Photography - Tools And Complexity

Over the last few years I have found publishing this blog quite therapeutic. A safe place where I don't need to deliver any kind of real finished product with no real requirements - just whatever crosses my mind at the moment. This past winter I did take on a bit of a project to pass the time in my most dreaded season - it helped. Heck I've even taken on a real project that's been banging around in my head for a few years. Slow going for sure.

I've tried to stick to shooting and workflow for the most part and left a lot of things regarding post-processing of images out of the conversation. I hate post processing. More specifically I hate complexity in tools. One of the reasons I bring up that film thing again and again is not because I am some luddite that is digi-challenged it's because I am irrational when it comes to tools. I like simple and direct. Cameras that have a couple of direct knobs that work well.

Same goes for "finishing" or output of images - with film you have two contrast curves - one for the film and one for the paper. Well maybe more than one but they are fairly closely grouped. When it comes to color you have three filters. Done. A couple of knobs you dial them in the direction you want to go and that's that. For me I was okay doing my own B+W from soup to nuts because there were 3 less knobs to mess with. Those three knobs aren't real hard to mess with but if you only have a basic BW enlarger no matter how careful you were there were definitely more than a few iterations to get to decent color no matter how carefully controlled the shooting conditions were.

Pro-labs gave you amazing color for not a bunch of money - extremely cheap as labor goes. A nice ecosystem. Fast forward to today. The complexity and number of knobs are insane - completely roll your own. That's great if you that's the part of the endeavor you like - kinda sucks if you like the shooting part. I really don't want to roll my own and then re-re-re roll my own with every change of camera or post processing tool. I guess that would be okay if it were every decade but every year? Sure - presets and actions etc. Of course I have about 400 gillion of them laying around in a big mess. The issue with all of them is they blindly do their thing to whatever the input is. You are still stuck with rolling your own input to some standard point. Tools change - all that other shit changes.

To bad the most giant difference in perception of "good" and let's say "not too good" is probably the post-processing or finishing work. No shit - I am not joking here. If you don't like to spend your time fussing with post-processing do yourself a favor. Hire someone, or shoot film and have people that like to do it deliver the results - heck I did when it actually mattered. Like delivery of work to clients. Makes a world of difference. Too bad that's not real practical - hiring someone that lives "post" if you are just shooting for you and have no budget. Hence my lament - actually rebellion at the ever increasing do-it-yourself no-baseline post processing toolset. This sucks - I rather just hand it off to a lab.

I guess it's not really a big deal but I hate being forced to operate that way actually I hate being forced period. Okay enough of that. Moving on to VSCO and why I am a fan - well a split personality. A fan on one hand and a harsh critic on the other. In my opinion they have done a fantastic job of providing a few simple knobs that gets you to where you want to go in a strait-forward, simple, repeatable way. At least for Lightroom and ACR. Forget matching some arbitrary "film" to some insanely accurate degree. VSCO returns some degree of simplicity for me to get reasonably consistent output from camera to camera - from year to year (hopefully).

It's also not a one-size fits all kind of thing - the toolkit is organized and circumvents a few vexing things in Lightroom in some creative ways. I certainly wouldn't have spent the time to organize a set of presets to this degree to provide a couple simple knobs to get to the end really fast no matter what camera I am using. When doing the lighting field guides I stuck to one and only one box-stock VSCO preset with no use of that toolkit thing and I used OOC input which is all over the map for those box-stock presets. Just as a baseline standard for results that could be reproduced with no turning of any knobs or any long discussion on post-processing.

Is that how I use VSCO in reality when doing anything that actually hits paper or I love and am serious about? Absolutely not. I did mention that one of the reasons I thought this particular set of presets is so well put together is that the output from one person to the next is so so so diverse - or it can be. The problem is that you have to know where you want to go. This can be highly subjective and even with a bit of info can be hard to reproduce. Knowing that a particular image was made using XXX preset of VSCO is almost useless without knowing the whole recipe. The input - the preset - use of the toolkit and potentially any other tweaks.

