Vintage Photography: A Beginner’s Guide (w/ Useful Tips)

(Last updated on July 20th, 2022)

Have you considered trying other forms of photography? Has digital photography lost a certain allure? Perhaps you are looking for a way to create a unique personal style.

Maybe you are a photographer who loves to learn and try new things. Or just want to break out of the box of tradition. If any of this is true, give vintage photography a try.

This genre of photography is a great way to grow as a photographer and have a lot of fun in the process. Continue reading to learn about vintage photography, why it is trending, and how you can pick up a dusty camera and create images that will stand next to images created on today’s high–tech digital cameras.

What is Vintage Photography?

Any photography created on a non-digital camera. It is that simple. So much of today’s photography is saturated with digital this and digital that.

A Drive-in Theater along route 283 in Mangum, Oklahoma (1982) by John Margolies. This is a vintage film image produced with high saturation and bright colors, typical of many film stocks.
A Drive-in Theater along route 283 in Mangum, Oklahoma (1982) by John Margolies. This is a vintage film image produced with high saturation and bright colors, typical of many film stocks.

Vintage photography is produced in a manner to look old. Using modern technology, you can expose a roll of film and through the developing, scanning, and editing (or printing) process, create a vintage vibe that is reminiscent of the early days of photography.

Why Create a Vintage Look?

Processing your images to have a vintage look is one way to create a personal style. Many people also enjoy vintage photography. It is a way to turn imperfections into compositional elements. Imperfections are common with film and were more acceptable in the heyday of analog photography.

Things like dust specks or odd fade marks often made their way to the final print. Light leaks were also common in vintage photography. These elements are part of the look and feel of vintage photography.

In order to succeed with vintage photography, your images need to have at least two elements.

An Aesthetic Look

This is the overall look and feel of your photography. Whether using color or black and white film, the aesthetics have to say ‘this is old.’ It is a popular trend on social media today to have a vintage feel to images.

Ways to achieve this is by using a higher ISO film to produce noticeable grain. This can replicate the imperfections of an older camera.

Proper Image Content

Vintage photography will not be images of a high-speed train or rocket launch. The content has to match the aesthetic. Subjects and concepts should embody old things. For example, if you are a portrait photographer looking to offer vintage photography to your clients, consider dressing them in fashion from a certain era, like the image below.

A couple poses for a portrait, circa the late-1800s. The age of this photograph is apparent not just from the faded and sepia-toned image. The style of the clothing indicates the historical period as well.
A couple poses for a portrait, circa the late-1800s. The age of this photograph is apparent not just from the faded and sepia-toned image. The style of the clothing indicates the historical period as well.

If you are an architect photographer, seek out old buildings. Using vintage photography will not only document these historic buildings but preserve them in a medium that was contemporary with the building’s construction.

An old building
An old building

The Joys of Vintage Photography

Beyond developing your own images for the first time, there are many joys and benefits to vintage photography.

  • It maintains the organic, natural feel of photography.
  • Grain can be used to complement the subject, or hide imperfections.
  • Film is a great way to develop your personal style.
  • It provides a stronger understanding of how light interacts with the world.
  • It is challenging and fun, and a great way to learn a lot about photography.

The joys of photography are infinite; vintage photography is a great medium to explore to help you become a stronger photographer.

Where to Begin With Vintage Photography

Research

It all starts with knowing what has been done. Spend time studying photographers who worked with film in a given era. One of my favorite photographers to study is Robert Frank. His work paints a picture of America during the 1950s and 1960s. It is a style I strive to recreate in my street photography today. It helps my images stand out by having a conceptual vintage style.

Screenshot of Robert Frank’s work on the International Center of Photography’s website.
Screenshot of Robert Frank’s work on the International Center of Photography’s website.

Another option is to pick an era of photography you are drawn to and study the greats. Some examples include Carleton Watkins, Dorothy Lange, Ansel Adams, Edward Curtis, and Timothy O’Sullivan, amongst countless others.

Know the Gear

There are thousands of types of film cameras out there. Across many sizes of film. Once you have studied a few photographers, you should know what kind of camera they used.

