Kodak didn't merely "introduce" or "hunch" its new Advanced Photo System products last week; it hosted a "worldwide premiere." In Hollywood, no less. Searchlights swept the audience at the company's press conference. A stand-up comic prepped the crowd. Actress Jane Seymour showed off snapshots of her new twins. An oversize film cassette, perhaps five feet tall, arced across the room on cables. If you owned the rights to the word "exciting," you'd have been collecting some pretty fat royalty checks. They're excited, all right. But will you be?
Kodak and four other major photo-equipment makers -- Nikon, Minolta, Fuji and Canon-have a lot riding on the answer. To bridge the gap between 85-mm cameras, which have pretty much reached their full potential, and digital cameras, which are still too expensive for the mass market, the usually bitter rivals spent five years jointly developing the Advanced Photo System (APS). Kodak alone will have laid out about $1 billion on R&D and marketing by the time it hits stores in late April. APS is an entirely new format, requiring different-and, on average, slightly pricier- cameras and film. In return, the companies say, point-and-shooters can look forward to easier use, more flexibility and better results.
Here's what they're hyping. APS film, to be offered by Fuji and Kodak, is about 40 percent smaller than $5-mm film and comes in compact plastic cartridges that pop right in and thread the film themselves, meaning, in theory, an end to the dreaded "is it really advancing?" conundrum. The actual film carries a magnetic strip, on which the camera can record data. An APS camera, depending on its features, might use the strip to store 'inflation about the conditions under which your shots were snapped. A flash indoors? A cloudy day? The film will pass the information on to processing equipment, so the machine can adjust itself and print your pictures accordingly. With some models, you'll be able to store text, which will be reproduced on the back of your prints. The strip can even keep track of your place on a roll of film, so you can take out a half-used cartridge, then stick it back in and finish it later.
The new film and cameras offer three different image formats. You can take a conventional picture of your spouse, then flip a switch for a larger frame in order to fit the kids in, then change again to a panoramic frame to underscore the vastness of the Grand Canyon behind them. A final benefit, at least for the disorganized or greasy-thumbed, is that processed negatives are returned inside the film cartridge: no slippery strips to slide under the sofa or get smudged or scratched. An "index print" bearing all the images on the roll allows you to present the cartridge and order reproductions by number. Fuji will sell devices to display a cartridge's contents on a TV or scan them into a computer.
A Kodak test camera -- in the hands of an unskilled amateur-appeared to work as advertised. The downside? Obviously, the more features you want to take advantage of, the more the camera will cost. Basic models will be available for under $100, while the top of the line might set you back $500 or more. Slide film won't be available at first, so you'll need to hang on to your 85 mm for that. And processing may take longer than the customary one hour, at least until your local developer splurges on an equipment upgrade.
But encouragingly, APS seems unlikely to go the way of the Kodak Disc camera, rolled out to much fanfare in 1982 and pulled back six years later after bombing with consumers and processors. In new technology there's safety in numbers, and with the five biggest photo companies backing APS (and about 40 more licensing the patents), it should have staying power. John Peterson, co-owner of four one-hour-photo shops in Denver, says he's spending about $25,000 to retrofit one of his labs to handle APS -- which he thinks will cure at least one tourist's disease. "In the 20 years I've run this business, the biggest disappointment I've seen is when someone comes hack from that once-in-a-lifetime vacation and they end up with a blank roll of film." The photo industry is betting that with APS, you'll always like what you see.
Manufacturers say APS will eliminate the traditional hassles of 35 mm. Here's how:
Easy-to-load APS film cartridges mean no threading film over sprockets.
APS film's magnetic data strip can record conditions under which pictures were taken (daylight, flash, etc.), so processing equipment can adjust itself accordingly.
APS negatives remain inside the film cartridge; and a numbered contact sheet serves as a reference. No more scratches or greasy thumbprints.
The new system lets you choose from three formats: conventional, slightly larger and panoramic.