Vintage or retro-style photography is so fashionable right now. Here, we’ll give you some of our
best tips to make your own, as well as some inspiration to get you started.
We’ve seen a rise in all things vintage. Like most trends, something niche and ‘uncool’ is flipped on its head and becomes the fashionable thing to do. Think of ‘The Great British Bake Off’ and ‘TGB Sewing Bee’ television programmes.
Upcycling old furniture and a resurgence of old-style hair-dos and clothes has become popular too. It makes sense that with that would come the rise of retro-style photography.
What do we Mean by Vintage?
Just saying vintage can be confusing, because what exactly do we mean by that? It could refer to the heavy contrast, low-key lighting of film noir or it could refer to a bleached out 70s look. How you interpret it is really up to you; where previous styles were dictated by the fashion and limits of technology, today, anything goes.
Three Ways to go Vintage
Processing Your Image in an Old Style
No matter the content of a photograph, vintage and retro filters are all the rage, think Instagram. As well as giving photographs an older look, they can also be quite flattering—duller light, colour casts and fuzzy filters hide a multitude of lens defects and failings—so it’s no wonder they’ve become so popular with the rise in selfie taking.
What You Need
A way to digitally alter your images is about all you need. This can be as in depth as you like, with a parametric editing program like Photoshop, or it a simple app filter such as the ones offered by Instagram.
Styling your Subjects and Background
Dressing the set or styling your subjects is another way to get a vintage look, although it takes more time and effort to do it this way. You also need to decide if you’re trying the style for fun, or if you’re going for accuracy, because there are a wealth of pedants waiting to tell you that your wrist-watch is (no pun intended), out of time…
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What You Need
Good natural lighting is best to use when you can. Most of the great vintage photographs I see are created out of doors, particularly in the morning, or late afternoon-what’s known as Golden Hour.
Relevant backgrounds. Keep backgrounds simple and pleasant, don’t over-clutter. If you’re going for accuracy for a particular time period, then check your background for things that may not belong and consider whether you’ll be able to edit them out or whether it’s best to move locations.
Film doesn’t always produce a retro look and many photographers still use film in a completely modern and contemporary way. However, team an older camera with some old or even expired film, and you might be surprised by the results.
What You Need
A film camera and film! When film expires it tends to suffer from weird colour casts and fading—perfect for vintage photographs and no extra processing needed.
Polaroid cameras are fun too, although film is very expensive (I pay around £17 for 8 exposures). You can pick up Polaroids for very little, if you’re canny. Restored cameras can set you back around £50, but trawl charity shops and markets and you could pick one up for just a few pounds. I found a working Polaroid Land Camera in a charity shop for £5.
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Very little about the processing says ‘vintage’ here, but everything else exudes it. The antique print of the background works well with the styling of the model. The makeup, accessories and hair styling are all well thought out and all of these individual aspects come together to make a great retro styled photograph.
This composite could have been improved with some work on the perspective, but is fun nonetheless. The cream colours of the car and subject of the photograph work well with the background and the whole thing has a sense of 50s/60s style.
Definitely one of the more surreal photographs with a vintage edge that I’ve seen, but it works really nicely. A composite for sure, the elements work well together and the dusky processing of the background helps the tent and subject to stand out.
Happy Kid Playing With Plane
This is a great example of a contemporary style with a retro edge. This could be any child playing dress up, but the wooden plane and yellow and blue tones, give the image an ‘older’ feel, whereas the lack of any texture and the crisp focus keep it up to date—easily the kind of thing a parent could print and frame.
the suitcase, I probably wouldn’t really put this into a vintage category, even though
the desaturated colours allude to that look. The old case and its battered
luggage stickers. Check out the objects on this horizon: this is the same base image as the woman in the car, above, just given a slightly different treatment!
Try a Retro Action
Retro style actions for the likes of Photoshop and Lightroom are in abundance, so it’s really easy to find one that suits your needs if you’re looking for a quick fix.
I tried The Colourizer’s Old Retro Action on one of my own photographs:
This an unprocessed image from a shoot I did with a friend, Kayley, who is a ‘Vintage Singer’, so she was already styled perfectly.
You can see the action creates a number of layers, so that you can edit in a non-destructive way, not touching your original image. It’s unfortunate that they’re all set to 100%, so you can’t increase the effects on any layer, but they do all have layer masks attached for you to make local adjustments.
I brushed over Kayley on a few of the layers to tone down the colour cast over her face and body and make her ‘pop’ from the background.
Certainly the matte look and yellow colouring give this a more retro feel than the unprocessed one had.
How to Make Photographs to Look Vintage by Hand
Let’s say that you have the photograph you want to look vintage; that could be a carefully styled piece, or something modern that you just want to give a fun, retro feel to.
Cross processing is one of my favourite ways of giving an image a retro feel. It started in film photography by using chemicals that were intended for a different type of film and often happened by mistake!
Today, you can replicate the effect digitally, with very little effort. Google’s Color Efex Pro, part of the now free Nik Collection, has a cross processing filter with a number of options so that you can really tailor the look.
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Create a Matte Feel
There are a few ways to do this and a really popular one is to layer a colour filter over the top of the image. This can make any people in your photographs look a bit strange.
Another way to achieve a matte look is simply to reduce the contrast of your image, or if you like, reduce highlights and enhance shadows.
Think About Saturation
Most people advise reducing saturation when you’re adding a vintage look to your images, but it really depends what you want. Think about beach photographs from the 50s: they’re bright, full of colour and fun and still, by definition, retro! So you don’t necessarily have to desaturate your images, you might want to boost the colour instead.
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Adding texture to a photograph is a really simple way to make it look old. You can do this by applying a texture over the top, or using brushes to selectively place ‘dirt’ or ‘stains’ around the image.
Top Tips for Vintage Shots
- Look for old cameras in charity shops and at markets
- Use cross processing for an instant retro look
- Try a matte look by reducing contrast
- Use an expired film in an old film camera
- Add a texture or use brushes on your digital image
- How to Make a Retro 80s Composite Portrait: Isolate a subject from a green screen in PhotoKey and create a quirky 80s composite using an action from PhotoDune.
- The Comprehensive Guide to Vintage Film and Cameras: From what rolls to buy, what cameras to shoot with and what to do with it all when you're done.
- 30 Amazing Mobile Apps for Photographers: 30 of the best mobile apps for photographers including some vintage greats.
Like all great trends or fads, the hark back to all things old school won’t be here forever, so jump on the bandwagon while the getting is good.
Vintage photographs are a fun way to get involved with the retro movement without having to grow an ironic beard or take up knitting.
There are lots of ways to give it a go, and whether that’s using an old camera and film, staging some shots with an ‘old-new’ feel or simply processing your existing pictures to give them a retro edge. If you want to try this without breaking the bank, check our local charity shops, markets and auction houses. You can often find great, old cameras that still work. Couple those with some cheap or even expired film and you're good to go!
If you're editing an existing picture, you can try something as simple as an Instagram filter, or try a more in depth method by creating your own workflow in an editing suite. Between the two, and a happy medium, is to try using an action, or series of actions, to give you a great vintage look, which you can then alter to suit your needs by adjusting each layer.