Here’s a novel idea: Take pictures with your phone, then apply filters to make them look old-timey. What? Heard this one before? Oh right, there’s this Instagram thing we gave you newbie tips for and shown you who to follow on. You may not remember this, but Instagram started out as an iOS-only app, which was mainly populated by photo buffs and artistic types. That’s before it got bought out by Facebook. Well, if you long for those days and are tired of Instagram’s overly processed photos, you should look at VSCO Cam, a photo filter app that’s made a name for itself on iOS and is now finally available for Android. The app itself is free and comes with lots of filters, and even if you don’t consider yourself a photo buff, it’s worth taking a look at.
A (Very) Quick Look at The Camera
VSCO Cam comes not only with its own camera, but also with its own camera roll. In other words, photos you take with VSCO Cam won’t show up in your native Android gallery, unless you explicitly export them there. But we’ll get to that in a moment – first, let’s look at the very minimal camera:
Compared to the gaudy interface you get on Samsung’s Galaxy S4 camera, this is absolutely bare-bones. To the left you can see all of the options you currently get on Android (at least on my own device, a Sony Xperia Z1). You can control the flash, flip between a couple of composition grids, and turn the whole screen into a shutter button (otherwise the bar at the bottom acts as a shutter button). The focus ring you see in the middle can be moved around, too.
If you are familiar with VSCO Cam on iOS, you may notice a few options are missing. Most notably, the iOS version lets you break out the focus ring in two – one for focus, one for exposure – which can be moved around independently and even locked, for manual control over your photos. You can’t do that with Android, or at least not yet. The good news is that if you happen to have a camera that allows for better manual control (such as the Z1’s), you can take photos using your native camera app and then share them to VSCO Cam for processing.
Editing Images: The Core of The VSCO Cam Look
Make no mistake about it: VSCO Cam is mainly about applying effects to your images, and this is something it does very, very well. Let’s take a look at the basic workflow:
Top left, you can see the filter selection screen. Several filters are bundled with the free app, and there’s an in-app store where you can buy more. So you first quickly flick through the filters, tapping them randomly, until you get a look you like. This is something that should be familiar to any Instagram user, only there’s a trick: You can undo. Let’s say you’ve been flicking through filters, tapping away, and you suddenly realize that you liked the look you got three filters back. No problem – tap the bar at the bottom of the screen, and a toolbar pops up, where you can undo several steps back and get the filter you wanted without having to hunt for it on the list again.
Once you have the filter you wanted, you can tap into it and adjust its intensity, as you can see on the top-right image. Compared to the deeply granular adjustments you get with Snapseed, this is very, very limited. You can’t blur out parts of the image, or do anything that affects a manually selected portion of the image. This seems to be an intentional choice – applying a filter here is like picking the type of film the shot was taken with.
While you can’t manipulate selected areas, you can adjust basic image parameters like exposure, contrast, and more:
This is a step that’s sometimes handy before you apply a filter (i.e, adjusting the brightness), but you may also want to adjust these after a filter has been applied. Adjustments aren’t limited just to the very basics: You can also apply a tint to your photo’s highlights and shadows (separately), apply artificial film grain (just in case you need more grain…), crop, rotate the image, and more. Your resulting cat image may look something like this:
All of this is to say that VSCO Cam’s simple interface is deceptive: There are some hidden features (like being able to undo filters). Also, you do need some talent to get something decent out of the app, not to mention an interesting image to begin with (I suspect my retro-hipster cat doesn’t quite cut it).
A final and important thing to realize about all of VSCO Cam’s edits is that they are non destructive. This is one of the app’s best features. Let’s say you edit an image, change some filters, and then save it to your VSCO Cam internal gallery. Most users would assume that’s it – you’re stuck with whatever effects you applied. Not so! You can come back the next day (or whenever), open the image from the internal gallery again, and undo some or all of your edits. I cannot overstate how awesome this feature is.
Speaking of the internal gallery, it doesn’t merit a section of its own but it’s quite handy: It supports three different zoom levels for showing your photos, lets you flag photos (say, for later editing), and even filter by edited photos (to decide which you want to share).
The sharing menu looks like this:
VSCO Cam doesn’t try to monopolize your photos, and makes it easy to share your creations on any social channel you happen to enjoy using.
You may have noticed that VSCO Cam couldn’t care less about Android’s established design guidelines. This is an app that does things its own way, as the Settings menus make very clear:
Don’t expect anything even vaguely Holo here. In keeping with the app’s emphasis on simplicity, there are only a handful of settings. Top left, you can see the main settings menu. To the right, you can see the Social menu, which lets you control which social channels show up on the sharing menu.
Two other interesting Settings screens let you shuffle the editing toolbars:
Oh yes, and where other apps have “filters” (as I’ve referred to them throughout the post), VSCO Cam likes to call them “presets”. We’ll stick with filters here.
Filters, Filters Galore
Speaking of which, here’s VSCO Cam’s straightforward revenue model:
You buy filters from the gorgeous in-app store. Each filter pack contains three filters and costs a buck, or you can buy a complete bundle of all filters (as I’ve done) for around $5, a significant saving. To see what you’re getting, you can tap into each filter pack and see a sample image processed with each of the included filters, as well as a description of the pack which features words like “emboldened duotone”. How can anyone possibly resist that?
Other apps have a blog. VSCO Cam has a journal which you can access from within the app:
It’s a blog. You can also access it online. It’s worth reading, if only for the truly beautiful art and user stories it features.
The Grid: A Glance At The Future
Finally, there is one feature that I suspect will take on a large role in VSCO Cam’s future: the Grid. In a nutshell, this is a very direct way to compete with Instagram:
A “minimalist publishing platform,” the Grid lets you host your photos online, get your own URL, and create a gallery. Currently, it takes some time to activate (you need to open an account and wait for an invitation), but I had my own Grid account just a couple of hours after applying for one. The Grid currently features some truly beautiful photos, because it was invite-only until very recently. It remains to be seen what happens to it once the cat-loving Android hordes storm in. Still, it as a look at things to come, and could prove out to be a wonderful way of sharing your smartphone photos online.
A Serious App That Does Things Its Own Way
If you enjoy smartphone photography, you should get VSCO Cam. You may not appreciate all of the choices it makes, and the app does have a very hipster bent to it. But where it really counts – the filters department – it does an excellent job and offers some truly beautiful looks for your photos. Since the basic app is free, I suggest you just go ahead and install it right now. Don’t forget to share some of your photos in the comments, too!