Wait, go back to the part about "APS-C"

A design that the industry baked into APS was the ability to vary each photo's aspect ratio frame-to-frame. The photographer would set the APS camera to an aspect ratio: "H" for "high definition" 16:9 frames, "P" for "panorama" 3:1 frames, or "C" for "classic" 3:2 frames. This setting would not change the exposed negative size – every photo exposed the full 30.2mm by 16.7mm frame – but would set markers on the film indicating how the frame should be cropped during printing. So for example, a panorama print would be enlarged from 30.2mm by 9.5mm of the negative, and a "classic" print would be from 25.1mm by 16.7mm of negative.

Here's how this plays out through a camera's viewfinder. In APS-C and APS-P the sides and top/bottom (respectively) are cropped in.

All of these APS frame sizes were smaller than the 135 (35mm) frame size of 36x24mm. The frames were smaller in an attempt to sell consumers less physical film at the same price. To help disguise this, many APS cameras were designed to use existing 135 lenses. However, a (for instance) 50mm lens on an APS camera was effectively more "zoomed in" than on a traditional 135-format camera. So when Canon marketed their early digital SLRs as having an "APS-C" (or sometimes "APS-H") sensor size, it wasn't because the digital sensors were the same size as APS negatives (they weren't), but because the same lens used on a digital camera would be "cropped" compared to 135 format.

That's idiotic

Yes it certainly is. Thanks, headlines.

The Canon "APS-C" digital sensor size is 22.7mm by 15.1mm, which is significantly smaller than the actual APS "classic" frame. But APS was such a shit format that nobody cared about actual APS frame sizes. What they cared about was the lens cropping. Why call it "APS-C" and not just "APS"? Probably because APS-C was the format with the same aspect ratio (3:2) as digital sensors. This is all so very dumb, it boggles my mind.

A photo with the full APS-H crop

What else did APS do?

In addition to scamming people into buying less film at the same price (and forever marring the designation of digital sensor sizes), the APS system introduced another major disadvantage disguised as an upgrade.

APS film was easier to load! Just pop the canister in, and the cameras automatically wind it for you! At the end of the roll, the cameras automatically rewind the film fully back into the canister. Canisters had special markings on them to automatically indicate if a roll was unexposed or not.

A photo with the panorama APS-P crop. Look at that intensely bad image quality.

This sounds great, but the dumb part comes from that the film was never to be removed from the canister even by lab techs or when returned to the customer. APS film had to be processed in special equipment (which film labs of course had to buy new), and then returned to the photographer still in canister. In case re-prints were needed in the future, just send that canister back to the lab and tell them which frame number! Gone were the days of actually looking at your negatives yourself.

An APS spool contact sheet. The Panorama APS-P frames are labeled "P" and show the panorama crop lines, even though the negative is fully exposed.

This was not something either labs or consumers wanted or were happy with. It also had the side effect that the number of frames in a canister was only exactly as it was labeled. With 135 film, a roll sold as 36 frames could sometimes be 37 or 38 frames long, if you were careful with loading it, and had a camera with a short film transport. But APS was designed to prevent people from "stealing" extra frames from the film companies.

A photo with the "classic" APS-C crop. Hot dang does this lens suck.

Fuel to the Fire

Smaller frame sizes meant less image quality. Obnoxious canisters meant less control over the film itself. This was bad, but the film industry really wanted to make sure APS failed, so they only ever created boring, consumer-level film stocks for APS. Want to shoot with anything more exciting than consumer Kodak or Fujifilm at ASA 200 or 400? Well you won't be doing that with APS!

But the canisters look pretty!

The Cameras

There's nothing special about APS film that made the camera companies create new concepts in camera design, and there are many traditional SLR-style APS cameras. But APS coincided with an era of experimentation, camera companies trying out the unusual, searching for something to differentiate themselves from the fierce competition. Which brings us to the camera that I've landed on for playing in the world of APS: The Yashica Profile 4000iX.

The Yashica Profile 4000iX

The Profile 4000iX is styled to be used more similar to a video camera than a still. Held vertically in the palm of your hand, your index finger's job is to zoom between 30mm to 120mm and push the shutter. Your thumb operates the settings, power, flash, autofocus, and self-timer. And your other hand operates the aspect ratio lever (P, H, or C). Fold down a little door at the back to reveal some data settings button, and the mid-roll rewind. And that's it.

Yep, it's a point-and-shoot camera.

Want to fine-tune focus, exposure, composition, flash brightness, or anything at all? You won't find it here. So why does it appeal to me? I'm a sucker for weird shapes, and also for its pearlescent finish. Plus, these things were mass produced, and can be found dirt cheap on eBay (along with APS film). The most expensive part is film development, which in 2020 costs $15/roll.

As cameras go, this one is pyrite: looks shiny, but is worthless. I find it uncomfortable to hold and difficult to point. Even worse, it has a single-action shutter button – half-press-to-focus is gone! This camera wasn't designed for photographers, I can in no way recommend it. Which makes it a perfect accompaniment to APS film.

This is about the best I can make this camera look. Whereas this is toward the worse. See for yourself the lack of microcontrast, lack of detail, and all types of crazy distortion everywhere.

To see what's going on inside (and because destroying things is fun) I broke open a canister of APS film – what no consumer or lab is ever supposed to do! Here's what it looks like.

Not too dissimilar from regular 35mm spools, except with a film door (to the left). The film itself has no sprockets.

Conclusion

I will never love APS film. I will never love the Yashica Profile 4000iX. They're forgotten remnants of a dumb industry, so uninteresting even Lomography hipsters can't be bothered. But my curiosity overwhelmed my reluctance to part with cash, so I've now tried it out. And I wrote it all down here, just for you, to prevent you from doing the same.

APS-H is also a weird aspect ratio for vertical shots.