Outside magazine, October 1996
If you want to avoid the mystery in the trip to pick up your prints, consider a completely new photographic format: the Advanced Photo System. Developed by the Big Five--Canon, Fuji, Kodak, Minolta, and Nikon--APS is designed to enable photographers shooting negative film to get higher-quality prints without the cost of a custom lab. It's intended to be simpler and yet give you more control over the final product.
The heart of APS--which comprises its own unique film, cameras, and processing equipment--is a magnetic strip that records, directly on the film, exposure and flash data for each frame. So say you used a flash to capture your kids examining a shaded petroglyph, but it didn't have quite enough power to make a good exposure; APS film can record that fact and tell the automated processing machine to compensate on that print. With each shot you can chose from three print formats: classic 35mm, a slightly elongated rectangle, or a panorama. Developing costs are slightly higher than for standard film.
APS film has a smaller image area than 35mm film, which means big enlargements don't look quite as good. But loading APS film couldn't be simpler: Just drop in the cassette and close the film-compartment door. There's no leader to fuss with, and the processed negatives are returned snug and safe in the original canister, along with a postcard-size index print--basically a proof sheet--that makes ordering reprints easy. (Only color negative film is currently available, in speeds of 100, 200, and 400.) Depending on your camera's features, the magnetic strip can also specify, upon exposure, how many prints you want of each frame (up to nine) and can stamp the date, time, and various notations on the back of the print.
Most APS cameras now in stores are point-and-shoot models, but Minolta already makes an APS SLR, the Vectis S-1 ($590). It's a tiny gem of a camera that delivered excellent prints, so long as I didn't throw it a curve-ball lighting situation (extreme backlight, off-center flash-lit subject, etc.). It has a basic battery of SLR features--and a line
of five interchangeable lenses--but its spot-metering capability puts it a notch above the low-end Maxxum 400si in Minolta's model line. Canon's version, the EOS IX, should hit stores in a few weeks, and Nikon's won't be far behind.