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My review: VSCO presets to help make your digital photos look like film

“I’d rather see a movie shot on film. I don’t think they look the same. I think you can duplicate things with digital technology, but what you end up doing is trying to recapture elements of photochemical technology that aren’t there, and they always look a little screwy.”

--Joel Coen, filmmaker in recent New York Times interview.

Well put. And it neatly captures how I feel about digital photography: I like the convenience and immediacy of it, but sometimes my photos -- including some of my favorite images -- look a little too digital, a little too 1s and 0s. 

Or, to put it another way, I’m 47. I don’t expect photographs to look like real life. I want them, even expect them, to look like film. That’s what photography looked like for the first three-plus decades of my life. 

Enter Visual Supply Company presets, which are easy ways to make some of your digital photos look more film-like while working in Lightroom, Adobe Camera Raw or Photoshop. I’ve purchased two sets -- 01 (which emulates modern films) and 04 (which emulates slide films), which include some popular and famous films such as Fuji Velvia. 

I’m very happy with my purchase, despite the hefty $150 combined price for both (I purchased both on sale). That’s the same price I paid for Lightroom 4, which I use to process and post digital files from my Nikon D5100. The investment was worth it for me: some of my favorite photos look better. 

Here are a few samples: 

The Owens Valley and Eastern Sierra

Ducks at Wrights Lake in the northern Sierra

Sunset at Wrights Lake...more pics after the jump! 

Sunset at Mono Lake

Light rail in Los Angeles

In-N-Out burger (yum!)

Southern Oregon

As for the last photo, I processed that in about five minutes using one of the black and white presets (Tri-X 400 with the VSCO 1 pack) just to show the presets don't turn their back on B&W. 

A few things to keep in mind: 

•No one needs presets. Everything a preset can do, you can do if you're willing to take the time to play around with various Lightroom adjustments. Presets just make those adjustments a lot quicker, meaning a lot less time processing. 

•The VSCO presets won’t -- no surprise here -- make a bad photo into a good one. You still need to compose a good photo and expose it properly. 

•And you still may want to make some other adjustments after applying the presets. For example, they tend to go extra heavy with grain -- I usually tone that down a bit and bump up the clarity depending on the photo. 

•The presets are designed to work best with photos show in RAW although I've found they can do okay with jpegs, too. 

•As much as I like the presets, I'm also perfectly pleased with the way that I processed many of my photos originally. That said, the VSCO presets are an easy and quick way to explore some of the endless possibilities in ways that photos can be processed and punched up. 

•I’ve also found that the presets work best if you adjust your exposure first and then apply a preset. 

•As for the two sets that I’ve bought...The VSCO 4 set of slide film emulations can be extremely film-like. They can also be garish and over the top in my view; I tend to like processing that is understated. The VSCO 1 set of modern films is the opposite -- it can help remove the digital sheen from photos and do it in an under-stated and more subtle way. 

Most importantly, the presets are very easy to download and import directly into Lightroom. The VSCO 4 also came with a number of other tools that allow for easy adjustments to contrast, grain, shadows, highlights, etc., along with other tools to play around with the tone of your photo. 

Not sure whether to make the leap? At the cost involved, I don’t blame you. I suggest first downloading VSCOcam, a free app for iPhones. It has a number of film-like filters that can be applied to your iPhone pics along with different adjustments. 

It’s my favorite iPhone app and led me to coughing up the money for the Lightroom presets for my big boy camera. 

I've also in the past purchased some presets from onOne, which I like. But the VSCO ones are better and a much more expansive and sophisticated set of tools.  

I hope this helps and happy shooting! 

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All photos are ©Steve Hymon and may not be used elsewhere without my advanced written permission. All rights reserved. 

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