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Creating Vintage Images - Old Look Photos

Have you thought about creating vintage images, old look photos, perhaps trying to mimic photos taken in the past or mixing up your relations alive today with ancestors no longer around.

There is not a single look, for older photos, but a whole series of looks that came about with each stage of the development of photography, with new materials and equipment, and its still progressing today with several new picture types coming out in the last year or so, like the Nikon format that captures an image but also some movements, or the the images from a Lightfield camera or Plenoptic camera where you can, as a viewer, decide what point within the photograph to look at, or 3D photos that do not require glasses to view them.

Over time much has and still is changing, many of us started with dark rooms using chemical baths, dodging and burning images to adjust the light in sections of the image as we exposed the photographic paper with the enlarger, shining a light through a negative. Today its done in digital editing. We now have far more capability, and photography is now open to a wider range of people, but we have lost the magic of watching an image slowly appear on photographic paper in the developing bath. Old skills are no longer required but new ones have to be learnt.

 Axbridge, Somerset March 1905   (Then and Now )

Many of these technological changes affect the look of the image.

Go back a few more generations and images were created in contact frames rather then enlargers, and the image then is the same size as the negative, so if you wanted a large print you needed a large camera able to hold a large negative, while smaller images could be obtained by putting in a different carrier to hold film or before that a glass slide of a smaller size, or you could use a smaller camera. So folding cameras, box cameras and the land cameras come in a variety of sizes. We have a list of film sizes and cross reference of films as well as a listing or individual plate, cut film and print sizes in early photo sizes

Pre digital images have grain, not pixels, and this grain coming from the negative was coarser with faster films than slow ones. Different film makes and types within a make had deferent grains. Over time generally grain became smaller and faster films had less grain. Many digital editing packages have an inbuilt filter to simulate grain in an image, some have several or allow adjustment of the effect.

Photochrome print of Bristol around 1900, notice the horse drawn tram

Most images were monochrome (black and white), rather than colour up until the 1970's, in the first half of the 1970's even most weddings were still only photographed in black and white. Most wedding photographers using 120 roll film that had 2.25 inch square negatives and very few photographers at that time able to process their own colour prints. It was common to have only a small number of images, all static poses. A few photographers towards the middle of the 1970's started to use 35mm cameras, that were by then used in fashion photography and the like, but if you wanted to produce a colour postcard then you still had to have or hire a folding plate camera that would hold cut film, as the firms producing postcards only had the equipment that required this size images. At that time many photographers argued that you had to have a larger negative size to get the quality image, while some of us had moved to Nikon F or Nickormat FTN cameras and using these with their quality lenses and matching quality enlarger could match anything that those with larger formats could produce, but with our lower running costs could produce far more images. So while my competitors offered 12 or perhaps a few more black and white proofs of a wedding, it was common for me to be producing 60 colour and anything up to 300 black and white proofs of a wedding at the same cost. As you might expect the orders I got back from the proof sets, offering candid photos and a wider variety of photos was far higher then others got, and bookings were also easier to obtain. Offering the full proof set to the bride and groom to keep with the price reducing depending on the volume of prints they got saw orders climb. This led to the need for a large number of Saturday photographers I trained and supplied with the cheaper Pentax or Practica cameras. Soon I had a franchise business with photographers operating under their own names across the country, giving me the chance to do more training and to get involved in the commercial and scientific photography they could not handle themselves.

Although we look back at this time and before and talk of black and white photography, in fact many of the images were not black and white, they varied depending on the paper used, bromide and bromesko being the most common one, producing black and while and the other a dark brown and white, some might call it Sepia, but it was darker tones than we would normally think of as a Sepia print today.

Most prints were produced with a matt surface, to produce a gloss you had to have gloss paper but also use a glazing drum or plates. For production runs the glazing drum was a heated very shinny polished drum with a material blanket that worked like a conveyor belt, holding the print tight against the drum while it dried, having been put in wet, and rotating the drum, so you had it rotating around which prints travelled starting wet and coming off dry but with a gloss finish. Any marks on the drum would show in the gloss of the print so everything had to be spotlessly clean and the drum kept highly polished. There were a variety of matt and lustre finishes. Photo print paper today is available in a number of finishes, so its worth looking at these when looking to choose paper to print on if you are trying to simulate prints from an earlier time.

When prints were produced, either with an enlarger or in a contact frame, the paper had to be able to be held, so there was nearly always a white border around the edge. From the mid 1970s, a few of us had magnetic corners we could hold paper down with that worked with friction so allowed the production or borderless images. Normally if you find pre digital images without a border that have not come from a processing lab, then they normally have borders or the images have been trimmed and is smaller than the standard sizes. Images that were processed in developing and printing labs were often printed on roll paper and then chopped up. Professional photographers at the time would not use roll paper as you could adjust the contrast in the images by using different grades of photographic paper, and a roll fed system had just one grade, so often resulted in lost highlights or detail.

