Once upon a time, Instagram was a vibrant community of mobile photographers taking consistently great photos. The app’s meticulously crafted filters could make anything look good, it seemed. Years later, all of your friends and maybe even your parents use Instagram, which means it’s filled with photos of not-so-pretty things like oversaturated cloudscapes, blurry selfies, and group photos washed out by an iPhone flash. Seeing the same shade of Sutro or Kelvin grading the hundredth photo in a row has made the app’s heavy-handed filters feel a bit stale, and videos, while useful, have detracted from what was once the defining mobile photography experience.
However, one corner of Instagram remains a sanctuary of excellent mobile photos. There are more than 4 million of them, and they’re all tagged #vscocam.
The photos were posted directly from VSCO Cam, which has quickly emerged as the premier mobile photography app on iPhone (and soon, on Android). The app, which launched in version 2.0 this past June, bundles in a variety of tremendously good filters (which VSCO prefers to call "Presets"), granular yet accessible editing tools, and minimalist user profiles called Grids. The new app was downloaded over a million times in its first week, and hasn’t dropped out of the top 15 in the App Store’s Photography and Video category since launch.
"VSCO is the company coming closest to replicating the look of film without making it gimmicky."
Before it had a hit app on its hands, VSCO, which stands for Visual Supply Co., built filters and presets for Adobe Lightroom and Apple Aperture — "the gold standard of film emulation," according to the company. Using one of said filters, which are sold in packs, you can effectively simulate the effects of different kinds of film in your photos. One filter, C3, emulates modern negative Fuji film stocks using contrast and gritty green tones. Another, LV1, was built in partnership with Levi’s and emulates classic slide film. "VSCO is the company coming closest to replicating the look of film without making it gimmicky," says William Wilkinson, a photography enthusiast and designer at software studio MetaLab.
With VSCO Cam, the company brought its trademark filters and editing tools to mobile. Whereas Instagram set out to make your mobile photos look good, VSCO hopes to make them look real — which is arguably the next step for mobile photography now that phone cameras are sharp enough. No longer must we overcompensate for poor low-light performance and noisy post-processing.
"The concept that a good photo is one that has lots of textures or colors is something that we wanted to dispel," says VSCO co-founder Greg Lutze. "The composition, the lighting, and the subject matter are what’s interesting, as opposed to if there’s 10 layers of filters and light leaks in it." There’s no doubt that popular apps like Afterlight can generate some pretty cool effects, but VSCO is aiming for something more authentic. "They’re taking the film stocks that photographers still widely use, like Kodak Porta, and replicating its tones and color rendition beautifully," says Wilkinson. "When you use their filters you can tell they spent the time to match it accurately, without losing your image’s dynamic range to destructive editing." On Instagram, conversely, photos are compressed and frequently oversaturated, making the news feed quick to load and the photos flashy, but removing some of the photo’s original detail and character.
"We’re not interested in creating another social network."
Once you’re finished editing, you can upload your photo to any social network or post it to your Grid — each of which feels like a more modern, svelte Instagram profile — but VSCO insists that’s not the intent. "We’re not interested in creating another social network," says VSCO co-founder Joel Flory. "We wanted to create a platform that honored the art [our users] created without likes and comments." Yet, eager for feedback, many VSCO Cam users are posting their work to Instagram, as shown by the sheer volume of #vscocam tags hitting the service every day. "They are utilizing Instagram for what it’s great at: connecting," says Flory. "It’s a great communication tool, and VSCO is focused on photography tools."
Flory and Lutze are dead set on building "the standard" of mobile photography tools, but in the hands of its users, Grid could help VSCO Cam evolve into something else entirely. If the company added a simple news feed of photos from your friends, which it's considering doing, the app could go from an effective mobile editing tool kit to a hip network where mobile photophiles mingle and share their work, now that Instagram has lost some of its luster. What was once a platform for avid mobile photographers has become the next Facebook, and that’s okay, but what’s left is a gap VSCO Cam perfectly fills. In doing so, it's building the next Instagram — not the next billion dollar social network, but the next app that truly moves the state of photography forward.