Native & Beautiful | A review of VSCO Film 01 for Aperture 3

I first heard of VSCO from John Keatley via Twitter. He mentioned being impressed by a film emulation preset package he’d received. I thought: Keatley and presets? Ok. Then I heard it only worked with Lightroom and that was that. But it did pique my curiosity.

Since then, VSCO Film Packs have received rave reviews from photographers all over the map. And yesterday they released the long awaited Aperture version.

Everything old is new again

It may seem odd in this digital age to be so fascinated with emulating the look of various film stocks but really, it’s simply about giving images character. For me the power of digital lies in practicalities, both in shooting and post-production. Not in personality. Which is why post is an essential part of any photographer’s workflow: it’s where we mould the images into what we envisioned. It’s the darkroom.

When trying to emulate specific film looks, the usual route typically involves plugins or a trip to photoshop, but I’ve long been advocating Aperture 3’s built-in tools to achieve similar results. In fact, I hardly ever use plugins anymore. As I’ve written in a few articles, the trick is to use Aperture’s ability to create several instances of most of its adjustment bricks. It’s a powerful feature that’s much too often overlooked and can completely transform your workflow. Aperture can do much more than what it’s usually given credit for.

So I was pleasantly surprised to find out that the much talked about VSCO Film Pack was not only being released for Aperture 3, but was doing something pretty original to achieve its goal: using Aperture’s built-in tools.

I guess I wasn’t totally off ;)

X100 | Kodak Portra 160

X100 | Fuji 800Z

No chrome, no disruption.

Plugins imply two very important things: another level of UI and a disruption of the non-destructive workflow. By using presets that take full advantage of Aperture 3, VSCO not only keep everything native, they also avoid creating large, monolithic TIFF or PSD files. Which means versions galore without the overhead and infinitely changeable — That’s a whole lot of plus in my book.

But… Presets?

I know. I’ve said before that I’m not a huge fan of presets, mainly because they will, by their very nature, provide wildly varying results from one file to another. From what I understand the ACR/LR versions of VSCO use specific camera profiles to at least take some of those variations into account. The Aperture version can’t do that because… Well, because Aperture doesn’t have any camera profiles, at least not in the same way LR does.

But the VSCO team has done a phenomenal job here: these are presets taken to a whole other level of intricacy. They’ve used every single tool Aperture has to offer in order to approach not only the luminance curves of included film stocks, but also their sensitivity to various colours, their tones and specific contrast ratios. It’s very well done.

They’ve also included an entire library they call the Toolkit which allows modifications of many parameters, sorted by adjustment brick for more versatility - for instance, you can tweak contrast using overlay, curves or levels. There’s a ton of stuff to play with.

The sands of time

For me though, one of the biggest assets of VSCO Film is the addition of grain capabilities to a non-destructive Aperture workflow. Let me repeat that: you can add and control grain without creating a TIFF file. Good god. That alone is worth the price as far as I’m concerned. I wouldn’t be surprised to see this feature added to an eventual Aperture 4 or X (no info btw, just a hunch) but for the time being, this gives me joy beyond words.

The way they’ve implemented it is a little convoluted, using a well-known hack to insert grain textures in brush masks. The result is that grain is controlled by both a Dodge and a Burn brick that need to be set at the same level. But it works. And they’ve used actual film grain scans that certainly look the part.

X100 | My Tri-X preset with VSCO grain

Into the Workflow

VSCO have created something that completely fits into the Aperture workflow. These are Aperture bricks being used. Which means it all integrates into my usual post-production tricks since it’s all based on the same stuff I do every day. For example: I was eager to compare the VSCO version of Tri-X to my own recipe, just for kicks. Theirs is much more precise but it turns out I was actually pretty close. Well, now I can use my preset as a starting point and then add the VSCO Film Tri-X grain to the mix. In the same way, I can tweak any provided presets just as easily as my own, add other elements I’m used to adding, change things up.

And if you’re not super comfortable with Aperture’s bricks, the provided Toolkit will easily help you achieve the look you’re after.

X100 | My Tri-X preset with VSCO grainX100 | VSCO Film Tri-X preset: the channels are blended differently.X100 | Kodak Portra 160 - again.

Double duty

Which brings me to my last point: beyond the advertised ability to emulate various film looks, the great thing about VSCO Film 01 for Aperture 3 is it’s double duty as a learning tool. Examining and understanding presets can be a very effective way to learn: you can turn things on and off, see how various settings affect the image, change anything you want. In fact, if you’re the type of person who learns by tinkering I’d say this can probably replace a lot of books and online courses.

Not bad for the price of admission.

Certain idiosyncrasies in the film pack are due to the very nature of Aperture itself: presets can’t control everything and this will sometimes create odd behaviours (switching from a BW to a colour film preset is one of those). But I have to say I’m quite impressed by the way VSCO have “retro-fitted” film emulation so directly into the software. It is an absolute boon to have all of this within the confines of Aperture’s non-destructive workflow.

Will this give you one-click image utopia and transform your photography in a single bound? No. You’ll stilll need to tweak. Now this may very well be due to a lesser degree of control when compared to the ACR/LR version, I don’t know. Still, there’s no magic bullet — presets remain starting points in my book and while these are very well implemented, they’re still just that. Every picture is different and will benefit from individual scrutiny. But as starting points go… VSCO Film is pretty killer. 

VSCO Film 01 for Aperture 3 is $79. It’s available as a digital download from VSCO.

Update: a few more pics from around the house today (our little one is at home with a cold… In unseasonably warm weather)