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Consumer film formats

This article started as a note about the then new Advanced Photographic System (APS). Reading it a decade later [2006], it is history; not only is APS now not significant, but consumer film photography is being rapidly wiped out by digital. Fujifilm has said that film sales are declining at 20% per year. Konica/Minolta have announced their withdrawal from the film and camera market completely; Olympus and Nikon are scaling back film to high-end only to concentrate on digital and other areas outside photography.

For the last 2 or 3 years I have gone completely digital. I think two things have driven my perception of digital from a technical toy to everyday, and those are the improvement in cameras so that they are equivalent to film for most everyday purposes and the ready availability of digital to print facilities. I like 10*15cm photo prints and I don't much like having to print at home, with expensive paper and ink and lots of trial and error. I still use a PC between the camera and the print, usually taking in my selected photos on CD, but this PC use is now optional with many shops happy to work from digital memory cards. This last change is the one that makes digital so easily available to the general consumer. The process is now exactly the same as the old way, with the card replacing the film, plus the additional flexibility in preview and selection and the possibility of multiple use of the images.

Another plus for digital has been the widespread take-up of DVD players, most of which seem to be able to make a slideshow from JPGs on CD. So now I can give most of my friends, even one elderly widow, copies of photos they are interested in which they can view on their TV. This costs a few pence a time, much cheaper than extra prints. The image quality is not as good on a TV, but that seems not to matter to most people.

Much of the film/digital debate is endless wittering about how many pixels are equivalent to 35mm. This is completely irrelevant to the widespread adoption of digital imaging. The vast majority of users load the cheapest film, point the camera at something and get back a 10*15cm print. The real question is whether digital will do this, and it will, indistinguishably from film, from about 2M pixels up (from my experiments). If you want to get clever, and make bigger enlargements or crop bits out and blow up, then you need a few more pixels. Most users, most of the time, come nowhere near the ultimate performance of the best 35mm film.

I've also noticed that I still use 640*480 photos, which certainly aren't good for printing 10*15cm, simply because that's what my phone takes. My phone's nearly always with me, and as ever any camera is better than no camera. When phones get over 2M, with flash and autofocus, as many now do, and use standard memory cards, as many already do, then they will be capable of being used just like any other camera to make decent 10*15cm prints. Then what will happen to consumer cameras?

Odd how new entrants change technology. Phones don't really want the high-voltage circuits of conventional flash units, and there seems to be some development of pulsed white LED arrays for camera-phone flashes. There's also talk of completely new imaging methods that don't rely on sharp focus in the optics but instead use intensive calculations on a image with known distortions to produce a much greater depth of focus. Phones (and digicams) have such computation power available. This technique could remove the need for focusing in many cases and further increase the advantages of digital.

APS - Advanced Photo System

Yes, I've started using APS, and I like it. There seems to be almost a hate campaign against it in some quarters. I'm collecting here a few notes about APS and about consumer film formats in general.

My own experience is with 620 roll film (like 120 but with a slightly different spool), 120 and 127 roll film, 126 cartridges, 110 cartridges, 35mm and lately APS. I've never used a disk camera.

My main cameras:

APS is ...

APS is a new (in 1995) photographic film format, intended mainly for amateur use. The principal advance over previous film formats is the addition of a magnetic layer for recording digital information, which supplements the conventional silver-halide image layer.

APS also has a number of innovations to make handling film, ordering reprints or enlargements and using different compositions all easier than with standard 35mm film.


APS is a smaller format than 35mm. It is totally incompatible with 35mm cameras. Like 35mm, the film is supplied in a single-spool cassette, and is returned for processing wound back into the same cassette; unlike 35mm, the processed film is returned still in the cassette. The philosopy of APS is that the user never sees the film itself. The camera is loaded by just dropping the cassette in and letting the camera thread itself (the cassette is designed so that the film can be forced out of the cassette by turning the spool backwards). For reprints and enlargements, rather that looking at the negatives, the required images can be selected from a index print, which shows a thumbnail of each image against the frame number. The cassette and the index prints bear a six-digit number which ties the index print to the cassette. For digital imaging, scanners are available that work directly from the cassette, so again there is no need to handle the film.

APS film is 24mm wide, and the image size is 17mm high by 30mm wide. Standard lengths give 15, 25 or 40 exposures. So far in the UK we have seen a reasonably wide range of colour print films from Fuji and Kodak, at 100, 200 and 400 ISO, plus Kodak's 400 ISO black-and-white and Fuji's 100 ISO slide film and 800 ISO print film. There is also print film from Konica and Agfa, though this is less often seen, and then usually in 200 ISO only, though I have seen Agfa 400 ISO. Own-label films are starting to appear, from Boots and Techno (the latter being Agfa).

