Back when dinosaurs roamed the Earth during the Grungeolithic Era (aka, the 1990s), Kodak, Fuji, AgfaPhoto, and Konica introduced a new film format - Advanced Photo System - and poured zillions of dollars into its launch and promotion.
Canon and Nikon and joined in the fray with cameras that supported the new format. I remember the film cartridges were curiously different from the 35mm film cartridges that I had grown up with – smaller and not quite round. Auto loading and rewinding, multiple aspect ratios within a single roll, the ability to pull a cartridge out before it was done and re-insert it later – these were all great leaps forward, or so they wanted us to think. Looking back, it’s amazing that these industry stalwarts would introduce a new format on the eve of the digital revolution; they clearly didn’t see the uppercut in their peripheral vision. But even before the first viable digital cameras appeared on the horizon (Sony Mavica doesn’t count, I should know, I owned one), adoption of the APS format was slow. Why? The film was smaller than 35mm, and the knowledgeable camera-owning public was suspicious of that. After all, many had been through this “smaller is better” bait and switch before with the 110 film cartridge:
And the Kodak Disc (with the jaunty misspelling of disk)
Real photographers – the ones that shot the compromised 35mm film format (but let’s forget that for a convenient moment) – rejected these formats en masse, leaving them to the gullible, snap-shooting general public. By the end of the 90s it was pretty clear that APS was doomed to a similar fate.
And then something curious happened. Digital. Serious digital. The D that turned SLRs into products of the new Millenium and had people wondering out loud whether or not sensors would eventually replace film. It was prohibitively expensive though, and mostly for the pioneering pros and seriously well-heeled amateurs. Then the Canon Digital Rebel came out in 2003 - the first DSLR for under a grand. It was followed a year later by the Nikon D70, and all of a sudden APS-C, the zombie stepchild of the Advanced Photo System, was begrudgingly accepted as the gateway drug to digital age. Over the last decade, Nikon and Canon have sold APS-C DSLRs by the container ship load. Literally. Don’t believe me? Go to any tourist trap and you’ll see the familiar black/yellow or black/red camera straps wrapped around so many sweaty necks, most holding a entry or mid-level DSLR with a kit zoom attached. They are as ubiquitous as minivans at the mall.
But for many the format was used but never loved. For those with 35mm film-era lenses, it changed the focal lengths, and for those aspiring to be “Pros” (a marketing term if there ever was one) the more expensive “Full-Frame” (another great marketing term) DSLRs were the ones to covet. For many, APS-C has been a halfway house. Every day, someone steps up to the microphone and proclaims to their Internet friends, “I’ve saved up enough shekels to buy a full-frame camera!” “Huzzah!” reply the virtual masses, many fretting that they’ll be among the last to make the leap. And if you are the kind of person to read tea leaves, you’d note that Nikon’s DX lens lineup, ten years or more in the making, is thin; just seventeen lenses, ten of which are variations on the slow variable aperture kit zoom theme. Canon’s even worse, with just 9 EF-S lenses designed for APS-C, all of them zoom. In other words, the serious glass is Full-Frame. Only Pentax, tiny little quirky old school Pentax has what approaches a full range of APS-C lenses; and even they’ve got holes.
To make matters worse, APS-C is facing a challenge from the lower-end as well. Panasonic and Olympus, after a false start with Four-Thirds, are finally delivering a well-rounded lineup of Micro Four-Thirds cameras and lenses that rival DLSR quality from just a couple of years back while at a significant size advantage. They’ve made some big inroads in Japan at first and now Asia and Europe. Only recently have they started to draw significant eyeballs in the land of the two ton SUV. Only Sony, with their NEX mirrorless system, seems to show any serious intent with moving APS-C forward. It’s hard to say what Canon’s intent is at this point with the EOS-M. I’m sure it takes lovely pictures, but it’s just a baby. Electronics giant Samsung is there too, but they’re struggling to make a dent.
So now, in 2013, APS-C is being squeezed on both ends, by the dropping prices of full-frame and the growing maturity of even smaller Micro Four-Thirds. Wither APS-C? Does it suffer the Goldilocks Syndrome – not good enough but not small enough? Is APS-C Jan Brady? To be frank, it’s hard to imagine those same kit-zoom toting tourists ten years from now continuing to buy APS-C DSLRs when smaller sensors from Micro Four-Thirds on down will continue to improve. The Olympus OM-D EM-5 is already arguably more camera than most people need, and the price for that level of image quality is sure to drop in the intervening years. It always does. And enthusiasts for their part always end up getting more camera than they really need as well. So while many don’t rationally need full-frame, will they migrate there anyway as the prices float down from the stratosphere to the more bank account friendly troposphere?
Truthfully, it’s hard to image APS-C winning the war on both fronts. Mirrorless may be the format’s saving grace, but even that is uncertain. “May you live in interesting times” says the Chinese proverb and curse. True that.
[Related posts: "The Case Against Full-Frame" and "The Case Against Micro Four-Thirds"]