Retro / Vintage Photo Editing
Turn your digital photography into film-photo resembling pieces of art with these tips!
written by miontre for Community Week in projecteducate
Photo editing is fun. It gives you a chance to add something to your photos, and really bring out expressions you may or may have not realised were there. Lately, I've been obsessed with retro and vintage editing effects in my editing, to try and replicate film photographs. Of course, it's impossible to replicate actual film photos, but I think that's what makes it fun: you can do anything you want and it doesn't matter if it looks realistic or not. It's about artistic freedom, and enjoying yourself! I've found myself in a vast world of endless possibilities and I can't wait to continue and try new things. I've found that it's a difficult category to work in, since there's not such a large support community for it on deviantART, but I enjoy it nonetheless!
First up, let's take a look at real film photographs or other fakes to get some inspiration! These types of photos are scattered all around deviantART's photography galleries, but the easiest place to find them is the Darkroom gallery. Mainly, we're interested in the Traditional subcategory, since this is where we'll find real film photographs. The Instant Film sub-subcategory is a nice place to look especially. You might be interested in also taking a look in the Digital subcategory, to see some fakes others have made - the HDR sub-subcategory is not of interest, so concentrate on the Digital Overlays and Other Processes sub-subcategories. You can also find some of this type of art in the Abstract & Surreal galleries, though it is not as easy to find there because there are other styles there too.
What are some common or recurring characteristics you can see? Here are some I spotted, which we'll cover in the tutorial:
- "Vintage" colours, with either higher or lower contrasts, colder and warmer temperatures; or sometimes completely different colour ideas
- Over- or under-exposure
- Square aspect ratios
- Creative use of focus and motion blurs, especially ones which are more intriguing than common uses
- Light leaks
- Noticeable film grain
- Scratches and grunge textures
- Frames and borders (e.g. polaroid)
Let's get started! I'm using GIMP while writing this guide, but you can follow along if you're using Photoshop or any other programs. Note that this is not a beginner's guide, so knowledge on how to use your image manipulation software is required. For GIMP users, I will point out or explain a few things, to make this a little more beginner-friendly. Throughout the course of the tutorial, I'm going to be editing this stock photo by rifka1:
I'm going to break this up into different characteristics. You don't have to follow in the order that I do things: go crazy, be free, do what you want, and have fun with it!
Colours and ExposureThe first thing I always do once I've opened my photo is edit the colours and exposure. The reason I do this is because I find that sometimes, editing colours can slightly degrade your photo quality (in a way which isn't useful) if you use tools like curves and levels. I can easily hide this up afterwards when I scale my image down, add in blur, and other aspects. However, don't worry too much about this, since most of the time it barely affects your quality. It's completely fine to change colours later if you'd prefer to do so. I also think that depending on which colour profile you're using, your image quality may be affected to a much lesser degree; though don't quote me on this because I am not quite sure (is there anybody more knowledgeable on this who can let me know?).
You'll also want to keep in mind that your colours and exposure will be constantly modified throughout the tutorial when we add our different effects, so don't settle on something too final for the mean time. Be prepared to have to make changes if you need to! You may want to keep your original image as a separate layer beneath, to make this easier.
My favourite way to modify colours is the use of the Curves tool (Colors > Curves...) since it gives me a broad range of control over the colours of my image, as well as allows me to change the exposure at the same time. Though I encourage you to use any colour tools you like, including the use of coloured layers and different blending modes - regularjane has a nice quick tutorial for that. Levels is another good option, and it's especially good for changing your exposure.
You might also like to use a monochrome image! These can look really good. Select Colors > Desaturate... to do this. Afterwards, you could try changing the contrast, exposure, or even adding colour!
I find that the Red and Blue channels are the most useful for this style of editing, but Green can be useful on occasion. If you're using Curves, it's often useful to drag out the two endpoints of the curve - likewise, if you're using Levels, the Output Levels option is a good one to play around with. I tend to use decreased contrast, which means that the general shape of my curves (from the left) is first raised, and then lowered. You can observe this in the screenshot of my curve options (note that Green isn't shown because I didn't modify that channel):
And here is the result of these settings on the image:
This is about all I usually do on Colours and Exposure, though I encourage you to continue playing around if you'd like to do so.
Crop (aspect ratios)A lot of real old film photos have square aspect ratios (that is, the image is square), especially instant film photos. You don't have to use a square frame if you don't want to, this is a completely optional step!
If you're using GIMP, you can use the fixed aspect ratio option in your Tool Options dialogue, to ensure that your crop remains square - click here for a screenshot. Go forth, and crop your photo!
Focus and Motion BlurBlurring can add a really nice effect to your photo, and really bring out the mood. A motion blur suggests action, while a soft radial focus blur around the entire image can create a calm mood. A fully blurred photo can create abstract works with a sense of the unknown.
