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Making a Photo Look Old

By Quinn Stephens

Requires Photoshop.

"Old" can mean a lot of things, of course, but in this case I'm going to demonstrate how an ordinary digital photo taken yesterday can be made to look like a scan of an old snapshot from the early 1900s. We'll start with this shot:

Note that the picture shows no evidence of any modern technology, which is pretty important unless you're going for a deliberately disorienting effect.

Open up the picture in Photoshop. Our first step, naturally, is to remove all the color. Select Image->Adjustments->Desaturate.

Right away you'll note that this still looks like a modern photo - the image is too crisp, and there's too little contrast. We can fix the contrast issue by adjusting the levels, but let's try a more interesting method. Duplicate the base layer and set the new layer's transfer mode to "Overlay."

Now we're getting somewhere. The "Overlay" mode cuts out the neutral grays of the top layer, but allows the highlights and shadows to pass through and intensify their counterparts in the base layer. It's kind of like using "Screen" and "Multiply" at the same time.

The reason we want this separate layer, rather than just using the levels to up the contrast, is to take care of the other modern giveaway: image crispness. Apply a Gaussian blur to the top layer. I set mine at around 1.5 pixels, but you've got a fair amount of leeway with this step. Play with it until you get a result that you like.

Now we've got a nice blurry look, without actually losing much detail in the image. We still need to add some "grain, " though, so this looks more like film.

Create a new layer use Edit->Fill to make it 50% gray. Leave the Blending controls as they are. Now set the new layer's transfer mode to Overlay - we're going to use the same trick again. Use Filter->Noise->Add Noise to do just that. Only add a little - about 3% with the Distribution set to Gaussian should do it. Make sure "Monochromatic" is selected.

Now we're going to make that grain even less noticable by applying a Gaussian blur of around 1.5 pixels to its layer.

The effect is subtle, but it helps sell the film-like look of the image. Now we apply noise a second time, with the same settings:

Now we apply a very slight blur, about .2 px, to make this noise look less digital:

Finally, we're going to add an iris effect to the image to make it look like it was taken with an old-fashioned, kind of shoddy lens. Create a new layer and use the elliptical marquee tool to select a large circle in the middle of the frame.

Now choose Select->Inverse and Edit->Fill the selection with black.

Apply a nice big Gaussian blur - 100px or so.

That's a bit of a dramatic look, so we'll tone it down by dropping the opacity of the top layer to 40% or so.

Everything in the photo is still looking just a little too sharp - remember that old cameras had much longer exposure times, and even with a tripod you were likely to get blurry images. So let's apply a slight motion blur to the bottom layer. Around 3px or so should do it. The angle doesn't really matter, but putting it at a skew - as opposed to a straight 0 or 90 degrees - looks a bit more natural.

And there we are! We won't be fooling any forensic experts with this, but your average viewer is immediately going to recognize this as an antiquated image. There's room for a lot of experimentation with this technique, so play around, and you might get some even more striking results yourself.

Optional Extra Toning Step

For a little added fun, we can give the photo a yellowed look to imply further aging. The easiest way to do this is to flatten the image and use the Hue/Saturation controls to add the color, but if you want to easily go back and tweak things later, I suggest creating a new layer for the color. Make the new layer and set its transfer mode to "Color."

Now fill this layer with a yellow with just a hint of red. In my case I used #ffd800.

Don't worry if it looks way too saturated, because the next step is to drop the opacity of the color layer until you get a tone to your liking. In my case, 20% was enough to give a subtle sepia-toned look.

There - a nice yellowed old photo. You can also add more extreme colors if you're going for an effect. A lot of old silent films used the tinting and toning process to make up for the lack of true color photography. Again, play around. You can create a lot of very interesting effects using the techniques I've outlined here.

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