Going Retro: Antiquing In The Digital Darkroom

Going Retro: Antiquing In The Digital Darkroom

Oliver “Pork Chop” Anderson was an impromptu tap dancer on New Orleans street corners for many years. I photographed him on Polaroid 55 P/N film for a gallery exhibit themed around characters in the picturesque French Quarter during Mardi Gras. To connect Pork Chop to his folksy style of entertainment and also to the historic neighborhood where he was a local institution, I went to Alien Skin Exposure X software and its copious library of vintage film emulations and effects. In Exposure X’s Bokeh Panel is a preset named Pinhole Camera after this antiquated , simple contraption. It was, and still is, charmingly and notoriously unpredictable, and Alien Skin sliders allow you to recreate wild variations of pinhole imaging artifacts. In this case, I simply wanted to introduce some classic optical quirks (along with Sepia toning added in Photoshop CS6) to mimic photography from the mid- to late 19th century, and that clearly helped connect this interesting character with his historic roots. © Jim Cornfield

Photography has a collective past that is an enormous visual archive of techniques and creative processes. Every “look” from the Daguerre to the Polaroid to the hyper-vivid colors of HDR photography are part of our shared language.

With this huge “swipe file” at our fingertips, contemporary photographers seem drawn to revisiting historic imaging styles in their own work. Some photographers have returned to the photographic processes of the past—from Ambrotypes to Agfacolor to the DeMaria-Lapierre Anastigmat lens—but the world of digital after-capture has given us modern alternatives. There is now an array of tools for easily reviving the distinctive, sometimes esoteric looks of photographic processes in our shared past. In the next few pages we’ll hit the refresh key on some provocative and nostalgic image treatments—portraiture, mostly, though many work beautifully with tabletops and scenics as well.

Going Retro: Antiquing In The Digital Darkroom
In 1992, the quincentenary of Columbus’ voyage to the New World, a network affiliate hired me to produce an image for an upcoming on-air documentary segment about the explorer. The original was shot on Kodak 120 Ektachrome film, with a Hasselblad 180mm lens and Zeiss Softar filter. The soft effect suggested antiquity without obscuring the subject. This shot, of course, is a total anachronism. When Columbus lived, photography was still nearly four centuries in the future. Years later, to repurpose this image for my stock photo agent, I drew on a 19th Century photographic genre that depicted costumed models in imaginary roles as historic personalities and mythological characters. I again sought out tools from Alien Skin’s Exposure X suite, including their Calotype B&W film preset, along with variable vignetting, faux scratches and a distressed border—all to reinforce the illusion of this interesting Victorian genre. © Jim Cornfield

Why Go Retro?

Photographic antiques are fun to replicate and to observe as you coax them to life in post-production, but there’s also an implicit editorial message when you link a subject to the past. With the right image, a retro treatment can add meaning to someone’s likeness, as he or she assumes some fantasy role—maybe aided by a vintage setting, props, dated wardrobe, hairstyle—that connects the person in your viewfinder to history. I’ll take a nuts and bolts look at some of these further on, but first, consider a few examples of how antiquing in the digital darkroom can be an effective, communicative tool in real-world shooting situations.

Going Retro: Antiquing In The Digital Darkroom
Full-figured female nudes enjoyed popularity in much earlier times, the Victorian era being the first that was equipped with cameras. To hark back to that period for a website project, the crisp monochrome original of this image was rendered in Photoshop CS6, and then to the Tiffen Dfx4 filter suite. Within that filter selection is the Soft/FX tool, one of several that digitally mimic Tiffen’s celebrated line of glass filters. To round out the illusion I then processed it in Alien Skin Exposure X’s Wet Plate tool, which included this characteristically rough border. © Jim Cornfield

Antiquing In Post: Your Photographic Time Machine

As a way of helping you into the world of after-capture antiquing, if you’re not already there, the following are, in detail, some of my personal favorite after-capture techniques for invoking the look of vintage portraiture. There are scores of others to explore, as you’ll find, and experimentation will practically happen automatically. First, here’s a quick summary of the software tools I’ve mentioned above and demonstrate below, all available as standalones or plug-ins to Photoshop and Lightroom:

Going Retro: Antiquing In The Digital Darkroom
Left: The original image, ready for manipulation.
Right: The resulting image, after adjustment in Photoshop and Nik Analog Efex2. © Jim Cornfield

The Dreaded Wet Plate:
Nik Analog Efex Pro+Photoshop

Going Retro: Antiquing In The Digital Darkroom
Selecting the right look is the first step to antiquing this image.
Going Retro: Antiquing In The Digital Darkroom
Lightening selected areas in Photoshop makes a more pleasing final image.

