Sometimes I struggle with using an app I’m reviewing, and sometimes I get to work with such beautiful software that I bless my stars that I’m a software reviewer. VSCO Cam falls squarely into the latter camp. Its minimal, intuitive interface belies powerful photo-shooting and editing tools. It also offers great looking Web galleries for your images, but VSCO lacks anywhere near Flickr or Instagram’s social interaction features. The company behind the app also makes professional photo filter software, most notably Film, which reproduces the looks of analog film photos, and it 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. Unfortunately, there’s no Windows Phone version—unfortunate because of the top-notch cameras available on that platform, such as the Nokia Lumia 1020’s($149.99 at Amazon). At installation, you need to accept prompts allowing the app to send push notifications and to see your location. One thing that’s refreshing and indicative of the app’s overall design is that you don’t have to create or sign into an account to get going with it. Of course, you’ll need one eventually 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—before I’ve even decided whether I want to keep the app.
VSCO Cam sports one of the simplest app interfaces I’ve seen in a while. The lion’s share of the screen when you first start is just the camera viewfinder. There’s hardly a word of text anywhere on it. Only four buttons grace this view: a settings gear, switch camera, camera shutter, and the thumbnail of shots you’ve taken. Tap the gear to reveal several more buttons (more on these next), and tap the image thumbnail to get to your photo “grid.” Here, you’ll see an options menu, which offers some nice interface customization like choosing the order of the buttons.
Shooting in VSCO
When you hit the settings gear icon, VSCO Cam shows that it has learned from apps like Camera Plus, with options such as letting you separately choose focus and exposure points with two fingers to produce on-screen targets. Another is locking white balance: with this tool, you can point the camera at a neutral (usually white) object to set the light source for accurate color results—just like on a DSLR! You can also adjust the flash, or add a low light boost.
One disappointment was that VSCO Cam 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. Another was that I couldn’t see effect filters while shooting, as I could in the Flickr iPhone app.
Fancying Up Photos after Shooting
VSCO Cam offers a surprising number of image adjustment tools. Where many other photo-sharing apps (yup, Instagram, lookin at ya) dispense with photo-editing basics like exposure, contrast, and saturation, VSCO offers these and more. The controls are simply, clearly, and cleverly designed.
When it comes to filters, VSCO doesn’t resort to evocative names like Instagram’s Mayfair or Hefe, instead going with simple codes like M1, B5, and the like. 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 photos you take with VSCO aren’t restricted to squares as in Instagram; in fact, 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.
>>Continue reading: VSCO Community and Sharing
Sharing and Community
Sharing and Community
After you’ve edited and glitzed up your picture, VSCO Cam offers the expected sharing options with one notable exception—Flickr. You do get Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Weibo, and email as output options, however. And of course you can save your result to your Camera roll.
If you finally decide you want to delve deeper into the VSCO world, you can sign up for an account. With this, you build a grid of your photos shot in the app. You can optionally link your VSCO account to a Twitter account. After this your own grid will appear in the app as a menu choice with your username. You also get your own URL in the form USERNAME.VSCO.CO. Yay, another place to upload photos!
Fortunately, all the photos you take and edit in the Cam app aren’t automatically uploaded to your grid; rather, you pick photos from the app’s library to include. You can apply hashtags and a 150 character description to each photo—only one photo can be uploaded at a time. This contrasts with Flickr, which lets you upload multiple pix; VSCO 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.
A big point of the app it seems to me is to get your photos on the VSCO website’s grid. When I signed in there, however, I didn’t see my photos when choosing to view “my feed.” VSCO’s site design is responsive to browser resizing, and resembles the beautiful work done by SquareSpace. Only wish you could change the background to dark (I use the Maxthon browser’s “night mode” to accomplish this).
The site VSCO creates for you is indeed lovely—far more appealing 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 and Vine. Flickr is even more granular, letting you set privacy per photo.
Social interaction is minimal on VSCO, too: there’s no liking, commenting, or people tagging. I actually found it frustrating to browse pictures I liked without being able to “like” them. Sure, you can Tweet or Pin them, but that’s not the same thing. But if you browse the main grid or search a user (there’s no tag search yet) you can create a feed of followed posters. There’s not location or EXIF information like you get on Flikr, and finally, you don’t get to see traffic statistics for your views of your photos.
If you want to see VSCO’s view of the crème de la crème, a gripe is that you can’t arrow through top photos the way you can in Flickr Explore photos, you have to make trips back and forth between the main grid and individual photos unless you want to be shunted to an individual user’s grid.
A Strong Start
VSCO Cam is a newcomer compared with now well-entrenched players like Instagram and Flickr, and it still has catching up to do, not only in user base but in quite a few community features. But this beautifully and simply designed 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.