentaries for the BBC where they travelled the world hoping to encounter species of animals that were on the brink of extinction. The series was called ‘Last Chance to See’.

Last chance to shoot APS

A few more things inspired me to write this article (beyond the urge to see how much obscure format stuff Hamish will let me put up on the site).

  • A flip comment I made in a review of a Canon 110ED camera. I was writing about 110 film availability and said: ‘It could be worse, it could be APS’. It got me thinking about whether APS cameras had any life left in them.
  • The cross-processing and home processing stuff I’ve been doing recently with cut down reels and development of c41 films using R09.
  • A clear-out that my mother-in-law made. She passed me on a little Canon IXUS II camera. A lovely little camera in metal that happens to take APS film.

A hoarder memory surfaced that there was one (or possibly two) Minolta Vectis APS SLR cameras stored in a blanket box in one of our bedrooms. I’d picked them up during my first auction binge buying sessions back in the mid-2000s when APS was still a thing.

Advanced Photo System

The film

My search for old APS film started on eBay. I bought some Agfa Futura film that died in 2001 and two rolls of Kodak Advantix that was as little as 14 years out of date. My intention was to process the c41 film in black and white chemistry to see what results I could get.

The cameras

Manufacturers made a wide range of cameras for APS film. They ranged from disposable cameras to sophisticated cameras that are almost items of jewellery in themselves. Fujifilm and Olympus made integrated zoom bridge-cameras. Canon, Nikon and Minolta released sophisticated interchangeable lens cameras. The big two used their existing 35mm lens mounts, while Minolta went as far as to introduce a completely new one. The pictures you see in this article will have been taken with both of the Vectis SLRs made by Minolta.

The processing reels

Back in a previous article, I documented cutting down a Patterson-style reel to take 16 mm/110 film. It should be possible to cut a little less off the tube of a similar reel to suit APS film, but if you are interested in processing non-35mm formats you might want to take the approach I did, and create a reel that will work with 16 mm and 24 mm film.

To adapt my custom 16mm reel for APS film (which uses 24mm film stock), I fashioned a little 9 mm spacer from the top of a film canister. Although the ring will be too small to fit over the centre spindle of the lower part of the modified reel, it should still hold in place if it has a slit cut in it. Once it is in place it should hold the upper (cut-down) part of the reel the proper distance to hold APS film.

Make a spacer for your 16 mm cut-down reel by slicing a ring off the top of a film canister. About 9-10 mm should do fine.

 

Cutting the ring will enable it to go over the spindle of the reel, but its springiness should keep it in place to act as a spacer.

 

A clip on the core for the tank holds the top spiral in place. If your tank does not have a clip you could use a rubber band doubled over. I cut myself a 24 mm strip of plastic to check that I had the spacing correct. Too wide and the film will slip out of the reels. The film may snag if spacing is too narrow.

Processing APS film

You could of course, use c41 chemistry at home. I don’t have the experience or the equipment to do c41 at home, plus the film I’m using is way out of date. So I’m going to use R09 to produce a black and white negative.

Getting to the exposed film

As ever, the problem is that you have to do this for the first time in darkness. Be reassured, it is not too difficult.

You can use small flat-bladed screwdrivers to open the light trap and rotate the spool to get the film leader out. Ideal for the light trap is a 3mm, and for the spool a 4mm, flat bladed screwdriver. You may be able to get away with one or the other if you don’t have access to both.

As viewed in the first picture, the light trap opens with a turn of the screwdriver bit clockwise. The film leader (just visible inside the light trap in the second picture) can be extracted by rotating the spool clockwise.

In the dark you need to open the light trap by putting the screwdriver into the socket and rotating. You can then hold the light trap open while you use the 4 mm driver on the spool to eject the film leader. The leader comes out very easily. The APS film base is different from conventional 135 film; a bit stiffer. Once you have hold of the leader you don’t need the screwdrivers any more as the film will come out of the cassette easily – more easily that 135 as you don’t have to pull the film through the light-trap material. The film then loads quite easily onto the reel.

Processing method

To process c41 film with B&W chemicals, treat the film as if it is Kodak Tri-X. Processing times are the same for c41 regardless of original ISO value. One of the benefits of B&W development of c41 is that the main deterioration in expired film is colour shifts, which won’t bother us.

If you process c41 film in this way, you do have to cater for the colour of the media itself. This gives a Black and Brown image. Contrast is less than if processing black and white film. However, it should still be possible to get some decent results from a film scanner.

