Fakin' It - Polaroid Transfers That Look Real





Introduction: Fakin' It - Polaroid Transfers That Look Real

About: Those who know me know that I've always got some project on the go at all times. My interests are varied enough that I can jump from one to the next and not get bored. I seem to learn by doing and the best w...
Some of you may or may not know what Polaroid transfers are. Those that have done actual transfers may scream blasphemy! while those who haven't may rejoice in finding a decent tutorial on how to replicate the effect.

Real Polaroid transfers provide a very unique effect, most notably around the edges of the photo. As Polaroid film stock either disappears or stops being produced entirely methods like this will be the only way to duplicate the effect.

I was recently working on a shoot where the editing was leading me down a path that made the photo look a little "grungy" and I thought a polaroid border would suit it well. I knew at one time there was some nice soul who had posted up a psd template that was an actual scan of a blank polaroid transfer so I started looking. After 2hrs and many stock photo sites that were selling exactly what I was looking for I decided what kind of photographer/graphic designer/photoshop fiend would I be if I simply purchased this file. Luckily I stumbed across a post that mentioned using ink and some watercolour paper, that's all I needed to read and I was off to find the box with my drawing stuff.

This process is quite simple, there are probably a multitude of ways to do this and I encourage you to tailor this process to your own style.


  • 1 or more sheets of watercolour paper - others may work but watercolour paper has a nice texture
  • Ink of some sort. I used fountain pen ink but you could probably use all sorts of other stuff like food colouring or maybe even fabric dye just make sure it is dark. Get creative. It doesn't have to be black, we can fix that in photoshop.
  • 1 or more popsicle sticks - again other stuff could work, just get someting with a flat edge that you can use to transfer the ink.
  • Scanner - If you don't have one see if you can scan documents to file using the copier at work. If all else fails I don't think Office Depot or Staples charge that much for this service.
  • Image editing software that supports layers. Photoshop is preferred but GIMP (which is free) will work too. This tutorial however will be citing photoshop tools/commands only.

Step 1: Prepare Your Work Surface

Prepare your work surface. Lay down some newspaper so you don't get ink on your table. It may also be a good idea to wear some old clothes just in case you splatter yourself.

Step 2: Prepare Your Palette

Prepare your palette. Just like an artist has a palette we need one too, something to put the ink onto. Use a separate piece of paper or an old margerine container lid, the margerine lid is better since it won't soak up the ink on you. Spread the ink out in a line on your makeshift palette.

Step 3: Wet Your "brush"

Run the edge of your popsicle stick lengthwise along the line of ink so that the whole edge is saturated.

Place the ink onto your watercolour paper and gently rub it lengthwise back and forth while slowly pulling it towards you then slowly pushing it away from you. The idea is that as there is less ink it will start to leave voids and you'll get that "rough" look.

Step 4: Lather Rinse Repeat ;)

Repeat for the remaining sides of your border. You may want to take another popsicle stick and break 1/3 of it off to use the remaining 2/3 section for the short sides of your border, this will give you a proper aspect ratio for your border. When I did it I wasn't that fussy, I knew I could correct the aspect ratio and more in photoshop. In the example below I didn't care that my "short sides" extended past the corners because I knew I would be erasing away the parts I didn't like.

Step 5: Post Processing : Scanning the Border

Scan your raw border(s) at as high a dpi as you can, if you're taking the time to do this right you'll want quality borders that you can use with future cameras that may be higher resolutions.

Step 6: Post Processing : Straighten

Open the scan in Photoshop or Gimp. Perform any straightening/rotating you may need to. If your ink wasn't black press shft-ctrl-U or to turn it black and white, or you may want to see how it looks as is first.

Step 7: Post Processing : Cleaning Up the Edges

Cleaning up the image. Use the eraser tool and first select a large brush with a hard edge, then start erasing away the unwanted areas. You may want to try one of the brushes that looks like spraypaint, this will give you a more irregular shape.

Step 8: Post Processing : Crop

Crop the image down to get rid of the excess white border (the border around our border ;)
How much you crop is up to you, maybe you only want the inner border left or maybe not. Its up to you.

Step 9: Post Processing : Creating the Layers (A)

We now need to see how this is going to look. Duplicate your layer and name it "Polaroid Border Black". Set the blend mode to "Multiply". Then select your old background and delete the contents leaving a blank layer (click on background layer, then CTR-A, then delete). Now fill that layer in with a beige colour just so we can see how our blending will work.

Step 10: Post Processing : Creating the Layers (B)

Some people might stop here and you're welcome to if you'd like however I want to add a little more realism to the border. If you're with me, click on the Polaroid Border Black Layer and duplicate it, name it Polaroid Border White.

