9 min read

13 Tips to Achieve the Vintage Photography Look

9 min read

Last updated:

vintage photography

Analogue cameras introduced the world to photography. Their evolution eventually led to digital photography. The digital way is more accessible, easier to understand, and immensely popular. However, many digital photographers continue to embrace the look of vintage photography. It can be nostalgic, mysterious, and moody.

The goal is to make it seem like your digital photos were taken with an old camera. There are many ways to achieve this, both practically and digitally. Textures, apps, and props can all help you. But where do you start? What are the best tools for this genre? Here are 13 tips to help you achieve the vintage photography look both quickly and efficiently.

1. Look for Vintage Photography Inspiration in These Places

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Vintage photography comes with many helpful references. You probably have some in your home right now! Don’t underestimate this part of the process. It can inspire you and give you a boost of motivation.

A great example of this is Ransom Riggs, the author of the Peculiar Children series. His idea came from a few vintage photos he found in a market. He used these pictures to come up with a unique fictional world. This made him very successful, and it’s all thanks to a few old photographs. As you can tell, even the smallest ideas can lead to something original.

Here are a few ways you can familiarise yourself with vintage photography:

  • If possible, look through old family albums. It’s a great opportunity to go down memory lane and inspire yourself at the same time.
  • Watch the classics. If they’re black & white, even better! Pay attention to the clothing, lighting, and makeup.
  • You can take this to the next level by analysing screenshots. There’s a website that stores every second of different films in JPEG form. You can save your favourite ones in a folder and use them as references later on. Here are all the screen caps for the 1962 film To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s a great place to start if you don’t have any specific movies in mind.
  • Go to vintage markets. Old photos are very cheap and accessible. While you’re at it, buy yourself an analogue camera!
  • Analyse vintage photos online. There are thousands of websites for this. You can start with National Geographic’s photo archive. If you’re interested in stock photos, New Old Stock is for you. You can also watch videos made in the 20th century.

2. Take Photos in Black & White Mode

Black & white photo of train.
Black & white mode can help you focus more intensely on contrast and shapes.

Most cameras have an option to shoot in black & white. You can use this to look at the world from a different perspective. Many vintage photos are monochrome, so this is a great way to instantly create nostalgia.

You can also convert your photos to black & white in post. Every editing program has a tool for that. Some photographers prefer this method because it gives them more control. This option takes more time, but it’s worth a try.

3. Use a Large Aperture to Blur out the Background

woman in retro clothes posing outdoors.
Many portrait photographers use a large aperture. This helps them separate the model from any distracting background elements.

Back in the day, old cameras weren’t very advanced. Photographers were limited to specific colours, formats, and apertures. As a result, many of their pictures were out of focus.

Many vintage photographs have blurred backgrounds. To achieve this, use a large aperture. This is also known as f-number. A few examples of this are f/1.2, f/1.8, and f/3.5. The smaller this number, the blurrier the background will look. Each lens has its own limit when it comes to aperture. You don’t need to worry about the numbers too much. Just start with the smallest number and go from there.

The smaller the number, the harder it will be to capture details. If you want to keep something in focus, use manual focus. Autofocus might not do the job efficiently, especially if there are lots of details involved.

Alternatively, you can focus away from your subject. Blurred pictures are very popular. They can be a great introduction to abstract photography.

You don’t need to limit yourself to a large aperture all the time. Many analogue photographers used very small apertures. Experiment with different f-numbers to see which ones complement your style best.

4. Use Antique Furniture and Props to Make Your Vintage Photography Look Realistic

bouquet of flowers lying in front of a typewriter.
Typewriters, old books, and even faded roses have a nostalgic element to them.

This is when vintage markets really come in handy. You can use them to find all kinds of interesting little props. Old chairs, chests, clocks, etc., can give your photoshoot the perfect vintage atmosphere. Antique stores are also an option, but they tend to be more expensive.

If you don’t have vintage markets in your area, go to a thrift store. Thrift stores tend to have affordable clothing. Sometimes, they sell old trinkets that can make a huge difference in your photoshoots.

If none of these options are available, you can always shop online. Websites like eBay have lots of cheap but interesting props.

5. Create Light Leaks Using Everyday Objects

abstract light leak texture.
Light leaks often look like this. They can look very appealing in vintage photography.

Light leaks are very common in analogue photography. They occur when too much light hits a roll of film. Some photographers do this on purpose to add texture and interest to their photos.

Light leaks are usually red, yellow, or white. They tend to leak into a picture from one side. You can easily create this effect with everyday objects. All you need to do is hold an object in front of your lens. Make sure you don’t cover it completely. The object should be red or yellow.

You can use semi-transparent material for this. Sunglasses and folders can work well. You can also use LED colour gel filters for a more vibrant effect. Don’t focus on the object you’re holding. This will blur it out and create a light leak effect.

6. Use Vintage Lightroom Presets for a Quick Transformation

vintage photography - woman's legs standing next to a vintage frame.
Many vintage photos have purple shadows and yellow highlights. This is an important colour combination in this genre. If you’re not sure how to achieve it, you can always use special Lightroom presets.

Colour correction and editing are very important in vintage photography. If you use the right tools, your photos will look incredible.

Lightroom has a whole section dedicated to presets. You can download custom ones or make your own. Essentially, presets are one-click effects. You can edit your pictures in seconds. If something doesn’t look perfect, you can make custom adjustments afterwards. All in all, it’s a very efficient way to edit photographs.

