Blog

VSCOcam: A Review of Sorts

VSCO Cam has quickly become not just my favorite photography app, but one of my favorite apps, period. In fact, the app has recently made it's way on to the home screen of my phone. I use it that much. A short time ago, it would have been unnecessary for me to have any photo app anywhere near the home screen because I simply wasn't taking and editing that many photos on my phone. Now, because of the app, I find myself taking more and more pictures, and I'm astonished at the results I am able to get in a short period of time.

Back in the Olden Days...

Let's back up to the beginning though. I've been using VSCO Cam for awhile now... probably a little over a year. I was told about it by a friend who was pretty obsessed with it. Given the number of photography apps out there, many of which I already really enjoyed (Snapseed, Afterlight, etc.), I didn't really see what this app seemed to do better. There was a fairly limited number of preset filters, many of which I felt like didn't fit an aesthetic that I was normally drawn to. Some were nice though, not over-processing the images so it looks nothing like the original scene, as many apps do. I generally like to just try to lightly enhance what I really like about the original image, which is more what VSCO Cam was designed to do. It took your image and applied some light color and exposure tweaks to give it a little more of a "feel". Beyond that, there was a pretty rudimentary group of manual controls. It didn't have any of the fancier sliders, such as "Clarify" or "Detail," of some apps that seem to instantly give an image more punch, and it definitely didn't have area-selective adjustments like Snapseed or iPhoto.

What I did notice though, was there was definitely a certain quality to the images it produced that I liked. I couldn't quite put my finger on what it is, but there was just a softness to it... not a softness like your images were out of focus, but just not harsh. Not digital. I think that part of it may be the grain that it adds to your photos, but I think that there are also some nice curves or algorithms going on in the background that smooth out many of the transitions that the iPhone has trouble with because of its limited color latitude.

So in spite of some of it's shortcomings, I found myself using the app fairly frequently... mostly for portraits or quiet little moments throughout the day that I thought could benefit from the subtle tones that the app did very well. It was far from the only photography app that I was using though, and specifically whenever I captured something grand or featuring vivid color, I found myself gravitating to something else.

VSCO 2.OH!

Recently though, they released a new version of the app, and now it is practically the only photo app that I use. It improved upon every aspect of the original, and now I feel like it can be used in a much broader range of situations. First off there are way more preset filters, which cost money this time, but I think they're worth it. It's $5.99 for the full set of filters, which cover everything from black and white to muted tones to vibrant, punchy colors. Because of these additions, I now no longer feel like I have to reach for something else when I take a picture of a gorgeous sunset. I can bring those colors out brilliantly with some of the new filters. Thankfully with the addition of all of these filters, VSCO organized them into intuitive groups based on the kind of look that you're going for. Manual controls for things like exposure, contrast, tint, vignette, etc. also got a boost with a much finer level of control. Like before there is still nothing to change your image as dramatically as a "Clarify" slider, but that's not what this app is about. It's about taking what you like about your image, refinining it, and giving it a feel, something that it does very well. The result is photos that still look like something from the real world, instead of a destroyed, heavily-altered version of the image, but not the cold, digital, original version that the camera sees either. It's like your idealized version of that image, as if looking at a memory.

There is also a built in camera mode, which has some nice features, including grid and square overlays for framing and separate exposure and focus controls. I'm going to be honest though, I'll probably never use the app for that because it's so much easier to just pull my phone out and swipe up to go straight to the camera, rather than having to find the app on my screen. I feel like the only feature here that it offers that would possibly come in really handy at some point is the "Big Button" feature, which just turns your whole screen into the shutter button. I could see myself using this at a concert or something where I'm having to hold my phone up at a weird angle to get the shot that I want and don't want to miss it just because I was off clicking the little button on the screen.

Ahhh...

I can't tell you how nice it is to no longer be switching back and forth between apps trying to figure out which one will help me create a great image out of the shot I just captured. Nowadays I just take the picture, open up VSCO and see what I can do, and usually I'm pleased, sometimes even shocked with the results. There are still times when I wish that I could do selective adjustments on an image because the ol' iPhone couldn't quite handle the exposure range very well, but I'm happy to go without this convenience for the sake of simplicity of having one app to go to. Also, this limitation keeps the images from ever straying into that realm of the uncanny, where the everything in the image is properly exposed, and pin-point detailed. VSCO Cam shots all carry an air of authenticity.

The result is that I'm creating more and more images that I really like in a short amount of time. There was a time when I thought that photography had to be expensive DSLRs and twenty-five Photoshop adjustment layers to get just the perfect look. I suppose that comes from my perfectionist instincts. But lately I've come to feel like "why can't it be just fun?" Don't think too much... just *click* and go. I think it can be, if my recent history with VSCO Cam is any indication, because I'm definitely having fun.

