7 Things I Love About VSCO

saint augustine bride in florida

Once upon a time, I was one of those guys who spat on creative processing—especially when that yellow sky processing was in vogue (maybe it still is?) and Totally Rad Actions were all the rage. “Ooops! Spilled a glass of tea all over this photo!” See, I can snark with the best of them. But when VSCO was released, I immediately changed my mind on presets. My friend Kim Smith-Miller processed a few photos of mine for me so I could see what they would look like and I was hooked. The tones and colors… what was this magic?

What made VSCO trump actions are its color profiles. Instead of going into Photoshop for every image, I could apply the VSCO presets through Lightroom. It didn’t radically change how my photos looked. It honestly made them look how I saw them in my head. I’ve been a fan of medium format film photography for a long time and here I was getting similar colors and tones to my favorite images. I’m just realizing that it’s one of the reasons I never liked digital medium format as much as film. Yeah, you get the larger sensor but the colors were just too… RGB?

Nowadays, I see the purists put VSCO in that same category as the over-processed images from yesteryear. You know what I say to that? PUMP UP THE GRAIN! Just kidding—Lightroom’s grain is hideous, but you know what I meant.

This is not some paid advertisement for VSCO, nor do I really love promoting people’s products in general, but I wanted to share why I love using the presets and how it’s kept my interest in photography alive. (Make sure to read my salacious opinions at the bottom of the list.)

youthful florida teen in the forest
An early senior model session revisited with VSCO processing. I remember I was having issues getting Brit’s skin tones so they didn’t look orange when I originally processed her photos. I reprocessed the RAW file today with VSCO Kodak Porta 800 and quickly achieved a pleasant skin tone without adjusting tons of sliders or curves.

1) Consistency. Despite having a lot of processing options, VSCO helps keep consistency with my images. I’ll admit, it can also be hard sometimes not to want to choose different processing for every image in a set. With that said, I’ve found that mixing and matching processes can still be done without losing “the look” of the set.

 

cheyenne in love alpaca farm marion county florida
From a fun shoot with Cheyenne (these two are now married and a toddler) who also has taken up photography in her home state of Michigan. I remember the light changed really quick at one point this afternoon and I was struggling getting the colors not looking super weird. I reprocessed the RAW file today and I like how I was able to neutralize some of the vibrancy of the greens and oranges that originally appeared in the file.

2) Color profiles. When the digital revolution came to the photography world, we saw colors who these RGB sensors and monitors portrayed them. The way colors work between the two created a standard idea of what colors are supposed to look like. Soon, the typical images we saw had the same exaggerated blues and greens and rich blacks. Many of us played with Photoshop and later Lightroom to get closer to what we imagined. For me, I never quite found the magic formula.

When I saw how VSCO’s color profiles worked, it really sold me. If you’re not familiar with color profiles, when you process RAW images from your camera, you have to tell your photo editing program a color profile to use (which is typically set in camera). These color profiles have been calibrated by your camera manufacturer or in your photo editing programing. VSCO gives you a whole new set of color profiles determined by the film presets they created that, for me, are closer to the colors that I want without having to find some magic sauce.

 

before and after vsco processing kodak porta 800 woman drinking orange soda in bikini on beach
One of my favorite collaborators and friend Meaghan (www.JustMeaghan.com) showing off the skin tone magic of VSCO’s Kodak Porta. LEFT: Unprocessed; RIGHT: VSCO Kodak Porta 800-.

3) Skin tones. Oh, beautiful skin tones that are Kodak Porta. Shooting mainly portraits for the past five years, skin tones were my main concern. All I wanted were my clients to love how their skin looked. The first set I processed solely with VSCO was our first look book. After publishing the book, I wanted to immediately go back and re-edit all of our past sessions with Porta.

 

four samples of vsco processed photos on portraits fuji kodak ilford hp5
A sampling of different VSCO processing on one image from a session with Madeline in Gainesville, Florida. From left to right: 1) Unprocessed RAW image. 2) Kodak Porta 800-. 3) Fuji 800Z+. 4) Ilford HP5.

4) Variety. It’s the spice of life, eh? Knowing that when I process my photos I can quickly decide the look of my photos without having to have some deep vision of how it should look is really nice. After a few years of using VSCO, I have certain presets that I prefer for the subjects that I’m shooting. For instance, the Fuji presets in Pack 1 work great for nature and landscape images. The colors are slightly richer and it does well with greens and blues. But you then have different ISO options of those films, just like in their film negative originals (160C, 400H, 800Z). Each of these give subtle changes in colors and tones but don’t diverge so much that you can’t mix and match these processes in the same set of images.

