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Vintage Photography: How to Make a Digital Photo Look Old-Fashioned

By Max Therry, Photo Geeky

Vintage Photography

Do you love the look of old photographs and wish you could recreate that look yourself? You can, and there are two different ways to go about it that will get you the same, but slightly different results.

What is Vintage Photography?

Vintage photography can mean different things to photographers, but they are all valid. In its purest form, vintage photography means images printed from old negatives in a traditional darkroom, but you can take modern-day vintage photographs on film cameras, such as a 5×4 large format film camera, a 35mm film camera, or by using old techniques such as wet plates.

If all that seems like too much hard work, you can also take vintage-style images on a modern digital camera, and post-process them in image editing software to look like the real thing.

Vintage Vs. Modern Photography: The Difference

True vintage images were always taken on film and processed in the darkroom, and vintage images have a specific look and feel about them. They are often black and white, as that was the only type of film cheaply available in the past, but you can get colour vintage images from the 1950’s onwards when colour film started to become more widely used, so they don’t just have to be monochrome.

Water Fountain, Paris, 1934,

Modern photographers have it easy in comparison with their vintage counterparts. We have digital cameras that enable us to see exactly what we’ve shot, as soon as it’s taken. We have lots of different lighting equipment that makes changing looks simple. Our modern cameras allow us to take images in bold, bright, true-to-life colour, and this can be further enhanced in image editing software. We can turn a colour image black and white, and re-colour a black and white photo.

What Makes the Vintage Look?

Content and subjects are an important part of a vintage image. It’s no good having someone wearing the latest clothes and shoes in a modern city centre, and then putting a vintage look to an image. It just won’t work well. Good subjects for vintage images are portraits and landscapes, as long as the landscapes aren’t too modern.

Colours and saturation are different in vintage images with colours fading over the years and some details lost.

Woodstock Festival by Elliott Landy, 15-18 August 1969.


The lighting that would have been used back in the 1940’s and 50’s was usually continuous tungsten lighting. These lights burned hot, and were quite uncomfortable to work with for any length of time. You can still buy continuous tungsten lights nowadays, if you really want to recreate the vintage lighting look in camera.

How to Achieve a Vintage Look

You can get models to wear vintage clothing and hairstyles, and use vintage film cameras, lighting and processes to achieve the look. Or, much more simply, you can shoot with your digital camera and add a vintage look in your editing software.

There are image editors that have one-click vintage filters or presets Luminar and Lightroom, and these are very handy when you don’t have time to spend fiddling with settings. They also apply exactly the same settings to your image each time you use it, so you always get consistent results.

Photoshop doesn’t use presets, but you can still achieve a vintage look very quickly, which I’m going to show you next.

This is the image I’m starting with:

Make sure your foreground colour is set to white in the black and white square boxes on the left hand side toolbar. Select ‘Layers’ from the top menu bar, then New Fill Layer/Gradient:

Set your gradient to the settings above. This will brighten the centre of your photo. Click OK. On the Layers palette on the right-hand side of your screen, change the blending mode from the drop down menu to Overlay. Reduce the opacity to around 35-45, depending on your image.

Next, you need to switch your foreground colour to black, by clicking the little arrow next to the foreground colour boxes on the left-hand tool menu. Repeat the same steps as above to add a gradient, but check the box marked ‘Reverse’. Enter the other settings based on these ones: choose a Radial style gradient again, leave Scale at 100, and change Angle to 150 degrees. Use this as a rough guide – you don’t want too much of a vignette darkening the edges.

Let’s adjust the colours in a curves layer. Choose Layer, New Adjustment Layer, Curves. Click the drop-down menu and select the Red colour channel:

Adjust the curves line to one similar to this. Next open the blue channel and pull the curves line so it looks something like this:

Then adjust the Green channel:

When you go back to RGB channel, it should look something like this:

If you want to add more of a vintage look, add a Fill Layer of solid colour such as blue or red, which are good for vintage looking photos. Select Layer, New Fill Layer, Solid Colour:

Choose a dark blue, then click OK. In the Layers palette on the right, set your blending mode to Exclusion, and play around with the opacity until you like the look.

The last step if you want is to add another Gradient. Select Layer, New Adjustment Layer, Gradient Map. Select the black to white gradient, then click OK:

Change blending mode to Soft Light or Overlay, if you want a more contrasty effect. These are just guidelines, so play around with the various opacities and blend modes until you get a look you like.

Here is the finished vintage image:

So, you can create a lovely vintage look in a short time. You can make it even shorter if you use a filter or a preset, but you don’t get the fine control over the steps like you do in the tutorial above.

Why don’t you have a go at creating your own vintage images?

If you are interested in reading some of Max’s work, you can check him out at