VSCO, the Thinking Photographer’s Digital Emulation of Film

VSCO Film, emulating the diversity of film.
VSCO Film, emulating the diversity of film.
Personally I’m a diehard user of DxO FilmPack. Another film emulator however deserves a serious look: VSCO — The Gold Standard of Film Emulation. They offer three emulation packs: Film 01 mimics “modern” films such as the Kodak Tri-X and Ilford HP5, Film 02 renders the “classic” look of Fujifilm Superia, Ilford Delta 3200 and others, while the latest Film 03 pack is all about “instant” films, such as Polaroid.

Yes, I’m quite euphoric. VSCO celebrates the diversity of film. The film pack toolkits however are no plugins. They use using Lightroom’s, Camera Raw’s (CS) and Aperture’s built-in tools. By using presets that take full advantage of your preferred imaging processing software, VSCO not only keeps everything native, it also offers a pretty good handling of the best of two worlds: of the legitimacy of film and editability of digital.

That’s why the presets aren’t mere presets, they’re something more in-depth. Custom profiles along with presets even emulate the specific film stocks on a camera by camera basis for the supported cameras. The standard presets included in each pack are straight presets that can be used with non-custom camera profile supported cameras.

VSCO Film 03 - PX-70 Cold ++ (click image for more samples)
VSCO Film 03 – PX-70 Cold ++ (click image for more samples)

So the native imaging software controls and functionality enable you to get the look you want without ever leaving the familiar software environment. Again, VSCO is not a plugin. Emulating your files becomes a learning process. You can turn things on and off, see how various settings affect the image and change anything you want.

Film emulation retrofitted so directly into the software within the confines of one’s preferred workflow is an absolute boon. But it’s not for the impatient. You don’t want one-click solutions. You’ll still want and maybe even need to tweak as every image is different and benefits from individual scrutiny.

DxO FilmPack is foolproof. VSCO Film is not.

You might as well want to check out the video tutorials. Additionally, the VSCO Journal a.k.a. blog is rich in content and substance. Enough material to emulate film the perfectionist’s way. An absolute must is browsing through the Features section.

BTW, why not give VSCO Cam for iPhone and iPod Touch a try. Simple and straightforward. Why complicated when less can be more.

And there’s VSCO Keys, a keyboard shortcut tool created to reduce editing time in Lightroom.

  • Jaap

    These film emulators are improving – but I guess I am a Luddite grump – when one wants the film look – shoot film, everything else is a copy.

    The fine thing we have nowadays is that we have two different processes, with different results.

    • “Digital film” is all about convenience…

      When on assignment one just doesn’t have the luxury of time anymore to develop film.

      For me that’s the essential deal-breaker for not shooting film.

      The time factor.

  • As I have said many times, it is odd people can get film gear for a fraction of the price of good digital cameras. yet they prefer the digital and then go about using software to post process for a film look.

    Having said that, when I did some digital testing the DXO Filmpack was very good. Much better than the usual stuff in Lightroom for example, which is not so bad either.

    I wonder how much the writer of this piece knows about film though!

    Reading this: “three emulation packs: Film 01 mimics MODERN FILMS SUCH AS the Kodak Tri-X and Ilford HP5, Film 02 renders the classic look of Fujifilm Superia, Ilford Delta 3200”

    Well, first of all Fuji Superia was initially a film geared toward the snapshot shooter, although more serious photographers do also use it. It grew out of Reala as far as I know.

    Tri-X is not “MODERN FILM”. It is probably the most used B&W film ever. It was introduced in 1940!

    • Just quoting from VSCO’s webpage Ronn.

      01 = Modern Films

      02 = Classic Films

      03 = Instant Films

      • They should know what they are talking about but then again, it probably does not matter as most will not know anyway lol

        • Isn’t what’s retro modern in a way? Fujifilm X series.

  • g2sleeper

    This is a very good, and fair review, as you point out that VSCO is not easy to use, and requires patience. I made the mistake of purchasing it based on the results review from an online photo-blogger that I highly regard, and then found out I had wasted $180. As a user of Aperture, the preset viewer window is so small, the effects of each film simulation was impossible to evaluate adequately for my eye, and exporting to PS from Aperture was so disruptive to my workflow, I could not use it anymore… not to mention the myriad of camera profiles listed without any hierarchy or categorization… doing comparisons between simulation effects and then recalling which I preferred was impossible without keeping notes on the side… So for Aperture, which isn’t even supported in 04, I wouldn’t even consider recommending VSCO to anyone (Lightroom interface is better I must admit). Then there is UI and usability… for such an abstract workflow that VSCO imposes on you, they offer no manual, but rather a few tedious videos. So for me, I warn anyone considering purchasing film simulation software to beware that only VSCO requires that you purchase for target environment (i.e. if you purchase VSCO 01 for Aperture, but then move to Lightroom in a year, you have to shell out full price to move the presets to the new environment!). Also, beware that unlike it’s competitors, such as DxO and TotallyRad, VSCO neither has a trial period, nor a return policy (except that once you purchase, you can’t return). So buyer beware here… for me, DxO FilmPack is the clear winner… highly recommended.