FILM vs VSCO Redux by Mark Alan Thomas

FILM vs VSCO Redux by Mark Alan Thomas

Inspired by the lively discussion on VSCO Film, I made a comparison of the same image shot on film (Portra 160) using my Nikon FE, and shot digitally using my Nikon D700, and then processed using VSCO Film 1 for both Aperture and Lightroom.

1st – Aperture Standard – digital file – NIkon D700


2nd: Aperture – VSCO Portra 160 Conversion


3rd: Film – Portra 160 – Nikon FE


4th: Lightroom VSCO Portra 160 Conversion



  1. Lightroom vs Aperture debate???! No, I just mentioned I like the VSCO LR presets over the Aperture ones. And it’ s obvious VSCO have stopped supporting Aperture as you can read on the site. So these are the facts nothing more nothing less. If you like Aperture more, be my guest no problem at all! For some people reading is still a hell of a job, my advice is go out take your pics and use VSCO…. ( in Lightroom of course:)

  2. Indeed – the 12 MP Nikon D700 surpasses film in resolution terms by far! To me, the film looks great but just soft.

  3. Today VSCO Film04 available, but ehhh… still again no Aperture 3 support! Any thoughts? Maybe too much effort and too less Aperture customers, or VSCO might be thinking a 79$ app?, that’s not a pro editing app, it’s more a connecting device app between pads&phones&clouds&streams… 🙂

    • The reason that VSCO hasn’t created presets for Aperture since version 2 is the same reason they haven’t created versions that work on LR2 or LR3. Adobe completely remade ACR and LR improving it significantly. VSCO along with many other companies that make presets and plugins had to remake their software to work on new versions of Photoshop and LR as their existing software was no longer compatible. Although it was painful most of these companies where able to take advantage of Adobe’s more advanced system and make their software much better than before.

      Aperture hasn’t been updated in nearly 4 years. This is the reason why VSCO along with others don’t support software development for it. There is no way for companies to make more advanced versions of their software work with what Aperture is giving them. Wondering why VSCO doesn’t support Aperture for it’s last 3 releases is like being angry at Windows because you can’t run Windows 8 on a 10 year old PC.

      • The last update to Aperture was version 3.4.5 in June of this year — two months ago. The last update with major features added was version 3.3 in June of last year. There were seven additional updates in between.

        In the VSCO forums, there have been many requests for VSCO 4 for Aperture, and VSCO has responded by saying that their Aperture development is ongoing.

        • The updates to Aperture have been mostly stability issues and updates to keep it tightly integrated into OSX. They haven’t improved the software itself to be a better RAW editor with a more feature rich set of tools to work with.

          You can view the complete version history right here:

          If you want to know VSCO’s official response to development with Aperture here is what they’ve said.

          “Honestly, we have no idea what the future holds for Aperture. Trust us when we say that this is not the nail in the coffin for us developing for Aperture. We hope to continue to develop for Aperture at some point in the future but unlike Adobe, Apple does not allow us access to early releases, so we are completely in the dark development-wise. As a small company it is very hard to devote resources to developing for a platform that could change tomorrow without notice and represents less than 5% of our user base.

          We know Aperture is a dearly loved product by many photographers. We believe it’s a great tool for image editing that delivers fantastic results. As a small company, however, we have chosen to focus our attention on creating VSCO Film™ for Adobe Lightroom and Adobe Camera Raw for the reasons stated above, as those platforms represent an overwhelming majority of our user base. We are still open to developing for Aperture and will continue to evaluate our options in the future.”


          This is not about whether Aperture is good or not. It is quite good and many photographers still use it. But the fact is the user base has diminished exponentially because Apple hasn’t responded with an updated version to make it a more powerful editing tool on the level of the most current version of Lightroom. It’s also clear that if Apple does respond it’ll likely be a complete overhaul of the software making it difficult for a small company like VSCO dedicate resources to the long in the tooth current version.

  4. Portraiture. And skin tones. That is where Portra shines. Can we see samples of potraiture to really value the conversion?

  5. So here is where film wins easily: dynamic range!
    If you look as the weeds and grass the green color is very clear.
    In the digital it just looks like shadow with no real color.

  6. I think the problem is: to display the film on the internet you have to scan it. Based on your settings for scanning you may get all sorts of different interpretations of the image on film. So it’s really hard to compare at all.

    • This is true. On the other hand, I’ve scanned all sorts of films using a variety of scanners, and, provided the settings are right, the results are reasonably consistent between scanners. Looking at my film scans in Aperture (and incidentally, Aperture is a much better tool than Lr for adjusting film scans), I can usually tell which ones were Kodachrome, which were Ektachrome, and which were some of the pre-Portra print films I used to shoot in the 80s. So there is a definite look to different film stocks which survives the scanning process.

