May 2nd, 2024

The VSCO camera


I've always kind of wondered about where exists in Fujifilm's mind the line between the looks you can get from the film simulations + the in-camera adjustments and then what you can get with the  effects settings (like "Toy Camera.")

I got a little shirty a few days ago about the Fujifilm recipe guy's impassioned defense of jpeg photography, but one piece of spleen I held back was just how incredibly fussy some of those recipes can be to get the whole "vintage" look. It takes time in the menus, looking back and forth between the recipe and the little camera screen to get the values just so. I never had the patience for fiddling with all that in-camera only to go have a shooting session and decide "oh, it wasn't that great after all."

VSCO used to sell a set of Lightroom presets (and still makes a Lightroom plugin) to get the same sorts of effects, and I own a bunch of Cobalt's. There are a number of others (like Mastin Labs) that all aim for "the film look."

So when I read that the new "nice but not pro" X-T series camera has a film simulation dial, I wonder if Fujifilm is inching closer to making a sort of "VSCO Camera."

I call it that because I've always read VSCO as living right on the fine edge between stuff that is nodding toward "the film look" and stuff that is just sort of kitschy. Like, when I look through Jack's "film" tag I can sometimes tell that I'm looking at scans of film photographs, but other times, I can't at all, because, you know, film photographs can be—contrary to  the digital nostalgia market—very sharp and clear!

I am not a film photography expert. I remember using a darkroom to develop my own film at the newspaper I worked at after college. We were using poorly maintained equipment in a pretty suboptimal environment, going from hastily shared instructions from other people who were also not experts. I shot film right up until Ben was born, but on very automated cameras, and not doing my own darkroom work. The photos I was getting out of the mid-tier SLRs on modern film stock were not at all what anyone today would even call "film-like." They were just pictures ... printed on glossy paper. I think if you scanned the negatives and showed most people the resulting files, they'd tell you a digital camera had taken them if they had to choose.

That's because "film-like" is doing some work in the modern parlance. Like, not just the qualities of the color reproduction and tonal characteristics (which is most as far as Fujifilm goes with its film simulations proper) but also simulated fading, the effects of poor storage, grain that makes no sense in the context of a beach picture on a bright day for a given film stock, the look of fading prints.

At the far end of the "film-like" spectrum are, like, Instagram filters (at least the last time I looked), which are meant to look like they came out of a 126 camera or a Polaroid and were then kept in a shoebox for 30 years. I support and defend peoples' right to use Instagram filters, and get the urge on some level: Suddenly a very mundane picture is freighted with this sense of gravitas and timelessness because it looks like a thing that you kept in a shoe box forever. But as much as I accept those things, they are also not for me. I think they are pretty definitionally kitschy.

VSCO tries to pull that back in a little. There's less "I didn't get my chemicals to the right temperature and printed this with dirty rollers," but still some deliberate contrast reduction and simulated grain to suggest the "authenticity" of  "film."

Fujifilm cameras today require some work to torture into even VSCO's version of "film-like." Like, the film simulations are an exercise in color science, not artificial reproduction of bad darkroom technique and the ravages of time. You can jack up the "grain" setting, and you can use the tone controls, color, and sharpness settings to make an image that is "film-like," but it stays inside some bounds. A number of recipe guy's recipes also require you to do unnatural things to the white balance and  ISO settings.

Which makes me wonder, if Fujifilm is adding a film simulation knob, whether the lower-end cameras they make won't end up just including a "moar film" setting that comes closer to meeting VSCO in the middle.

If it's true that the X100V was hard to buy in part because its "vintage looks" made it a must-have accessory for influencers, and if the influencers are all running their images through VSCO Studio or Lightroom presets to get the vintage look, why not just sell a sort of old-timey looking camera that spares you the need for the app? I wonder how many sub-$1000  "X-1000s" they could sell, representing a place in the "classic rangefinder looks" lineup similar to where the X-S10 sits in the "classic SLR looks" portion of the X lineup. 

I'm not asking in a snobby way. I'm fine with whatever makes people want to go out and take pictures, and I want camera companies to do well. If making a little vintage-looking box that squirts out kitsch can help subsidize the rest of the camera-making operation, I'm all for it.