The rise in popularity of film photography has brought forth a new era of vintage film camera usage. Photographers and content creators alike have been chasing this trend of the vintage aesthetic in their photography.
What is the vintage aesthetic in photography?
The vintage retro aesthetic is a look that evokes a feeling of the past, where the fashion, styles and beauty of the last decades are embraced. Images are often shot on film to bring the look full circle.
The photos are often imperfect where there might be overexposed, slightly blurry or out of focus, and with plenty of grain.
How do I take vintage aesthetic photos?
There is no one singular way to take old vintage aesthetic photos — but a combination of techniques you could apply to achieve this look.
However, it is not just in the camera.
If you really want to capture the essence of the vintage aesthetic in your photos there are other things to consider.
For example, let us say you want to shoot a vintage aesthetic portrait. You have to take many things into consideration such as the clothing your subject is wearing, the setting of the photo or the posing. To truly capture a vintage aesthetic in your photography you have to stay true to the entire past and bring it all to life.
So let’s get into what kind of gear, accessories, shooting, and editing techniques you will need to adopt to successfully capture a vintage aesthetic.
Start with a film camera
Arguably the best tool in our arsenal to capture a vintage aesthetic will be shooting your photos with a vintage film camera. A vintage retro aesthetic can be achieved with modern digital cameras with some editing magic, and we will cover that later.
That being said I highly recommend using a film camera as it will help “transport” you back into the past and give you the right motivation and vibe to create a vintage look.
There are many different types of vintage film cameras you can choose from.
- 35mm film SLRs
- 35mm rangefinder film cameras
- 35mm point-and-shoot
- Medium-format film cameras
- Vintage Polaroid film cameras
Among fashion and street photographers, the 35mm rangefinders and point-and-shoot tend to be the most popular for their look, portability, and ease to use. The cameras are fairly advanced as many feature great auto-focus features and light metering for easy exposure control.
For photographers that are looking for a really special vintage photography aesthetic look, buying a medium-format film camera is the way to go. Remember to support your local film camera store when you purchase all your film photography equipment and supplies.
The larger film format combined with their lenses will achieve shallower depths of field creating a seriously dreamy vintage look. Not only that, the size of the photo prints and their 6×5, 6×6, and 6×7 aspect ratios just screams vintage aesthetics.
Pair it with the right vintage lens
When you decide to invest in a film camera, you’ll need to buy some vintage lenses. Now there’s an option for just using vintage lenses with a DSLR or mirrorless camera instead. If you want to use vintage lenses on a Sony E-mount camera I wrote a great guide to get you started. The advice is general, so you will be able to adapt the learnings from this guide and apply it to other modern camera brands.
Let us address picking a lens for creating an aesthetic look. The type of lenses I would consider are prime lenses in the holy trinity. This means lenses with focal lengths of 35mm, 50mm, and 85mm. I also really enjoy shooting with at least one telephoto zoom lens, such as a 70-210mm to really help get that other end of the perspective and with brilliantly blurry backgrounds.
I would also only consider lenses with wide apertures ranging between f/1.2 – 2.8, and shooting wide open for that soft vintage aesthetic look.
Specific lenses I would recommend would be anything that has unique characteristics, whether that’s a beautiful bokeh, interesting flaring, and great color reproduction. Vintage Soviet lenses like the Mir-1B 37mm f/2.8, Helios 44-2 58mm f/2, and Jupiter-9 85mm f/2 are great examples of unique lenses to use. These lenses would be suitable for most modern cameras, 35mm SLRs, 35mm rangefinders, and SOME medium format cameras, but no guarantee there won’t be some vignetting.
There are a lot of great Canon vintage lenses as well to consider such as the legendary Canon FD 55mm F/1.2 S.S.C. or Canon FD 24mm F/1.4 S.S.C.
Other accessories you can consider using to help achieve a vintage aesthetic in your photos are filters and objects to obstruct the lens. Some ideas for such objects are:
- Crystal prisms
- Clear plastic bags
- The reflective side of a CD/DVD
Using these kinds of objects can create some extra intrigue to your photo, giving it a dreamy look. But be careful to not overuse these tricks and make them too overbearing in the photographs. Remember they’re only a small touch to the image, not the entire image, so don’t let it distract from your subject.
How to shoot vintage aesthetic photos
As previously mentioned, common features of the vintage aesthetic are photos which overexposed, slightly blurry or out of focus, and with plenty of grain.
One way to overexpose your photos and have lots of grain is to shoot with a higher ISO film, The higher the film stock’s ISO is the bigger the silver crystal is, showing more visible grain in the photos. Using films like Kodak Portra 800 is a good option to achieve this look.
Shooting photos that are noticeably blurry comes down to choosing the right shutter speed for the amount of blur you’re looking to achieve and perfecting the micro-movements while the shutter is open to get the perfect blur.
I would recommend trying shutter speeds between 1/4th – 1/30th of a second. For handheld shots, I would recommend closer to 1/30th of a second and using a tripod for 1/4th of a second and having the subject move instead of moving the camera.
Shooting an image that is slightly out of focus is fairly obvious. Ensure that your autofocus is turned off if your camera uses it, and manually focus until the images looks just right to you. Using an SLR or medium format camera will be helpful here since you see what the lens sees, while with a rangefinder or point-and-shoot you will not have the same luxury.
Developing your film
Developing your film is one of the last steps to finalizing your capture of the vintage aesthetic. For this, it is an equally important step to get right. Finding the right partner where to get your film developed or scanned can take some trial and error. I’ve made this process a little easier and wrote a guide linked to just above to help you in finding the right shop to develop your film at.
If you are a little more adventurous and feeling up to a DIY project, something that can add even more intrigue to your vintage photos is developing them in coffee.
While this isn’t something I’ve ever tried doing in the past, it is something I want to try in the future as the results look great!
How to edit photos for a vintage aesthetic look
If you decided to use a modern camera, the vintage photography aesthetic look can be replicated in post. Much like the way you would shoot in-camera to achieve a vintage aesthetic, you would try to replicate the look in Lightroom, Photoshop or using a vintage photo editing app such a Lomograph.
- For starters depending on the look you are going for, you will want to add some exposure to your image.
- Second, because of the soft looks of vintage lenses and cameras, likely you will want to remove some contrast and clarity from your photo to soften it
- In the contrast curves, you will want to ever so slightly pull the bottom endpoint of the contrast curve up to remove the deeper black tones from the pictures, to make the image look a little more washed out and moody.
- Next, play with your color correction. Film photos never have overexaggerated colors, so try not to push the colors too far. In some cases, you might consider going for a black & white vintage aesthetic look.
- Adding film grain is another way to bring a vintage aesthetic to your images