The magnetic layer is all over the back surface of the film (it's transparent!). It is used, as of now, to record time and date of shot, shot title, printing format required, print quantity required, camera settings, other information of use to automatic film processors, whether flash fired, &c.

Although the cameras always take the full negative area of 17mm by 30mm, the shot may be printed in one of three formats. Which format is required is selected on the camera before each shot. Most cameras change the viewfinder mask to indicate the framing selected, others have cropping lines. The formats are: C (classic) - the same shape as 35mm (3:2), achieved by cropping a bit off the sides; H (HDTV) - the full frame (16:9); and P (panoramic) - sometimes stated as 3:1 aspect ratio, but usually printed as 5:2, achieved by cropping the top and bottom of the frame, and using a higher enlargement. Usually, C is printed 10cm by 15cm, H is 10cm by 18cm, and P is 10cm by 25cm. The format can be changed on reprints.

So that really cheap cameras can show some of APS's features, it is also possible to record the required printing format on the film optically, by exposed spots on the margin. In the Agfa one-shot cameras (which can select only H or P mode) this is done by a light guide from an aperture near the lens, which is briefly uncovered when the shutter is pressed and P mode is selected. In the Fuji 3-format cameras it appears to be done by 2 red LEDs. [With the APS frame right-reading and upright, a P has a single spot above the frame to the right, a C has this spot plus another a little to its left, and an H has no spots.]

Development of the system was a joint effort by five companies: Canon, Eastman Kodak, Fuji Photo Film, Minolta and Nikon. Most other major photographic manufacturers have either taken a licence or applied for one.


Economist 1997-08-30: "... in 1996, its first full year on the market, Japanese camera makers turned out 4.2m APS units, but had to cut their production of conventional compact cameras by 4.5m to 22.9m."

Kodak press-release 1998-04: "New camera penetration for the Advanced Photo System approaches 20% in the U.S. and Europe, 40% in Japan. More than two billion exposures have been recorded on APS film. Advantix products accounted for 5% of Kodak's worldwide film revenue during the fourth quarter of 1997. In some cases, where acceptance by dealers is high, the system accounts for as much as 25 percent of photofinishing sales."

Format comparison

Negative size

APS has a smaller negative size than 35mm, so, with like-for-like film, the available enlargement is less. APS was used to introduce higher resolution films than were previously available in 35mm, and this, together with the information exchange between camera and processor is said to make APS equivalent to or better than 35mm was before the launch of APS. The relative area of negative is about half that of 35mm (depending on how you count the different cropping formats).

The following table shows how APS compares with a number of other formats, from 25*20 cm transparencies at about 94 times the area, to disk film at one fifth of the area.

Format Frame (V*H mm) Aspect Area (m^2) Area cf. 35mm (%) Height cf. 35mm (%) Enlargement for 10cm print
"10 by 8" 195 * 245 1.25 4.78e-2 5530 812 -
"5 by 4" 95 * 120 1.26 1.14e-2 1320 396 x1
MF (6*9) 57 * 87 1.52 4.96e-3 574 238 x1.8
MF (6*6) 57 * 57 1.00 3.25e-3 376 238 x1.8
35mm 24 * 36 1.33 8.64e-4 100 100 x4.2
126 28 * 28 1.00 7.84e-4 91 117 x3.6
APS (H) 17 * 30 1.76 5.1e-4 59 71 x5.9
APS (C) 17 * 25.5 1.33 4.34e-4 50 71 x5.9
APS (P) (25cm*10cm print) 12 * 30 2.50 3.60e-4 42 50 x8.3
110 13 * 17 1.31 2.21e-4 26 54 x7.7
disk 8.2 * 10.6 1.29 8.69e-5 10 34 x12

In my experience so far, APS is brilliant for standard 10cm prints (10cm * 15cm for C, for example), and looks good on enlargements up to 20cm by 30cm, at least with the 100 or 200 ISO films. I've one quite reasonable enlargement at 30cm * 75cm.


I use my father as an illustration of how the various film formats can appear to a non-expert user. He has owned, to my knowledge, three cameras in his life. In the 1950s he had a Brownie box camera, taking 620 roll film. In the 1960s and 70s he had an all-manual (except built-in exposure meter) 35mm. (On this he took slides. I'm convinced now that this was because he thought all 35mm film was for slides, and he couldn't take prints. He was given the camera). Latterly he has used a modern Minolta 35mm compact.

