VSCO, a mobile app that lets you edit and apply filters to your photos and share them to its own and other social networks, has been picking up steam ever since the VSCO Girl phenomenon began. Before this development, VSCO made high-quality Photoshop filter plug-ins for pro photographers, but the company has abandoned those products in favor of this social app. It’s a bit more artsy than the dominant photo-sharing app, Instagram, and has long avoided some of that app’s peer pressure by not showing Like totals—a strategy that Instagram only recently started testing.
VSCO’s minimal, intuitive interface belies powerful photo-shooting and photo-editing tools. It also offers great looking web galleries for your images, but VSCO lacks anywhere near Flickr or Instagram’s social interaction features. As mentioned, the company behind the app has a history with professional photo filter software, most notably Film, which reproduces the looks of analog film photos. It now puts that expertise to use in this appealing app.
Installation, Signup, Setup
VSCO is available as a free app (with in-app filter purchases) for iPhone and some Android devices. I tested on an iPhone X and a Samsung Galaxy Note 8. At installation, you need to accept prompts allowing the app to send push notifications and to see your location. To use the app at all, you now have to create or sign into an account—in the past, you could use the app for photo editing without this step.
Of course, you’ll need an account to post your photos, but I much prefer being able to get to the meat of the app before having to go through the barrier of creating an account. As with most apps, you can create an account using your Facebook or Google credentials or with an email address or phone number.
After creating an account, you’re immediately pushed towards signing up for a paid subscription ($19.99 per year), which gets you 200 filters, as opposed to the free app’s paltry 10 filters. You can start a 7-day free trial. Next, the app asks you to grant access to your photos, camera, location, and contacts.
VSCO’s Smartphone Interface
Once you’re all signed up and have granted all the permissions, you can start following “creators”—the app suggests some to get you started. Across the bottom of the screen are your five app navigation options: Feed, Discover, Studio (the camera part), Profile, and Membership.
You can add a profile image, but surprisingly, especially for a camera app, there isn’t the option to shoot a selfie within the app for this. In Discover, there’s a Flora section (but no Fauna section) that includes animals as well as plants. Discover offers a search function; when I searched for bird, there was nothing near the wealth of bird photography available on Flickr.
A surprisingly large portion of the images on VSCO are of young women facing away from the camera, with their backs to the viewer. Thankfully, the service is nearly free of the memes found on Instagram; it’s more about appealing photos.
If you want to see VSCO’s view of the crème de la crème, there’s no feature similar to Flickr Explore photos, but you can browse feeds curated by VSCO staff in the Discover section. These include Editorial, Selects, Humankind, Style, Beach, and more. You can also search based on tags and usernames on the Discover tab.
Unlike in Instagram, double-tapping a VSCO photo doesn’t favorite it; instead, it opens a larger view of the image where you can star, reshare, or send the image to a VSCO contact. That whole process makes for a less quick-browsing and -favoriting experience than you get with Instagram. Another quibble is that the favoriting star only switches from a black outline to a dark blue outline, so it’s hard to tell at a glance whether you’ve favorited a shot or not.
Shooting in VSCO
You can work with photos already in your camera roll or shoot picture in the app’s Studio mode. At the outset of this section I should note that the Android version of the app’s camera feature has none of the shooting options found in the iPhone version, described here. VSCO shows that it has learned from apps like Camera+, with options such as letting you separately choose focus and exposure points with two fingers to produce on-screen targets.
I’m impressed that the app offers manual setting of ISO, exposure, white balance, and focus. The app also can save images in raw camera file format, just as Lightroom‘s mobile app can. This option gives you more leeway in correcting lighting and color after the shot, since it saves all the information from the camera sensor.
One disappointment was that VSCO didn’t let me zoom as I could in the default iPhone camera app, but you can always crop later: Since the phone doesn’t have optical zoom, there’s no difference zooming that way. But the inability to choose my iPhone X’s telephoto camera is unfortunate. Another disappointment was that I couldn’t see effect filters while shooting, as I can in the Flickr iPhone app.
Adjusting Photos after Shooting
VSCO is mostly about the filters, but it does offer basic image adjustments such as exposure, contrast, and color saturation. Shadow and highlight adjustments are buried under the Tone button—these are essential for anyone serious about photo editing, or just those who need to bring a face out from the shadows. The Lightroom mobile app is far more powerful, with selective edits for parts of the image, spot healing, and dehaze (which can also add haze).
Even though I said that VSCO is mostly about the filters, non-paid users only get ten of these. The filters have unmemorable names like B1, G3, and M5. Its doubtful that M5 will one day gain the fame of Instagram filters like Amaro, Hefe and Mayfair.
There are only ten filters included in the free app, but you can purchase additional filters in sets starting at 99 cents. There are even a couple of free effect downloads that look pretty good. One advantage over Instagram is that VSCO’s effects include sliders that let you adjust their strength. But you don’t get Instagram’s cool selective blur tool (aka “tilt-shift”) that lets you set off your photograph’s subject.
Happily, you can subject any existing image in your camera roll to VSCO’s editing and effects, unlike some photo apps that only work for pictures shot inside the app. (This is thankfully becoming less common.)
The Crop tool lets you pick from among popular aspect ratios, and the rotation tool lets you use a slider to adjust the photo’s leveling. You can also skew a photo, thereby warping its geometry on a 3D angle.
Sharing and Community
After you’re happy with your edits, VSCO lets you publish it to Instagram, Instagram Stories, Snapchat, or pretty much any other photo-accepting app on your phone. But the real point of the app is sharing to the app’s corresponding social network. You can add a caption and hashtags and decide whether to include location (which it gets from your smartphone automatically).
VSCO still hews to Instagram’s one-at-a-time philosophy. Navigation is nearly identical to that in Instagram: you choose a tiled thumbnail grid or vertically scrolling view—no swiping through photos side to side. I only wish you could change the background to dark mode; the app doesn’t (yet?) support iOS 13’s dark mode, which you can see to good advantage in the built-in Photos app.
The Journals feature allows you to tell a story with a group of images in your Studio tab. The set can get a title and subtitle, and you can designate it as private.
Social interaction is minimal on VSCO, too: like tallies don’t appear on the public feed, there’s no commenting, or people tagging. I actually found it frustrating to browse pictures I liked without being able to “like” them in one action. Sure, you can follow users and reshare images, but that’s not the same thing. There’s not location or EXIF information like you get on Flickr, and finally, you don’t get to see traffic statistics for your views of your photos, as you can in Twitter, but that may well be intentional.
VSCO on the Web
With your VSCO account (even a free one), you also get your own URL in the form vsco.co/username. You can see your feed, your profile, and contacts here. You can also upload photos from your computer, but not edit them or add them to your feed. Picsart, by contrast, offers a desktop app for Windows 10 in the OS’s app store, with full editing capabilities.
The site VSCO creates for you is simpler than Instagram’s Web version of your photo set. But I didn’t find any privacy options for photos put on the grid—no private accounts like you see on Twitter. Flickr is even more granular, letting you set privacy and safety level per photo. You could just not share to the feed and just send your VSCO photos directly to recipients if you prefer.
The No-Pressure Instagram Alternative
VSCO is a worthy alternative to the leading social photo networks, which tend to cause angst about likes and negative comments. Unlike those, it doesn’t show like counts or allow comments. Its simple design nevertheless brings powerful tools and an appealing web-sharing experience to the table. It’s a delightful, cleanly designed photography app to use on your iPhone that offers appealing, though info- and interaction-weak, online galleries.