  7. This is kind of a misleading test because it looks like you where trying to color match them all. To my eyes they all look like digital images. If you get really good scans it won’t be possible to get VSCO to look anything near film. I use VSCO all the time and it has a look it’s just not film. The only way I’ve been able to get it to look close is by altering my film to look more like VSCO.

    Portra 160 is designed to get more accurate skin tones. It also is lauded for retaining highlights even in harsh light. But yet in your film shot the sun and sun reflection is burned. Whereas in the digital shot it retains the highlights nicely. This just makes me think you spent some time trying to color match it to VSCO on a low quality scan.

    I can guarantee VSCO won’t be able to reproduce something like this…
    from a digital camera if scanned properly.

    • The only adjustments I made to the images were the crops, plus an exposure change to the raw file in Aperture to bring it up to the same general brightness as the film scan. I probably should have increased the exposure of the raw file in Lightroom too, as it looks too dark here with the VSCO presets applied to it.

      I didn’t do the film scans. Indie Film Lab scanned the film using a Noritsu film scanner.

  8. Reading through the comments it appears that I may be in the minority, but the original digital file has the most detail, range of color, contrast and highlight/shadow information. If you wantan image looks like Portra 160, then the film has done a magnificent job at that. That Digital file has a lot of potential to be developed further.

    Both the film and digital are beautiful and stand on their own. Perhaps the fact that you were there to capture the image may just be the most fortunate part.

    • Actually, I’m with you on this. To my eye, the digital file in Aperture looks by far the most beautiful, and most of that is due to it having been a beautiful sunrise.

  9. Life seems to becoming very complicated or we indeed seem to insist on making it so! Sometimes when one steps back and takes a look at the way photography has developed over the last 20 years it is quite hilarious in many way.Everything has it’s place and is preferred by some and not by others,thankfully that is the way of things and I hope it never changes. When I see how some of the great photographers still work McCullin,Bailey etc it’s still a relatively simple process, loads of skill, touches of genius, great timing, superb eye but quite a simple process. Otto – am I real man – mmmm well I shoot with film and digital but I think the frilly pants and moisturiser hamper my case somewhat :))

  10. Has anyone considered that we’re all sat here looking at 4 digital images? They’re all on the computer! Scanned in or otherwise, they’re all digital, and unless you’re comparing a print with a calibrated monitor (which is stupid in itself) then there’s no point.
    I understand the need for image peeking for some things, but comparing film on a digital monitor is just mental 🙂 There are SOO many variables when getting it into the computer that negate the ‘film look’. Do your eyes tell you it looks good… and just like your film prints? Well then it’s great 🙂

    It’s a strange old world we live in now.

  11. So when will there be a Kodachrome 2 comparison, ie a fairly standard processes transparency with no room for post production work against a digital Kodachrome 2 … Or even a Kodachrome 25?

    • VSCO released Film Pack 4 today for Lr with slide film emulations. There are some Ektachromes, but alas no Kodachromes. As they explain it, since there’s no way to develop Kodachrome film anymore, they haven’t found a way to create a preset using their preferred methods.

  12. No4 “Lightroom VSCO Portra 160 Conversion” looks more digital to me than the real digital pic No1 🙂

  13. Lower the contrast, lighten the shadows and slightly tweek the colors and i think the VSCO versions will be on par with the film!

    • The VSCO presets come with dozens of auxiliary presets for quickly making those kinds of adjustments, but of course it’s not hard to make those kinds of tweaks manually.

  14. I think the Nikon FE with Portra film looks best. The others misses the lightness, softness and the structure of the film.
    In stead of stretching for the film-look, why not use film? Or make your own unique film-look?
    I use both digital and film 🙂

  15. Funny that we always try to emulate the film look and not the other way around. Digital is still too clean. Same in the feature industry, the Alexa still is too clean compared by 35mm film shooting. For me the problem is that there is just one sensor where as in film you have a whole range in film stock. We don’t have the choice anymore. That why we try to copy the diversity that film has.

    • I wouldn’t draw that conclusion based on one comparison. It’s just that with this particular photo, the Aperture preset looks more authentic than the Lr preset, but that doesn’t mean that it’s always going to be true. The Lr presets are well done.

  16. I like all the film ones as they stand, but try lightening the shadows in the digital image, and then I’m not so sure….

