VSCO vs Real Kodak Portra

A few people asked for a better comparison - as in the same shots at the same time vs semi-sorta-similar-kinda-shots. Just for you guys - I blew through a roll of Kodak Portra 160 yesterday. Actually I didn't do it just for a comparison - I like taking pictures of grand daughter #1. I did do it with a comparison in mind. As you probably can guess or know from experience making the exact same image of a 10 month old is pretty much impossible. I will try to be as fair as possible in selecting images in so far as not to only choose the bad ones from the Fuji X-Pro-1 and the best ones from the Portra 160.

I will also try to match the film results in color temp (read WB) exposure and tone using only the VSCO presets and tool kit. So the digital shots will get some degree of corrections and my time, specifically:

  • WB to match the film
  • Exposure tuning to match density as close as possible for the majority of the mids/highlights
  • The VSCO Portra 160 preset
  • Me messing about with the VSCO tool kit to match the film results as closely as possible

What will the film get you ask? Well for starters it will get a $100 34 year old camera with 60/40 center wighted metering on full manual. A 45 year old single coated lens that was free shot wide open. A clueless clerk at walgreens operating stale chemistry and a Noritsu scan set on full auto for $7. Thirty six total shots to try to grab a 10 month old in motion vs 300 shots on digital. I would say the odds are stacked in digital's favor here - wouldn't you?

Actually this isn't a digital vs film - that's stupid. I shoot both and encourage others that shoot only digital to shoot at least a little bit of film - if only to inform your digital post processing and potential gear selection when you shoot digital. This is about how well VSCO (standard) really does in simulating it's target film stocks. Let's get this started already - k.

You have seen the film version - it's at the top of the post. Here is VSCO portra 160 with the WB warmed up and tint adjusted so that the gray values in the white curtains to the left are matched up fairly well. In some places on the whites there is actually a warmth "advantage" to the VSCO - believe it or not.

Hmmm. Something doesn't match up here - let's screw with WB, add a bit of exposure pop for brightness and use the toolkit to fork with a bit more midtone snap in various different ways…

We'll it's certainly not the same - tonal relation ships are way way different. Color rendition and more importantly relationships are way way way different. It's just way off. Which one do I like better? You can prolly guess. Now before you go off and say "well you should have done the curves differently, and messed with color relationships differently, and then changed the color temps differently in the shadows, mids, and highs, and then you should have done x, y, and z" - This is just comparing OOC/noritsu auto-scan results w/ how well VSCO does in simulating the way film looks - from my perspective there is no comparison and all that stuff like simulating tonal relationships, color, etc. is what VSCO is supposed to achieve. Would I get closer with a "profiled camera" - Answer = NO. Different yes - same or at least "closer" no. In some cases, light, subject, etc maybe even farther away.

Maybe you are saying "Well, the reason it is so different is because the film picture is better". Well that's a matter of taste - I like it better but honestly the crop and expression make no difference in tonal relationships, highlight rendering, color, etc. Everything about the two is shot as close to the same as was under my control at the moment - the elements and lighting diversity in the photo, everything down to the split of light on granddaughter #1's face.

One of the things I love about film is the way it deals with skin tones in mixed lighting and the ease in which real world lighting ratios are dealt with barring modifying the shit out of the environment or screwing around in post until you go nuts. This particular lighting environment drives me NUTS on digital because of the odd mixed color temps that are always present. Sky light through these windows turns an odd shade of blue with a green tinge (I chalk this up to the anti-UV treatment of the modern glass in the windows). The shadows always go crazy orange as a particularly horrible contrast due to the color of the wood cabinets/wood floor/etc/etc. I hate that digital curves have contrast in all the wrong places from my perspective. Can I "fix" it with a preset? Nope I have tried. Can VSCO - ummm nope.

How about a few others just for good measure and to give you a feel here. First the film…

Now VSCO with WB and exposure adjustments. Believe it or not again the over all color temp is warmer and pinker by the numbers than the film version one of the reasons it might not give you that impression is that film handles mixed light differently. Especially with skin. In this case I actually like the digital shot better from a framing, composition, and pose perspective.

Does the Fuji or VSCO look bad? Not really. I really like the Fuji files and the camera itself - that's why I own it. The question is weather the VSCO replicates the tonal and color relationships of film in any meaningful way.

Here is the Portra again.

For an equally unattractive image - my version of shooting a brick wall test or something so we won't be distracted with any hint of a well done photograph - here is VSCO with WB and exposure adjustments.

Is the fuji image "bad" - no. As an imaging device and a way to get skin somewhere in the realm of what I like to see it's probably the best thing going. Do the tonal relationships look like film looks or the color. Not even close.

One mo time - The real deal Kodak Portra 160

And VSCO w/ WB and exposure adjustments.

Again I gave the advantage to the Fuji as I think the last image is the funniest. Truth be told the Fuji is probably the best digital camera I have ever owned when looked at holistically. I like the way it handles, the size, the lens rendering and I like the image quality. If I were to scan and process the film myself I would probably do it a bit differently as I tend to like my whites neutral to cool but this exercise wasn't in taste it was just to illustrate that VSCO is not film. It's not even close. Is it worthwhile?

You be the judge - too bad you cannot evaluate it w/o buying it. I find it fast and convenient to do some of the same things I do anyway - did I need to pay a hundred bucks to do that? Nope. It certainly doesn't really help that much in an easy way to match up digital results with those shot on film for the same session. That takes work - a lot of work and in some ways it is virtually impossible. I happen to like the way film renders highlights, skin, and allows me a huge latitude in the way I want to work with out a lot of cumbersome adjustments to the environment. I will continue to shoot film as long as I can. I shoot digital to and will continue to advocate that the technology providers concentrate some effort on giving us things that I happened to like very much when shooting film.


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