Add a retro film look to your portraits

Vintage-style images are all the rage right now so here’s a simple technique for tweaking colour tones and adding a vignette for that fantastic old-fashioned film feel. Most photographers have now fully embraced the digital revolution, reaping the benefits of LCD screens, low-cost shooting and instant image review. But despite the obvious advantages to digital cameras, many of us look back at the days of analogue with great fondness, and miss that magical je ne sais quoi quality of film.

Armed with a copy of Elements or Photoshop and a little digital editing knowledge, you can quickly and easily add a film effect to your digital image files once they’re on your computer. In fact, editing in a retro-style has recently taken the photography world by storm, especially for wedding, portrait and fashion photography. There’s even dedicated software out there that emulates popular film stock by allowing you to choose the precise film type and ISO rating. In this tutorial we’ll be looking at how to change an image’s colour tones and add a vignette to give it a vintage edge. So from here on you can enjoy the convenience of digital and the visual quality of film.

1. Duplicate your Layer
Choose an appropriate image that you think will work well with a retro look. I would recommend a timeless subject such as a portrait, family photo or a wedding shot. Open the file in Elements by going to File>Open. Before you start editing, duplicate the Background Layer by going to Layer>Duplicate Layer, and give it a name of your choice. I named mine ‘Retro’. Click OK.

2. Adjust contrast in Levels
It’s worth bringing up the Layers palette at this point, so go to Window> Layers. Next, go to Enhance>Adjust Lighting>Levels and select the RGB channel. Here you can affect the overall contrast of your shot. Drag the Output Levels black point arrow to around 25 and the white point to around 240. This lowers the contrast, giving the impression of the large dynamic range of film.

3. Adjust Red channel
There are now no extreme whites or blacks in your shot, giving the image a soft, vintage feel. Next it’s time to add some colour tints. Select the Red channel from the Channels list, which controls the Red-Cyan balance. Move the Output Levels black point arrow to around 30 to add red to the shadows, and the Input Levels grey point arrow to around 1.15 to add some red to the midtones.

4. Adjust Blue channel
The Green Channel controls the Purple-Green balance, which we won’t be using for this technique. Instead select the Blue Channel, which controls the Blue-Yellow balance. Add a touch of yellow to the highlights by moving the Output Levels white point arrow to 235. To add a little blue to the shadows, move the Output Levels black point arrow to 10. You can now click OK.

5. Add a vignette
Now you’ve reduced the contrast in your image and added retro colour toning, we’re going to finish up by adding a vignette. The quickest and easiest way to do this is to go to Filter>Correct Camera Distortion and move the Vignette Amount slider down to around -50. You can also experiment with the Midpoint slider until the vignette looks right. Click OK and save your image.

This article was first published in the September 2014 issue of Practical Photography magazine - download back issues here.