While there were a number of earlier colour print processes, if you come across colour images of individuals rather than published prints, for example wedding photos from just after the second world war or before, then these you will find, if you inspect them carefully, were produced in black and white and hand coloured. Most professional photographers pre digital would do some spotting, touching up prints to cover dust or drying marks on the negatives, but the art of hand colouring was largely lost and two expensive in manpower before colour became widely available but it was still practiced into at least the mid 1950's. The National Trust has a house in Liverpool that was the home of Mr Hardman, a professional photographer, for more details see The Hardman House, Photographers Studio. The house has been maintained as it was when he shut up shop in 1950, and there you can see hand colouring desks all fully set out and equipped.

Toning is a technique that was used to produce images of different colours and in some cases two or more colours. Sepia  was the most common producing a similar effect to earlier processes, and a warmer image than the black and white print. Cyanotype  is a process, but is also the name given to most blue and white images. The most common multiple colour photos, have two colours and this technique is known as Duotone   the most common form uses blue and black, where black is used for solid areas and blue to replace the shades of grey.

With early photographs and lenses, the fall off in brightness from the centre of the image to the outside is very noticeable, and a similar effect was a problem with digital photography to start and the reason why smaller than full frame sensors were used by most camera manufacturers. Later this effect was created by design and still is today to highlight the central part of the image. It can be done with landscapes to pick out the main part of the scenes, while also including the surrounding area, or for artistic effect in portraiture or wedding photography where the edges are made to go far darker and sometimes completely black. We now call it Vignetting.

Early lenses ware also far simpler and softer than the ultra sharp lenses we usually use and have become accustomed to today. However by choice we can use a variety of techniques or equipment to produce soft images.

An amazing number of images survive from all points, and by a very wide range of processes. Camera collectors and people interested in historic prints and the collecting of them have listed print sizes by camera, and there are many sizes, as well as much more. My own collection of old photographs have examples from many forms, and times, but my favourite are the photochromes,  taken as black and white photos and then produced from hand coloured negatives by the use of filters and a multiple colour printing technique, they gives a window into a time over 100 years ago. We have many hundreds available indexed by county in our gallery section under Photo Archive.

Given the print size, colour, texture, grain, surface, amount of vignetting, sharpness, and general look, we can learn a lot from an old print before we even look at the image it contains.  Often information contained like clothing, state of building or roads, and identifiable places allow us to create, for the image, a far wider story than just what is in the image, often we can tell the camera it was taken on and the paper used, and also have a very good idea of the date it was taken.

To recreate the look of these earlier photographs, we don't need a time machine, or to go back to using plates or cut film and wet techniques in the darkroom. We can produce similar effects with our digital equipment, accessories and in editing. The first stage is to determine the factors we have mentioned above or those we feel matter. I would suggest producing a list of features we are looking to include and then to look at how we can mimic each of these.

Here are a few suggestions to get you started

Print size and shape. Older formats are generally less letterbox shape than current ones. Sheet film came in many sizes as did plates. Film sizes also varied considerably with common sizes being, plate 8.5x6.5 inches, half plate and quarter plate varying in size slightly. 10 by 8 inches being an early plate size along with 5x4 and 2 1/2 by 3 1/2 inches. The following three tables will help you to identify the size and shape.

Another alternative is to look up individual historic cameras and see the format and shape, remember there were many.

What colour do you want your image to be. In many better cameras you can take images in black and white, sepia etc, from in camera settings. Nikon for example, in many of their cameras, have a range of shades in a range of colours, and if use RAW images you can switch back after to colour or to any of the other tones, likewise any RAW colour photo can after be switched to any of the tonal images.

Relative tone shades for different colours, can be adjusted with filters, on the lens, in the camera settings or in editing afterwards. This is particularly relevant when you have two colours that produce the same shade of grey, for example red roses with green leaves, both are about the same grey, but if we use a red filter the red rose becomes lighter and the green leaf areas darker, while if we use a green filter the red rose becomes darker while the green leaf areas are lightened. The strength of the filter determining how great an effect it has. You can greatly improve skies and more using these techniques. For more information see:-

While you can do this all at the point when you are taking the photos, many editing packages have a range of filer effects mimicking these

Contrast. With chemical photography different paper grades were used to adjust the image contrast, today you can do this in the camera settings, but in practice its far easier to take a RAW image and adjust this back in editing.

Image sharpness, perhaps you want an image not as sharp as we are used to today, this can be done by using a poor lens, a soft effect lens or shooting through fine netting or the like. You can also simulate it in editing by a number of methods.

