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Photography

How to Take Photos with the VSCO Cam App

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Difficulty:BeginnerLength:ShortLanguages:

Mobile phone photography has come a long way in just a few years, and there are now more app choices than ever to help you take the best photos possible with your phone. I’m going to walk you through one of the most popular and sophisticated mobile photo-editing apps on the market: VSCO Cam. In this tutorial I'll cover how to take photos with VSCO Cam's built-in camera app, and in future tutorials we'll look at how to edit those photos with VSCO Cam's sophisticated filters and options and then publish them online. 

So, why go to the extra effort of using VSCO Cam to take photos when your phone has its own built-in camera app? VSCO Cam lets you adjust focus and exposure separately, along with a host of other options.

Note: In this tutorial I'm using what is currently the newest version of VSCO Cam. If you're using an older version of the app some of the features I'm going to cover won't be available. 

Opening VSCO Cam's Camera 

To take photos using VSCO Cam’s camera, open the app and click the camera icon at the bottom left of the side menu. 

Two screenshots showing the VSCO Cam opening screen and camera function
On the left, the VSCO Cam opening screen. The camera icon is shown bottom left. On the right, VSCO Cam's camera screen.

Setting Exposure and Focus Separately 

Once you’ve activated the camera, you can adjust the focus and exposure settings by tapping on the screen. 

If you tap once on the screen a red circle will appear. This circle indicates the point the camera is using to determine both focus and exposure. Drag it around the screen to wherever best suits your image. 

Two images demonstrating VSCO Cams focus and exposure setting
Moving the red circle around the screen adjusts the focus and exposure of the image. 

But let’s say you want to expose for one area of the image (for example, the background), but focus on the foreground? To do this, touch the screen with two fingers at once. Two circles labelled Focus and Exposure will appear. Move these around independently until you're happy with the result.

Two images demonstrating what happens when you separate the focus and exposure settings on VSCO Cam
By moving the focus and exposure points independently you gain greater control over the end result. 

That's not the best example, so I'm going to place an object in the foreground to demonstrate what's possible in terms of depth of field.

Two photos showing the range of depth of field possible using VSCO Cam on an iPhone
VSCO Cam allows me to adjust the focus while keeping the exposure consistent across the two images.

Using VSCO Cam’s Other Camera Features

To access VSCO Cam’s other camera settings, tap the icon at the top left of the screen. It'll look like a ring of circles, or a cog. These settings are all fairly straightforward, so I’ll just run through them quickly. 

1.  Flash Controls

Set the flash to A to fire automatically when it’s needed, all the time, or on T for torch to provide a steady light.

VSCO Cams flash controls
VSCO Cam's flash icon

2. Grid Overlay

The second icon gives you the option to show a rule of thirds overlay, a square one (worth noting—it’ll still capture the whole image, this just gives you a guide) and a level. 

VSCO Cams grid overlay option
VSCO Cam's grid overlay icon

3. Instant Capture

The circle icon will add a red border around your screen. With this option selected you can take an image by tapping anywhere on the screen, but the manual focus and exposure settings are disabled. 

VSCO Cams instant capture setting
VSCO Cam's instant capture icon

4. Low Light Compensation

The moon icon helps compensate for extreme lighting situations. 

VSCO Cams low light compensation setting
VSCO Cam's low light compensation icon

5. White Balance 

This feature allows you to lock your white balance. I don't use the white balance lock very often, but there are a few scenarios where it could come in handy.

VSCO Cams white balance setting
VSCO Cam's white balance lock icon

If you want to deliberately make a photo look more warm or cool than the camera's automatic white balance, this feature will come in handy. Let's say you want to make the photo cooler in tone. First (with white balance lock off) point your camera at something that's warm in tone—turning on a tungsten light will work—and lock the white balance. Now when you turn off the warm light, it will continue to compensate as if it was still present.

VSCO Cams white balance lock feature in action
Left to right: First, the image with natural light and the white balance lock off. Second, a warm light is turned on, and the white balance is locked. Third, with the same natural light as in the first image, the white balance compensation causes the image to look much cooler. 

6. 'ADV' or ISO Adjustment

Tapping the ADV icon opens a slider that allows you to adjust the ISO used by the camera. In practice, this makes the image brighter or darker as you move the slider. 

VSCO Cams ADV or ISO feature
VSCO Cam's ADV feature changes the camera's ISO

7. Screen Contrast Control

This feature lets you toggle between a dark and light menu. 

VSCO Cams menu contrast option
Change the colour of VSCO Cam's menu bar with this icon

Conclusion

Alright, now you're ready to put all those options into practice and take some photos! You'll find some of these options are more useful than others. I think it's a delicate balance—I want to take the best photos possible with my phone, but I also don't want to lose too much spontaneity. If I'm going to fiddle around too much in these settings before I get a nice picture, I may as well just use my DSLR! Whether you choose just to use the focus and exposure controls, or go the whole way and make use of all VSCO Cam's options, it's definitely going to give you more control over your images than you'd otherwise have had. 

If you're using VSCO Cam, I'd love to know what you think!

Related Reading

Photographing with a phone is different than with a DSLR or film camera, and learning to make photographs with your smartphone means taking on a new set of challenges, limitations, strengths and possibilities. Smartphone as Camera: Embracing Photography's New Visual Vocabulary by Dawn Oosterhoff is a great introduction to the craft.

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