Going Old School: Making Vintage Photos in Lightroom
Written and photographed by Adam Welch
If there’s one thing that’s certain it’s that the slow march of time reflects itself in everything around us. We see it’s hand move to apply age in people, places, and even when we look in the mirror (I miss my hair). Time does us some favors though, especially when it comes to our photographs. The so-called “Vintage Look” is one of the most sought after styles in popular photography at the moment. The aged look gives your images a feel of nostalgia and timeless appeal.
What’s even better is that you don’t have to wait decades for your photographs to take on this time weathered appearance. The entire process is fast, effective, and the best part...easy to accomplish in Adobe Lightroom once you understand the basic look you want to achieve. We will go from this….
Let’s get started and put the “age” in your “image”...photography jokes are fun.
Understanding the Vintage Look
The best way to begin the processing of your image into an aged photograph is to better understand the adjustments you are about to make and more importantly WHY you are about to make those adjustments.
At its very core, vintage style photographs are replicants of analog film photos which are shot on a multitude of physical films, not digital sensors. These films are of different ISO ratings and carry with them little nuances of color and contrast variations. There are also a host of other variables that film brings to the photographic table which includes light leaks from storage or the camera, the age of the film, how it was stored, and how it was processed just to name a few.
Our goal in recreating a vintage analog photo from a digital image is to replicate those little variables as best we can using the tools we have in Lightroom. The beauty of the situation is that even though the effect we want to achieve is complex the basic method for applying these edits are alarmingly simple. The bulk of these edits will involve color saturation, contrast, and adjustments to the tone curve. Furthermore, there are virtually no limits to looks you can create once you understand the basics. So please, use these tips as a starting point and then set your creative self loose on your own photos!
Start with the Basics
This should go without saying, but a solid platform to build your edits on is always a good starting point. This means getting your exposure as optimal as possible in camera first. I know I know, the entire purpose of this article is to show you how to change your photo from what came out of the camera. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t always strive to achieve the best exposure possible before you ever import your images to Lightroom. It’s not just good for your processing, it’s good photography.
Begin by importing your photos and choose the one you want to give a vintage kick. There isn’t much advice to help you choose which images work best in the vintage style but of course people and street scenes are always a good place to start. Even landscapes and nature shots work well too. Make adjustments to the exposure and contrast where needed. Keep in mind though that we will return to the basic panel to tweak the image after all the other edits are applied.
After some adjustments to exposure, contrast, and clarity.
Working with Color
The keystone of the vintage look are subdued color tones and desaturated colors throughout the photograph. While this isn’t a stone cold rule, in general, you will want your colors to be muted and less bright. There are a number of ways to dial down your colors but the most simple(and what we’ll use here) thing to do is to make use of the “Vibrance” and “Saturation” sliders.
The vibrance slider is usually of more use to you because it affects the saturations of the midtone colors whereas the saturation slider raises or lowers the saturation of all tonalities within the image. Just experiment with both until you reach the level of coloration that makes you feel fuzzy inside.
Let it Fade
As we talked about time earlier, it’s greatest effect on the photo is fading. The entire image fades to different degrees. Whether it takes a one year or one hundred, all our photographs will begin to fade. To achieve this edit in Lightroom we will turn to our friend the Tone Curve panel.
Now some people let the tone curve intimidate them but we are not those kinds of people. Simply put, the tone curve adjusts the shadows, midtones, and highlights of a photo based on a curve. The left side of the curve deals with shadows and progresses to the right into the highlights. You can even work with different color tones independently to really go the extra mile but that’s another article. It’s just one of those nifty little tools that you have to work with to better understand how useful it truly is...so work with it!
For our purposes, we will work with the tone curve to raise the shadows of the entire image. This will replicate, not duplicate, the faded look that time applies naturally to photographic prints. It’s as simple as raising the left side of the tone curve slightly.
Keep in mind you don’t go overboard and add too much fading. Move the point of the curve up and down until you reach the desired effect. In our case, I nudged the point slightly to the right to increase the contrast for this image.
Extras: Adding Vignette and Grain
Way down at the bottom of the develop module is a lesser used area of post processing in Lightroom. It is the “Effects” panel. Usually, it is visited only to apply a vignette, which we will also use, but it is also the place where we can add in some judicious grain.
Grain is often confused with noise. This is wrong. Analog film uses tiny light sensitive crystals to record light. Depending on the speed of the film these crystals can be large or small. Higher ISO films have larger crystals hence more grain. So, if you want to add in some grain to your image to give it look of a higher ISO film, this is the time to do it and it can lend a great effect to your final vintage photo.
And last but not least, we will add some vignetting. This will darken the border of the image to not only pull the viewer into the frame but also serve to add to that aged look that we want.
As with most processing, less is generally more. So, experiment with the degree of darkening and the shape and feathering of the vignette until you feel content. I generally use the “highlight priority” setting because it generally makes for a more subtle application of the vignette. But again, this is not a rule.
The “Tada” Moment
Well, ta da! That's all there is to the basics of vintage style post processing in Lightroom.
The ubiquitous before and after….
After some final adjustments to contrast (usually add more) we have an image with great classic appeal. Remember to always use your own judgment and make each photograph your own. These tips will serve as a great starting point as you experiment and create your vintage style photos.
By: Adam Welch
Adam is a photomaker, author, educator, self-professed bacon addict, and a wilderness junkie. You can usually find him on some distant trail making photographs or at his computer writing about all the elegant madness that is photography.