Review – VSCO Film Plugin

Portrait of Mandy Boyle taken on the afternoon of 18 February 2012.

Maybe it’s just trendy right now, but for the past year or so I’ve seen a lot of photos processed to look like old film prints. Real film – I’m not talking about that lomography, hipster-matic stuff here. It’s a look I like, something about the depth of the colors, the contrast, sometimes even the grain. But unfortunately, my Photoshop savvy falls short of actually creating those kind of effects. When I start messing around, I usually end up with just that – a mess.

I came across the VSCO Film software through one of the blogs in my Google Reader feed. I forget which one off-hand, but it was a pro photog who was using VSCO Film on client portraits and was very pleased with both the results and the ease of use. So I checked it out, thought it over for a couple of days, and then bought the Standard kit download.

VSCO Film comes in Standard, Pro, and Studio versions. The Pro and Studio are calibrated specifically to pro-level Canon & Nikon cameras, whereas the standard is a more general calibration that works with any RAW-capable camera, albeit with supposedly less-refined results. The Standard version was good enough for me – although my 7D was supported by the Pro version, my 400D was not, and I didn’t see the point in paying extra for one specific camera profile. (A decision that I’m especially glad for, now that I’m considering a move away from Canon.)

The software comes as a plug-in for either ACR or Lightroom (I use the ACR plug-in) and is very simple, installing as a series of presets on the Preset panel. From there, clicking on the different options applies immediate changes to the image, which can be overridden or adjusted by applying additional options. Piece of cake.

VSCO Film presets on the ACR Presets panel.


Using VSCO Film modifies my workflow slightly; I still launch ACR from Bridge and take care of any cropping and straightening on the selected images, but instead of working through exposure adjustments, I go straight to the Presets tab and find the combination of VSCO options I want, beginning with the film emulations (there are 9, each with several different intensity levels) and ending with the overall adjustment changes, which have options to control color, contrast, fill light, grain, etc. The overall effect of the presets makes changes throughout the RAW image; to the exposure adjustments, sharpening, and split toning panels. Once I have the general look I want, I usually go back and tweak these adjustments to taste, then launch images into Photoshop and proceed as usual.

Ilford HP5 is the only film emulated that I’ve personally shot with, but they captured it perfectly, in all its low-contrast glory. I don’t have the background to say for certain if the others are equally authentic looking, but I do know that I like how they look – for whatever that’s worth. And I find a marked difference in color between the Kodak and Fuji films. Combined with the plentiful preset options, I find it pretty easy to get the effects I want.

A few suggestions, however:

  • because you’re applying the adjustments directly to the RAW file, it’s very helpful to make a duplicate in Bridge if you want to try several different versions. For example, when shooting portraits I often make a color and B&W version. Using VSCO, I start with two duplicate RAW files, so that I have two originals to return to if I need to make adjustments. Using only one file, each change of presets would override the previous settings, and unless you wrote down all the adjustments (or saved them to a preset file of their own), they’d be lost.
  • personally, I’m not a big fan of film grain. I know it was part of the package back in the day, but when I’m applying emulations, I usually zero out the grain setting. Especially with the TMAX 3200. But this is the beautiful thing about the plug-in – you retain total control over the adjustments.
  • the presets only work on RAW images. VSCO is very clear about this when you buy the plug-in, but it’s easy to forget afterwards. I’ve applied them to other files a few times – a TIFF file that came from a photomerge, for example. There’s still an effect, but it’s all over the map and won’t represent the film emulation at its best.
Various stages of an orchid in bloom over a period of 12 hours, photographed in the studio on 27 January 2012.

{Orchid in bloom, with film emulation applied.}

The only glitch I’ve run into is during installation, when the VSCO Film installer puts the presets into the wrong sub-folder on the hard drive. I contacted tech support, who were very responsive, although I’m afraid they weren’t entirely helpful, as it took several days of emailing and failed fixes before I figured it out myself and was able to move the files into the correct folder. After that, everything was up and running. So they get major points for great customer service, but lose a few back for being unable to accurately address the problem at first. (Their new installer supposedly fixes this install error on Vista/7 systems, but if you encounter the same problem, contact me and I’ll tell you how to fix it.)

The usual disclaimer – VSCO doesn’t have any sort of deal with me (hell, I doubt they know who I am). I like their software and find it to be a good solution for some of my processing needs, so I’m sharing my thoughts on it. That’s all.

Brent Pennington is a freelance photographer and the driving force behind The Roving Photographer. When he\’s not working with portraiture or promotional clients, he’s usually in the field, hiking, or kayaking in pursuit of nature and wildlife shots.

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  1. Bernadette

    Thanks for the review. I actually purchased these yesterday. And so far am really enjoying them. The emulations certainly follow my style of shooting more closely than other presets I have used. I with you on the grain issue as well. It has so far been a valuable purchase for me. I had the same installation issues as well. I eventually found the files in the temp folder!

    • Brent Pennington

      Glad to hear that other folks have found these as well! I think they’re great – although it would be nice if they’d fix that install issue 🙂

  2. Great read. I recommend you try using Lightroom with ethe VSCOfilm, you will never look back at ACR any more.

    • Brent Pennington

      Thanks! I’ve actually tried Lightroom several times and just don’t like it – the interface is less logical to me. I vastly prefer ACR over it. But I think I’m somewhat unusual in that respect 🙂

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