Then seek out that camera, or something similar. Film cameras have become popular in the past ten years. Vintage photography is experiencing a renaissance. Because of this, prices for cameras on the web are slightly elevated. However, they are still cheaper than a new digital camera.

Screenshot of eBay search for film cameras
Screenshot of eBay search for film cameras

A quick eBay search will yield a variety of cameras in working condition that can be had for less than $500 USD.

Here is a short list of cameras that help make your photography more vintage:

●    Nikon L35AF

Nikon L35AF
Nikon L35AF

●    Olympus XA2

Olympus XA2
Olympus XA2

●    Kodak Brownie

Kodak Brownie
Kodak Brownie

●    Pentax K1000

Pentax K1000
Pentax K1000

●    Kiev-88

Kiev 88
Kiev 88

●    Graflex Speed Graphic 4×5

Graflex Speed Graphic 4x5 1
Graflex Speed Graphic 4×5 1 Photo courtesy of Steve Rainwater, via Flickr.com

Once you have the camera in hand find a good source for film. Many local camera shops are beginning to carry film. There are online suppliers such as B&H Photo and Video and Freestyle.

Places to develop your film are also growing. I have long used The Darkroom and had great, consistent results.

You May Also Like:

How to Set up a Vintage Camera

Setting up an old camera may seem daunting. But if you found one that is in good working order, it just requires practice.

Assuming you have a working vintage camera and fresh batteries, you next have to load film. Here is a short video on how to load a roll of 35 mm film and 120, or medium format film. This larger format film is popular in vintage photography for the larger image quality and detail.

A lot of old cameras do not have a light meter. Some do and they do not work. Understanding how light interacts with a subject is a crucial part of nailing exposure. There are many light meters out there you can put on old cameras, like this one.

Once the film is loaded and you have verified a working light meter, the camera is ready to go. I recommend using Manual mode (if you have an option). This allows full control over the light that exposes the film, i.e. more creativity.

If you have an older camera with auto settings, then it is as easy as composing and creating the image. Again, the best tool here is practice.

Characteristics of Vintage Photography

Loggers loading up lumber in the Coleville National Forest of Washington, circa early-1900s. The reduced saturation is indicative of the age of this photograph.
Loggers loading up lumber in the Coleville National Forest of Washington, circa early-1900s. The reduced saturation is indicative of the age of this photograph.

●    Faint Colors

Vintage photography often has faint colors. Many films had a limited color dynamic range. This typically resulted in subdued, or desaturated colors. This is probably one of the more immediate visual cues of vintage photography.

Washington Peak in northern California with high saturation. This image is typical of many landscape photography from the 1970s to 1990s. Photo by Richard Bednarksi
Washington Peak in northern California with high saturation. This image is typical of many landscape photography from the 1970s to 1990s. Photo by Richard Bednarksi

●    Saturation

Some filmstock, such as Kodachrome, went the other way. Galen Rowell was a landscape and action photographer who embraced the oversaturated and deep colors created with this film.

This early photograph by Alfred Stieglitz of an airplane is a good example of how photographs age. The haze of the image is apparent with the lack of detail around the clouds, just to the right of the airplane.
This early photograph by Alfred Stieglitz of an airplane is a good example of how photographs age. The haze of the image is apparent with the lack of detail around the clouds, just to the right of the airplane.

●    Haze

As photographs age, they begin to fade. They lose structure, contrast, and details. In addition, as unexposed film ages, it loses potency and will create a hazy image.

Mountain climbers pose for a photograph in front of Mt. Hood, Ore. This image is full of grain, most noticeably in the upper left corner, near the mountain peak.
Mountain climbers pose for a photograph in front of Mt. Hood, Ore. This image is full of grain, most noticeably in the upper left corner, near the mountain peak.

●    Grain

Grain is elemental to vintage photography. When film is exposed, light is literally transferred into silver particles. The particles can be barely noticeable or quite pronounced depending on the film’s sensitivity, or ISO. Development times and temperatures also impact the quality and size of the grain.

This is known as the grain and without it, your photography will lack the vintage feel and look.

