For as long as I've had enthusiasm for photography, I've always been fascinated about the colors. I just cannot do black&white photography as I feel the colors themselves conduct the sense of feeling and atmosphere in photography. Yet, my great disappointment with digital cameras relates specifically to colors as I think straight-out-of-the-camera colors are most of the time just boring – too objective, perfect and without any artistic interpretation. This is kind of an opposite to film days where you would choose a different film, and different color character, based on what you think would fit to your own shooting style and aesthetic taste. To me, film with its imperfect colors represents the kind of a visual legacy which we have inherited from the past decades, but what we don't utilize enough. Instead one can find a lot of images which look more like digitally edited files and less like real photographs (and I'm guilty of this as well). Personally what I would love to have is photographs that look like 'real photographs' – yes, I know it's pretty vague and subjective description, but I do know when images don't look that. So naturally I've been pretty interested about all kinds of film emulations which are available at the market, and the one I've used a lot are the film packs from VSCO. However, I recently learned that there are quite a many photographers out there praising Mastin Labs presets, so I was interested learn more about them.
Mastin Labs is surely an interesting company. One might expect that they would just like to sell you their film-presets, but their whole business is based around the idea that in order to appreciate real film people should shoot with the real film. That's why they are very openly promoting idea of being 'a hybrid-shooter', in other words, shooting both real film and digital at the same time and in same circumstances as well. Their film presets only come after this to close the gap between real film and digital, and to make best of both worlds. Like the Kirk Mastin himself puts it: "Our goal is not to replace film, but to introduce it to a new generation of photographers".
While I've not shot much with real film (expect some experiments with Velvia 100 and Tri-X), this kind of thinking of course caught my attention as it seems to meet my own understanding of film as a visual legacy which still guides, at least in some subtle ways, the aesthetics of photography. With their encouraging examples and a few great reviews I decided to give their film packs a go. After all, I've used quite a long time VSCO film pack for my editing and while I've been pretty satisfied with the results, there are some quirks which I could definitely live without.
So, I've been using the Mastin Labs presets now for about a month at least and if you want to see the results, you can browse back nine previous post as they are all done with these presets (see the 'Mastinlabs' tag there underneath every post). The images I put here in this post are more of a random 'summer snaps', but I do think they do exemplify the characteristics of the 'Fuji' and 'Portra' packs (I do have the b&w 'Iilford' pack as well, but being about the black and white photography it's more difficult for me to approach). The 'Fuji' and 'Portra' packs are both very good, and I'd have to say thatone of the most notable effect with these presets are the 'Fuji greens' that are definitely there. At first this was something that took me a while getting used to as the greens are shifted towards the blues quite a bit, but I've started to appreciate it as it often makes the overall colors more clear (by reducing yellow components). I also have to give credit to Mastin Labs regarding the skin colors. They advertise great skin colors which just '3 clicks or less', and while it often takes a bit more than that, the skin colors are indeed quite good and I don't need to correct them later on, for example, in Photoshop (which is a great relief).
One thing I always found difficult with the VSCO film packs, is that they come with too much contrast which is achieved with the curves-tool in Lightroom. In order to make it work, I often needed to lower the contrast significantly with the basic tone adjustment tools (because editing r, g, and b channels from the curves tool is just too cumbersome to do in any meaningful accuracy). With pictures that have difficult lightning this can be a pretty challenging job and with some pictures I never got it right (even after some Photoshop work). In a sense, this 'tuning down' the preset was a stage I could live without, but I have to give it to VSCO that their latest film packs, like the 07, is much better in this regard and it seems to me that have had to recognize this problem by themselves too.
Compared to this difficult work flow the Mastin Labs presets are like a breath of fresh air. They definitely have a different way to achieve the film emulation using Lightroom's tools. At first, I was a bit troubled that the presets used the basic tone adjustment tools so heavily to alter the tones (and therefore it limits my own leeway), but after having used them for a fair month I believe this is a very nice solution which leads to very elegant tones most of the time. The tones don't get congested like they sometimes do with the VSCO (because one is effectively toning down and up again with the VSCO), and overall I feel I'm getting a bit better pictures this way.
So, all in all, my first experience with the Mastin Labs is very positive. Is it just a novelty of new things, that I need to find out later on, but haven't touch the VSCO-presets after I tried these out. And if you're thinking that using presets as a starting point for your post production process is somehow wrong, try work out thousands of raw files from a scratch and see if this makes you reconsider the way you approach your post process and the wrist of your mouse hand (been there and done that). Finding yourself a high quality post processing presets that work with your own style (it could, of course, be something totally else than film emulations) is an important step to better photographs as it will make your work more polished and also provide you a set of meaningful reference points. Before using any presets my work was pretty random as my goals kept on shifting and it wasn't easy to find a consistent way to post process my work. Using presets will give you just that, and that's also a reason why I recommend anyone to test out different preset packs and find out the ones that speak to them most from their own point of view. Like I said, it's an important step in one's photography, and once you've committed it you will wonder how I ever did without it.