 

beautiful bride processed with vsco vintage sun flare
Our first big shoot in Saint Augustine, Florida with some of my favorite photos I’ve taken to date. Meaghan (from above) helped arrange and style this shoot. I’ve never gone back to re-editing these photos before, so today I tried out some Kodak Porta on them and came out with great results.

5) Community. It’s kind of weird when you think about it, but there’s a sort-of kinship with other folks using VSCO. Through the different online communities and groups online, I’ve made many photography friends I would have never met otherwise. There’s so many photographers these days, it’s harder and harder to find others to talk shop with or just to enjoy each others’ work. Normally, we’re all subdivided by the content we shoot: portraits, weddings, landscape, commercial, etc. I like that I have met all kinds of shooters from “for fun” shooters to “for pay” shooters. (I’m sick of words like amateur/hobbyists and professional, but that’s a post for another day.)

 

model posing in front of cacti cactus
Look at those washed out shadows—how gross! (Kidding.) A before and after of Madeline showing how Fuji 800Z+ (one of my current favorite presets) can tame those angry reds and give an image a slightly unique look. LEFT: Unprocessed RAW image. RIGHT: VSCO Fuji 800+ with Lightroom grain.

6) Pissing off the purists. After fifteen years of shooting digital, I have seen all kinds of opinions in the photography world. I’m not proud to say that I was wrapped up into how others deemed what was acceptable in terms of processing. Nowadays, I see a lot of those same people crapping on VSCO the same way people did with other action sets. I just don’t see it the same, though.

VSCO processing tries to emulate the look of film. Film, you know, that thing that was used forever before digital. I think some have decided that it’s trying to look vintage but get real. There is no pure. There is no “right way.” Everything is manipulated in some way or another and I just prefer the processing options they’ve added.

 

beautiful woman standing in bamboo forest
One last shot from this session with Madeline. I’ve always loved this shot but the greens in this bamboo forest bounced around like she was lit with a green gel. Along with the red shirt that my Canon 5D apparently does not like, I thought it was a good candidate to re-edit. Kodak Porta really helped get her skin tone looking great but also tamed the greens to a more pleasant place for me.

7) Looking forward to processing my photos! For a while, I dreaded sitting down to process 100+ images from a session. When I started using VSCO, though, processing became Christmas morning for me. Every image was like opening a present, applying the presets and seeing what my images will look like with colors and tones more how I like them. Seriously, my wife is even surprised how giddy I get now when I have a new batch of photos to look through. As much as I shoot as accurately as possible in camera, when that preset is applied, my images just look magical to me.

 


*All images featured in this post were shot with the Canon 5D classic or Canon XSi and either the Canon 50mm f/1.4 or Tamron 90mm Macro. When I state images are unprocessed RAW, I exported the original RAW file without adjusting any of the settings that it contained on import including color profiles. All VSCO processed photos were only processed in Adobe Lightroom 3 without any additional processing other than adjusting brightness and contrast sliders. No additional Photoshop was used other than for resizing for the web.

3 Comments

  • I just started using these presets, but something seems off to me. The fuji 800+ presets gives me a very green skintone (tried it on your image of Madeline, and got a very different result than you). I use the same camera as you, and also work in lightroom. Seems to me that vsco is not consistent, but wondering where the difference lies?

    • There’s a few things that are going to change the results you’re trying to replicate with my photo. The main thing is that you’re using a JPG and the original files were RAW. To really take advantage of these film emulation presets, you need to be working with RAW files from your camera. You would be amazed how slight changes in your white balance will affect your colors. Adjusting WB in a JPG doesn’t work nearly as well compared to RAW. Also, making sure you’re editing with the correct VSCO camera profile will make a huge difference.

      So with what you’re talking about seeing a heavy green skin tone, try adjusting your Tint slider to the pink side until you’re balancing the tone closer to what you’re looking for. You may also have to adjust the Temperature slider as well, but start with Tint. The Fuji 800+ does give a bit of a greenish tone compared to the Porta in Pack 1, but that’s just part of the presets look.

      One other thing I do sometimes to get me closer to balance out some colors is after the presets and white balance are applied, I will go into the VSCO Film LR4 Toolkit – Color and apply some of the film tones. The Tones: Fuji, Fuji 2, and Kodak are my favorites, but give these a try and see if that helps at all. Feel free to e-mail me if you want me to take a look at any specific files you have and we’ll give it a go.

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