Making New Photos Look Old :: Digital Photo Secrets

Making New Photos Look Old

by David Peterson 0 comments

Sometimes you get tired of taking photos that are perfect recreation of reality. It's OK, we all do. Funky, funny and quirky—there's definitely an appeal to creating images that are a little bit different. That's why Instagram is so popular. People love those Instagram filters that can make an image look vintage, techno, or just plain weird, an some of the most popular are the ones that make an image look old or vintage. But successfully altering a photo so that it looks old is often not as simple as just clicking on that Instragram filter - there's a fine art to creating modern photos that truly do look like they came from another era. I'll show you how.

[ Top image Mabry Mill in the Mirror by Flickr user Scott Sanford]

Your subject

Let's say you're at a car show and you want to take a photograph of an old Model T, and you want it to look like it was shot during that time period when the Model T still roamed the streets. You might think that simply having that Model T in the frame is enough, but it's not—you also have to think about the objects that surround it. If you're at a car show, there's likely to be people meandering around, and they're almost certainly going to be wearing modern looking clothing, such as Air Jordan sneakers or T-shirts adorned with Minecraft characters or soft drink logos. There may also be other cars in the background—they may be cars from other eras, or they may be modern-era cars parked in the background. If your ultimate goal is to make that photo look like it was shot during the Model T era, if you need to make sure all of those modern elements are completely angled out of the shot.

When snapping the photograph, remember that old photographs tended to have a very broad depth of field. This was partly due to the mechanics of the camera—hobby photographers didn't want to mess around with silly things like focus, so those little instant cameras were equipped with fixed narrow apertures that captured tack sharp images outdoors but were next to useless in low light. And in those days it was really more in vogue to have photos that were sharp all the way through, so if your aim is to create a vintage look try to avoid using selective focus. An exception to this guideline was professional portraits—the art of using selective focus to separate a human subject from the background has a pretty long tradition, and if you want to recreate the old-Hollywood portrait style you can use a wider aperture to help the background fall a little out of focus without sacrificing that vintage look.

But it's not just about subject

So besides capturing a subject that looks like it belongs in the past, you need to consider some of the other qualities that go into making a vintage photo look vintage. If you have any old family photos, now is the time to get them out and really pay attention to things like light, tonality, color, the size of the print, the presence of grain, and the paper. And the condition of the photo can say a lot about its age, too—old photos may be suffering from some kind of water damage, fading or even scuffs and tears. While it may go against your instincts to willfully create the look of damage when you're working on a photo in post processing, remember that a look of damage can add an authentic feeling if what you're going for is an old, antique look. And of course remember also that you'll be working with a copy (never make these kinds of post-processing changes to an original image file), so if you ever want to bring your photo back to the present, all you have to do is load the original.

  • Canon EOS 350D Digital
  • 200
  • f/8.0
  • 0.033 sec (1/30)
  • 37 mm

61: Back! Back,foul apparition ! by Flickr user practicalowl

Crop size

It's only been in more or less the modern era that the 4 x 6 photo has become a standard size. If you look through your old photo albums, the chances are most of those images are quite a bit smaller than the standard size photos of today. Up until the middle of the 20th century, most photos were 2 1/4" by 3 1/4". Professionals sometimes used a 6 1/2" x 8 1/2" size, but the average hobby photographer generally produced pretty small prints by modern standards. If you want to create a photo that looks to be pre-1950s, stick with that 2 1/4" by 3 1/4" size, or the slightly larger but less common 3 1/4" x 4 1/4" size. And pay attention to any borders that your old prints might have—white borders were common, so keep that in mind when adding the finishing touches to your "vintage" photos.

For the latter part of the 20th century, you can go a bit larger. If you are seeking to re-create the look of a photo shot in the last quarter of the 20th century, you can use a postcard size of 3 1/2" by 5 1/2", which was the standard size through the 70s and into the 80s.


When you're trying to simulate the look of a vintage era photography, it's tempting to just use your post-processing software's built-in sepia function and be done with it. Once again, though, I'd like you to look back through that album full of old photos and count how many of them actually have those brownish sepia tones. Some old photos don't look like that at all—they may have a slightly blue tone or they may be quite neutral, like a standard black and white photo from the modern age. That doesn't mean you should never use sepia, but it's important to recognize which eras produced photos with those slightly brown tones and which eras' images looked more neutral or leaned towards blue.

