The great 35mm vs APS controversy

This used to be one of the traditional holy wars in photography, even though currently it seems a bit more quiet.
The question is "Should I get a new, madly cool APS camera, or should I stay with 35mm (aka 135) ?".
It is instructive to do a side by side comparison of the two formats, and to consider as well aspects that are not comparable.

Film size

Well, 35mm (supposing a 24x36 negative) gives you 864 square millimeters of image area, while APS at best is 513.4. At best means, when using the HDTV image ratio; the other image formats are produced by cropping the negative, so they are even smaller.
Less film means less resolution, and more grain as soon as you enlarge. People have different tolerances to grain, but I can tell you that if you want prints any bigger than 8"x10", APS will make you suffer.
Mind you, not that 35mm is really big. If you want a lot of film, you should consider 120.

APS does have one major film handling advantage: you can (on some cameras) change film mid-roll. That's to say, the camera rewinds the film into the cassette and allows you to eject it. When you reload the cassette in the camera, it reads the magnetic codes embedded in the film backing and advances the roll up to the point where you had arrived.
This is very cool, but it would be very useful if you had a wider variety of film types in APS: like slide, color, black and white, very different sensitivities.
But, due to the market positioning of APS, they just don't make that many types of APS films: it is almost all boring color negatives, the bread-and-butter of every commercial processor.

Image taking automation

This is more or less the same. Both camera types can be very stupid point-and-shoot, or very sophisticated things (like Nikon's cameras in both formats).


The critical point here is film availability. 35mm wins hands down. And if you like slides, you can stop reading right now, because APS slides are a kind of UL.
The other point is that there are not many APS photographic systems (actually I am only aware of the Nikon Pronea, an interesting machine). That is not a concern to the casual shooter, but if you are serious about your photography, you want to buy into a flexible system that will accomodate your future photographic needs.

Post Exposure

APS comes in nice little sealed cartridges, with index prints. 35mm comes in floppy delicate strips of film that seem to attract dust and fingerprints.
You can never really see an APS negative, but this is not something that many people want to do. Black and white photographers are among the ones that need to see the negative.

In a nutshell

If you are positive that the phrase "weekend shooter" describes you well, get into APS. If you have higher objectives, or you want to learn about photography, then you need 35mm or bigger film formats.

Post Scriptum

cha0s's WU focuses on an interesting point. I suspect that the "easy loading" would have been a stronger argument years ago. Currently, 35mm P&S have very automated loading.
Another point to consider when choosing between a 35mm and an APS camera are the costs: I recently bought a new camera - one of those cute little Olympus Mu things, with a zoom and other related paraphenalia. After doing some research on this topic I chose 35mm over APS for the following reasons:
  1. The 35mm camera is only slightly larger, and still fits nicely in my pocket.
  2. It's about $NZD 100 ($USD 50) cheaper than its APS alternative.
  3. It is currently less expensive to buy standard 35mm film, and it is more commonly available.
  4. The developing costs are roughly about 50% ($NZD 7) cheaper for a single 24 exposure roll of 35mm film
  5. One of the main advertising points for APS is that "you can finally load the film into the camera without any hassles". That did not appeal to me whatsoever - throughout the years that I've been using a 35mm camera, I never had a single problem loading the film incorrectly, as the standard 35mm camera film loading procedure is rather simple to follow.
The above costs/prices are very likely to change over the next few years, as APS will become more commonplace and 35mm will go the way of black & white film. But at this current point in time, 35mm is still very viable and usable.
This whole argument reminds me of PC vs. Mac, BetaMAX vs. VHS, and Netscape vs. Explorer ... will definitely be interesting to see where this one goes.
The first question when looking at "what type of film camera should I get?" is the question of what it will be used for and by who. The question of digital vs film will likely go somewhere else.

When I was a young lad, my first camera was a 110. I could point it in some direction, and take a reasonable picture. A few years later I got a 35mm point and shoot. Nothing special on it either, just a durable, reloadable, almost disposable camera.

Today, when I want to take a picture its more than grabbing a memory but some artistic value too. Photographing fireworks, night photography, water at different shutter speeds, different depth of field with nature photography, sunsets and such. Point and shoot cameras can not handle this variety of photographic styles; and to an extent APS cameras are designed as point and shoot with a few more bells and whistles.

For the beginner photographer, the APS camera is nice. My little sister has one and she is quite happy with the zoom and wide angle that it provides. She doesn't get upset when the panoramic photographs come out grainy or when the city at night photographs are underexposed. Those pictures require greater control over the camera than APS is designed to provide.

For the amateur photographer, the 35mm film can only be replaced when technology improves the smallish nature of the film (24mm vs 35mm) so that reasonable enlargements can be made (realize that any improvement upon APS film has a similar improvement in other formats - APS will always have a disadvantage). The bodies for the cameras that use APS film must also reach a similar level of customization as the 35mm cameras. Also APS film must be able to be made into slides for even higher quality photographs.

As it stands now APS and 35mm address different markets with some overlap. APS is not poised to move into the higher end, and 35mm already is firmly entrenched in where APS is entering. The best analogy for this is that of the Macintosh and PC. APS is the up and coming easier and friendly format entering into the market of the 35mm that is often seen as clunky and old but yet very customizable.

Black and white film still exists and is often used - yes, not quite as often as color print film, but there are cases when black and white pictures are the only way to go (newspapers, magazines, amateur darkroom work, artistic, etc...). I happen to have picked up 2 rolls of black and white film this morning.

One year later... (and about 5 years since APS was launched), 35mm is as strong as ever. Digital is competing with APS for the consumer market and slowly gaining share.

The cost for development for APS film hasn't gone down - if anything it has gone slightly up. It costs about twice as much to develop a roll of APS film than a roll of 35mm film. Yes, there is Black and White film for the APS camera system.

It appears that many of the traditional camera makers are leaving the APS market. Nikon has just (December 2001) discontinued its Pronea line of APS SLR's. The only two companies that appear to be sticking it out are Kodak and Fuji. This comes as no surprise when examining the strategy, it is much the same as for game consoles. The big, expensive thing (in this case the camera) is sold at a lower cost than it should be and profits are made up on the accessories (film). The more traditional camera makers just don't compete well.

Another major issue with APS is that the promises are still vaporware. There are a number of features that were promised with the APS camera such as mid-roll change, and "don't print", and other features.

For example, of all the cameras that Kodak makes, only the Kodak Advantix 5600MRX camera and 5800MRX support this feature - the most celebrated of the features for APS... and the 5600 camera was released in 1996 in limited quantities.

All this being said, I have recently picked one up. Granted, its a real SLR camera with through the lens viewing and interchangeable lenses with a Nikon mount. It is a nice light weight camera for tossing those shots that I'm not too concerned about on... though, at an added cost (I don't really care to pay 2x the cost of 35mm processing for those 'hmm, this might be interesting, let me grab my cheap camera' photos). The advantage of the Advanced Photo System is the modification of the "rule of thirds" for photo composition. With the APS camera, the different sized prints (all be it lower quality) allow the photographer to frame shot in new ways.

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