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Aging color photographs

Posted on Feb 05 2009, 01:42 in category "Freebies" [ Permalink | 0 comments ]
Tags:  actions   photographs   photoshop   retouching 

There are numerous tutorials on the Internet which can teach how to add torn edges to your photographs or add vignetting to emulate a picture taken by an old camera. But when you need to age a color photo, you are pretty much on your own.

First of all, photographs from 1960-1970s do not necessarily have scratches or torn edges, as many were carefully stored in albums or boxes. Secondly, the quality photo optics of that time was advanced enough not to cause any serious vignetting. Discoloration is clearly their worst enemy. So, none of those techniques really work, and simply adding sepia to a picture leaves you with an impression that you were cunningly fooled.

Having restored quite a few old photographs (mostly dog show photographs from that period), I noticed that the pattern of discoloration is usually more or less the same. Blacks lose their intensity to become red-brownish or even dark-purplish, while the aging paper turns whites into yellows or shades of orange. Overall colors also fade, blue and green probably suffering the most damage.

I analyzed color levels of several scanned old photographs and developed my own method for age-progressing color photographs. Here's what I do to create an aged picture:

  1. Do the usual editing on the photograph to minimize the color noise and adjust levels and curves to make a pleasant photograph with adequate colors;
  2. Edit levels to bring reddish cast to dark colors, yellow cast to light colors, shift the mid-tones of each of R, G and B components to enhance the discoloration;
  3. Decrease saturation of the image by 30% (This would probably be it, if we were working on a scan of an analog photograph. Because the photographs nowadays are mostly taken with digital cameras, which lack the light depth of good film, we need to compensate for that. So here we take some additional steps.);
  4. Create a copy of the processed layer and blend it with the original layer in "Multiply" mode with the opacity of 20 to 30 percent, then merge the two layers;
  5. Lighten mid-tones by manipulating the curves (altogether);
  6. Sit back and enjoy, perhaps you'd want to fine-tune the resulting image a little more by shifting red and blue mid-tones or adjusting saturation.

This is it. The following photographs demonstrate the result of such manipulation:


If I want to apply vignetting to the photograph, I would add it to the original photo before going through the aging process. The same is true re. scratches, torn edges and other distortions should you decide to use them also.

Here's another trick I found interesting. After I'm done with color manipulation, I would do the following:

  1. Choose light yellow as a background color and dark magenta as a foreground color;
  2. Create yet another duplicate of the original layer and apply a photocopy filter to it (in Photoshop go to "Filter", then "Sketch", then "Photocopy...");
  3. Blend it with the lower layer in "Normal" mode with the opacity of 15 to 20 percent, then merge the two layers.

I can't explain what this trick does, but it seems to me that it makes the old photograph look a little more realistic... I mean, "historic". If I had a better understanding of what happens to the photographic chemicals in the course of time, I'd be able to explain or disclaim it.

Here's another "before-and-after" set:


With this last example I wanted to show how my manipulated photograph compares to a real picture from 1950s. What do you think of this?


Here is my photo-aging action in case you want to play with it yourself. It is good for Adobe Photoshop CS3 or CS4, not sure about previous versions. In case you do not know how to install actions in Photoshop, here's a really quick tutorial.

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