A hospital ward during the Spanish Flu, circa the 1900s. This image is sepia-toned due to the age and breakdown of the photochemistry.
A hospital ward during the Spanish Flu, circa the 1900s. This image is sepia-toned due to the age and breakdown of the photochemistry.

●    Sepia

As a black and white photograph ages, it will take on a yellow hue or tint. This is known as sepia and occurs due to the deterioration of the photograph chemicals.

This portrait has a vignette on the corners. The image fades away in a circular pattern near the edges of the frame.
This portrait has a vignette on the corners. The image fades away in a circular pattern near the edges of the frame.

●    Vignetting

This is still common today, but far less noticeable. It occurs when the lens does not focus the entire image equally. Vignetting manifests in the image as darkened rounded corners.

The Digital Vintage

All of the above characteristics of vintage photography can be created digitally. Moden editing software helps achieve the vintage look by taking out the guesswork. With a click of the mouse, you can age your week-old digital photograph by a hundred years.

Using presets is a quick and easy way to create digital vintage photography. They also provide a great starting point to develop your own style as a vintage photographer. Here is a package of 16 vintage photography presets and another set of over 300.

Tips for your Vintage Photography

If presets are not your thing, there are ways to work each photo individually to create a unique vintage photography look.

  • The first thing to try is reducing saturation. This will introduce a faded effect onto your image. With this, you may reduce the brightness and contrast as well. A quick way to do this is to raise the left side of the RGB curve slightly above zero. You will see the blacks fall away, creating a vintage look and feel.
  • Increase the noise of the photograph. This is a way to create grain in the photograph. Some editing suites, such as ON1 PhotoRaw have a slider to add grain, creating a film look.
  • If you have desaturated your image, you can add a layer mask and tint it with a subdued yellow. This will recreate the sepia tone found in old black and white and faded color photographs.
  • Try adding a vignette. One way that is the same across platforms is by creating an oval layer mask. Center it in the photo and invert the selection so you are only affecting the edges or corners of the image. Then slightly darken the mask. Adjust the contrast and clarity to find a suitable vignette recreation.
  • Crop your image to fabricate the ratio of older cameras. Some cameras produced square images or panoramas.

With all of these techniques combined, fine-tune each one to make it look realistic and believable. You can also use but one or two to create a certain style. Once you achieve this, you can save the edit as a preset that fits your personal vision and builds your style as a vintage photographer.

 A surfer riding a wave. This image has many characteristics of vintage photography, can you spot them?
 A surfer riding a wave. This image has many characteristics of vintage photography, can you spot them?

Conclusion

There are two ways to explore vintage photography. Grab an old film camera and some rolls of film and create images. Learn how to develop your film and you will become a more well-rounded photographer. One who is capable of creating high quality vintage photography.

Conversely, you can use a digital camera, any kind will do, and recreate the vintage vibe in post-processing. Here is a great video of how to edit a photo to take on a vintage aesthetic.

Either way, the style and feel of vintage photography should be clear and center in your images. Be decisive about your editing choices. Each edit would have a purpose. The goal is to enjoy photography vicariously through another era.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is vintage photography?

Vintage photography is the art of creating images with film that fit a specific historical genre or period. The film provides a different look and feel to the image. In addition, the subject matter is historically accurate.

Why should I create vintage photography?

Vintage photography is a great way to expand your creativity. You will learn new techniques and mediums while creating work that could top your portfolio.

Do I need a film camera?

While not necessary, having a camera and a roll of film will create a true vintage feel to your photography. There are thousands of used cameras out there and film is easier to come by these days with a rise in popularity. However, you can use a digital camera and recreate the vintage photo look in post-production.

What is the best film camera to use?

I always say the best camera is the one you have. Peruse eBay for used film cameras and you are sure to find many that fit any budget. If you are going for a specific look, spend time researching what cameras were used to produce that look, then get that camera. For example, polaroid cameras have a quality that is unmatched by negative film photography.

How can I make a digital photo look vintage?

The first step is to be sure the subject matter first the historical, or vintage look you are seeking to create. Once the image is on your computer, you can play with saturation, contrast, clarity, tone, among other things to create the vintage photography look. There are also many presets available for quick editing.

Was this article helpful?

What did you like / didn't like?

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.