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How to Make a Digital Photo Look Vintage

One of the great things about the digital age of photography is the relative ease of processing. Processes that took hours in the darkroom can now be handled in minutes with software like Adobe Photoshop and Skylum's Luminar. Still, it's often fun to take a step back and create an image that evokes a sense of nostalgia, reminding viewers of times when photography was a much more complex process.

Vintage photo effects give us a glimpse of the days before even the convenience of a 35mm film SLR was unheard of. Ironically, creating the effects that produce images that echo those times is also easier now, thanks to digital processing. There are several ways to achieve a vintage photo look and we'll explore some of them in this article.

What's Different About Old Photos?

To achieve a vintage look, we first need to know what was different about the prints that were produced in the earlier days of photography. Here are a few of the typical traits:

  • Grain: The silver halide crystals in early photo films and plates were often larger and uneven in both size and distribution. That tended to make images appear grainy.
  • Less detail: The unevenness of the crystals in the older media and the less-sophisticated optics in early cameras weren't capable of producing images with the sharp detail we're used to today.
  • Vignetting: While vignettes were and still are often used for effect, they often appeared because of light falloff around the edges of lens elements.
  • Yellowing and fading: Early printing papers often weren't bright white to begin with and continued to yellow and darken with age because their surfaces didn't completely lose their light sensitivity in the darkroom. Overall fading is also typical with age, causing a loss of contrast and details.
  • Other aging effects: Although not a direct result of the film, paper or processes used in creating the photos, we often associate water spots, dust, scratches and similar damage with old photos.

Reproducing the Effects

Okay, so in order to give a modern digital photo a vintage appearance, we need to reproduce some of all of those effects. There are a number of ways to do this, ranging from a step-by-step manual process to using simple filters and actions. Which of these you choose will depend on the software you use, your skill with the program and your patience.

It's worth mentioning here that if you're really looking for an old-fashioned effect, your subject and the settings should be appropriate.

Manually

Often the most versatile methods for these effects are those you perform manually, since you have more control over each part of the process. Here are a few easy methods that can be “tweaked” for just the desired effect. 

In Photoshop with ACR: One very effective technique can be performed using Adobe Camera Raw as a filter in Photoshop. It involves a total of 11 simple steps and it's a non-destructive process, so your original image remains as it was. Photoshop essentials outlines the entire process very well  in this tutorial .

In Lightroom and Photoshop: Here's another method that produces a less harsh effect. It involves Curves adjustment and split-toning in Lr followed by applying various adjustments such as toning, vignetting and contrast adjustments in Photoshop. The outcome of the final image depends on your choices. Take a look at the simple tutorial  here.

“Retro” with Photoshop: Not everyone's definition of “vintage” is the same. With that in mind, I've located a tutorial that lets you create a more '50's look using only the tools in Photoshop. It's strikingly different from the traditional vintage look and takes about 20 minutes to achieve.  Take a look and see what you think.

Actions, Filters and Presets

For the less patient or less-skilled with processing, actions, filter and presets are some of the easiest ways to produce vintage effects, usually with a single click. Some are adjustable, and there are plenty of options to choose from.

Photoshop Actions: Photoshop Actions load into a Panel and can be called to perform a recorded series of adjustments on an image. Here are a few free ones that we like:

Luminar Filters & Presets: Luminar combines the best of both worlds in adding effects to your images with Filters and Presets that allow you to make changes with a few clicks, while allowing you the freedom to adjust. You can use them separately or in combination to tailor the effects you want. Their selection is impressive. Learn more about how they work here .

Search for Yourself

While I've made every effort to give you a good set of options here, the number of techniques, methods and tools available for applying vintage looks is surprisingly large. Try some of the solutions listed above, and if you don't find the one you like, a simple Google search will return more than you can imagine. Thanks to modern technology, it's easier than ever to turn back the clock on your photos.

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