Many of my friends, photographers, and followers had noticed some subtle changes to the look of my photography over the last year. Last season I adopted a new tool into my wedding photography post production workflow; VSCO Film for Lightroom 4. There are actually two versions of VSCO Film (1 & 2), and I have purchased and use both regularly now.
What is VSCO Film?
VSCO is basically a film emulation plugin for Lightroom 4. It’s not that over-the top faded, crumpled, faux-vintage smartphone app looking stuff that is overused by the masses right now. It won’t give you fake borders and frames, or grungy textures or fake tilt/shift lens blur effects. Instead, it does it’s best to truly emulate the properties of actual film stocks. This is achieved through a combination of preset settings and camera calibration specific to your camera body. It is aimed at professional photographers who would like to get the authentic look of actual film stocks, without all of the hassles of actually using film.
Is it just a fad that will become dated and pass?
VSCO Film is actually more popular among industry professionals than you might think. A quick glance through any 10 wedding photographers websites, and depending on the region, you’ll probably be able to spot no less than 5 of them are using VSCO Film, or at least something very similar – possibly actual film! So with so many photographers using it, doesn’t that make it now old news? Overused and boring? Flavor of the year? Well, there’s certainly a case to be made for either argument, but in the end the software is convincingly emulating something that will never go out of style. It’s not a major image-changing effect that it produces, and it certainly isn’t attempting to make drab images look interesting. It won’t make you a better photographer, and it won’t make your photos any better. Unlike Instagram and the plethora of smartphone apps which attempt to make every cheap iPhone image look like something that it otherwise wouldn’t be, VSCO is as creatively effective as which film you would have loaded into your 35mm camera. That being said, I thing that VSCO Film is actually the anti-fad. I feel that it succeeds in being something that transcends photography fads, and delivers somewhat of a holy grail of modern photography. It allows us to now use our modern conveniences in order to achieve timeless looks. I think it’s kind of like this: a style of pants will eventually be out of style, but pants overall are not a fad.
VSCO was not the first company to attempt this either; DxO Film Pack has been attempting the same thing for years now. The only problem with DxO Film Pack and where failed to deliver was in the fact that it does not work with RAW images. This is crucial if the goal is to accurately and consistently mimic specific film properties, since it’s dealing with camera’s pre-processed jpegs, and every camera will deliver a different look. Hell, even the same camera will look very different depending on its settings for any given shot. VSCO overcomes this by working at the RAW level, and is calibrated to do that for each specific camera.
Why did I try it?
A little while ago I came across another photographer’s work and was immediately and dramatically inspired. It’s an amazing thing when this happens. I’ve been inspired to some extent by quite a few photographers in past, but this was beyond that. Many other photographers who I’ve picked up bits and pieces of inspiration from in past generally had a somewhat similar style to my own wedding photography, which I would consider a mix of editorial, fashion, and a bit of candid journalism. This photographer was pure wedding photojournalism, and it rocked my world. I couldn’t believe how raw, natural, organic, and almost simple his images were, yet they had so much artistic impact. I instantly felt that some of what I had been doing for the last 11 years was wrong. His images showed me a new direction for my wedding photography; a new way to tell the stories of my clients wedding days by prioritizing the sum of all images; not just a few strong shots. That photographer is Jonas Peterson.
One of the first things that I discovered about Jonas’ photography was that he was using VSCO Film. I decided to look into it, but wanted very much to keep my images “mine”. In other words, I didn’t want to become Jonas; I just wanted to allow his inspiration to add to my creative tool set. The look of his images was very convincingly film-like, and much of that can be attributed to VSCO. I wanted my images to look more film like, and VSCO was the place to look.
Using VSCO Film
Using VSCO Film for Lightroom obviously requires Lightroom 4. This is perfect for me, as Lightroom 4 is what I use for my processing. Once VSCO is installed, you have a whole bunch of new Presets available with co-responding film names. For each of these film names, you also have a “-“, “+” and “++” version. I won’t get into the details of these, as there’s plenty of literature on VSCO’s site for these. This isn’t an instruction manual; it’s a review! Once one of the film preset is clicked, that film’s look is instantly applied to the image, including the camera specific calibration for that film. Pretty darn simple.
There are some other tools that are included with VSCO, some of them very useful for photographers. Though a more advanced Lightroom user won’t find too much here that they could already accomplish, there are some really useful, well organized tools such as Grain, Fade, Vignetting, Sharpening, etc.
Here are some examples of straight-up images shot with my Canon 1DX and processed through Lightroom defaults, and then the same images with various VSCO film looks done with ONE CLICK:
How I use VSCO Film and my favorite film stocks
I have found that the best results from VSCO are the result of actually shooting with VSCO in-mind. For example, many of my creatively lit shots where I’ve employed off-cam or studio lighting simply don’t seem to stylistically match the film looks of VSCO, which beg for more naturally lit exposures. In a nutshell, the ways in which we would shoot with actual film seem to yield the best results. If I were shooting film, I likely would not have two or three off-cam lights employed, as it just wouldn’t be predictable with the blindness of film. That’s digital age stuff. On the other hand, slap a prime 35 or 50mm on your camera, leave the flash in the bag, and watch VSCO Film transport your images to a timeless destination. My most used film stocks are undoubtedly the NC versions of Kodak Portra 160 and 400, and my go-to black & white is Ilford HP5.
