Advanced Photo System Has Hands-Off Appeal

For anyone who's ever rushed to the photo developer in anticipation of that special roll of pictures - say of a new grandchild or a dream vacation - only to have the photos come back blank, the photo industry has a remedy.

According to industry surveys, this happens to 3 million rolls of 35-mm film, or 1.5 percent of the 2 billion rolls processed each year. While modern 35-mm cameras are marvels of user-friendly automation, one thing they don't do is load their own film.

Now a new generation of cameras and film addresses that drawback and attempts to make photography nearly mistake-proof. The so-called Advanced Photo System (APS), which will be available to consumers in April, has the potential to change how the average person approaches taking pictures and threatens to send the 35-mm camera into obsolescence.

''35-mm film is an old format,'' says B. Alex Henderson, securities analyst for Prudential Securities in New York. ''It's been upstaged by better technology.''

But Joseph Meehan, technical editor of Photo District News, a monthly magazine of the photography profession, worries that APS will steamroll professionals, who have invested heavily in 35-mm, into buying an expensive and possibly less-useful format.

Why not stay in 35-mm and improve the existing technology? he asks. ''There's a strong marketing aspect to this whole movement. I've never seen anything that compares to the publicity.''

Indeed, the market opportunities are so big that five of the world's biggest computer companies, film giants Kodak and Fuji, and camera-makers Nikon, Canon, and Minolta, formed a consortium in 1991 to develop the technology, along with a range of easy-to-use cameras, and shepherd it into consumers' lives.

At the heart of APS is the new film, and, equally important, how the film works in the camera. Kodak's Bill Atkinson, systems manager for APS, says his company began doing market research in 1988 to learn what consumers didn't like about their camera equipment, and found the overwhelming complaint was the difficulty of loading 35-mm film.

APS addresses this problem with a new film cassette that is oval shaped and smaller than a C-sized battery. It is dropped into a slot on the bottom of the camera. The camera then feeds the film without human intervention through a process Mr. Atkinson describes as ''pushing a rope.''

APS's film has been completely remade, and its 24-mm size is about 40 percent smaller than standard 35-mm film. ''Everything about the film is new,'' Atkinson says. The changes begin with a flatter, more durable polyester base that replaces the curly, stiff plastic of today's films. On the back of the base layer, two thin magnetic strips store exposure and framing parameters for use by the photo finisher, and allow the user to add brief written notations to each frame.

The film delivers sharper, brighter pictures because of an improved emulsion, the gelatin-like layer where the image is actually captured, Atkinson says. Initially, the product will be available in print film only, in three ''speeds'' for differing light conditions, and in roll lengths of 15, 25, and 40 exposures.

An innovation of the system is that photographers will be able to choose among 4-by-6-inch prints, or wider 4-by-7 inch, or panoramic pictures. By adjusting a switch on the camera, the user can choose among the three formats. The viewfinder changes proportions accordingly, and the setting is recorded on the film's magnetic strip to tell the photo finisher how to print the image.

The chosen format will be indicated with frame lines on an index print that will come with the print order. The print will show thumbnail-size pictures of all the images on that roll.

Rather than having to handle negatives, consumers will get their exposed film back uncut inside its cassette. Additional prints are ordered by designating the picture number and giving the cassette to the photo finisher.

Cameras designed to use the APS film system are also new. All five consortium members are producing a new generation of auto-focus, auto-exposure, point-and-shoot cameras priced from $20 up to hundreds of dollars.

The watchword for all the new cameras is convenience. The new design makes it impossible to incorrectly load the film, accidentally open the camera while it's loaded, or double-expose pictures. The smallest of the cameras are as compact as old 110 Instamatics. All APS cameras are designed specifically for the weekend and vacation snap shooter.

Mr. Meehan of Photo District News says he has no objection to such point-and-shoot simplicity - he owns five such cameras - but he is not sold on the technology. He notes that there are currently no color-slide transparency or black-and-white APS films, which professionals use, and that Ilford, a leader in black-and-white products, is not in the consortium.

''This no-fuss, snapshot mentality is the controlling mentality in photography,'' Meehan says. And he worries that this prevailing ethos is creating ''a degradation in the art of photography.''

Nevertheless, Mr. Henderson sees the changeover as inevitable. ''The industry is clearly going to migrate to this product over time,'' he says. ''Not overnight, but in five or 10 years.''

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