The processing time for Tri-X in R09 at 1:50 dilution and 20° Celsius with agitation every 60 seconds is 14:45. After stopping and fixing clear images were visible on the orange/brown acetate

Digitising APS

There are various different ways of digitising your  developed APS negatives. They will fit in 35mm holders, but  you do need to position them carefully to make sure you get the whole picture. APS negatives have a smaller border for perforations than with 135 film. Wear cotton gloves to help position the negatives in the holder once it is closed. Cutting some paper ‘bridges’ to help keep the negative flat may also help.

Scanning

Unfortunately the width of the negative does not correspond nicely with standard 35 mm spacing. If your film holders have bars across, you can scan two frames at a time, separated by a bar. I found the easiest way of dealing with APS was to cut into strips of 6.

APS in a 35mm film holder

I’ve used a paper strip here to help keep the top edge of the negative flat. By positioning the ‘bar’ on the holder between two frames you can scan two at a time.

Copying

If you have a macro lens setup and a digital camera, you might find it easier to photograph the negatives. I got a slightly better results from the brown-on-brown negatives from photographs than I did from scans.

If you do want to copy your APS negs, there is a APS film gate available for pixl-latr from Simon Forster

aps film in pixl-latr

APS Sample Photos

APS sample

Battlements at Tilbury Fort

Boat passing Tilbury

Detail of sculpting on Fort entrance

Pony near Crossness Nature Reserve

Wind generator at Crossness nature reserve

Urban fox, my back garden

Conclusion

APS as a film format is stone cold dead, and I stress there will be no reprieve. Film is expensive and if you want to find someone to process colour for you, that will be expensive too. If you have any of the old cameras available it might be interesting to source some of the few remaining films available on auction sites, but in practical terms, if you want a flavour of late 90s technology, going for a 135 SLR model or an advanced compact from that era is going to be a more fulfilling experience.

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17 Comments

  • Reply
    Tobias Eriksson
    May 27, 2021 at 11:00 am

    This is a great write-up on APS! Much needed. I just want to add some info:
    Caffenol is a more consistent developer for C-41 (and slide) film when developing for b&w. Some films go all opaque brown in b&w chemicals, while in Caffenol they still go brown but with discernible details.
    Best Foto in Riesa develop APS film in C-41 chemistry for the same rate as 35mm (and Instamatic 126-film!). I think today they are €5.90 for developing plus shipping.

    • Reply
      Bob Janes
      May 27, 2021 at 5:11 pm

      Interesting Tobias! I was using R09 because I’d seen a suggestion that Rodinal might give a suggestion of tint, but I’ve not seen it. I will research Caffenol!

  • Reply
    Kurt Ingham
    May 27, 2021 at 2:55 pm

    There is still a lot of well-stored APS about – and if you use some of the few cameras that allow you to overexpose it, results can be pretty good (look on Facebook group) Not nearly as costly as Polaroid pack film. I agree, no future, but the present is not yet dire-just inconvenient

    • Reply
      Bob Janes
      May 27, 2021 at 5:16 pm

      I stress I’ve enjoyed playing with APS and have been working on ways to scan and/or copy negatives. I’d just hate to think I’d encouraged people to buy expensive cameras with a limited future – if they are cheap or free, then all well and good.

  • Reply
    David Pierini
    May 27, 2021 at 3:04 pm

    Is it possible to hack an APS camera to shoot 35 mm? Maybe with the right camera?

    • Reply
      Bob Janes
      May 27, 2021 at 5:23 pm

      I did try. The trouble is that the more interesting (and sophisticated) cameras expect to communicate with the film cassette. It would not be too difficult to slit film down to 24 mm wide, but the placement of the sprockets is rather critical – they pair either side of the gap between frames. The film needs to be ‘just so’ because it gets unwrapped inside the camera (the APS film leader is rather a weird shape).There are lots of enterprising people out there on the internet who will hack most film formats, but I’ve not seen anything on recycling APS cassettes. If you find anything please let us know.

  • Reply
    Tom
    May 27, 2021 at 4:16 pm

    Even though it’s pretty clear that APS was the last format swindle, I still have a soft spot for the little compacts. Shout out to Canon for keeping the lens mount EF when everyone else brought in new APS SLR mounts, and for releasing the so bad it’s good 22-55.

    • Reply
      Bob Janes
      May 27, 2021 at 5:24 pm

      I think Nikon kept with F mount as well. I guess it was a reasonable rehearsal for digital.

      • Reply
        Tom
        May 27, 2021 at 9:14 pm

        I think you’re right on the mount. The IX Nikkor lenses that came with the APS Nikon’s can’t be used without modification on other Nikon’s though. They die with the format unless you hack them.

