Adding vintage portraits to your portfolio is a wonderful way to diversify as a portrait photographer and stand out from your competition. Capturing vintage film portraits is not much different from the kind of portraiture photography you’re used to taking, but rather a new medium or extension of your existing workflow and skills.
Before diving into vintage portrait photography, it would be great to identify and decide what kind of vintage aesthetic or type of vintage portraits you are looking to recreate. There are many types of vintage portrait photography.
- Vintage black and white portraits
- Vintage beach portraits
- Vintage family portraits
- Vintage fashion portraits
- Vintage pin-up portraits
- Vintage glamour portraits
- Vintage wedding portraits
- Vintage maternity portraits
- Vintage nude portraits
- Vintage street portraits
Deciding on what kind of portrait photography you’re most interested in could help determine what kind of gear you might need to buy. This can be anything from vintage film cameras, vintage lenses, vintage flashes, film stock, and any sort of other vintage photography accessories or equipment.
If you’re new to vintage photography, please check out my complete guide on vintage photography for beginners. It has everything you’ll need to know about what cameras and lens combinations to buy, where to buy your film camera, what film to buy, and general advice about how to shoot with a film camera.
How do you take vintage portraits?
To truly capture vintage portrait photos you must start with using a vintage film camera. When equipt with the right portrait lens, this will help you to pull off the vintage look. Film cameras and vintage optics have a very special characteristics that aren’t easily replicable with modern-day digital cameras. Whether it’s the softness of the images, the charismatic bokeh or the brilliant color reproduction, there is a certain “je ne sais quoi” about the images produced on film.
Best film cameras for vintage portraits
Typically, the best film cameras to use for vintage portraits would be a SLR cameras; 35mm or a medium format. Depending on your needs a range finders and point-and-shoot film cameras such as the Yashica T4 could be used. These types of cameras are very popular among a certain niche of fashion and street photographers.
However SLRs are best suited for portraiture due to their more accurate exposure monitoring and framing.
Selecting a film camera to use for your vintage portrait photography is no small feat. Some cameras have steep learning curves if you are unfamiliar with shooting with film.
If you’ve read through the suggested reading for my beginner’s guide to vintage film photography you might have seen a couple of recommendations for starter film cameras.
These cameras would be the Rollei 35, Minolta SRT-101 and the Fujica ST801. Their price points and ease of use make them suitable for beginners. Purchasing one of these cameras will help you decide if film photography is right for you with minimal investment.
Best film stock for vintage portraits
One of the best and most popular 35mm film stocks for film photography is the Kodak Porta Color Negative film. This classic color film is best known for its pleasing skin tones, high saturation, low contrast and fine grain. The film is day-light balanced and best used outdoors and come in a variety of speeds — 160, 400, and 800 ISO. The higher ISOs make this film suitable for indoor use as well.
Other great color film stocks would include:
- Kodak Ektachrome
- Kodak Gold
- Fujicolor Pro
For black and white vintage photography, I would consider film such as:
- Ilford HP5 Plus
- Agfa APX
- Kodak Tri-X
One of the most daunting aspects of shooting with a film camera for a beginner is the development of the film. Due to the resurgence in the popularity of film photography film development and scanning is widely available. This can be done locally or with popular online services such as The Dark Room.
Personally, I prefer having my photos scanned so I can post-process them and make use of them online. I hardly ever get actual prints done, unless it’s a souvenir for the subject I photographed.
Best lenses for vintage portraits
Typically speaking, the best lenses for vintage portraits are vintage prime lenses. Prime lenses use less glass in their construction compared to zoom lenses. This allows them to have wider aperture that allow for more light to reach the film.
Having a wider aperture is key in portraiture. When shooting wide open the shallower depth of flied creates more background separation with your subject. This gives the portraits that beautiful 3D pop, and dreamy look. Additionally, when shooting wide open on a vintage lens they tend to be very soft and lacking in contrast. This helps with that overall effect of capturing vintage portrait look for the images.
The focal lengths for vintage portraiture would be 35mm, 50mm and 85mm lenses.
Depending on the film camera you are using, your budget and other considerations, the perfect lens for your vintage portraits may differ. Below I’ve listed a few examples of great lenses I enjoy that you may want to check out.
Best 35mm prime lenses for vintage portraits
The 35mm focal length is best used suited for mid to full-body shots in portrait photography, making it highly versatile, especially in tighter indoor spaces. This focal length is also the lens of choice for street photographers, and any photographer photographing groups such as families, weddings, etc.
The following 35mm prime vintage lenses are some of the best to try:
- Pentax SMC Takumar 35mm f/2 lens: This wide-angle vintage lens is built for the M42 mount. The Takumar 35mm f/2 is a versatile lens that is adaptable to many other popular camera mounts like Canon’s FD, Nikon F, and more.
- Schneider-KREUZNACH Curtagon 35mm f/2.8 lens: Another great 35mm focal length lens made for 35mm film cameras the M42 mount. With a very pronounced and unique bokeh, this lens might not be suitable for everyone’s taste, but it doesn’t get more vintage than this.
- Leica Leitz Summicron-R 35mm f/2 lens: This famed Leica R lens has excellent flair control, great contrast and minimal distortion for a wider angled lens, making it perfect for types of vintage portrait photography.