The box camera seems to have given no problems (it was a bit before my time!).

The first 35mm did. We took one film per holiday. Before each holiday, the camera would be brought out, a film purchased, and the instruction book found. The film would be loaded only by following the instructions in detail, step by step. Similarly for unloading, including the need to rewind the film before opening the back. (My father was a Civil Engineer before he retired, and is usually quite practical.)

Even the new compact confuses him. He's been on expensive holidays, and come back with no pictures because he's done something wrong. Once he hadn't loaded the film properly, and also he'd switched off the camera's voice synthesiser which otherwise would say "No film!".

Now he always waits until one of us comes over, and gets us to load the film.

I gave him two of the Fujifilm Super-slim APS 1-use flash cameras to take on holiday. That was a mistake. He took 25 pictures on the first, and one on the second, then took the second camera in for processing! Prevent that! Worse, the lab didn't check that the film was fully wound on before opening the camera, so wrecking the one shot that was there. Even APS didn't help there!

How the formats compare for fool-proofing:

- 35mm 126 110 120 Disk APS
Exposed/unexposed indication no [1] yes yes yes yes yes
Double exposure prevention no [1] yes yes yes yes yes
Protection from opening back by mistake no partial [2] partial [2] partial [3] yes yes
Drop-in loading no yes yes no yes yes

[1] If the film is wound right back inside this can be used as an indication, but most automatic rewind cameras do not do this.
[2] With loss of the last frame, and probably the previous frame.
[3] With loss of some frames.

Of all the formats, before and after 35mm's introduction, 35mm is by far the worst for ergonomics. It's just another example of how accidents of history can make an imperfect but adequate technology into a global standard.

APS backprint codes

(Cribbed from a posting in rec.photo.equipment.35mm.)

Data Item Code Data Item Backprint Text Code Options
00 User Input frame Title N/A N/A
01 User Select Frame Title N/A N/A
02 User Input Roll Title N/A N/A
03 User Select Roll Title N/A N/A
04 Lens Focal Length FLnnnn nnnn = 0000-9999
05 Lens Max f-number MFnnnn nnnn = 0.5-90.0
06 Camera ISO Setting ISnnnnn nnnnn = 1.0-16000
07 Camera f-number Setting CFnnn nnn = 0.5-90
08 Camera Shutter Speed SSnnnnnnn nnnnnnn = 960-1/25600
09 Camera Exp Bias Setting EBcnnnn cnnnn = -6.00-+6.00
10 Metering Mode MMc C = p(pattern)
11 Elapsed Time ETnn:nn:nn:nn nn = 00-99 hours, minutes
seconds, 1/100th sec
12 Roll Sequence Number S#nnnn nnnn = 0000-9999
13 Camera Owner ID IDeeeeeeeeeeeeeee customer defined
14 Camera Serial Number SNeeeeeeeee manufacturer defined
15 Fixed time print mode
(leader or frame)
FTc c = n (normal)
c (constant)
16 Series Scene SEcc cc = o(off)
sp(start prewind)
sn(start normal)
17 Film Exposure Length ELnn nn = 15, 25, 40
18 Magnification MGcc cc = vl(mag>1/46)
19 Rear(Back) Light RLcn cn = f(front lit)
b1(back lit 1)
b2(back lit 2)
20 Flash Return FNc c = w(within range)
b(beyond range)
21 Flash Fire FFc c = y(yes) n(no)
22 Scene Brightness Value BVcc cc = vh(BV>=5)
23 Exposure Beyond Range EBc c = w(within range)
b(beyond range)
24 Illuminant/Daylight ILc c = d(daylight)
25 Artificial Illuminant AIc c = y(yes) n(no)
26 Subject Distance SDcc cc = vh(5<SD<=infinity)
27 Subject Location SLnnn nnn = code 001-102
28 PAR (print format) PAc c = c,h,p
29 Print Quantity PQnn nn = 00-99
30 Filmstrip type Indicator SUc c = y(single use)
31 CHOL (Camera Hand Of Load) CHc c = l(left) r(right)
32 Camera Orientation OScc cc = ap(top of image
away from perforations)
tl(top towards lead)
al(top away fr lead)
tp(top toward perfs)
33-99 Reserved--

nib 1997-08-03 to 2006-03-11 (+44 7010 700642)

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