Creating Vintage Effects in Photoshop

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Creating Vintage Effects in Photoshop

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.


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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.


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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.


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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.


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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%.


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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.


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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.


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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.

In the next post we’ll look at some effects for working with highlights and lighter images. And cover bouncing our effects between documents.