It's sort of like reading all those photographers shooting film or digital that say things like "I over expose it by a stop" or "I set the exposure comp to +2/3" or minus whatever. Useless it has no meaning in terms of actual exposure or even relative exposure. It could mean anything. Two photographers that say two seemingly different things like "I overexpose by a stop" and "I expose at box speed - or dead-on" may be exposing it the exact same way in reality depending on 18 other factors.

So why all this diatribe about post and shall we say fragments of non-information? Well, I am going to take a bit of a left turn and talk about post-processing a bit more as we go forward. Most of the stuff I publish here is throw away or "pre-finishing" for illustration or discussion doing some customized post processing when talking about lighting really muddies the waters. Most people really don't have a clue as to what's post and what's in-camera. Every once in a while I am going to do a brief post processing kind of thing. Not really from a how-to kind of thing but more like where do you want to go kind of thing.

I like simple knobs so a few of them will probably be VSCO recipes including the toolkit use. Well at least the Lightroom version - the Aperture version is another story. Love the LR version - hate the Aperture version. The LR version actually goes in the same direction as I go from the default OOC RAW point. The Aperture 3 version actually seems to go in the completely opposite direction - go figure. I cannot for the life of me figure out how this came to be… I expected a set of tools that would get me to the same place I would go anyway across both RAW platforms more quickly. I can get to the same place quicker without it. Pah. In other words it's more complicated to get to the same place I would with VSCO LR4/5 using VSCO for Aperture than it is without it.

Let's start off with a recipe for LR4 or LR5 that are extremely similar… on the surface but produce completely different results. Both reasonable. I am not a huge fan of grey blacks or not white whites. especially when printing. Also not a giant fan of split toning for all seasons. So let's compare something really different both going for my general bent…

The recipe for the image at the top is:

  • WB as shot on auto +100 points of warmth (from as shot in the mid 4000's - important 100 points is completely different depending on where you are in the WB spectrum)
  • +0.33 or 1/3 stop exposure, in camera exposure probably a hair too conservative for 1600 ISO. I chimped the image at ISO 400 and then moved the ISO and shutter speed up to give myself a bit more insurance against motion blur. Coffee fueled 100% of the time.
  • VSCO Portra 400NC-
  • Toolkit Fade none
  • Toolkit Contrast+

Done. All of 4.32456 seconds. Simple knobs.

Now for something completely different…

Same exact input - same minor tweaks to WB and exposure but…

  • VSCO 400H++
  • Toolkit fade none
  • Toolkit tone none
  • Toolkit contrast++ (tried contrast+ first)
  • Toolkit Grain+ Acutally this made the grain about even in terms of how much of it compared to the top image. When you use the ++ it adds crazy grain and gives you greys instead of remotely black blacks and white whites. The grain+ actually backs off the grain amount to "normal" or even less than normal levels.

So night and day - I like both of them. Highly subjective but your first thought might have been that WB was different. No both have almost a dead neutral WB. Neither has split toning. The only reason I used the - on one is it puts less reds in the highlights. The ++ on the other has a color relationship that I prefer. Most of the -/normal/+/++ color relationships are about the same. A few of them change significantly.

So the bottom line for me is VSCO provides a post processing environment that allows me to shoot it so it looks decent on the back of the camera. Get the whites close to neutral (a hair one way or the other) and I am done a specific scene/setup/location within 5 seconds with contrast and color relationships I tend to prefer across a fairly wide degree of "looks". For a hundred bucks allowing me this level of nonchalance in post that's remotely consistent across cameras and this organized in a way photographers can relate to is great. Worth every penny - heck I wouldn't do anything this organized or this diverse for myself. No way.

Now if only I could get the same exact results across RAW processing environments without taking shit loads of time adjusting the input or worse yet - maintaining modifications or customizations to thing myself that's worse than rolling my own. I know myself - I am not that into it to do anything but just getting from point A to B and then doing the same thing next time.


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