VSCO and iPhone Don’t Replace Film, and This is Why

Shooting with film is a personal experience, and it’s nothing VSCO and other film emulators and smartphones can ever replace.

With life going on faster than I would have preferred, I often find myself turning to my iPhone SE and VSCO in the hopes of squeezing in a bit of photography practice in between commutes, ideation meetings, video shoots, and actual writing for work. I mostly use my iPhone because it and I are attached at the hip so it literally takes just a second for me to snap a photo of whatever tickles my fancy anytime. And to me, VSCO is the best in emulating that grainy, washed-out film look that I prefer over the sharpness of digital. I’ve tried lots of different apps over the years and I just find myself going back to it.

Look, I adore my iPhone and VSCO. So much so that about two years ago, I blew around $20 just to get all VSCO filters on my phone and had even considered getting a VSCO X membership – all impractical, I know that very well. It’s an insane amount to spend on just an app. Apart from VSCO, I also have Hipstamatic for whenever I want to be more experimental with my images (I got a combination for a pretty decent LomoChrome Purple dupe figured out!).

But even if I have all these things in my arsenal, even if they’re now the more practical choice over spending tons of cash for buying film and developing, even if they provide results faster – I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that these film emulators and smartphones don’t replace film. Photographing with a film camera has always been a highly personal, almost ritual-like experience for me. Here, everything passes through your hands – from the moment you carefully load film into the camera up to every single frame you take, adjusting the camera settings as you go.

Of course, you could argue that you could do some of these things with a digital camera. And you can, indeed, sure. But with film photography being a slow process, you stay with things a bit longer. You don’t always get to just shoot and repeat and go because you are forced to be more discerning. To allocate more time in nailing the right shot in literally one take as opposed to picking the best out of many images of the same scene – lest you waste a perfectly good roll of film.

As such, you somehow form a kind of connection with everything – with your camera, with your subjects, with your surroundings, and with photography itself.

Keira Knightley perhaps said it best:

“I’ve noticed that the people who started on film still have the ability to see the person in front of them. Whereas for a lot of photographers who have only ever worked in digital, the relationship between the photographer and the person who they’re taking a picture of sort of doesn’t exist anymore. They’re looking at a computer screen as opposed to the person.”

I don’t know about you, but I also get to remember the events surrounding one film photo than any digital counterpart. I’m more likely to remember when and what I was feeling when I took a particular photo 10 years ago better than a mobile snapshot I took last week. Aside from being completely hands-on, I think a big part of what makes shooting film personal for me is the nostalgia that I attach to it. Growing up in the ‘90s, I’ve had all my photos taken using film cameras — from trips to the mall and Christmas parties in school to 1st and 7th birthdays and graduations.

Personally, I reserve film photography for the special people and experiences in my life. One of the things I like taking most is portraits of my family and friends, whether posed or candid. In other instances, I use film to document occasions that we spend with the family like Christmas and New Year, milestones like birthdays, a party with colleagues I’ve worked with for a long time, and vacations.

But even if I have all these things in my arsenal, even if they’re now the more practical choice over spending tons of cash for buying film and developing, even if they provide results faster – I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that these film emulators and smartphones don’t replace film.”

Essentially, they’re rarely random snapshots. The only other thing I use my film on is street photography, but even the pictures I take then I always strive to not be too random about. I’m not a pro; I count myself as an enthusiast. But even so, I try to capture images that draw in anyone who looks at it.

I have fallen into the habit of shooting with my iPhone and VSCO, but only because it’s more accessible, convenient, and practical. These days, I have my phone with me more often than a film camera. As much as I’d prefer to take everything on film, it’s still better to use my iPhone to capture something ironic, funny, or beautiful on the streets, a random hilarious photo of a friend, or a visual inspiration than miss it entirely just because I don’t have an actual camera in my bag.

With just the right filter and amount of grain and vignette, you could get the same look of, say, Portra, Ilford, or even Kodachrome or tintype with film emulators. However, what those emulators wouldn’t give you is the kind of satisfaction that shooting with an actual roll of film and camera could. Slapping on a filter and making adjustments can’t compare with going through the whole process of shooting film.

Of course, at the end of the day, it’s all a matter of preference. But let me make it clear that as much as I love analog photography, I do recognize that, with film and digital, each has certain charms and technical advantages that the other does not have.

So rather than pit them against one another, as some are wont to do, I think it’s wiser to see it as one complementing the other. Maybe doing so can even make photography as a whole a personal and meaningful experience for you!