BEHIND THE SCENES

Inside VSCO’s Imaging Lab

How VSCO brings analog authenticity to your digital shots.

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At VSCO’s headquarters in Oakland, California, there’s a laboratory with some decidedly analog gear: a refrigerator full of film canisters, a wet lab for photo processing, and a black room for collecting spectral data. But the purpose of it all is unabashedly cutting-edge. It’s where the company’s color scientists and imaging specialists begin the painstaking process of replicating the look of old-school camera film.

A few of the 100-plus rolls of vintage film in the refrigerator awaiting film modeling.

Among discerning digital photographers, VSCO is known for its robust library of arty filters (called presets in the app)—and for good reason: Many of its most popular come out of VSCO’s art-meets-tech-film-emulation project, where the goal is to re-create the look of the film stock on mobile devices.

It needs to be a literal digital replica of when it was manufactured. If we don’t feel good about it, we won’t release it.

– Zach Hodges, color scientist

“I feel a bit like we’re historians,” says Zach Hodges, a staff color scientist who was one of the first employees after the company’s founding in 2011. His colleague Rohit Patil agrees. “There’s definitely an aspect to this that’s about trying to keep it from disappearing,” says Patil.


The still-life subjects for VSCO’s reference shots burst with color and texture.

The digital preservation process starts in the refrigerator. That’s where more than 100 types of decades-old film are stored until the color and image scientists are ready to begin modeling. Some of the film rolls are still being manufactured, but others date back to the ’90s and have been out of production for years.

Clockwise from top left: chemicals that kick-start film development; hang to dry; squeegeeing off the film.

Once a roll has been brought to room temperature, it gets loaded into a Canon EOS 3 SLR camera with a Zeiss 50mm lens. In a darkened room, a photographer takes pictures of test scenes—a light box with a Rubik’s cube, brightly colored yarn, a plastic banana, and snapshots of people with various skin tones. These control images are designed to capture the full range of color gradations. On the other side of the room there’s a spectroradiometer that projects patches of light’s entire spectrum, which are then photographed.

We’re looking to find out how the film reacts to light itself.

—Rohit Patil, color scientist

This process is tedious; evaluating a single frame of film can take 30 to 40 minutes. “We’re looking to find out how the film reacts to light itself,” Patil says. Then it’s time to develop in the wet lab, filled with jugs of chemicals and film-processing canisters.

The biggest challenge? Sometimes there’s only one roll of film to work with—which means the team has only 36 frames for all the test shots. “You can imagine how nervous we are,” Patil says.

Zach Hodges and Rohit Patil review their test results.

Once they feel they’ve accurately reproduced a particular type of film digitally, the team runs it through internal testing, where they judge the digital reproductions against photos from old magazines, field tests they’ve conducted, and online images. “It needs to be a literal digital replica of when it was manufactured,” says Hodges. “If we don’t feel good about it, we won’t release it.”

In the VSCO app, presets are given simple, inscrutable names like X1 and AU5, but tapping one brings up its pedigree. IH5, for example, is based on Ilford HP5, a black-and-white film introduced in 1989. KU8 is a re-creation of Kodak Ultramax 800.

That particular film may have been discontinued, but thanks to VSCO it lives on.

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