If you decide that sepia is the right color for your image, your post-processing software probably has a sepia setting that you can apply. Alternately, you can simply desaturate the image and then add a little red or yellow until the result starts to look like an old photo. It's helpful to have a photo from the era that you're looking to re-create on hand so that you can match the color—pay attention to how much red or yellow appears to be in the shot and then make the adjustments in your post-processing software until you get something that looks pretty close. Note that your monitor will have to be correctly calibrated to ensure precision--if it's not, you may end up with an image that looks wildly different on paper than it did on your monitor.

Later eras when color photography was gaining popularity are also easy to re-create, but old photos from these eras tended to fade or suffer from some degradation of color, mostly due to the non-archival albums, frames and storage boxes they were kept in. That fading or discoloration is what gives them that distinctive vintage look. Another difference those older color photos had is that they didn't tend to be as saturated as modern photos, so sometimes you can just take down the saturation a little in post-processing and then increase contrast to simulate that old photo look.

  • Kodak EasyShare M753 Zoom
  • 100
  • f/4.2
  • 0.003 sec (1/395)
  • 12.8 mm

Remember when by Flickr user Digital_Third_Eye

There are also plenty of presets out there that you can download and add to your post-processing software, many of which have names like "Typical 60's," "Fugi Film or "1970." If you shot the photo on your smartphone you have an even simpler task--you can download any number of apps (not just Instagram) that will allow you to quickly simulate the looks of photos from certain eras, which you may find easier to use than manually changing saturation and contrast in post-processing.


Old black-and-white photos were often underexposed, so you can replicate this look by simply adjusting the levels to darken the shadows and mute the highlights. Outdoor scenes tended to have better exposure, but the contrast was sometimes quite bold—try adjusting the midtones slider with the levels tool, while leaving the highlights and shadows alone. If the look you're going for is more along the lines of a common snapshot, try creating a lower contrast look. Use the contrast tool to make the blacks and whites a little grayer.


While we often go out of our way to avoid noise in the photos we take, its film equivalent (called "grain") was a lot more common in the bygone era. If you're shooting a scene with an eye towards vintage processing and the light is low, you may want to artificially add some grain in post-processing to make your image look like a film photo. Now it is important to keep in ind that grain looks different than film, so pumping up your ISO to simulate that grainy look isn't really the right solution. Digital noise often shows up as an increase in the number of visible pixels, while grain increases in size, not numbers, as the ISO goes up. So grain is a look you really want to be adding in post-processing.

  • Canon Digital IXUS 75
  • 400
  • f/2.8
  • 0.125 sec (1/8)
  • 5.8 mm

311 of 365/2- Fake Polaroid by Flickr user Pahz


Once again, remember to make these changes on a copy of the image, not on the original. The last thing you want to do is alter your contrast and color, add grain and create a little artificial scuffing (that's more of an advanced technique, which is why we didn't really get into it in this tutorial) and then decide that you really liked the photo better in it's modern-era format. Once you've created that copy, though, experiment away. Challenge yourself to match the look and feel of a photo you found in your old family album. Then have some fun and pass the prints around to see if your friends and family can guess that they aren't really vintage images. Have fun and be creative--there will be lots of time to shoot modern-era images, so enjoy your trip to the past while you can.


  1. Your subject
    • Choose a subject that looks like it belongs in a vintage photo (no modern clothing)
    • Make sure modern looking elements stay out of the background
    • Except with portraits, avoid selective focus
  2. Crop size
    • Pre 1950s photos were 2.25 x 3.25
    • Post 1950s photos were 3.5 x 5.5
    • Old photos often had white borders
  3. Color
    • Try to match color to era, some old photos weren't sepia but were more of a blue-gray
    • Old color photos might fade or discolor
    • Old color photos were less contrasty than modern photos
    • Use vintage filters and presets
  4. Tone
    • Old black and white photos were sometimes underexposed
  5. Grain
    • Use post-processing to simulate grain

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