WE’VE ALL been there, right? You snap the perfect pic to post on your Instagram feed, and you even come up with a clever little caption to go with it. But once you tap the Share button, your smile quickly fades. Why do all the images from other accounts just look … better somehow? What do they know that you don’t?

If you haven’t noticed already, our photographer, Arshia Khan,

(@arshiakhan) has a pretttty good handle on this whole photo-editing thing. So if you want to ‘gram like the pros,’ you’ll want to follow her lead—namely by branching outside the standard Instagram filters with a third-party editing app like VSCO. Like Instagram, VSCO comes with a variety of presets and its own network of users, but more importantly, it provides you with all the standard editing tools photographers rely on. (Bonus: It’s (mostly) free!)

But since all those options can be a little overwhelming for us amateur smartphone photographers out there, here are a few tips from Arshia to get you started:

Use a filter as a starting point.

Arshia is particularly fond of the Analog Series preset collection because of its muted tones and its ability to make images appear as if they were shot on film rather than digitally. For the portrait below, she chose the Analog Series’ A6 preset because of the way it preserved the model’s natural skin tone while still allowing for the green tones of the plants in the background to pop.

Don’t be afraid to adjust the exposure.

“Exposure simply adjusts the brightness and darkness of your photo,” Arshia says. “Usually, you only need to adjust this by one or two points. You can also use this tool to make a dramatic effect, by completely blowing out the image or darkening it.”

Compare and contrast.

Put simply, the contrast slider adjusts the amount of contrast between the light and dark areas of the images. Upping the contrast accentuates the difference between high and low tones, making the model’s dark-colored outfit pop against the white background. Lowering the contrast, on the other hand, will bring out more of the image’s midtones.

Preserve realistic skin tones.

A particularly useful tool for editing portraits in VSCO is the skin-tone slider. “It’s pretty important to preserve realistic skin tones,” Arshia says. “Move the slider left for pink and right for more tan, brown tones.”


filter: A6

exposure: +2.2

contrast: +2.0

sharpen: +2.5

highlights: +3.5


Find what’s hiding in the light and shadows.

“When shooting in harsh light, use the highlights slider to help recover washed-out detail and push down some of the overexposed highlights,” Arshia says. “It works great for bright food photos or portraits. To bring out the texture of the cookies and the chocolate [in the photo below], I increased the highlights by a whopping +8.5. The shadow slider comes in handy when your image is underexposed, or too dark. A little goes a long way, so I usually adjust by one or two points.” Editor’s note: Both can be found under “Tone.”)

Sharpen your images carefully.

The sharpen slider is another tool you can use to accentuate texture in your images. Sharpening highlights detail, but it’s easy to oversharpen, Arshia warns. Like with most of the sliders, the more you sharpen, the less realistic the image appears.

Don’t be too hot or cold.

You probably won’t need to use the temperature tool very often, but Arshia says it can be particularly helpful when editing photos shot in an environment lacking in natural light. Overhead fluorescent lights, for example, can give photos a “cool” quality, with hints of blue or green. In that case, you can use the temperature slider to warm up the photo.


filter: A9

exposure: 0

contrast: +2.5

sharpen: +3.0

highlights: +8.5

temperature: -0.5

VSCO comes with a handful of great free presets (including A4-6 of the Analog Series), but if you really want to look like a pro, you can splurge for the app’s membership program for $20 a year.