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Level: Beginner

Before we begin I’d like to preface this by saying the phrase “vintage look” is very much a vague statement that really doesn’t mean anything.  There are a lot of ways to achieve a more vintage-y look, but we’re going to focus on a look that seems to be popular amongst photographers on Instagram, Pinterest, and other forms of social media.  To start, I present to you the original photo straight out of camera:


So as you can tell, this photo is slightly overexposed in that the skin tones seem a bit too white.  That’s okay! Because I shot in RAW, this is more than salvageable! After some minor adjustments to the color temperature, highlights+whites, contrast, exposure, and blacks – we’re left with a photo that is warmer and better depicts the skin tones of the baby.  This photo was shot in an all natural-light setup with 35mm, 1/400, f2.8, 1000 ISO. Here are the settings I used when loading this into Photoshop and using the RAW editor.

From this point, we have a photo that’s much better than the original, but still doesn’t quite nail the colors the way I want them to.  I export this RAW file and load the JPEG into photoshop for the remaining color adjustments.  As of now, here’s what we have:

A big improvement I’d say! But the photo itself still comes off as a bit yellow-ish – and I’m still not 100% satisfied with the skin tones.  The first step I did was increase the overall saturation of the photo then adjusted the Hue to be a bit more warm (yellow).  This is done with the two Hue/Saturation adjustment layers I created, the first increasing the saturation while the second was used to change the reds to a more yellow tone.  The following Color Balance layer was used to help bring back some of the blues into the highlights while trying not to have an impact on the skin tones.

After that, we have some minor adjustments.  I used a curves layer to lower the midtones (middle of the graph) to and masked out the subject (loosely, using a very soft brush – this did not have to be precise by any means).  This helps achieve a subtle vignette around the subject that helps separate them from the background.  After that, I found the skin a bit too red, so I simply lowered the vibrance and masked the face (loosely, again – not precise) so that the surroundings weren’t affected.  Now, here’s what we have:

At this point, we’ve reached a situation where we have a good balance between depicting the accurate colors of the subject and surroundings while still providing the client with something that pops.  By all means, I know there are people out there that will prefer the original color-corrected version versus the second revised color-popped version since we tend to be attracted to “warmer” images – it comes down to taste.  In this instance, I didn’t like the way the general fixes we originally made impacted the color of the background.


For this particular vintage look, it really comes down to 2 adjustment layers: one curves and one color-balance.  The curves layer is simple: we’ve increase the blacks (raising the starting point of the left side of the graph).  After that, we simply introduce a color balance layer that allows us to adjust the colors for midtones, shadows, and highlights.  What you’ll notice is this: Using the color balance layer on top of the curves layer will give you countless number of options in a very compact way.  For instance, here are two photos with the same curves adjustment but with two separate color balance layers (one increasing the blues in the shadows while the other adjusts shadows and highlights). Here are two examples I did by simply adjusting the color balance layer:

Includes PSD file and original RAW!
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Steven Kowalski

About the author

Steven Kowalski: Portrait photographer based in Chicago. Teacher. NYU grad.

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