It’s funny how things come full circle so quickly. When Instagram was first created by Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, its main selling point was allowing you to apply cool, retro Instagram filters to your photos. The social media aspects weren’t so central in its early days, but as we all know, they ultimately became the main focus. And consequently, over the years, Instagram’s own filters haven’t really been developed that much.
So it’s not surprising that a third-party app, VSCO (previously known as VSCO Cam), has stepped in to provide an alternative.
This free photo app for iOS and Android provides a range of unique and expressive VSCO filters. Some are free forever, some free for a limited time only, and more than 100 others paid-for, as part of an £18.49/year subscription. You can apply these VSCO filters, also known as presets, to both imported photos and those you take within the app itself.
On the whole, VSCO’s filters give your images a subtle, filmic look that, when used thoughtfully, can raise them above the norm and add a real touch of sophistication. You can also, if you wish, tweak things further with the app’s own toolkit, which allows finer adjustments to fade, clarity, skin tone, tint, sharpen, saturation, contrast, temperature, exposure and other more.
Rachel Etheredge, a strategist at Creative Parc and vice-president at AIGA San Antonio, is among the app’s fans. “I wouldn’t use it for curated design work on my business feed, of course,” she notes. “But I love it for my personal Instagram.”
“I pay for all the filters through the annual membership,” she explains. “I start with one, and tweak and edit it with the photo editing tools until I get where I like. You can also copy the effect you create onto any other photo, so you don’t have to remember all your tweaks.”
Sharing on Instagram
VSCO’s makers would, of course, like you to share your newly edited images among its global community within the app, and many do. But there’s nothing to stop you sharing them to Instagram too, or instead, and a quick search for #vsco or #vscocam will show you how tens of millions are doing just that.
VSCO offers many more filters than Instagram, so you stand a better chance of finding one that will help your image stand out. But with hundreds to choose from, that can be a time-consuming business, so it’s good to have a few trusty go-tos to start out with. Here are 10 of our favourites and all of them - at time of writing at least - are happily free.
Created in collaboration with men’s fashion and streetwear brand Hypebeast, HB01 gives a dramatic, gritty look to photos shot on city streets. In essence, you can use it to turn a quite banal scene into something out of a hip-hop video. Chris Bliss, a junior designer at MoreNiche in Nottingham, is a big fan.
“I tend to use my main Instagram feed for design stuff, but I post photos to my Instagram Stories, for which I’ll usually use HB01, HB02 [below] or Nike’s ACG filter,” he explains. Hypebeast’s filters are only free for a limited time, though, so if you haven’t downloaded them yet, do so as soon as you can.
The silbling filter to HB01 [above], HB02 cracks up the sense of high-contrast sense of drama a touch more. Tom Ludd, a Leeds-based designer and founder of global community The Designer’s League, is among its regular users.
“It’s my favourite VSCO filter and gives a nice urban feel to an image,” he explains. Another fan is Dan Beltran, an independent designer based in Seattle, who’s used it on the image above. “HB02 is dynamic as f***!”, he enthuses.
03. Dog 1
Whether you loved or loathed Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs, you have to agree it had a very distinctive look. So it’s great that the filmmakers have teamed up with VSCO to create three free (for a limited time) filters that allow you to give your own images a similar look: Dog 1, Dog 2 and Dog 3. Thee first emphasises neutrals and mutes vibrant colours to give your image an elegant, serene and classic look. We’d encourage you to download all three presets today before they’re no longer free.
04. Dog 2
Inspired by the scene in the Isle of Dogs film where student Tracy Walker calls on her classmates to take action, Dog 2 boosts yellow hues and brightens your image. The effect is pretty full-on, but when used in the right way it can certainly make your photos look distinctive. Note that like Dog 1 [above], this filter is only free to download for a limited time.
C1 is part of the Vibrant Classic series of presets (C1-C3) that’s intended for a variety of scenarios and uses. It gives your images a colourful, vibrant look that works really well on subjects like flowers, nature and beach scenes.
Desaturated and understated, the Mellow Fade F Series preset pack (F1-F3) aim to replicate the feel of analogue film stock. We especially love F2, an understated matte filter that’s great for enhancing skin tones, and a great way to bring to life intimate, everyday moments.
The second pack in the M Series (M4-M6) revives the vintage look of photo albums from the 1970s beautifully. Our favourite is F5, with a mellow, desaturated look that give a retro feel to both urban and rural environments, and works well with portrait shots too.
Another set of presets inspired by analogue film, the Aesthetic Series (A4-A6) is characterised by natural tones, subtle colour shifts and slight dimming. We love A4, which can be a great way to enhance both interior and food photography. It’s free for a limited time, so download it quick, before it isn’t!
The Portraits G Series (G1-G3) is aimed at enhancing your portraits by flattering skin tones. But we’ve found that G3 can sharpen the colours and vibrancy of still-life scenes, too. It’s an altogether different, slightly surreal twist on reality that doesn’t always work; but when it does, it can completely transform a shot.
A list of VSCO filters wouldn’t be complete without a monochrome preset. Black & White Classic B Series (B1-B3) is a great way to turn your shots black and white in a subtle way that doesn’t just blindly remove colour but evokes a true vintage feel. B1 is our normal go-to, with excellent shadow detail and contrast that brings out little details that other filters might have dulled down.