A great collection of high-quality presets can make a significant difference in your vintage photography. We have a special vintage lightroom presets collection. It has 75 presets, 39 brushes, and many other helpful tools.

7. Or Use a Vintage App to Instantly Transform Your Smartphone Pictures

person editing food photos in an app.
The right vintage apps can help you make any picture look like a vintage photo.

If you’re an avid smartphone photographer, you’re in for a treat! There are all kinds of apps that are dedicated to vintage photography. Here are a few of the most popular ones:

  • VSCO – this app offers lots of vintage filters and custom settings. It’s one of the most detailed vintage apps in the industry. You can edit colour temperature, add grain, and much more. The latest version allows users to edit their videos.
  • Huji Cam – unlike most camera apps, Huji Cam has very few adjustment options. It works like a disposable camera: Take a picture and let the app do the work for you.
  • Afterlight – this app was made by a team of analogue photographers. It has some of the most realistic-looking textures, light leaks, and filters in the market. The Android version hasn’t been updated in years, but it’s still a great tool for vintage enthusiasts.

8. Use Textures to Make Your Pictures Look Old

closeup of girl looking sideways at the camera - vintage photography.
I used a free light leak texture by GRAINSNAP.

You can download textures online or make your own. The most suitable ones for this genre are dust and scratches. If you use a small amount, your vintage photos will look authentic.

I’ll use Photoshop as an example here. (You can use any editing program you like.)

  1. Open both of your images in one document.
  2. Click on the texture layer.
  3. Change the layer mode to Screen.
  4. This will make the texture slightly transparent.
  5. You can experiment with Curves and Levels to make your photo look better.
  6. If the texture looks too intense, change the layer opacity.

9. Decrease the Clarity in Lightroom to Create Softness

before and after examples of clarity tool in Lightroom.
Less clarity can also make skin look softer.

Many vintage photographs aren’t sharp. Even if they’re detailed, they have a softness to them. You can achieve the same effect by decreasing clarity. The clarity slider is available in Lightroom. Just drag the slider to the left.

You can also re-create this look with a DIY tool. Get some cling film and wrap it around your lens. Some parts of it should stick out and cover the lens. This will create an interesting haze.

10. Add a Little Grain

before and after examples of grain.
A small amount of grain can go a long way.

Grain is very important in vintage photography. Too much grain is unnecessary. A little bit goes a long way.

You can add grain in any editing program or app that you like. Even VSCO has a tool for adding grain. If you want to have more control over the results, use an advanced editing program. Lightroom and Photoshop have special tools for controlling grain.

In Lightroom, you can control the size and roughness of grain. This can help you enhance the texture in your vintage photography.

If you used a high ISO during your photoshoot, you can avoid this step. Too much noise and grain can make a photo look unnatural.

11. Crop Your Photos in a Specific Way

black and white vintage photo of snow leopard.
The square crop allows the viewer to focus on the leopard’s eyes, ears, and nose. If this picture were wider, these details wouldn’t stand out as much.

Some analogue cameras produce square images only. Others were specifically made for panoramas. This is an opportunity for you to limit yourself. Limitations can be a source of creativity. They can help you think outside the box and come up with original ideas.

The format you choose depends on you. If you need inspiration, check out these photographers:

Keep your format in mind when you take photos. You don’t want to accidentally crop out an important detail in post! You can shoot from unusual angles to fit everything in.

12. Use a Slow Shutter Speed to Emphasise Motion

vintage photography - person holding ectoplasm.
This image is meant to be confusing. You might be wondering what the object is or what the model is doing. Many vintage photos are impossible to describe.

Many vintage photos look ghostly for two reasons: motion blur and a lack of colour. Motion blur can add mystery to your pictures. It can also make it easier for you to achieve the vintage effect in your images.

This technique is very easy to achieve. All you need is a tripod and a slow shutter speed. The slower the shutter speed, the more movements you’ll be able to capture.

Place your camera on a tripod, select a shutter speed, and press the shutter. You can use a timer if you don’t want to shake your camera. The fast your subject, the more haunting your photos will look.

13. Have Fun With Unusual Poses, Expressions, and Props

man taking vintage photo of person in a costume.
This is yet another unusual image, but that’s what makes it so interesting.

Some of the most iconic vintage photos are bizarre. They feature strange objects or dramatic facial expressions. You can use this as inspiration for a weird photoshoot!

Look for strange clothes or objects in a thrift store. Experiment with body makeup. Crop out faces or important details. Take photos of people doing silly things. Dance in front of the camera. Give yourself the freedom to be creatively bizarre. You can even re-create some iconic vintage photos.

Vintage photography is nostalgic and visually appealing. It can be a great source of inspiration for all kinds of photographers.

You can achieve the vintage effect in many ways. If you want to get extra creative, invest in vintage props. If you want something simple, use vintage Lightroom presets. You can mix and match to get unique results.

Once you’re familiar with the process, get out of your comfort zone! Re-create your childhood pictures. Start a photography project dedicated to black & white photography. Take vintage self-portraits.

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Taya Iv is a portrait photographer, 500px ambassador, and host of Great Big Photography World podcast.
Taya Iv is a portrait photographer, 500px ambassador, and host of Great Big Photography World podcast.

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