  • Reply
    Peter
    May 27, 2021 at 4:40 pm

    Ah yes. my Law School graduation present (a Kodak Advantix) currently resides among my old SLR’s and point & shoots. I only ever really remember shooting the camera twice seriously on trips to Australia and Hawaii. It was a fun point and shoot to use but I always went back to using my Minox 35MB for trips. Looking at it now I feel very, very old. While I have no cartridges/rolls left to process, I must say thanks for the trip down memory lane.

  • Reply
    Case Harris
    May 27, 2021 at 4:53 pm

    APS as a film format may well be dead, but its legacy lives on as a major defining factor in the digital world. While “full frame” digital sensors are based on a standard frame of 35mm film, “crop frame” sensors are also called “APS-C” and are sized based on the 24mm APS film frame.

    The APS cornerstone of the digital foundation has a neat ripple effect with lenses as well. Just as different large-format film sizes have a relationship with different lenses and their image circles and coverage, consumer level DSLR cameras often use less expensive lenses with a smaller coverage area to match the APS-C sensor. Since a few of the big camera manufacturers used their existing lens mounts, it opens up some of the high quality (but usually far less spendy than their full-frame equivalents) modern DSLR lenses for use on, say, my Nikon Pronea 6i body. Conversely, a collection of full frame F-mount glass has some expanded usefulness: a 200mm tele on the Pronea APS body has a field of view equivalent to a 300mm on a 35mm frame. My 500mm wildlife lens gets even more “reach” out to what looks like a 750mm on 135.

    So, whether you call it “Amateur Photo System” or “analog DX,” the APS system still has some usefulness bridging the analog/digital divide. As the film and camera industry’s attempt at simplifying film photography for consumers in the face of an oncoming digital revolution, I think the concept was quite successful in its day.

  • Reply
    Robert_
    May 28, 2021 at 12:20 pm

    I’m so glad you wrote this. I’ve been toying with putting something together for ages but it would have been nowhere near as comprehensive and useful as this.

    • Reply
      Bob Janes
      May 28, 2021 at 12:37 pm

      Don’t let it stop you. If you have useful info to add, you can do it through the comments here (and I can always update the article). Some of the best resources on the internet are effectively collaborative efforts. If you want to write your own piece, either on 35mmc or on a different site it is another resource that people interested in the subject can draw upon – and articles can include links to each other. Remember, there doesn’t have to be a definitive article on this sort of stuff – just contributions towards the greater knowledge.

  • Reply
    davesurrey
    May 28, 2021 at 2:47 pm

    Bob, thanks for another interesting article. A few months ago I picked up a load of expired film at an auction which included some APS stock. So when I saw a mint conditioned Canon EOS IX lite going for £20 I jumped at it. What a great camera with the bonus of being capable of using all my EF mount lenses.

    But when my remaining 7 rolls have been used it’ll be retired to the collection.

    Like so many things the APS concept was advanced, quite literally, but couldn’t compete when the disruptive technology, that is digital, came along.

  • Reply
    Kodachromeguy
    May 29, 2021 at 4:14 am

    Bob, very interesting note on one of photography’s less than successful experiments (maybe to share a dubious honor with the disc camera?). A couple of notes:

    1. Nikon made an APS adapter for their CoolScan scanners. But they were for films that had been developed by a professional lab and kept in their cassette. I retrieved one of these adapters from the throw-out pile at the office and gave it to a friend, who had a CoolScan. He has likely never used it.

    2. Dwayne’s Photo in Parsons, Kansas, will still process APS, and even Disc! (As of May 2021)

    3. I think the concept of the APS system was brilliant in that information about the exposure could be encoded on the film and the film stayed safe in its cassette. But the fundamental failure was the small size of the image in the negative. People could buy a regular 35mm camera at about the same price, but get a much larger negative. And some of the issues of loading had been solved by Canon (and other companies?) where all you had to do was drop the cassette in the camera and draw the film across the gate. Also, the improvements in film that came with the APS soon extended to the 135 format, so photographers had the benefit of the improved film but in larger size.

    4. I agree fully with Dave above, who noted that APS was advanced, but it could not compete with the disruptive technology of digital. But surprisingly, 135, 120, and sheet size film are dong very well with an entirely new generation of photographers, as 35MMC readers know. Bravo!

    • Reply
      Bob Janes
      May 29, 2021 at 7:18 am

      Thanks for the added info.
      Nikon, Minolta and Canon all produced APS adapters for their 35mm film scanners of the early noughties, but you don’t see the attachments on auction sites as often as the scanners themselves. I think Canon actually used to bundle the APS adapter with at least some models of their scanners.

  • Reply
    Barry Reid
    September 1, 2021 at 11:31 am

    It’s a crying shame that APS is gone. If only for the Contax Tix, which I think is a nicer camera to use than either the T2 or T3.

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