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An Unscientific Science Experiment – Comparison of 35mm Slide Film and VSCO Film Pack

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When Antonis found several reviews of VSCO Film emulation software recently, I (Pak) was instantly excited as I used to shoot film back in the day and absolutely loved that medium.  In my film days, Kodak made a color negative film called Portra UC which was my go-to color film.  Colors had a vivid punch to them and the grain was rather fine for an ISO 400 film.  I also shot landscapes frequently with several of the Fuji slide films (Provia 100F and the various Velvia films) which again had a color and sharpness I could not quite get from my digital files.  For black and white, Kodak Tri-X, Ilford Delta, and Fuji Neopan were my films of choice.

So I finally bit the [expensive] bullet and purchased two of the VSCO film software packs (Film Pack 02 which emulates discontinued negative films such as my beloved Portra UC and Film Pack 04 which emulates slide films).  Just for kicks, I decided to do a completely unscientific test by shooting the same scene under the same lighting, using a digital SLR side by side with a film SLR to see how close the VSCO emulation comes to the slide film.  Let me say that it’s been so long since I shot film that I completely forgot terms such as reciprocity failure and push / pull.  There was instant nostalgia with things like the smell of the film as I opened the film canister, trekking to the photo lab, and the anticipation of getting the slides back from the lab.

I was originally going to do this test with my Leica M3 but discovered there was a mechanical problem.  It was just heartbreaking to see this classic 1954 rangefinder with a torn shutter curtain.  Thankfully, I was able to get my hands on a good friend’s Canon Elan 7N.  This is probably better for the test since it allowed me to use the same lens on both setups.

Off I went to three locations (on 3 separate mornings at sunrise – that’s dedication) to photograph identical scenes with a Canon 5D Mk III and the Elan that had been loaded with a roll of Fuji Velvia 100 (not 100F as is shown in the first photo above).  The three locations were Central Park, Brooklyn Bridge, and finally 5Ptz in Long Island City.  My goal was to see how close the color emulation was from the VSCO software without any VSCO adjustments other than the straight Velvia 100 preset (I may have adjusted exposure slightly in lightroom as I saw fit prior to applying the preset but that was the only other adjustment that was made).

Below are the slide images along with the VSCO-processed image right after.  I think you can see in all the cases that the slide film has a magenta cast which is not picked up by the VSCO conversion.

The first image of the buildings reflected off the pond is from the Velvia slide film.

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The following image is the same scene from the 5D Mk III but with the VSCO emulation.  Notice the lack of the magenta cast (and also the crushed shadows).

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The next images are of the famous Bow Bridge (Velvia slide on top and VSCO emulation below).

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For the images of the tree canopy in the “Mall” area of central park, it was very difficult to properly get the slide digitized in a way that accurately represents what I see when I project the slide on a white screen.  However, there is definitely a magenta or red cast on the film.

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There was a lovely, brilliant red tree in the park which made for a great test subject.  Again, the magenta cast seems to be the main difference here (Slide film on left and VSCO on right).

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The following two scenes are the Brooklyn Bridge at sunrise and then the South Street Seaport.  For both scenes, the slide film is the first image.

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The last series is at 5Ptz which is a building complex that showcased beautiful graffiti by artists all over the world.  This building is going to be torn down soon to make way for hi-rise buildings and the artists have been fighting to protect 5Ptz from demolition.  These photographs were taken 2 weeks before the owner controversially decided to whitewash the entire building overnight.

The following images are various scenes around the complex.  Velvia slide film is always the first shot followed by the VSCO emulation.  The difference in the blue areas stands out at me (magenta in the slide and deep blue in the VSCO emulation).

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The next image (not part of the test) is taken one day after the owner decided to paint over all the artwork.  This view really is heartbreaking for me to see as I have seen this beautiful artwork every work day for the last 15 years as I passed by on the 7-train.

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To wrap up this blog post, I want to explain how I digitized the slides.  Making this unscientific test certainly has many pitfalls so I don’t want to lead you to think I am doing an apples to apples comparison by any means.  One huge issue is how to properly digitize the slides so that I can display them in this blog post.  After some research, it seems that shooting the slide with a digital camera and a macro lens is a good way to do this.  Even that, of course, has its drawbacks since the digitized slide needs some post processing to get the colors and sharpness to look like what I see after the digital capture.

To photograph the slides, I setup a makeshift light table by taking a translucent white glass and setting it on top of a desk lamp.  I added a black sheet on top with a rectangular hole cut out that was slightly larger than the slide.  I used our Canon 100mm Macro lens on my 5D Mk III to photograph the slides.  I had to add two rolls of packaging tape on top (also lined on the inside with black paper) so that the minimum focusing distance requirements of the lens could be met.  I set my white balance for the raw files to account for this lighting.  This is a lot of work!  But…also a lot of fun for a photo nerd like myself!

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So what do I draw from all of this unscientific work?  First, I must say that I really love the VSCO film packs 02 and 04.  They definitely give our digital conversions much more film flavor.  As you can notice though, it is not a one click solution if you are looking for a perfect emulation of your favorite film.  You would probably have to make several adjustments within the RAW file to get the “exact” colors of the film.  However, the one-click preset is certainly a great starting point.  The other benefit is, of course, that the VSCO packs come with many varieties of each film, as well as a toolkit with an abundance of options.  Having said all that, it’s probably not realistic to ever think that a digital file can be made to match film photos to the tee.

The VSCO packs are not cheap but neither is shooting film!  To get myself 36 whole exposures (not all shown in this post), I had to fork over about $11 for the film itself in addition to the $11 fee for processing/mounting the slides.  Furthermore, there were two treks to the photo lab and setup work required to digitize the slides.  While this is a lot of work and cost for 36 whole exposures, it was also a lot of fun and the excuse to shoot with film once again was well worth it.

I will close this post with one more photo of 5Ptz a few weeks before it was ruined (also processed with VSCO).

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This whole experience was incredibly rewarding – I got to rediscover my love for film and got to spend a ton of time at 5Ptz before it got painted over (and eventually demolished).  Let us know in the comments how you think the VSCO film packs did or if you still shoot film and why!

– Pak

Grant Smucker - May 11, 2014 - 11:42 PM

I don’t think your digital conversion process is accurate, as fluorescents usually a bad magenta shift. I would be curious to see the film shots again with corrected white balance.