Focal length of lens and perspective. Zoom lenses did not exist and many cameras had just one lens. For most photographers the only option to get the photo was to get to the right spot to get the image as they wanted. Remember no sectioning or enlarging, the image had to be taken as it was to be printed, and if it was going to be a large print then a large camera had to be used and transported. They had the advantage that they could put their tripod in the middle of a road and spend time under a cloth, without being run over.

Photographic skill. Like today some photographers were far more skilful than others, images were taken without the use of an exposure meter, and as materials were expensive, every shot had to count, so more preparation and thought went into each photo than today. For example when I was young, 14 I think,  I rented a plate camera with sheet film holders to take colour postcard images, having found a prospective client, there was no guarantee so this was at my own cost. I obtained a box of 10 sheets of colour transparency film, out of this I had defined shots to take with 8 of them, so with no exposure meter and a large tripod based plate camera I had never used before, I had to make every shot count. Images were focused upside down and back to front on a ground glass screen under a dark cloth, and the exposure judged from light and sky conditions. One shot the client was particularly interested in was of a church taken form the graveyard, but when I arrived to take it, the grass was up as tall as the gravestones, so I had to get permission from the vicar to cut it and then borrow a hook and stick to cut all the grass in the very large churchyard, as well as moving it all. Of the images I took that week 4 were printed as colour postcards, with 6,500 of each.

Many of these older cameras, including many folding cameras had lifting fronts, giving the same effects as a perspective control (PC) lens today. With some you could change the angle of the image plane to the lens in several directions, allowing different focusing arrangements, in affect graduated focusing, useful for images down a street. So while we can do a lot there are a few techniques that earlier photographers would have taken for granted that very few today can handle. To see what you can do take a look at Making Buildings Stand Up Straight.   Another technique still available, is to photograph using a mirror, but you will need to think about how you can alter perspective and focus using this.

Things are so much simpler now and the luxury of taking many images, allowing more opportunities to get it right. BUT there is less thought and concentration today on each image, so perhaps some photographers from older times will still have better images than people snap today.

As today, some had more skills, some better equipment, and some could not carry their kit to their ideal spot. Most image defects we see today and some others were evident, so as the architect of your image you will need to decide the skill, available equipment and effects you want to produce.

Stains on paper and crinkles. If the photographer did not wash the print for long enough then over time, and some times very soon after being made, the print will have shown orange/yellow staining, and often the back of the print will be discoloured. Often when prints were dried, if not handled correctly, curls, crinkles and other effects would be shown. The decolouration can be mimicked with many papers by putting in or artistically spilling tea on them, while crinkling can often be created by getting the paper wet, and then stretching some parts slightly, but carefully. You will need to experiment with different papers, many plastic papers are less effective for this than others. Try not to overdo this, it is often most effective when just visible, giving an ageing effect without distracting from the image.

Paper surface. Different printing papers you can get today have different surfaces, and this is the easiest way to get this. Alternatively you can get paper wet and dry it pressed against a surface that produces a marking, but if you do ,make sure you keep it flat and make sure its completely dry before printing on it. Incidentally if you have a raised pattern and put some weight on the paper you will get watermarked paper, with the pattern visible when you hold it up to the light, but no printing money now!

Content. To look like an old photo, the content needs to match the rest, period properties, no TV aerials, old style roads with no markings, the right crops and animals, vehicles, clothing etc......

Some historic photos cannot be recreated today, particularly places that have greatly changed or others that have lost features. It would be fairly easy to get hold of an old car and put it near a steam railway line, and have people in costume, but the centre of a city with steam driven vehicles or horse drawn trams would present a far greater challenge. Some of the UK Living History Museums  give a lot of scope.

Another place or route to start would be the 'Then and Now' style of photography, discovering the difference that time has brought to a place. For more information on this see:-

Then and Now Photography

Then and Now Locations 

Derbyshire Then and Now Locations 

Somerset Then and Now Locations 

John Constables Painting Locations Then and Now

Living History section other sections like lighthouses, and other heritage topics may also be helpful.

And Finally

From this you can see this can become a complete science and art form in its own right. Perhaps it's worth trying just for a challenge, perhaps to produce props for a movie or theatre production, or perhaps Then and Now or family tree developments.


See Also:





Soft images 


Then and Now Photography

Then and Now Locations 

Where to Get Old Prints From

How to Photograph Old Prints

An introduction to photochromes

How to Find Locations

John Constables Locations Then and Now

Photography Timeline

Photochromes On Photo Archive


Pinhole Photography


By: Keith Park Section: Photography Section Key:
Page Ref: creating_vintage Topic: Comparative Photography  Last Updated: 03/2012

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