Finding Your Look using VSCO (with Before & Afters!)

Hot, sore, tired, and feeling grimy… but always enough energy to download my memory card after a day of shooting. That’s shooting in Florida outdoors for you, even in the fall, and it applies to my day out with the Olympus OMD E-M10 the other day. I had already processed my Mom’s fall trip photos and had an easy time finding a look to go with them. I didn’t think I would have any problems finding a process I was happy with using the same camera but with my own photos, but I was wrong.

The files downloaded and I quickly looked through the gallery to see how things turned out. Not bad! The E-M10’s RAW files were looking pretty good but this is where problems always come up despite the camera. When I started applying different VSCO Lightroom presets, I wasn’t feeling anything at first.

I have to say, when shooting with my Canon 5D, I don’t normally run into that issue. I’ve been using the camera for so long that there’s not much guessing which processing I will use. As it is, I use Pack 1 and have my favorites for when I’m shooting portrait work and when I’m shooting for myself. The processing never really changed too much if I needed to edit Nikon files to match the Canon (I know this is a point of contention for many of my other friends who only want their second shooters to shoot the same brand as them to keep the editing easier and more consistent).

After going through about 200+ photos, I had used at least five different presets to get to a look that I liked. I mean, I was in several different places, inside and outside, at different times of day so it’s not crazy that different presets would look better than others. That said, consistency is more important to me when I’m doing a collection of photos like I did on this day.

This seems like it’s going against what a preset should do but this is why film emulation is difficult. Almost every camera and every sensor produces colors differently and what the people at VSCO, Mastiff Labs, etc. are trying to do is get all of these different color profiles to match an analog material. There’s going to be bumps in the road for a multitude of reasons not that I’m giving excuses.

After a nice long sleep (with an extra hour from daylight savings time), I went back at it with a fresh eye—a good thing for anyone to do if they’re getting frustrated with their editing. With some more testing, I finally found the preset I was happiest with: Kodak Porta 400.

Here’s what you really want to see, the before and and afters.

Olympus OMD EM10 SOOC straight out of camera RAW
Figure A: Shot with the Olympus OMD E-M10 and the 14-42mm mkII in RAW.
Olympus OMD EM10 with VSCO Kodak Porta 400
Figure B: Shot with the Olympus OMD E-M10 and the 14-42mm mkII in RAW; Processed with VSCO Pack 1’s Kodak Porta 400.
Olympus OMD EM10 with VSCO Kodak Porta 400 tweaked
Figure C: Shot with the Olympus OMD E-M10 and the 14-42mm mkII in RAW; processed with VSCO’s Pack 1 Kodak Porta 400 with tweaks in Lightroom.

This was the start of my day—very typical Florida morning: Super hot light, a little hazy, and lots of contrast. You’ll see when I applied the Porta 400 preset to the original image, this is where things get muddy… your shadows and darks turn your image into a mess. If you’re looking for a step-by-step solution to how I got from figure b to figure c, I can’t give it to you because it’s a combination of adjusting curves and sliders to bring back out detail in those dark areas and put a little detail back in the blown-out whites.

These things are personal preference, though. I know some who embrace the contrast that these presets can create but I don’t mind a flatter appearance with more detail in my blacks. It gives that uncoated paper look that I love in magazines over the past decade when glossies became standard and people missed that textural feeling and flatter color. Regardless, I still personally feel like the straight-out-of-camera (SOOC) Olympus file (figure a) looks better than the Porta 400 preset (figure b).

And look at that orange! The Olympus’ oranges are bright and this day was a real test for oranges since I was at a citrus festival, it was Halloween, and there was a University of Florida game and we were in the middle of Gator country. With these adjustments, I was able to get the oranges to a more palatable place for myself.

film emulation micanopy florida fall festival over exposed
Figure D. Shot with the Olympus OMD E-M10 and the 14-42mm mkII in RAW.
omd back of heads oak trees
Figure E. Shot with the Olympus OMD E-M10 and the 14-42mm mkII in RAW; Processed with VSCO Pack 1’s Kodak Porta 400.
north central florida autumn arts food crowd
Figure F. Shot with the Olympus OMD E-M10 and the 14-42mm mkII in RAW; Processed with VSCO Pack 1’s Kodak Porta 400 with tweaks.

