Of course, you could shoot film, but that requires work, new equipment, and patience - eww, right? There must be a way to use the equipment you already have to produce that old-school vintage effect with digital photography, right? Glad you asked.
In the '50's and '60's, the availability of affordable, easy-to-use cameras made photography more popular than ever - it allowed anyone with a few extra bucks saved up to try their hand at photography with virtually no learning curve. Color film technology was still in its infancy and the equipment itself was prone to light leaks, dust, and double exposures. In other words, it worked, but sometimes it turned out crappy (aka "vintage").
The combination of muted blacks, off colors, light leaks, color spotting, grain, and soft focus are the main visual qualities that separate modern digital cameras from early mass-produced film camera models.
Step 1: Faded Black
The fading process takes all of the original colors and makes them less bold over time - in digital terms, if you were look at the histogram for each image, you'd see that the first image has some pixels that are truly black, while the darkest pixels in the second image are just very dark gray.
For this effect, all you need is the Curves tool in your photo editor. If you haven't read my Curves tutorial, Curves is a whole-image adjustment tool that allows a ton of control over contrast. To fade the blacks, just place two control points on the line by clicking it, and move the point on the origin (bottom left corner) up just a tad. This tells the program to take everything that was pure black and make it just a bit lighter.
Step 2: Light Leaks and Color Spotting
To achieve the color spotting effect, just use your photo editor to paint a transparent layer of a warm tone on random edges of the image. I typically use a long corner and one more spot on the opposite side for a more believable vintage feel. For a light leak, choose the corner where the sun is coming in and over expose it just a little.
Step 3: "Off" Colors
Adobe's Light Room makes it easy to achieve this effect by playing the the Split Toning function. Split Toning means you give the darker parts of the image one tint, and the lighter parts another tint, making the colors slightly warmer and cooler at the same time. I've found that making one end reddish and the other end aqua-ish usually does the trick.
Just play around with the sliders until you're satisfied.
Step 4: Soft Focus
Step 5: Grain
Journalists and documentary photographers always had to be on their toes and often shot moving subjects, making fast film a staple for their style of photography.
Most images editors have a grain function which allows you to change the size, amount, and roughness of the grain with a couple of slider controls. I use Adobe Lightroom because the grain tends to look realistic.
So there you have it - pick and choose a few of these techniques and you're on your way back in time. The alternative, of course it to find a vintage camera and experiment with film photography - a whole different adventure which I'll cover in a different instructible.
Remember to check out my blog at www.picturelikethis.com and my portfolio at www.davidbeckphotography.com for more awesome tutorials - oh, and if you like it, subscribe!