Mastin Labs vs VSCO (Pushed Film Look)

A while back I wrote a review of the new Mastin Labs Pushed Portra preset packs. Real quickly in case this sounds foreign to you, these presets are designed to make your digital RAW photos look like real Kodak Portra films when pushed in development. Pushing essentially has the effect of allowing you to shoot at higher ISOs and also adding contrast and color casts to your film images. It’s something I’ve been doing with my Portra films for a long time now, but never really found a good way to match my digital to it without a lot of time spent tweaking sliders and curves. The new Mastin Labs Pushed Portra presets get me much closer, much faster.

I hear the question often, how does Mastin Labs compare with VSCO? I thought I’d show a direct comparison of the new Pushed Portra presets with VSCO’s versions in their 06 pack. First off, each offers some different options that the other doesn’t. Mastin Labs has Portra 160 +2 and Portra 800 +2 presets while VSCO does not. But VSCO has a Portra 400 +3 while Mastin Labs doesn’t. Mastin Labs also doesn’t have the varied looks that VSCO is known for (all of their “+” alternative looks presets), and the grain profiles for Mastin Labs are the same for all of the presets and not applied by default, giving you the choice between 35mm and medium format levels of grain to apply separately, but offering no change from 160 to 400 to 800.

But, when it comes down to it, most people buy a preset based on the look it gives you, not the extras. So I thought I’d show side by side comparisons. I will admit, I get the feeling from VSCO’s beginnings with the 01 film pack on to now 07 and beyond, they’ve had a lot of time to perfect their process, and their presets have markably improved over time. Mastin Labs standard Portra pack vs VSCO 01’s Portra is no contest in my opinion - Mastin Labs is miles ahead in terms of accuracy to real film and general quality of results. But these particular results are more difficult to compare and contrast. For some images, the difference is minimal. For others, it’s actually quite drastic.

All images have identical exposure and white balance and no further tweaks. Click to view larger.

Portra 160 +1 - Mastin Labs (left) vs. VSCO (right)

Portra 400 +1 - Mastin Labs (left) vs. VSCO (right)

Portra 400 +2 - Mastin Labs (left) vs. VSCO (right)

Portra 800 +1 - Mastin Labs (left) vs. VSCO (right)

Mastin Labs Pushed Portra

VSCO Pushed Portra

More drastic difference with this image and Portra 160 +1 - Mastin Labs (left) vs. VSCO (right)

You can purchase the new Mastin Labs Pushed Portra presets here.

Disclaimer: Although my opinions stated here are 100% honest and genuine, I am officially a Mastin Labs ambassador, and the above links are affiliate links. Any purchase made using my affiliate links, I receive a small percentage of.

From Texas to Oregon - Road Trip on Film

Back in the beginning of April, my girlfriend (Ashley) and I flew down to Houston, TX, where I grew up and my family still lives, and made the return trip by car. I’ve made several road trips of similar length in the past, but so many of them were done alone. In fact, I had made almost this exact same trip over 6 years ago when I first moved to Portland, but drove the whole way alone. Road trips alone aren’t bad, really. They give you a lot of time to think, and as an introvert, that much alone time can be really invigorating. The most memorable moment from the previous trip was when I stopped in Joshua Tree National Park, perched up on a giant rock, and watched the sunset in solitude and silence.

However, having a companion on a long road trip was definitely a lot more fun. Our plan was to stop at a few different landmarks we wanted to see along the way. From Houston, we drove to the Grand Canyon, then to LA and the California coast, and then up along the coast to San Francisco and eventually to the Redwood forest, before heading back home to Portland. Along the way, we definitely hit some challenging road blocks - the biggest being the oil light flashing on in my car as we were rolling into Flagstaff, AZ. This, paired with our late night arrival at an AirBNB that was a little sketch and the higher altitude, gave me really bad anxiety that night and I got next to zero sleep. In the morning we had to deal with the oil light issue, and doing so took time that eventually put us way behind schedule for going to the Grand Canyon and getting to LA. But through all that stress and anxiety, it was comforting having Ashley there with me, and eventually it all worked out.

One of my favorite moments was early on while driving through central Texas. It was pretty late, and we were driving through some side roads in the middle of nowhere in complete darkness, passing tiny towns that might as well have been ghost towns for all we could tell. In the distance we saw a bunch of flashing red lights that eventually got closer and closer, and more and more numerous. Soon we were right in the midst of them and it became clear what they were - hundreds upon hundreds of wind turbines. We were in the middle of a wind farm that, during the day would have been a fascinating sight to see. But, at night, in almost total darkness, instead it was one of the most eerie things I’ve ever experienced. It was as if we had accidentally stumbled upon the nest of hundreds of sleeping alien giants - like a scene out of War of the Worlds. 

This was definitely one of the most memorable trips I’ve ever been on. I’ll let the photos tell the rest of the story.

Review - New Mastin Labs Pushed Portra Film Presets

It’s no secret that I’m a fan of Mastin Labs. In that previous blog post, I also mention I usually shoot film and push it in development to give a unique, more contrasty look to my images. However, because Mastin Labs presets were designed to look like film developed normally, whenever I would shoot film and digital side by side, I would have to tweak the presets to match my film better. I’d add contrast, tweak the curves, and sometimes add color casts, just to get a consistent look from image to image whether digital or film. I was able to get it pretty close, and it was still a much welcomed shortcut to doing it from scratch that was better than any other option out there. But it was always a work in progress for me.

