The use of vintage style effects on modern photography is as popular as it’s ever been, and shows no signs of abating anytime soon. With social media platforms such-as Instagram popularising the look there are now numerous websites, presets and apps dedicated to giving your images that retro, matt effect.
With Photoshop at your disposal you have limitless options for creating your own unique effects, and re-using them on any image.
In this tutorial I’ll give you some easy to follow tips that give you the building-blocks of the retro matt look, and work through applying effects in the shadow regions of your image. In Part 2 we’ll cover some additional effects for working with highlights, and a method for quickly ‘bouncing’ the effect between files. In the final part we’ll cover setting up actions to easily store and re-use your effects anytime.
So let’s start by getting the matt effect. The idea is to achieve a slightly muted look reminiscent of the colour reproduction of matt paper which tends to lose depth and contrast at the shadow end of the scale. The image below, unadjusted, has nice, rich shadows with a decent amount of detail
still present in the bottom-right of the image.
Add a ‘Curves’ adjustment layer and, working on the composite RGB channel, place some control points at the quarter tones to keep the image from being adjusted lower-down in the tonal range. Now place a control point and reduce the black point as below.
Notice how the tonal range in the shadows is reduced and the shadows now look ‘flatter’. This faded, flat look is a key component to achieving our ‘retro’ feel so you’ll want to apply this to any image you want to put a retro spin on, and then add subsequent adjustments in addition to this.
The adjustment I’ve made here is a guide so you may find settings you prefer – the important thing is to limit the adjustment around the three-quarter to shadow region and compress the tonal range at this point as this ‘flattens’ the shadow definition.
Another common component in these types of effects is a deliberate colour cast. There are numerous ways to achieve a stylistic colour cast and no definitive right or wrong ways to do it – here are a few methods to get you started.
Method 1. Add another Curve Adjustment layer, select an individual colour channel and reduce the Black point. For this image I’m working on the Blue Channel as a colder cast works well in the shadow areas as it contrasts with the warmth in the rest of the image. I’ve kept the line straight so this adjustment transitions down through the whole tonal range – you can easily add a control point in the mid-tones to focus the adjustment in the shadow regions if desired.
So we now have the blacks being reduced by our first adjustment layer, and a cast introduced into the shadows with the second. Although this could be applied as a single adjustment keeping them separate gives you greater flexibility to adjust effects in isolation later on.
I’ll turn this adjustment layer off but keep the original black adjustment on as I’m going to apply a similar effect using another adjustment tool.
Method 2. Add a Color Balance adjustment layer, select Shadows from the Tone drop-down and drag the bottom Yellow/Blue slider toward Blue. This puts a Blue cast into the shadow regions. To introduce a more pronounced cast select Midtones from the Tone drop-down and repeat the process.
The Color Balance tool gives a nice amount of control as we can work in highlights, midtones or shadows independently.
Let’s look at the final method. Again I’ll turn the Colour Balance adjustment layer off but keep the original black Curve adjustment on as I’m going to apply the effect again using a final adjustment tool.
Method 3. Add a Gradient Map adjustment layer, set the left colour stop (the shadows) to blue, and the right stop (highlights) to black. Change the Layer Blend Mode to Exclusion – black is the ‘neutral colour’ for Exclusion so this part of the gradient doesn’t effect our image. Reduce the opacity as desired – I’ve set this to 60%.
This method is my personal favourite as I find this approach more versatile and quicker to adapt for different images, and the end result is just ‘nicer’ in a way I can’t quantify.
By using a Gradient Map we can apply the cast across any part of the image by adding the colour stop at this point on the gradient, and have the Blend Mode control how the colour interacts with the image. By choosing the ‘neutral colour’ for the blend mode we can chose which parts of our image are unaffected. Depending on your blend mode, your neutral will be either black, white or 50% grey.
The mid-point slider between each colour stop gives control over how the colour transitions through your image. Colours can be easily changed to suite each image and the ‘Reverse’ checkbox makes it easy to toggle the effect from shadows to highlights.