There's a really nice extension available for GIMP called Focus Blur which accurately replicates real focus blurs. You can find and download the plugin at the Gimp Plugin Registry. If you're using Windows, this extension package should make your installation job easier (though I haven't tested it so I can't say for sure). It also comes with a lot of other plugins, some of which I have installed too. If you're using Linux, you'll have to compile it from source. And if you're using Mac or another OS, I don't know how to help you, sorry; though I suspect you'll have to compile from source too (I have no idea how to do this on a Mac, but Google is your friend). If you can't be bothered with installing the extension, you can always use the Gaussian Blur tool, though it won't give you as realistic results so I would strongly recommend you try installing the extension if you're interested in continuing with this sort of editing.
The great thing about the extension is that you can create a monochrome layer to use as your depth of field. Darker areas will be rendered in focus, while lighter areas will be rendered out of focus. So, a black area will be fully in focus while a white area will be completely out of focus. Here's my depth map if you want a clearer idea on what you should do when creating your own. Simply create a new layer below your image, and use only greyscale colours to define your depth of field! While doing this, think about where real focus blur might be coming from, otherwise you could really confuse the people who view your artwork. Once you've done, you can use the Levels and Curves tools to refine the depth map. If you're using Gaussian Blur, you'll need to create a selection around the area you want to blur (make sure you feather it out a lot).
You can find the Focus Blur extension under Filters > Blur > Focus Blur.... You should be presented with this window:
There are a lot of options there to play around with! Basically, the Diffusion Model and Radius option lets you select the amount of blur you want, and the Peak radius for Shining option adds bokeh. By ticking the Use Depth map option, you're enabling the extension to use the depth map you just created. You'll need to pick the appropriate layer in the drop-down menu. You can also alter the focal depth beneath this. Once you're happy with you're happy with your options, hit the OK button and prepare to wait patiently. The extension takes a while, but the result is usually worth the wait; unless you have either hastily selected options, or you have a slow computer like I do in which case GIMP may crash, so it pays to scale your image down beforehand to prevent this.
Et voilà, you now have a nice focus blur!
If you want to add motion blur, you could use the Motion Blur tool (Filters > Blur > Motion Blur...), or try creating a few copies of your layer and experimenting with different blending modes and opacities.
TexturesFor the rest of this guide, we'll be using real film textures to produce realistic looking results. I've got a massive collection of extremely useful textures for this sort of editing. I invite you to search through this folder to find appropriate textures for the rest of the tutorial. You can also browse the Stock and Resources Textures gallery if you'd like. To use these in your editing, download the image and then import it as a separate layer. You'll likely have to scale the layer (Layer > Scale Layer...) so that it is an appropriate size (it usually doesn't hurt to scale up a little if you need to). Make sure that you read the rules of the stock providers of any textures you use. I'll also let you know when there is another method of achieving a certain effect, without textures.
Light LeaksLight leaks are amazing! They're one of the most easily distinguishable features of old film photos. Sadly, there are not a whole lot of light leak textures available. I'm going to use .winter dawn. film texture by missAlienation-stock, which is my personal favourite. Here are some others you could try:
Browse around and see if there are any others you'd like to use! I have more in my favourites folder linked to above.
To add the light leaks, simply download the image and add it as a new layer (File > Open as Layers...). You can also create a light leak by adding two or three gradients on different layers with different colours and blend modes, though the effect is not as realistic. You can also use the paintbrush tool instead of a gradient, to get more control over the area affected by the light leak.
When adding your texture or gradients, think about where the light might be coming from in a real light leak - in other words, where is the main light source in your photo? Crop, rotate, and scale your light leak textures so that they are coming from the appropriate direction!
The most useful blending modes to use are ones which add light to your image, such as Lighten only, Screen, Dodge, and Addition. Other modes can be useful too, depending on how you use them. Sometimes it's helpful to add multiple layers of the same light leak and experiment with different blending modes and opacities.
Note that if you want to lower the intensity of your light leak, do not just use a lower opacity. It usually ends up just looking really bad. The reason for this is because you're dealing with light here. Imagine there is a light in the real world which allows you to lower it's opacity. You have this light in a room, and want to dim the room. If you merely lower the opacity, the light still has the exact same spread, it's just that the light cast is slightly transparent. The brightest parts of the light will be half transparent, instead of casting the correct amount of light on the brightest area. .. it's difficult to explain, so if you want to understand what I mean, go ahead and try lowering the opacity of a light leak.
Instead, to lower the intensity of your light leak, use a tool like Curves or Levels. Stay on the Value channel, and make the colours darker, but make sure you keep it looking natural - the brightest parts stay a bit brighter. In other words, you are changing the contrast while making the entire layer darker also. There isn't really a specific formula for this, so it's up to your own good judgement.
If you don't want the dark parts of your light leak layer to affect your image, you can add a layer mask to prevent this. When you add the layer mask, select Greyscale copy of layer. This will make the dark parts of the layer transparent, while the light parts stay opaque. You'll probably want to refine the mask with Levels or Curves, since it won't be perfect the first time.