There’s something to always keep in mind when shooting and that is your exposure and color temperature will change how these presets will react to your photos as well. I’ve heard a lot of photographers talk about how they’ll shoot a little over or under in their exposures and that can definitely play with how VSCO will look when applied. Some images during the day I would expose a little darker similar to when I shoot with the 5D. Some I accidentally exposed a little brighter. This (figure d) is one of those shots.

wade boggs fans at island grove winery tasting house
Figure G. Shot with the Olympus OMD E-M10 and the 14-42mm mkII in RAW SOOC.
cops getting baseballs signed
Figure H. Shot with the Olympus OMD E-M10 and the 14-42mm mkII in RAW; Processed with VSCO Pack 1’s Kodak Porta 400.
sheriffs at a winery
Figure I. Shot with the Olympus OMD E-M10 and the 14-42mm mkII in RAW; Processed with VSCO Pack 1’s Kodak Porta 400 with tweaks.

I’ll be the first to admit that there’s things I like about figure h compared to my final image in figure i. You can see the light sources in the original SOOC image (figure g) are varied from a lot of natural light entering the building to two different colored light sources inside the shop. Once the Porta 400 preset was applied, the contrast in the image perks the image up a lot without getting muddy in the darker parts.

Once my tweaking has been applied to try and stay consistent with the rest of the set, figure i is what I ended up with. There was some adjustments to get the white balance a little better (the original was a little too pink in tint for me) but you can see that correction caused some other changes in color that I don’t necessarily love as much either. If I were to go back and fix this image up a little more, I would bump up the contrast slider a bit but keep it a little faded to match the rest of the set.

olympus omd em10 concert shooting outdoors
Figure J. Shot with the Olympus OMD E-M10 and the 14-42mm mkII in RAW, SOOC.
fall festivals near gainesville florida 2016
Figure K. Shot with the Olympus OMD E-M10 and the 14-42mm mkII in RAW; Processed with VSCO Pack 1’s Kodak Porta 400.
seventh street jacksonville under live oaks halloween 2015
Figure L. Shot with the Olympus OMD E-M10 and the 14-42mm mkII in RAW; Processed with VSCO Pack 1’s Kodak Porta 400 with tweaks.

Here we are into the afternoon early afternoon in the shade. The SOOC (figure k) isn’t terrible as I’m still seeing detail in that dark section of the trees. Heavily-leafed trees can cause a lot of blown highlights and clipped blacks. The Olympus E-M10 handled the situation fairly well, to be honest. But again, the VSCO preset straight applied in figure k shows how things can get pretty muddy while highlights get a little hotter. My final tweaked version gives me a rendition that doesn’t feel as harsh, bring back some color into the whites, naturalness to the greens, and detail in the darks.

Final Note: Some people may like how the SOOC images may look compared to the Porta 400 or vice versa—and that’s cool. Consistency in a series of images doesn’t have to be just using the same preset across the board. For me, it’s a good starting point when doing huge batches of images like this.

1 Comment

  • I’ve done all kinds of sets before. Eg: 50mm for a day. Same subject for a week. 365.

    But I’ve never thought of the idea of a set that all has the same look. Usually I tweak each photo individually. If I have a style, it’s that I like punchy photos with a bit more contrast than the raw Raw has. I use RawTherapee and their HALDCLUT collection essentially does the same thing as VSCO. Perhaps this weekend I’ll play a bit more with the idea of creating a set of photos that all have a consistent look – film or otherwise.

    Thanks for the inspiration!

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