If you intend to use these effects on other images it’s a good idea to get into the habit of giving each layer a descriptive name, and even putting effects into layer groups. This makes it easier when working with combinations of effects as you’ll have a better idea of what each layer is adding to the mix. It will also make it easier when we come to ‘bounce’ effects from image to image.
So, we now have the basic building blocks to achieve a variety of effects – by changing colours and opacities in each Adjustment Layer you’ll be able to adapt these to work with numerous images.
Next lets take a look at some effects for working with highlights and lighter images, and cover bouncing our effects between documents.
By reducing the tonal range in the shadow regions and introducing a deliberate cast we established the building blocks of our look. Now let’s look at some additional techniques for working with lighter images and highlight areas.
As you can see, the image below is much lighter and the shadow areas are minimal. That said, my approach here will be the same – reduce the blacks, introduce a cast and then look at additional adjustments that focus on the lighter regions in the image.
Firstly, I want to try using the same adjustments that we already used on this new image – I could save them as presets and then load them into the new image but there is a much quicker way of ‘bouncing’ layers between open documents.
I have the two adjustment layers I want to copy selected in the layers panel in the first document. Now go to the Panel Menu icon (or right-click over one of the selected layers) and choose ‘Duplicate Layers...’ from the menu. In the ‘Duplicate Layers’ dialogue under the ‘Destination’ section click on the ‘Document:’ drop-down. By default this is set to duplicate within the current document but you can choose to copy to any open document or create a new one on-the-fly, as you can see below.
And when we swap back to the skateboard image the adjustment layers are in place and the beginning of our retro look is taking shape. Now you can see the benefit of naming the adjustment layers as you work as it becomes easier to follow when swapping layers from one document to another.
This layer duplicating method also works with layer groups and provides a really quick way to pass content between documents. The option to create a new document on-the-fly is handy when you want to park some content and then bring it back in later on.
I want to start adding more of a cast to the lighter areas in the image using the Gradient Map technique from part 1. This time I’ll be using the ‘Overlay’ blend mode so my neutral colour (that renders transparent) will be 50% grey and I’m going to add some warmth to the highlights so I’m using orange. I don’t want the colour appearing in the shadows, as I want these to stay blue, so I’ve adjusted the mid-point in the gradient toward the highlight end.
Once the layer is in place the effect can be further refined with layer opacity – I’ve set this at 50% so it’s more subtle but this also means I have some headroom to boost the effect later if needed.
Having ‘cold’ shadows and ‘warm’ highlights is deliberate here – it’s often a signature look with this type of effect to have complementary contrast between the highlight and shadow casts in a single image.
So the image now has a more yellow cast to the highlights and midtones but the highlights themselves aren’t yet any ‘darker’. In much the same way as we’ve reduced the intensity of the shadows it’s quite common to darken the highlights as this further emulates the colour characteristics of matt paper – matt papers tend not be so intensely white.
We need to alter the white point so as to add colour to it simulating the effect on ‘non-white’ paper. Let’s add a Levels Adjustment layer, select the Blue Channel and adjust the Output Level for the whites. With less ‘Blue light’ in the white-point our image has a warmer, darker white point. As before, I’m lessening this effect with some opacity reduction to the layer.
There’s now one final tweak I’ll add to complete the look – Hue & Saturation Adjustment Layer with a slight reduction to the Master saturation to bind the whole thing together. This is all personal taste, you can create your own recipes.
Keep in mind that the order of your layers will have an effect as Adjustment Layers are cumulative. I tend to keep my Curves Adjustment that reduces blacks at the top so I know this will truncate any adjustment made below and keep the shadow areas reduced in depth.
At this point we could place all these adjustment layers into a Layer Group – this will make it easy to bounce these onto other images and/or combine with the set of adjustments we created in part 1 giving us even more variations to apply to future images. However, with a little forward planning we can take this a stage further and record these adjustments as Actions making it possible to quickly apply dozens of variations to a single image or batch process a folder full of images with any given effect.
Photo via VisualHunt.com