VSCO Film Review | Digital Mimicking Film | Shooting Film


I had been thinking for a while that someone should just create a set of actions that would make digital files mimic film. Well today it showed up: VSCO Film.

In short, VSCO Film is a set of digital actions/presets for Lightroom and Photoshop that take digital raw files and make them look like different film stocks (Fuji 400H, Kodak 160, Kodak 400, etc.). It has the photography world in a bit of a tizzy– some people love it, others think it’s way overhyped, and still others (especially film purists) are up in arms about it all.

If you have read any of my recent “Shooting Film” series on digital vs. film, you might suspect that I would be the target audience for such a thing. You would be correct. After all, as one of my little experiments, I sent digital files to Richard Photo Lab with precisely the goal of making the digital files look like the film photos. So I was already looking for exactly what this claims to offer: a simple way to get that film look without actually shooting film.

Just to be clear, I am in no way affiliated with VSCO or any film company, and I am not being paid or compensated in any way for this post. I paid for the actions just like everyone else. These are my honest opinions rolled into one big ball of optimism & skepticism.

My overall take: Yes. I am happy about VSCO. I will be using it a lot.

Here are some comparisons I whipped up with the lightroom actions:

Does it really look like film? Maybe, maybe not. In the samples above, I was using the presets to match RPL scans as closely as I could, which means they weren’t really one-click edits. But as I’ve said before, I don’t really mind if digital never fully looks like film. From my limited knowledge of films and my tests on VSCO, the results are actually really impressive. One button really goes a long way across all sorts of different images, and the results do bear quite a resemblance to the classic looks of these different stocks. But again, I don’t actually mind if the action doesn’t replicate each film stock exactly. What I really care about is whether the image looks good.

Does it look good? The answer is yes. Actually, I like it a lot. I have used other action sets, but none have turned out results that I actually like so much and so consistently. There are quirks you’ll learn though, like the 400H has so much contrast built in, it doesn’t work well on backlit photos or anything that has been metered for the shadows (highlights blow out and shadows get really dark). It’s not mass producing instant Jose Villas.

Are actions magical? No, but they can be very powerful. Good actions churn out a particular look. They are consistent and replicable. They are fast and easy– this one in particular is really fast and really easy– one click really does churn out a great look. But will it make a bad photo great? Probably not. Will it give you a style and a vision if you have none? Probably not.

What does this mean for the photography industry? This software democratizes post-processing and this “film look.” As with anything that democratizes (like the democratization of dSLRs for instance), the technology spreads and barrier to entry becomes lower. This sometimes causes panic. But again, some people will use new technology well and many others will still use it horribly. Will we probably see a proliferation of images with these actions run on them? Yes. But you know what? I don’t mind. If these actions are actually producing really good-looking images as a baseline, then great.

What I am curious about is how this will impact film shooters, film labs, and film companies in the long run… this definitely marks a turning point in the mainstream direction of the industry now there is now an easy way to get the “film look” with all the conveniences of shooting digital. We’ve separated the aesthetic from the mechanism, to an extent. I do love shooting film, and I understand that there will always still be a difference between film and digital. I actually think there will still be a niche demand for real film shooters for a while, because there is always room for (and a premium for) “different,” especially in a creative industry. But this may be a “game changing” moment we look back at in the future.

As an aside, one specific example of impact: this eliminates any need for me to turn to Richard Photo Lab to do my digital processing. Since they charge $.50/image for digital editing, I estimate I’ve already earned back the $99 I paid for VSCO just by editing one session this afternoon. Read my earlier “Shooting Film” post to see what RPL could do with matching digital to film (they did an awesome job).

What does this mean for me? I will continue shooting a combination of film and digital, though now I can continue to lean more on digital. I plan to use VSCO Film in Lightroom to batch process my digital files for client proofing, and this will probably make my images more consistent, “better” in a way, and I’ll be able to do it all faster. But I still plan to take the images I use for my blog/prints/albums and edit them further in Photoshop. My eye is still on the big picture: I am always looking for photography I can fall in love with, and I will continue to evaluate and reevaluate what that might be. For now, I’m really, really excited by what I see.

Finally, a couple sneak peeks of Jenny & Kevin’s one-year anniversary shoot in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles. These were all edited with VSCO Film in Lightroom.


Try it for yourself: VSCO Film.

Check out the related links below to read my other “Shooting Film” posts.

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