I've used three copies of my light leak texture. The top layer is set to Lighten only and the second layer is set to Screen. Both these layers are at 20% opacity (note that it's okay to use transparency in this case because I am not trying to lower the actual intensity of the light, but rather make the entire effect as a whole less prominent). The third layer is what primarily creates the effect and is set to Dodge, and is at 95% opacity. I've also added a lot of contrast to this layer using curves. Here is the result of these layers:
Film Grain, Grunge, and ScratchesYou might already have a bit of grain added from your light leak, if that texture already had film grain in it! It usually wouldn't hurt to add more though, unless you feel you have too much. Unlike with light leaks, there are loads of textures available for film grain, scratches, and grunge. Note that a lot of these also add a vignette for you, so sometimes you can kill two birds with one stone. For the purposes of this tutorial though, I'm going to use texture-030 bylaflaneuse, which doesn't add any sort of vignette. It has all three film grain, grunge, and scratches. Browse my Textures folder or the Stock and Resources Textures gallery to find some of your own!
Adding these textures is a lot more straightforward because you don't need to think about lighting, unless there is an obvious light source in your texture. However, in order to achieve the desired look, you may want to play around with desaturation, inverted colours, Color to Alpha, masks, Curves, Levels, and so forth.
Just like you did with the Light Leaks, it's a matter of downloading the stock image and adding it as a separate layer to your image. I've added my texture below the three light leak layers. It has a blending mode of Hard light and is set to 36.5% opacity. I've also inverted the colours and set white to alpha. Here is my image now:
VignettesVignettes are the soft darker areas of the image around the edges. Like with the previous three steps, you can do this by using a texture for more organic results. You can, of course, use a radial gradient on a separate layer if you'd prefer to do so. You might want to use a texture and blur it for a mixture of both.
I find that darkening blend modes are the most useful for vignettes. However, you might like the effect of lightening the center instead of darkening the edges. You might also want to try a blend mode which affects both light and dark, suck as Soft Light. Try not to make your vignette too over the top, I find that they work best when they're something that nicely compliments your image rather than something that distracts the viewer from it.
I've added a vignette using Deadland by darkwood67. I desaturated the layer, set white to alpha, and use the Multiply blend mode at 65% opacity:
Frames and bordersBorders and frames around photography is a debated topic. There are people who don't like them, and on the other hand, there are some who do! My opinion is that borders and frames can look good, but only when they're used tastefully and on a photo that goes well with their style. Vintage and retro images often look really nice with borders, especially when considering that many real film photographs do have borders, such as polaroids. Like with the previous steps, I prefer to achieve the effect with textures because it looks more realistic; however, you can do it completely digitally by increasing your canvas size (Image > Canvas Size...). Increase both width and height by double the thickness you want your border to be. Click the Center button to align your existing image to the center of the new image. Finally, simply create a new layer behind all of your layers, filled with your desired border colour (white and black usually work best). However, if you'd like to do it with textures, here are some from my folder to get you started (since they aren't so obvious at first glance):
I'm going to use txt0035 by keinziel. Just like you did with your other textures, download the image and import it as a new layer, scaling it to fit your image.
Once you've imported the texture, it's time to get your hands a little messy! There are a lot of things you can do to the border to make it fit in nicely with your image. If you don't like the colours of your border, you can desaturate the layer. You can use Curves and Levels to change how light or dark your border is - you can also use this to remove "useless" parts of the layer, in other words, parts of the layer which affect your photo rather than adding a border to it. You might also want to try inverting the colours of the layer, depending on whether you want a black or white border. Play around with different blend modes to find an effect you like - Darken only and Lighten only are useful ones to start with. And if you'd like to make your border thicker, you can follow the steps above to create a digital border, giving you a thicker final result (just make it the same colour as your texture border). You can use this to create a polaroid effect, by adding extra space at the bottom. There are also some polaroid textures available.
To begin with, I inverted the colours of my border (I wanted a white border instead of a black one). I'm using the Lighten only blend mode, which will cause the white parts of my border to be opaque, while the black parts are transparent (this means I don't have to use masks or the Color to Alpha tool). Then, I desaturated the colours and played around with Curves so that the layer was actually a border, rather than another colour effect over my image (though there is still some of the border affecting the image). Next, I duplicated the layer and rotated it by 90 degrees, so that the border was on all four sides of the photo. Finally, I added an extra bit of digital border, to add thickness to the frame I already had. Here is my result:
Reflection and Final ChangesIt's easy to go over the top when you're doing art. It's important to create a balanced piece of work. I find that, when doing this sort of editing, it's easy to get carried away with a lot of textures and different effects, which aren't necessary and can end up detracting from your image.
As a result, it pays to take a few hours break from looking at your image, and come back later. When looking at it with fresh eyes, you may instantly notice something which could be done better. Maybe you don't need a certain layer, maybe there are some blotchy artifacts in your image, maybe one area is over saturated, maybe you could rearrange your layers into a different order, maybe you could use a different blend mode - the list goes on. You might even decide that you want to start again.
I decided that I needed to rearrange the layers containing my vignette and light leak. I deleted one light leak layer, and moved the most prominent one above the vignette. I also thought that my grain effect was too distracting, so I used Curves to diminish it's effect. Here is my final layer arrangement:
And here's my final image:
Probably not my best work, but I hope you learned from this tutorial nonetheless! Please send me some links to any work you make following this tutorial - I'd really love to see what you come up with!