Step 11: Post Processing : Creating the Layers (C)

Invert the colors of the new border by holding Ctr then "i", now change the layer blending mode to "Screen". Don't worry it's going to look a little strange at this point.

With the "white" layer still selected press Ctr-A to selecte the entire canvas, then under the edit menu at the top of the screen choose Transform>Rotate 180�

Step 12: Post Processing : Creating the Layers (D)

This looks better but the layer order is wrong. Drag the "Polaroid Border White" layer between the black border and the background layer.

At this point the border is pretty much finished, if you want you can erase away different sections of the layers to "tweak" it a little more and you can play with opacity. When I do this I like to have an actual image under the frame so I can see what to tweak. Once the adjustments are done save this as a PSD file so that you can always change the different layers if you want to.

Step 13: Using the Border : Open the File

Open up an image that you want to apply the border to and note the dimensions. For this example I'm using the full resolution of my Canon 40D which is 3888x2592.

Step 14: Using the Border : Matching Size

Now we're going to try to match your border to the image size your camera takes, however we want to make it just a little bigger so that the border isn't encroaching on your photo too much.
Open your Polaroid transfer border and select Image Size front he Image menu at the top of the screen. Determining the right size is tricky and may take a few attempts, start with your the dimensions from step 1 then add an extra 10% to the width and about 6% to the height. Make sure you uncheck "Constrain Proportions" box. Paste your camera image into the border and make sure the border overlaps it but that the image doesn't extend past the border. If it doesn't just "undo" back to the re size and try again. For me a good number worked out to be roughly 4120x2860 which is where I got the 10% and 6% from. Once you have it right, delete the image layer leaving only the borders and the background, change the background colour back to white, and save it as a psd file.

Step 15: Using the Border : Adding Your Photo In-between

Now you're ready to use it with any photo however every time you use it you will have to paste your desired image into the Polaroid frame. Make sure when you paste the photo in that you move the layer so that it is just above the background layer.

Once you have it lined up right choose the SAVE AS command to save so that you don't overwrite your template file.

Step 16: Troubleshooting

There are 2 main things that can go wrong, both are easily fixed.

1) Your black border is too transparent even though the opacity is set to 100. If this happened its because your ink wasn't dark enough, to fix this select the black border layer and press Ctr-L to bring up the levels tool. Adjust the black slider to bring it up to a true black.

2) Your photo extends past your border but only in a few spots. Easy, just erase it away.

** The example at the top follows all the steps to the end with the added step of using additional layer containing stained parchment. This is a texture layer that was blended using multiply, opacity set to 50, and masked off to avoid contaminating the model's skin.

Step 17: Download the Border Featured in This Instructable

If you want you can download the border I created while writing this tutorial by clicking here.
It is a 5MB PSD file compressed in RAR format.


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    35 Discussions

    Thank you for an excellent instructable for making your own edge treatments, way cool!

    1 reply

    PS. Going to try this and other materials and techniques to make up some of my own. You've given me some awesome ideas to run and play with! We should discuss luminosity masking sometime.

    If you make the edge a mask, there will be no edge points that extend since only the masked area will show.

    Save as layers, you avoid flattening the image, allowing you to reuse or adjust the image components again at a later time.

    Another great option at this point would to select the resulting shape (the black color in this case) and create a selection. You can use that alone to create a layer mask, or save that selection as a shape. You can then reuse it and or apply it to images as a mask allowing you to perform layer effects or other non-destructive operations to the image(s).

    1 reply

    PS. Using the method I'm describing you could simply fill the center area. The only parts of the image displayed would be those allowed opacity via the mask.

    I would suggest separating your RGB scan into it's three component layers and selecting one of the resulting layers, usually the green layer. (It usually has the most luminosity information.) Or mixing the resulting three grayscale images via differing additive or subtractive modes. This will give much more control over intricate subtleties you may discover or wish to capitalize on.

    The latter is also the "proper" way to convert a color image to something with the tonal range and detail captured by BW photography using Black and White film. Dumping the color information is provably not the same by simply comparing resulting histograms. It's more time consuming and something not automatable, but gives vastly superior results. Rich tones and detail not possible with simple Convert to B/W.

     I am, admittedly, not familiar with Polaroid transfer techniques.  I had to read up on Wikipedia to see what they are.  Seem to me that it's a method of transferring the image from the physical film to another media (i.e. paper, textiles, ceramics, etc.)?

    If so, and again please forgive my ignorance, is this what you do with the end product in this ible?  

    Also, couldn't a Photoshop brush be created that could create the border effect digitally (thus saving a few steps)?  Again I'm a newb at photography and Photoshop but it's a growing interest of mine.

    5 replies

    The best result would be to make the brush effectively a mask from a vector, and keep it as a vector so it can scale losslessly. I've made and used some rather remarkable "brushes" that were vector based.

