So now I have taken a fairly critical look at VSCO film. Critical in the respect of what it's not good for. Namely it is not like film from a lot of perspectives and it certainly doesn't make matching your digital camera to any particular film shot in the same session somehow easy. At the end of each of my views I didn't condemn it, in a way I almost endorsed it. In this post I wanted to specifically discuss what it is good for. Above is VSCO Fuji 160C.
Having messed about with the standard and pro versions for both ACR/Lightroom as well as the standard version for Aperture 3 I would have to say that the current incarnation for ACR 7.x/Lightroom 4.x is the way to go. I am not at all happy with the workings and look produced via VSCO and Aperture 3. I wish VSCO would have spent some more effort getting the two versions to look a lot closer than they do. I have tested many micro 4/3 cameras, many Nikons, the Fuji X100 of course, a Canon, etc. Heck I even processed RAW files in ACR saved them as TIFF files just to see what the heck was going on with VSCO for Aperture 3. Bottom line - not just a minor camera to camera variation. A fairly poor job on the Aperture 3 versions by VSCO. Heck its harder to match the Aperture 3 version of VSCO to the ACR version than it is to the real film.
So what is VSCO good for? If you are a Lightroom user - especially an LR 4+ user the new ACR in combination with VSCO will allow you to get some really really nice looks very consistently and very quickly as compared to OOC looks. You may never have to touch anything but white balance, exposure, and click away at the film presets along with the toolkit. Once you find "your look" for a project or session or for everything you do it's very strait forward to tweak it without upsetting the whole apple cart.
Once you get used to the new (I guess now old) ACR 7 based controls ACR7/LR4 make quick work out of dealing with fine tuning your RAW files for a basic look. Forget about fixing a bad image for a moment I never bother myself. There are certain ways you have to shoot digital that is reality. Like making sure you do not blow important highlights. The new exposure slider in ACR7/LR4 is fantastic in dealing with this issue in a very synergistic way with your shooting conditions. Have to lower your mid-tones 2/3 stop more than you want to so you stop blowing highlights in blond hair or the red channel on highlighted skin and saturated color? No problem just add 2/3 of a stop with the exposure slider and it looks exactly the way you would expect it to.
In the past I would use a curves control - usually in luminosity blend mode to compress the highlight contrast and raise the mids just so - of course that works to but is a lot less intuitive and really hard to make a preset for as there is no "relative-ness" that you can build into the preset - not all images shot at -2/3 are the same. It also takes some serious practice to do quickly and precisely. New exposure slider - massive amount of control and a highlight compression that I dare say is a bit like you would expect if you just shot film the way you wanted to.
A typical situation even in controlled lighting - blond hair with a rim light and very saturated colors. This was shot on my old warhorse the D2Hs the JPEGs from that camera looked great but the RAW files in anything but Capture NX looked like shit. I had to shoot this at about 2/3s under due to the nasty habit that camera had at blowing the red channel with the slightest provocation producing really nasty results. We'll use this file just to give you an idea of the kinds of looks VSCO can give you in a few seconds. Here is VSCO Portra 160
The reason I am dwelling on this is that the sending the appropriate mid-tone levels into the VSCO presets is critical to how they look. That and WB. If you can set mids and WB quickly VSCO is extremely quick and easy to use. The vast majority of the time even after you apply a VSCO preset and even after some tool set clicks the best and quickest tweaking you can do is to the WB and the exposure slider in ACR or Lightroom. Of course you can fine tune anything the presets did for either your own look or to "fix" something. From a work-flow perspective this should be absolutely last as any clicks on new VSCO presets are likely to undo your tweaks. How about some old school Kodak Portra 400NC
Or a classic from Fuji - 400H - with "creamy highlights" from the toolkit…
The toolkit is organized so that the film emulations presets are independent of the toolkit presets - great idea and makes for quickly going through the various looks extremely quick and simple. Here is Fuji Superia 800 with "Fuji tone 2" from the toolkit.
How about Fuji 800Z - the pro film - with that same "Fuji tone 2". One click. Comparing results is super easy just flip back and forth clicking on the two films or go down the list.
I have shown fairly tame results - VSCO can go all retro effect-y as well if you are into that sort of thing. Here is Fuji Superia 1600++, Fuji tone 2, and faded highlights. Three clicks. Each of the film versions has a normal mode, a less mode, and a couple of "more" modes. The ++ is more-more. Try them they might not be what you expect.
How 'bout a few more just for good measure. Kodak Portra 800 with "Kodak tone".
VSCO puts some crazy stuff in as well - like the Portra 800 HC - no such animal but here it is. It's supposed to be a high contrast version of Portra 800 I guess. Maybe what you would get if you truely pushed Portra 800 in C-41 soup.
Too wind it back down a bit lets go with good old Portra 160VC
There is a ton of other stuff in there to - I stayed away from using too much of the toolkit so you could get a flavor for the film presets and chucked a few of the toning things in there. I stayed away from the shadows/highlights/contrast/saturation presets in the toolkit so I didn't give you the impression that the film preset itself varied things that wildly on the same image. As a reference here is the source image with only that exposure adjustment I talked about.
Dead as a doornail - flat as a pancake. Typical of RAW conversions of the D2H outside of Capture NX at that time. The Aperture conversion used to be Horrible back in Aperture 1 and 2 and not much better in 3 as it refuses to get the WB anywhere near correct.
The bottom line is that the VSCO preset products for ACR/LR if you take them for what they are happen to be very well done in terms of being able to produce a huge array of different looks - and then applying them very quickly and consistently. In terms of preset packages - my feelings are that most are not worthwhile - either for Aperture or Lightroom. VSCO is probably the only one out there that I think is at all worthwhile. I wrote this series of posts to that you can be the most informed when making a decision to fork over hard-earned cash as they are quite pricy and offer no trial versions and no refunds as someone mentioned in the comments of my last post.
Feel free to ask me anything I didn't cover or think of. Also please do not get the impression that what I have shown is anything close to a comprehensive view of what kind of output you can possibly get. There is enough depth here that using only exposure/WB/film/toolkit there are endless unique looks that you can produce.