  17. (Quick aside regarding the Mark Alan Thomas/Novo disparity. Novo is my cousins’ name, which I use on Facebook. Since I I log-in here via Facebook, it’s the Novo name which shows up.)

  18. If you really like to control the color in your image you can’t get better than the LAB color space and it’s already in your PS program. Save your money, another processing program is more time away from shooting.

  19. I enjoyed this post more than most any other in a long time. Thanks. I like the color in the film better, but only a bit better.

  20. Thanks to Mark for the demonstration of what some currently available tools can give us.

    Not a one of them looks bad; we’re truly in blessed with an abundance of excellent tools today.

    Btw: Hands up everyone who wishes they were as manly as Otto! I don’t even know why he hangs around with us testosterone-challenged pixel-pushers.

  21. There are so many variables at play when shooting and developing film that I was surprised by how accurate VSCO for Aperture turned out to be, and astonished by how wrong VSCO for Lightroom looks. These are VSCO’s default settings. For what it’s worth, the film was scanned by Indie Film Lab using a Noritsu film scanner.

    • Mmmm…., reading some other blogs it seems VSCO for lightroom is much better the Aperture ones are so so. And that’s why there is no VSCO Film03 for Aperture right? 🙂

        • Does this mean that most people actually don’t like the way real portra 160 film look like? What’s the point trying to recreate the look then?

          • Maybe those Lightroom users just assume that VSCO in Lightroom is authentic, and then, when they see that VSCO in Aperture looks different, conclude that the Aperture version must be wrong.

  22. Did you try to see how close you could get just using all the various adjustment tools in LR ?

    VSCO looks well and good, but yikes, its a bit pricey (IMHO) and I’d have to think one could make a few adjustments, save them as a preset, and have something pretty comparable for no added cost.

    VSCO is just nothing more than presets itself, correct ? So is it really doing anything outside of what LR already can do ?

    Don’t get me wrong, I get the convenience aspect of just having to hit a button and have that trial and error done for you, but, if you save your own settings as a preset as well, then you could bring those up at the click of the mouse as well.

    • VSCO for Lightroom is a combination of presets and custom camera profiles. The presets can be copied easily — mostly they are just curves and color changes — but the custom camera profiles would be trickier.

  23. Image is everything! And it really doesn’t matter what camera and what software or film you used to achieve it. Does anybody care what brand brushes Modigliani used and of what animal fur they were made of? Or what sorts of onions Jan van Eyck preferred for rubbing his canvas?

    Those are all tools. And while it is important to choose the right tools, and know how to use them effective, and choose the ones that work for you the best, after all they are just tools. And we are creators.

  24. #2 is closest to color and contrast… but, the grayer clouds shows a “grittiness” that is not in the film sample image. But, still not bad.. The LR one (#4) is way too contrasty compared to the film. but no “grittiness” to the grayer clouds.

  25. As a film shooter I’ve been following with a certain irony how digital imaging software packages has lately been making huge steps forward… to better emulate film look of digital files. Sorry guys, you are always a few steps behind unless you shoot film like real men do 😉

    • And then scan it into a digital photograph, manipulate it with photoshop to simulate what it would have looked like in the darkroom… which depends on a whole list of possible manipulations via chemicals dodging – burning – panty hose over the enlarger – this is all after (mind you) you choose the look you want based on which film you use – oh and don’t forget choosing the look you want on the print via the type paper you choose – etc etc etc. Oh I forgot stacking negatives like our friend Ansel did -on and on….

      Potato, potahto, tomato, tomahto! Let’s call the whole thing off!

    • Digital users are able to closely emulate any film that suits whatever look they’re trying to achieve. If you have a black and white film loaded into your camera, and then see the greatest colour scene of your life . . . try recording it. Film is an infexible dinosaur. That’s why the vast majority of pros have ditched it.

      • Oh god, lets not go down the film vs digital argument again! One could equally say what happens if you are out with your Leica Monochrome and want to record a colour scene? It’s all nonsense. Both formats have their merits and pros (whatever that is these days) mainly dumped film for pure cost and workflow speed issues, the irony being many now spend longer doing digital manipulation on the images than was ever spent in the darkroom. It’s a funny old life :))))

  26. Interesting indeed and even though I prefer shooting film (medium format) to digital – I have to admit that the VSCO does impressive job here. This impression is however based on image size that would not allow even 4×6″ print.

  27. They’re not really comparable. The shadows in the Aperture+VSCO conversion are brighter compared to the actual film. Then the shadows in the film are brighter than the Lightroom+VSCO conversion. The Lightroom+VSCO image also looks a little warmer with more magenta.

    Disappointing. actually.

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