Introduction: Vintage Photography in 5 Simple Steps

About: I'm a photographer in Austin, TX and I run a website that helps people get the most out of the photography equipment they have. Check it out at!
Despite our constant search for crisper, clearer, truer photo equipment, there is a huge trend pointing toward vintage-style images. The rising numbers of phone photography apps like Instagram that feature vintage, film-style filters, along with ever-increasing numbers of enthusiasts and hobbyists experimenting with real film photography are just a few reminders that we crave a visual taste of yesteryear.

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

Photos and film from decades past have had time to fade from exposure to light, air, and other environmental factors like moisture. While they may have come from the lab with crisp colors, the aging process tends to leave them a bit faded or washed out. Here's an example.

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

Light leaks are due to imperfect hardware that allows light to leak into the camera through tiny gaps. This light hits and exposes the film where it shouldn't be exposed. Color spotting can be due to light leaking, low-quality film, or leaving film out in the heat, which can leave portions of the image with strange blotches, most notably red and other warm tones.

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

Digital sensors aren't perfect, but they do a better job at capturing the true color of an image than early color film did. Even today, every brand of film has its own mix of chemicals, layers, and filters that produced its signature look and feel. Digital images can look too real and almost bland, but film adds a sense of individual style to an image - it's not exactly what you saw with your eyes, but Velvia's or Fuji's or Kodak's version of what you saw.

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

Back in the day most lenses weren't nearly as sharp as the ones we have today unless you wanted to drop big bucks - especially zoom lenses. Some cameras like the Holga even had a plastic lens rather than glass, meaning it was prone to scratches, loosening, and a host of other issues. For this effect, use manual focus mode and shoot your subject the slightest bit out of focus - combined with the other effects, this can be a very convincing technique.

Step 5: Grain

Digital cameras have ISO settings to change the sensor's sensitivity to light by pumping more or less electricity through the sensor. Film is coated with tiny silver halide particles that are sensitive to light - larger particles being more sensitive. If you wanted to shoot fast, you had to change the film's particle size by actually removing and replacing the film in the camera. These larger particles, similar to pixels, were less able to capture detail, but could be exposed for shorter amounts of time, thus decreasing shutter speed.

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 and my portfolio at for more awesome tutorials - oh, and if you like it, subscribe!

David Beck