Wet Plate was one of the earliest and balkiest photo processes in wide use during the 19th century. Glass plates required coating, sensitization, exposure and processing all within a 10-minute time window. For this far less stressful digital replica, the original image acquisition was made with the same lighting setup as the sequence above. I opened the shadows in Adobe Camera RAW to flatten the overall lighting for authenticity. Next, I imported the image into Nik Analog Efex2, selected the Wet Plate icon from the menu and opened the Wet Plate 9 preset. Illusory artifacts from the original process and subsequent deterioration show well in this preset. I adjusted as needed in Analog Efex Pro, then saved to PS for export. An option: with the image back in in Photoshop, you can lighten the eye color as I did here with Image—Adjustments—Selective Color or the Brush Tool. (Unnaturally pale eyes are sometimes seen in early B&W images).

Going Retro: Antiquing In The Digital Darkroom
Left: Composing this shot like a Victorian-era portrait sitting sets the stage for the final antiqued look.
Right: The final picture, fit to be hung in a vintage frame. © Jim Cornfield

Romantic Cameo Portrait:

Going Retro: Antiquing In The Digital Darkroom
The Lightened Vignette effect sets the stage for this effect, which looks like it belongs in a gold locket.

A wistful portrait style, popular through the mid-20th century, shot against a Westcott background using window light, and a white fill reflector, camera left. After making color and exposure adjustments in Photoshop, I imported the original image into the Nik Color Efex 4 plug-in. I selected the Lightened Vignette preset and adjusted the size, softness and opacity of the vignette. I then returned the image to PSCS6, and selected the pulldown, Filter—Blur—Iris Blur menu.  Using this filter’s radial overlay tool as shown, I adjusted the blur size and opacity to suggest shallow depth of field, and reinforce the dreamy quality. Finally, I rendered the image back into PS CS6 for final color and exposure tweaks, and saved to a folder.

Going Retro: Antiquing In The Digital Darkroom
Left: Original image.
Right: The final image looks like it advertises a starlet in the Golden Age of Hollywood. © Jim Cornfield

Channeling Old Hollywood: ON1 Effects 10+Photoshop CS6

Brightening the whites of your subject's eye is an easy editing step many people overlook, but is particularly helpful when antiquing images so the eyes look more natural.
Brightening the whites of your subject’s eye is an easy editing step many people overlook, but is particularly helpful when antiquing images so the eyes look more natural.
Going Retro: Antiquing In The Digital Darkroom
ON1 Effects 10 provides a countless combination of filters, effects and presets.

I wanted to approach that sultry look of movie studio portraits from the 1920s and ’30s. Profiles like this one were popular poses in the glamor shots of the period. I cropped and slightly tilted the original in Photoshop. The next step was to brighten the white of this model’s eye, a feature typical of these portraits. I did this with the Image—Adjustments—Brightness/Contrast pulldown menu. I now uploaded the image to ON1 Effects 10, selecting the B&W preset called Flatiron, which immediately immerses the subject in the signature velvety aura of Old Hollywood. The last step was to return the file to Photoshop and, using the Filter—Blur—Gaussian Blur command, introduce a hint of the soft focus that was often—though not always—characteristic of Hollywood’s so-called Golden Age.

Adding a bit of blur simulates the soft focus of vintage lenses.
Adding a bit of blur simulates the soft focus of vintage lenses.

Onward and Backward…

These processes can be a useful addition to any serious photographer’s skill set. And, in this age of Big Digital, with pixel-driven technology powering relentlessly forward to who knows where, it’s a refreshing break to turn your imaging backward and let history repeat itself. 

Jim Cornfield is a long-time commercial photographer, and writer. More of his work is on his website at jimcornfield.net

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