- Canon FD 35mm f/2 S.S.C. lens: With 6 iterations of the Canon FD 35mm f/2 on the market, you’re bound to find one of these at a good price. The first 4 versions contained radioactive material which makes this lens a great candidate for vintage black-and-white portrait photography due to the yellowing of the lens element (no need for a yellow filter.)
Best 50mm prime lenses for vintage portraits
The 50mm focal length is the ultimate portrait lens. As humans, we experience life through a similar field of view and perspective that a 50mm lens produces on 35mm film. This makes the images captured with this lens true to life, and esthetically pleasing.
The following 50mm prime vintage lenses are some of the best to try:
- Topcor RE 58mm f/1.8 lens: Known as one of the sharpest vintage lenses, the Topcon mount lenses are easily adapted to many other popular 35mm film cameras such as Canon’s FD and Nikon F mounts.
- Canon FD 55mm f/1.2 S.S.C. lens:As an all-time favourite vintage Canon lens, the Canon FD 55mm f/1.2 is known for its soft and expressive bokeh, and relative sharpness while still maintaining a dreamy look when wide open.
- Carl Zeiss Planar 50mm f/2:The Carl Zeiss came as a standard kit lens Contarex SLR camera line-up. This well-rounded 50mm lens is a jack-of-all-trades and a master of none. It has faithful recreation of color, great sharpness, pleasing bokeh and is a consistent performer.
Best 85mm prime lenses for vintage portraits
For those close-up medium telephoto headshots, the 85mm focal length excels in bringing key features of a subject’s face into focus. The longer focal length helps create beautiful background separation with backgrounds that melt away, making the 85mm a must-have lens in any portrait photographer’s kit.
- Jupiter-9 85mm f/2 lens:This vintage Russian lens from the Soviet era is best known for its unique swirly bokeh which has been made popular by portrait photographers. Built with the M39 lens mount it is easily adaptable to many other film camera mounts and is incredibly popular with digital camera photographers.
- Carl Zeiss Jena Sonnar T 85mm f/2: This unique lens is built very minimally compared to today’s standards; with only four elements in 4 groups. The simplicity of the lens causes it to have very unique characteristics. For example, the aberrations on this lens remain uncorrected. But don’t let that fool you as this lens produces high-quality images.
- Canon nFD 85mm f/1.2 L lens: This super fast vintage prime lens is one of Canon’s first legendary “red ring” L lenses. With such a shallow depth of field when open wide, this lens can produce really beautiful and dream-like portraits for any type of portraiture photography you might be producing.
Tips for taking vintage portraits
Having all the right gear to capture vintage photos is only half of the battle. To recreate the entire vintage aesthetic you have to consider how photographers shot portraits in previous eras. These tips can help you create unique images when used individually or in combination.
- Slow Shutter Speed: Using a slower shutter speed can help emphasize motion, and create interesting blurs in your subject from their movements, or the movements of the camera. Explore with shutter speeds between ¼ of a second to 1/30 of a second.
- Shoot overexposed: Shooting 1-2 stops overexposed is a classic way to help give your photos a little more of a vintage look and feel as it helps take away some of the sharpness and contrast of the image in a fun way
- Play with light: Flares and light leaks are the name of the game, and often what gives an image that unique vintage look. If you’re shooting outdoors experiment with backlighting your subject to catch some flares in your vintage portraits
- Location, location, location: Location is paramount in vintage portraiture. Shooting a portrait of your subject beside a modern Labourgini would definitely not sell the vintage vibe, but going to an old part of town with some old brick buildings might help!
- Set decorations and props: Using era-appropriate props and decorations go a long way to selling the effect. Think vintage phones, vinyl records and vintage fridges. All types of props exist as modern products recreated in a vintage style.
- Poses and outfits: Equally important to the era-appropriate locations, set decorations and props, experiment with posing and wardrobes. Draw inspiration from vintage photos and work with your subjects to recreate the looks from that area.
- Unusual compositions: The film era was known to have less-than-perfect images, and sometimes this came down to its composition. Experiment with cutting subjects off in odd ways, focus on less usual features and just have fun with it.
- Shoot wide open: As previously suggested in the article, shooting wide open at your lenses’ maximum aperture will help in several ways. It will help with background separation, and decrease sharpness and contrast, helping capture a more vintage look.
- Shoot in black-and-white: When in doubt, nothing is more vintage than shooting in black-and-white. It will really help sell the effect.
- Study old films: This might not work for you, but what inspires me to create vintage portraits is studying old movies. Classic movies from the film era like Aliens, The Shining, and 2001: A Space Odyssey are great examples to find inspiration.
Vintage portrait images and examples
I’ve put together a gallery of vintage portrait images as examples for inspiration to get you started on your first vintage portrait photography adventure. Hope these help get you started!
Tudor Stanescu is a professional photographer and videographer with almost 15 years of experience shooting urban cityscapes, portraiture, weddings, and much more. He has worked on many commercial projects with the likes of Ford, Scotia Bank and Format to name a few. Growing up in the 90s has also brought Tudor back to exploring film photography over the last 5 years as he rediscovers his passion for the art of photography.