After working with the trial versions of various simulated film plug-ins and presets, I have to say it has not changed my workflow dramatically. Although there are a few film versions that I really liked, I haven’t found a use for most of them.
Having the stand-alone, Aperture and Photoshop software versions available did not change the fact that most of my post-processing is done in Photoshop, and that is also why I don’t find myself using the VSCO ACR/LR presets very often.
Of all these packages, Alien Skin Exposure is the one I still use the most, and highly recommend. Even when I don’t use a particular film option, I save a ton of time utilizing the very nicely done color toning, sharpening and grain controls, and customizing with my own presets based on the defaults. This extends the basic CS5/6 tool set and gives me various options as starting points for making more drastic changes after finding a general direction to go in.
A good example of a photo that just did not work with any film preset or plugin, is this one of an egret pair at sunset.
The low angle lighting and difficult to balance contrast areas just didn’t benefit from any of the usually heavy-handed film simulations. Also, the colors from this camera sensor and lens combination look really good as is. I boosted the midtones and contrast just a bit using the Exposure plug-in, and then sharpened modestly using a custom preset to get a little more resolution of the feathers. Since this is just at the ISO setting where the Olympus OMD starts to show its reasonably pleasant but distinct noise (ISO 360), I definitely did not need to add grain after a global sharpening adjustment.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, here is a shot that possibly benefits from the retro film style straight out of the box. This is only the second image I’ve seen that I thought looked better with one of the VSCO film treatments. The first version below was modified with their generic VSCO ACR preset for Portra (the UC++ variant).
Although I like the VSCO version above, here is a manually adjusted one that I think looks equally good, and wins in any comparison of IQ since the film simulation has over-the-top grain and possibly interesting but somewhat unnatural vintage color mapping going on.
The VSCO preset was easy enough to use and quick, but the manual adjustments on the second one only took a couple of minutes longer in ACR and CS6.
After a few more weeks working with these software packages, I am not convinced I need to buy more. It’s nice to have one as an idea generator, but it’s definitely not a substitute for working on each image or set of images to get closer to my own artistic vision.