Included in the VSCO tool kit are the Fade presets. I’ve found myself using these quite often. What they do is simply clip the tone curve before hitting the native clipping point. The effect is reminiscent of a scanned or slightly faded photograph. This can help to not only provide a more organic looking image, but when used with the “Creamy Highlights” preset it can also be a creative way of dealing with blown highlights.
What I have also done is I deliberately removed all but the “++” versions of the VSCO Film presets from my Lightroom work space. I simply found that the effect of the most aggressive versions of the presets is what I’m looking for, and I like to keep my work space as clean as possible.
I often create books for clients that consist of well over 100 pages. For this reason, I like consistency. By this I mean that I don’t like to mix a buch of different looks seemingly at random throughout the book. When I process wedding images, I will pick a film stock and generally stick with it for that segment of the book. For example, I might use Kodak Portra 800 for the Bride’s pre-ceremony prep, then switch to Portra 160NC for the Groom’s a.m. prep. I try to think about it in practical terms; I select a film stock that I possibly would have chosen for that part of the day, had I actually been shooting with film. This generally means a lower ISO stock for outdoor situations, a middle ISO stock for indoor, and a higher ISO stock – possibly a black & white for the night time. This goes back to what I said about shooting with VSCO in-mind in order to yield the most effective results.
My overall impressions of VSCO Film for Lightroom are extremely positive. It manages to deliver a look that I’m after and otherwise would not have been able to achieve. I also feel that it can be subtle enough to use on all images for some shoots in one way or another. Seriously, it’s THAT good. I feel like it’s an invaluable tool which I now see sticking with for the long haul.
It’s not all positives though, as there are indeed a few things to keep mindful of. The first thing that I noticed is that the speed and overall responsiveness of my Lightroom 4 took a bit of a hit once VSCO was installed. I’m currenty on an i7 system with 24GB DDR3 Ram, and dual Solid State drives (one for cache & catalogs, the other for temporarily storing the RAWS I’m working on). My system is a powerhouse. I believe the performance hit comes from the camera calibration files that VSCO installs. I’m not 100% sure of this, but I have confirmed with a couple of other VSCO users who also feel a slight slowdown has occurred.
The second issue that I have is not really a negative point, but rather just a warning about colour accuracy. If you’re working with colour critical images it might be best to either turn-off some of the colour adjustments of any presets, of even avoid VSCO film for those shots. The reason is that VSCO is pretty accurately mimicking something that often has character colour inaccuracies. For example, Fuji films are notorious for introducing a bit of a greener blue, and yellowish highlight. A bride who has her bridesmaids outfitted in that particular shade of Crown Royal Purple might wonder why the dresses look navy blue in the photos. Kodak has it’s own colour character, and though it falls more to my preference, I do notice how blues can become purple pretty quickly. This is not a fault of VSCO Film; If anything it’s a demonstration of how true it stays to it’s task. This is just something to be VERY mindful of when utilizing the VSCO tools.
Finally, the grain. Again, this is NOT a fault of VSCO, but Lightroom film grain is…pretty bad. I would describe it as the most basic implementation of grain emulation that any professional would be willing to tolerate. It is decent enough to get by on, but it really does not blow-up well and there are certainly better tools out there for this. One such tool is RealGrain from Imaginomic. Again, this is NOT a fault of VSCO, as they really are bound to the confines of Lightroom’s capabilities here.
I don’t wan’t these small niggles to give the wrong impression, as I can confidently recommend VSCO Film for anyone who wants to add that little bit of organic seasoning to their images. It won’t make you a better photographer, but it will certainly add something special to your tool kit. Best of all, it’s not over-the-top, and it won’t become boring after a few goes with it. It will always provide that little way to subtly improve your image. At this point, I consider any of my images without any VSCO look applied to be “just plain digital” look.
So the question is this: Has VSCO Film changed the way I shoot? ABSOLUTELY. Not only that, but it’s changed the way I approach photography altogether. It’s created another dimension by bridging the gap between old & new; timeless & modern; film & digital. I now have the absolute best of both worlds at my disposal, and I’m learning more about the finer aspects of the art than ever before. I’m opting to leave my fancy lights and flashes out of the equation in favor of a more natural, artistic, and timeless approach. This was beyond my expectations. I went into VSCO thinking that I would add it as a final touch to my photography, but ended up completely reproaching every aspect of my style right to the point of shooting.
Check out VSCO Film For Lightroom – VSCO FILM