It's so common now it's practically a habit: Snap a pic, adjust a few things, slap on a filter, and boom. Your smartphone photo suddenly has the warm, nostalgic charm of a portrait shot with a manual Canon in the 1970s. As digital oversharing on Instagram , , and other social media feeds has become increasingly image-centric, the use of filters has become essential, second nature—and an art form all its own.
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But that's just how smartphone users interact with filters. How those tools are made is a much different story. Apps like Adobe Photoshop Express are able to port the tricks of traditional picture editing onto your device, but VSCO's app does something different: Its Film X filters recreate the look of long-gone analog films like Ektar 100, Portra 400, and Kodak Tri-X (a favorite of the late street photographer Garry Winogrand). It's a long process that involves not just coding, but locating old film stock and reverse engineering the pictures captured on it.
"It's much more scientific. We're measuring how film responds to light and making a physical model of that," says Zach Hodges, whose real-ish title at VSCO is "image science-ish." "That lets us make really good simulations of what would happen if you pointed a film camera at the exact same scene you're pointing your phone camera at."
It all starts with a freezer in the company's Oakland lab. That fridge-sized box—which sits amongst the office's industrial wood desks, couches, and whiteboards—contains hundreds of rolls of film, much of it hard to find and all of it capable of capturing images in a way no other film, or smartphone, can. The Fujifilm Superia 1600 is great for shooting vibrant colors in a mix of lighting conditions, but it's been discontinued. The Agfa Ultra 50 is also rare—so rare that Hodges had to fork over $500 to get his stash on eBay. "They claimed it was the most colorful, saturated negative film ever made, and I think that might be true," he says.
About once a month, a lab technician opens the freezer door and chooses a film from which to create a filter. To do so, the company's techs must understand everything about how that particular film interacts with light, from the moment it's exposed to when it's scanned onto a computer. But first, the technician thaws the film, loads it into a camera, and shoots a series of special scenes and charts checkered with dozens of colorful squares representing the full spectrum of color. After developing the film, they carry it into a secret, fingerprint-access-only room—its walls, floors, and ceiling painted black so light doesn't bounce around and throw off measurements—to see what they got.
This is the tricky part, the part that VSCO says is too proprietary to reveal. But in a nutshell, the technician places the film—negatives or slides—on a robotic arm that slowly moves it before a light-measuring instrument called a spectrometer. It takes hundreds of measurements of tiny sections of film that show how they let in light—more specifically, what color dyes you end up with on the film after a particular wavelength hits it during exposure. When that's done, the film gets run through a Fuji Frontier scanner so VSCO can know how the cyan, magenta, and yellow dyes in the film's emulsion layers get converted to the RGB color you wind up seeing on your computer screen. All those images and data then get plugged into custom software that churns out a model for a filter. Hodges' team tests it, tweaks a few things, and then converts it to a format for the app to run as a preset.
Finally, the filter is added to Film X and released to users—many of whom have never shot real film or even realize the filter is based on one. "It shows me that these looks are just amazing, whether you know that they're film or not," Hodges says. "It's a credit to the engineers of the past who did incredible work to make these things look the way that they do."
The popularity of VSCO's tools, and of smartphone photo filters broadly, speaks to the fact that creating soft-toned photos is about more than just nostalgia. Though today's devices can practically Xerox the scenes before them, the point of photography isn't just to make a facsimile of a moment, but to communicate. "Whether that's desaturating the image to make it less colorful, to express the way that you're feeling about your life or a scene, or making the image really colorful and warm—that's just as much a part of the reality of the scene as an accurate representation of it," Hodges says.
Of course, you can do that with real film too—but that's much harder to carry around in your pocket.
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