But then recently I heard from Kirk Mastin that he was looking to create a “pushed film” preset. The idea being that these pushed film looks can give a completely different feel compared to his standard presets, one that is often described as “moody”, and is in line with my own particular style. The problem that both Kirk and I saw with the available options out there for photographers wanting a darker, moody look is that most presets created this look by simply making everything look murky and “muddy”. Lifted blacks, squashed whites, split toning – so many presets out there think a dark and moody look means flat, like constantly shooting on a foggy day and underexposing your film. If this is the kind of look you love, more power to you. But personally I feel it’s a very dated look started by a certain company years ago that has become overused to the point of being cliche. It’s the type of thing that photographers should be avoiding – people see the editing more than the actual image (the same could be said for a lot of film shooters I see out there, but that’s a topic for another day).

So when Kirk came to me asking help creating presets to match pushed film, I was definitely on board. Long story short, we shot a lot of film next to a lot of digital, with Kirk doing his trademark obsessing over every little detail to get the right contrast, tones, and colors of pushing film. The focus has been on Kodak Portra films, since they push so well because of the inherent dynamic range. Pushing film is essentially underexposing film, and Portra is renowned for producing usable images even 2 or 3 stops underexposed and developed normally. Pushing in development though can help bring midtones and highlights back up from being underexposed, making what would be a muddy film scan into a more dynamic photo.

One of the things Mastin Labs has always been about is the idea of the “3 click edit”. The idea is that for a digital image, getting it to match the look of a film image can be as easy as 3 clicks – 1. Apply the preset, 2. Adjust exposure, and 3. Adjust white balance/tint. As I said before, because I always liked the pushed film look, using the standard Mastin Labs presets was never a 3 click edit for me. Now having the finished Mastin Labs Pushed presets, I can safely say that a 3 click edit is a reality if you want the pushed film look. Here are some examples side by side of film I shot next to digital.

Mastin Labs on the left / Portra 160 +1 on the right

Mastin Labs on the left / Portra 160 +1 on the right

Mastin Labs on the left / Portra 400 +1 on the right

Mastin Labs on the left / Portra 160 +1 on the right

Mastin Labs on the left / Portra 400 +1 on the right

What really surprised me the most though was the +2 presets. Pushing 2 stops can be a very unpredictable and extreme look. It’s very unique, and I honestly wasn’t sure Kirk would be able to nail down the nuances of it. But when I tried it out for myself, I was blown away.

Mastin Labs on the left / Portra 160 +2 on the right

Mastin Labs on the left / Portra 160 +2 on the right

Now, as happy as I am with the results, this wouldn’t be a fair and honest review if I didn’t discuss the bad along with the good. The biggest downside of the whole concept of presets made to match a particular film stock and technique is that in an effort to make things as simple as possible (3 click edit), it ignores a lot of variables that comes with shooting film (and digital). A final jpeg file from a film scan went through numerous steps, techniques, equipment, and often different hands to get to the final image. From choice in camera and lens, to how you meter the image, to the particular lighting of the scene, then how the film is developed (professionally or DIY), and what type of scanner, how the scanner operator decides to scan, and then any final edits done to the scan in software – all these added variables can mean that what you get in a scan, especially a pushed film scan, can be quite different from what I get, and consequently quite different from what Kirk based his presets on. When it comes to matching between film and digital exactly, this will always be a factor, and unless Kirk decides to create a new preset for every variable, there’s a good chance your mileage could vary. I often run into this problem myself from the variables that crop up in my own work. The simple fact is, some matches take 3 clicks, others take a lot more tweaking. This is less important when you’re not matching to film, but if you’re like me and are often hybrid shooting, here are some tips.

  • Use a nice, clean lens on your film camera. Fogged lenses or, like my Pentax 105mm or Canon 35mm, old yellowing lenses can affect your final image more than you realize.
  • Meter for midtones at either your end ISO or a 1/3 of a stop over. So for Portra 160 +1, pushing a stop brings it to ISO 320, so I meter for midtones at ISO 250.
  • Clearly label and inform your photo lab how many stops to push the film.
  • And finally, have the film scanned on a Fuji Frontier scanner. Mastin Labs presets are based on how the Frontier produces colors and tones. Noritsu or other scanners might look close, but it likely won’t be an exact match.

Mastin Labs actually has their own blog post on how to push film that’s worth reading as well for more tips.

The other downside of these presets would have to be the grain settings. This is partially the fault of ACR/Lightroom and it’s poor excuse for film grain. It’s really impossible to get a truly accurate looking film grain within ACR/Lightroom. Having said that, I feel like Kirk’s preset grain is often a little on the conservative side. In my experience, a lot of my film scans, especially 35mm, can get quite grainy. The preset grain profiles for medium format and 35mm film in the Mastin Labs presets are pretty good, but pretty subtle. In their defense, any more might expose Adobe’s poor implementation, but it is an honest downside worth noting. Personally, I much prefer the film grain in Capture One or using a plugin like Alien Skin.

Lastly, it’s certainly worth discussing the whole premise of using presets at all. Personally, I spend a lot of time retouching, so cutting down on time spent on the base RAW conversion and color toning is so helpful to my workflow. I don’t rely 100% on presets, but any shortcut that doesn’t compromise quality is a welcome one in my book.

Bottom line, the new pushed film presets by Mastin Labs are absolutely worth getting if you’re like me and are going for darker, moodier looks or more contrast than what the standard Mastin Labs presets give. It’s especially worthwhile if you shoot pushed film alongside digital and need them to be consistent.

You can purchase the new Mastin Labs Pushed Portra presets here.

Disclaimer: Although my opinions stated here are 100% honest and genuine, I am officially a Mastin Labs ambassador, and any purchase made using my affiliate links in this blog post, I receive a small percentage of. Would I still recommend the presets even if I wasn’t getting paid? Absolutely. Although let’s be honest, my blog post would not have been as thorough (or I wouldn’t have even bothered writing it at all). But it’s important (not just for my own integrity but for legal reasons) that I state this fact up front.

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