Wednesday, 19 January 2011

How to make stunning vintage style photography

There is no denying that using vintage cameras can produce some really beautiful looking photographs and some may argue you can only really get that effect with the real thing. However, these days it can be hard to come across well working vintage equipment and it is also much more convenient to own a regular digital camera. But whether it be a simple point-and-shoot or a top end DSLR there are still ways to reproduce that vintage style after the photo has been taken. It can add character to that perfect shot or bring life to those not so good snaps. Here's how.


To pull this off as realistic as possible your going to want to have your hands on a good image editor of some sort. For me personally, I love to use Adobe Lightroom just because it has a greater focus toward photography, whereas many others would be much more comfortable working in Photoshop and thats fine too. If your just starting out and dont like the look of Adobe's pricing you can demo their products for 30 days or you can look for some free alternatives on the internet. A lot of people I know love to use GIMP or as alternatives to Photoshop, both of which are free and are equally powerful image editors. The important thing is to choose software you are comfortable with because there is nothing more inspiration-killing than spending hours trying to get your editor to do something to the point where you give up or end up with a final result that you are not happy with. Also, depending on which of the methods you choose to take you will want to look out for software that supports downloadable filters but more about that later.

The Image

Now, 'vintage photography' is a pretty vague overview; there are many different types of vintage photographs whether we are talking about a simple black and white image, a sepia tone style of photo or the classic Polaroid effect and there are many more. Which style you choose should depend entirely on the image you have chosen, sometimes it might be instantly obvious to you which vintage style would compliment that image straight away, but if you don't that's perfectly okay because it means you get to experiment.

Choosing a Filter

You will notice that a lot of image editors come with there own array of filters which can be applied with just one click but, whilst these are fun to experiment with, I urge that you don't just choose one and be done with it and there's a very good reason for this. You will notice that if you select the default Black & White or Sepia filter you instantly lose a huge amount of the depth in your photo and it can make the end result look quite flat. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use the built in filters at all, in fact, the majority of editors allow you to shape that filter to your image. As a quick example, Photoshop has sliders on the right-hand side of it's 'filter gallery' which allow you to control the black levels, brightness, contrast and a whole host of other settings for each filter in their gallery. The same level of customisation can be achieved from most good editors but the method may vary. At first you will need to experiment with these settings and use your eyes to judge what looks best and this will be different for every image, but after much practise you will be able to quickly judge what needs to be adjusted to make the filter fit your image and keep that depth from the original photo.

Now you will remember earlier I mentioned downloadable filters? If you are not sure what these are they are basically an extension to the built in filters inside your editor. You can find literally 1000s of filters on the internet for your specific image editor (providing it supports them) and you should never need to pay for filters because there are plenty of amazing free ones available. A simple Google search for 'Free vintage filters for Photoshop' or similar will bring up masses of results and whilst the endless options might be a little daunting at first you will be able to experiment with subtly different filters to find one that fits your photograph perfectly. Again you will want to adjust these filters slightly as you did with the default ones in order to really make your image pop to life.

Finishing Touches

You might be perfectly happy with the results already but some extra editions can really give the photo a genuine vintage look and even improve the original image. One that I always like to use is an effect called Vignetting which occurs naturally on a lot of vintage photographs. It is where the image loses brightness or saturation towards the edges of the photo, or the peripheral of the picture. You may now notice that the filter you chose did this automatically but if it didn't or you want to adjust its effect then you can do so now. If you use Adobe Lightroom you will notice vignette under the effects tab in the 'develop' window. In photoshop it is also fairly simple:

  1. Create a new empty layer on top of the stack. Ctrl + Alt + Shift + N
  2. Fill the layer with pure white. Shift + Backspace
  3. Set the blend mode to 'Multiply'. Alt + Shift + M
  4. Apply the vignette filter to the new layer.
    Filter >> Distort >> Lens Correction…
  5. Adjust the 'Amount' and 'Midpoint' sliders in the 'Vignette' section.
  6. Hit 'OK' when you are happy with the result

You may have to look up how to do it in your specific editor. The main thing here is to be subtle so that it isnt to dominent in the picture. The effect your trying to achieve here is to add more focus to your subject in the image, vignetting will cause the viewer to naturally look towards the centre of the image and not be distracted by the background edges, this will make the photo easier on the eyes and will look a lot more pleasing.

Let me know how you get on.
Do you have any other tips for getting that vintage photo effect ? Then don't hesitate to leave a comment below.

Photography by Eric Riley
Written by Eric Riley for


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