    Half of the point of this instructable was just to show people what Polaroid Transfers look like. You are correct it was (is) a method of transferring an image to another media, in the process a very unique and identifiable effect is achieved. This effect is desirable by some but as the digital age started taking over this process became impossible to do in the traditional method.

    The end product of this instructable is a "border" that you can use to make your photos look as if they were a polaroid transfer.

    A Photoshop brush would be a possiblilty but generally brushes are a lower resolution pattern that repeats, this would not really yield the quality of result this instructable hopes to achieve.  My earlier attempts at faking this effect were similar to what you suggest, I used about 15 different "grunge" style brushes to essentially draw the border I wanted. In the end the limitation was still the resolution of the pattern the brush used, to make it as large as I needed it the brush's output was blurry.

    I hope my explanation makes sense, if not feel free to ask more questions so I can try to clarify it further.

    As for your interest Photoshop you're in luck, there is a plethora of information out there on this program (entire college programs dedicated to it) but all this information can also be overwhelming.

    I've spent years working in Photoshop and still learn new things everyday, my advice is to play around and learn what each of the tools does, learn how the different blend methods work and just gain general experience with the software. There are always more than one way to do something in Photoshop, however one method is often much better than others and that's what takes time to figure out. Last year I completely changed the way I did portrait retouching after a colleague pointed out they way he accomplished the same things I was doing but his method was more consise and non-destructive (ie permanent).

    This post is getting long so I'll stop now ;)

    Let me know if you have any more questions.

    Thank you so much for the clarification!  Makes much more sense now.  Especially the reasoning for manually creating the border.  I can now understand why a grunge brush wouldn't work.  :)

    Another question I have is whether or not you've ever used images, created via this technique, for printing on physical items (i.e. CafePress type output) or other formats (like printing to ceramic tiles for mosaics or similar)?  Just a curiosity question to know how they turned out in the end.  ;)

    I should clarify that I'm a newb to photography.  For Photoshop I'm somewhere in the grey area between beginner and upper-level intermediate.  LOL  I frequent a Photoshop Contest forum and have a couple 2nd and 3rd place finishes.  I'm learning all the time!  :D

    Thanks again for the clarification and info!  It's a great tip and technique!

    Glad to help. The only media other than regular photographic paper that I've used this on was cotton, I printed images out on iron on transfers and then applied it to white cotton which I stretched over a wooden frame. I liked how it turned out in the end.

    As for being a newbie, well everyone's gotta start somewhere right ;) I always laugh when people state their skill level in photoshop, I often see people claiming to be Photoshop wizards just because they learnt how to do a little masking and compositing (often with crappy results lol). I'd say after 8-9 years of using it I'd probably be classed as an advanced user however I still have plenty to learn. Just when you start to get cocky you find someone that is lightyears ahead of you ;)

    Often the best Photoshop work goes unnoticed because it doesn't look out of place (unless you're going for the surreal like this http://photoshopcontest.com/view-entry/87388/venus.html )

    Best of luck and thanks for the comments.

     HA!  I know that chop!  Joe did that!  I've been a member at PSC since October 2003.  :)

    You wouldn't happen to be a PSC alum would you?  ;)

    Instead of pasting the photo into the layer, use the Place command under the File menu. This insets the inserted image, giving you handles (as in Free-Transform) allowing you to scale that image. It also puts that image on a separate layer, and makes it a Smart Object. Use the Save As command and keep a copy as a PSD. When reopening the file to use another background image, select the layer the background image is on, go to Layer > Smart Object > Replace and then choose a new file to insert into the old space. Use the Save As menu to do this over and over.

    *IF* you want to erase part of the new background image (to trim it to fit) you will need to rasterize it first (its a Smart Object, and therefore unable to be erased as such) by going to Layer > Smart Object > Rasterize

    1 reply

    Sorry I didn't see this earlier.... "Liquid Rescale" (e.g., the free gimp plug-in) will do a much nicer job of scaling your border, especially if you want to change the aspect ratio. It tries to remove horizontal/vertical "walks" through the image in which the information lost is minimal -- which means it will preserve the nice texturing detail better.

     So on a side note, Polaroid has just announced that they will start making the instant film again.  So if you missed your chance to do this for real you should have another shot starting in 2010.

    4 replies

    I am so pleased to read that Polaroid will make the film again. I am looking for #669. Any more info and dates about all of this ? Thanx.

    You're absolutely correct, www.the-impossible-project.com/ just announced this in a press conference Oct 13th. That's one thing I love about the internet, if you get enough people shouting loudly enough you can actually accomplish stuff like this. It also worked to bring Old Dutch Mexican Chili Potato Chips back (might be a Canadian only thing ;).