Here are a few of my favorite images that I've created recently with it:

Bonus!

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the app is the creation of a new service to display all of your favorite images from the app, called the VSCO Grid. At first, I thought that it was going to be a pretty useless feature. After all, we already have Facebook, Instagram, Flickr, etc. to share all of our images, so why would I possibly need another one? As it turns out, the reason is pressure. The VSCO Grid is about as low pressure as you can get. You just post images to it and if people want to view them, fine, but that's it. There's no commenting, likes, or favorites. If someone wants to tell you they like your image they're going to have to do it elsewhere. It really frees you up to just post the images that you really enjoy... not the ones that you think others will enjoy. There are certain things that I wish that it had, such as the ability to easily follow others Grids, but perhaps even that would make the experience too competitive. I don't think that it's going take over as my go-to photo sharing resource anytime soon, but it is a nice added bonus, and I'm enjoying creating a sort of photography gallery on the web.

You can check out mine here.

And for some truly impressive work that shows you just how good iPhonography can be with VSCO Cam, check out their currated Grid here.

Instagram

Ok, so I'm really late on the Instagram thing, but now that I'm in, I'm loving it. I held off on Instagram for the longest time because I just didn't quite understand it. I downloaded it pretty much right when it came out, played around with it for a few minutes, and then stored it away in my photo apps folder where I never looked at it again. I basically just saw it as a photo filter app, and as far as that goes, I already had a number of apps that I thought were superior to it in that way (Camera+ and Snapseed, for instance). Sure, the filters in Instagram were cool, but they were basically the same thing I could find in one of these other apps, and then I wasn't limited to a square crop, which I thought was ridiculous. "Don't limit my creativity, man!" I thought (apparently I'm a pretty big hippie in my imagination). If I wanted to make a 3x1 image, why shouldn't I be able to? Also, the last thing I needed in my life was another social network to keep up with. I could already share photos on Facebook, so why not just do it there, where I would be constrained to a certain ratio and probably more of my friends would see it anyway? Then came my friends Matt and Alana's wedding in LA where they did one of the more fun things that I've seen at the wedding. They set up a computer at the reception to play a slideshow of all the photos that people had taken with the hashtag #alanaandmatthew on Instagram. It was an incredibly fun way to get to see little glimpses of the whole event from a number of different perspectives, instantly. Everyone really got creative and it was so interesting to see the things that caught different people's eyes. It managed to capture and cover the event in a fun way that no wedding photographer ever could. Then, after the event was over Matt and Alana were able to take all of the pictures and put them into a book that they also made available to all guests of the wedding that will forever remind them of what a fun day it was.

When I heard before the event that they were going to be doing this, I knew that it was a fantastic idea, and that I would have to join in on it. Since then, I have continued to Instagram occasionally and I'm starting understand what makes it so addictive. First of all, it's a social network that is strictly built for sharing via photos. So while you can share photos via Twitter or Facebook, there is something about a service that only allows you to share visually that makes it a lot more appealing. People are more likely to value and engage with images that you take because they went there just for that one purpose of seeing a visual representation of what is going on in people's lives at that moment. A picture really is worth a thousand words, and so while status updates are good for certain things, a quick picture will convey what is going on in your life so much better than an entire page of writing will.

It's also a fun challenge to think about the most unique/exciting/concise way to express your current status visually. I love anything that challenges me creatively, so I view this as just another activity to hone my skills. Yes, I'm never going to become a professional Instagramer (or am I!?), but I think that the creative thinking that it forces will translate to other creative endeavors that I take more seriously.

And as for that absurd square crop, I've grown to like it. No matter what you're creating you will always have some form of constraint, whether it is budget, a certain message that needs to be conveyed clearly, a given audience it is intended to reach, etc.. The square crop is just that, a creative constraint to operate within, and after you accepting that, it forces you to think even more creatively. You have something to ground you -- "I know I need to fit this image within a square, so what is the best way to do that?" I've found, for instance, that I think that the square crop really lends itself to symmetrical photos. With other crops, the rule of thirds is what one usually wants to follow to create a balanced and interesting image. With a square, it seems that it's easy to make a very unbalanced feeling image using that technique. Sure, there are times when I think it could be used to great effect, but a symmetrical photo with a square crop just feels solid to me and creates a clear focal point (if there is one in the photo). I find the challenge of creating interesting square images exciting, and now whenever people stray from the square crop by using a matte on Instagram I just want to say, "You're doing it wrong!" (couldn't throw on the "man" at the end of that one because in that imagined scenario, I'm clearly much less of a free spirit).

So if anyone out there is on the fence about Instagram, let it be known that I am for it, and encourage you to try it out. And if you want to follow me, my Instagram handle is theparkness. Here are a few of my favorite shots since I started: