Advanced Photo System

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Advanced Photo System was a 24 mm film format introduced in 1996 by a consortium of film and camera manufacturers, including Kodak, Fuji, Canon, Minolta and Nikon. The Canon Elph (Ixus in Europe) was released the same year. It was a beautiful camera: according to Wikipedia “at the time, the world’s smallest autofocus camera”.

My camera was an Ixus Z70, the European version of the Elph 370Z you can see at the right. The bulging lens housing marred the elegant lines of the original Elph/Ixus, but it did have the compensation of 3× zoom. I used it for about five years and shot 34 rolls: 1,080 photos (which may not seem like very many in this digital age, but the fact that each exposure cost about £0.40 was a bit of a restraint). The camera was stolen when my house was burgled in 2005.

APS was a very short-lived film format. It arrived at the wrong time, just as film was about to be replaced by digital in almost all niches of the photography business. By 2000, digital cameras were clearly a better choice in the ultra-compact autofocus niche where APS had been most successful, and in 2004, only eight years afer introducing the format, Kodak stopped manufacturing APS film altogether. Ever since I heard the news, it’s been bugging me that I ought to get round to digitizing my APS photos while it’s still possible to find someone to do it. Minority formats have a habit of becoming obsolete quickly, and if I wait too long I might find that it’s no longer possible to convert the format. So from time to time I’ve been looking around for someone who can offer me a good price for digitizing all my APS film.

The curious thing about this search is that several photography businesses have felt obliged to explain to me why I shouldn’t have been using the APS format in the first place. A salesman at Campkins Cameras on Rose Crescent spent a couple of minutes lecturing me on how the APS format had been forced on the photographic industry by the manufacturers and that they hadn’t wanted to adopt it at all (Campkins can’t digitize APS film, in case you were wondering). Another company responded to my query with the admonishment, “I’m sorry but we do not have any facilities to either print or scan APS film as it considered an amateur film and we mainly deal with professionals”. Yes, thank you, photography companies, I don’t need you to tell me that I’m a rubbish photographer, I only wanted to find out if I could, like, pay you to digitize my photos.

I guess this is a case of professionals not understanding that amateurs can have very different requirements. Here’s an article about APS by Philip Greenspun from 1997 showing the same slightly blinkered attitude: “An APS negative is 56% the area of a 35 mm negative. That’s all that a serious photographer really needs to know about the format. Everything else is gadgetry.” However, Greenspun includes a very sensible counterpoint from Kleanthes Koniaris, and a lot of the comments are insightful too. Some of them are quite funny, like this one from 1999: “Like digital photography, I feel that APS will have little or no effect on professional photography.” How’s that prediction looking now?

The key advantage of APS for an amateur like me was that it enabled manufacturers to make cameras small enough to slip into a pocket and robust enough to carry around in that pocket all day, and that made it much more likely that the camera would actually be to hand when I wanted to take a photo. It’s no good owning some fancy-pants piece of kit if its size and delicacy means that you don’t carry it with you. There’s no way I would have wanted to carry a 35 mm camera up a cliff or down a couloir, but the Ixus went with me in my trouser pocket. A poor quality photo is a lot better than no photo at all, and anyway, how likely is it that I’d get a good quality photo even if I did have a fancy camera? I know from my attempts to take photos with my parents’ Leica M4 that I don’t have the patience for anything beyond point-and-shoot.

APS also made some user interface improvements over 35 mm: there was no difficulty in spooling the film (you just dropped the cartridge in via a hatch); no chance of double exposures or missed frames (all winding was automatic); no way to ruin exposures by accidentally opening the back (the hatch locked until the film was rewound into the cartridge); no confusion between shot and unshot rolls (the cartridges had an indicator, and anyway the camera refused to shoot film twice). This kind of thing doesn’t matter to the professional who has long since refined their working methods to the point where they forget how novice mistakes are even possible.

Anyway, there are plenty of companies out there who will digitize APS photos, but most are a bit expensive for someone with 1,080 exposures. Jessops on Green Street wanted to charge me £0.50 per exposure, about twice the cost of developing the film in the first place. I was about to write, “at that price it would have been cheaper to buy my own scanner,” but I’m not sure that’s true: no-one seems to make APS batch scanners (like the CanoScan FS2710 or the Minolta Scan Dual IV) any more, so buying one would involve a lot of hunting around on auction sites, with no guarantee of finding a working model at a reasonable price.

Eventually I found PictureLizard in Swindon, which has very generous volume discounts: I paid just £0.15 an exposure. The quality is, to be honest, not that great: the scans are about 1,600 dots per inch (about 1,500 pixels across a 24 mm exposure) and are rather grainy (on the other hand, the originals were not all that great either). One of the rolls was left-right reflected; it must have been fed into the scanner back to front. The photo metadata (dates and times) were not captured by the scanning process. The accidental reflections were easy to fix; restoring the dates (by reference to the printed copies) took some time. Still, at that price I can’t complain.

Here are twelve of my favourites. Click on the thumbnails for larger versions.