Since the advent of brilliant cameras occupying the backs of our smartphones, it seems that everybody possesses camera that has the capability of taking truly remarkable photos. Once upon a time, Instagram in its entirety was a vibrant community of skilled mobile photographers shooting good photos. Their multitude of filters was amazing at helping to make the mundane interesting. The light shafts and burns were used sparingly and gave a realistic impression that the picture taken was shot on an old SLR camera with high-quality film stock. The photos taken, simply put, were good.
Four years and one take-over later, Instagram thrives with more than 200 million active users, unrivaled market share, and 66% year-on-year growth. Though these numbers are great, it also means that all your friends, family and even your parents are using Instagram – and unfortunately, that means your feed is dominated by boring cloudscapes, Starbucks coffee, underexposed selfies, and group photos washed out by the flash on your iPhone. You’ve seen every type of saturation known to humanity, ranging from the popular black-and-white to what you expect to see when you’re tripping on hard drugs. Contrast, once used to help bring out the important aspects of photos, have become ‘artistic’ ways of making faces look like Rorschach from Watchmen. The subtle essence of the filters has been lost. You’ve scrolled past the misuse of these filters so many times that you’ve become sick of the unreal, over-saturated snapshots of people’s lives. Once the forefront of mobile photography, the Instagram community of good mobile photographers has been drowned out by mass media.
However, all is not lost. There remains a sanctuary of excellent mobile photos, and they’re each tagged #vscocam. This is new face of mobile photography – free from your parents, your grandparents, and your friends. Surrounded by people that take photos of everyday life in a way that doesn’t make you want to gag with horror, you can see the extent of which cameras on mobile phones can do the job. We no longer have the excuse of saying ‘Oh, I don’t have a DSLR so I can’t take good photos’. There’s a community of more than a million who run around with their iPhones and Galaxies and take utterly amazing photos. They all shoot with VSCO Cam (available on Android and iOS), and bundle a set of excellent filters that make your shots look like you’ve taken them with Kodak Portra or Fuji Superia.
‘How do they make their photos look so good?’, you may ask. Unlike Instagram, VSCO has been making filters and presets for years used in professional applications such as in Adobe Lightroom and Apple Aperture, specializing in the emulation of film. "VSCO is the company coming closest to replicating the look of film without making it gimmicky," says William Wilkinson, a designer at software studio MetaLab. Out of the box, VSCO Cam doesn’t give you a lot of filters (a total of about ten, in fact), known as ‘presets’ within the app, but what you get is more than enough. They have strived to do away with the some of the more destructive editing methods in current mobile photography in favor of a more authentic feel, focusing on the detail, the character, and the composition of your photos.
Once you’ve finished editing, you can upload straight from VSCO to any social networking site you please, including your VSCO Grid – which feels like a minimalistic, modern, grid-based Tumblr theme focused on your photos and your photos only. In many ways, it’s like an Instagram profile gutted to the roots, made specifically to advertise your skills as a photographer. But unlike Instagram, there are no likes or comments in sight. “We’re not interested in creating another social network,” co-founder Joel Flory says,“We wanted to create a platform that honored the art created without likes or comments”. Users of VSCO often post to Instagram for feedback, which highlights where each system thrives: Instagram with communication, and VSCO with photography tools.
What was once a platform for a large community of mobile photographers has lost its original luster and become the latest Facebook; but that’s okay. The space that is left is a space that VSCO fills perfectly. In doing so, it’s building the next Instagram – not the next billion-dollar social network, but the app that truly moves the state of photography forward.
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2014 issue of UNIT-E. It was written by Ostin Kurniawan, a student at the Western Academy of Beijing.
UNIT-E was founded in the spring of 2010 with the aim of establishing a non-profit, student-run magazine for international students in Beijing. Staffed by current students from a range of international schools, the magazine provides an amalgam of cultural tidbits, fragments of Beijing student life, and a broad spectrum of unique perspectives from a diverse group of young adults.
Photo courtesy of VSCO.com