10 Great Tips for Creating Vintage-Look Images


One of the hottest trends in photography today is creating images that look like they could have been shot 50 or 100 years ago. In pursuit of that elusive vintage look, serious enthusiasts and pros are mounting vintage lenses on their DSLRs and mirrorless cameras, Lensbaby and Lomography (among others) are offering lenses inspired by ancient 19th-Century optical designs and, for the ultimate in authenticity, you can go to the B&H website and purchase Modern Collodion Tintype Plates, a Rockland Bulk Tintype Kit, and a plethora of vintage-effect optical filters.

Above Image: Rolleiflex Old Standard,1932, with 75mm f/3.5 Zeiss Tessar

Many current digital cameras provide a range of vintage effects (including selective soft focus, grainy film look, and sepia tone) in their built-in special effects menus, and there are literally dozens of film emulation apps available individually or as parts of larger post-production programs. However, the main focus of this article is creating vintage-look images in-camera, with minimal post-production manipulation.

Heidi. Russian Zenit 214 SLR; 80mm f/2.8 lens

How to Create Vintage-Look Images

  1. Use classical composition with clear vertical and horizontal axes and the image plane parallel to the subject rather than tilting camera or trying for an offbeat perspective. That’s the way they did it back in the day.

  2. Shoot portraits with a normal, slightly long normal, or moderate telephoto lens. You can use a moderate wide-angle like a 35mm or 28mm lens when shooting landscape or scenic images but avoid ultra-wide-angle lenses.

  3. Select subjects (people, places, buildings) that have an inherently vintage look to begin with. Historical districts provide great backdrops for vintage look images, and vintage clothing is de rigueur for vintage portraits.

  4. Avoid dead giveaways such as contemporary cars and buildings, branded products (unless vintage), wrong-era apparel, current eyeglass frames, modern hairstyles, tattoos, nose and lip rings, etc.

  5. Take time to shoot and direct your portrait subject to “be in the moment” and to look natural rather than smiling. You’re less likely to achieve a vintage look with spontaneous grab shots of animated expressions.

  6. Shoot portraits at wide or moderate apertures to emphasize the subject and pleasantly blur the background and foreground. It’s not only a traditional portrait technique, it also blurs out any contemporary elements.

  7. Use small apertures when shooting architecture or street scenes to mimic the superb image quality and wide depth of field of many vintage images that were time exposures shot with tripod-mounted large format gear.

  8. Shoot on black-and-white film or with your digital camera set for monochromatic (black-and-white or sepia tone) capture. The Leica M Monochrom is an excellent choice for capturing superb quality vintage-look digital images. Also consider using slow film (such as Ilford Pan F) to achieve a large-format look with roll film or 35mm cameras.

  9. Use a tripod. It will force you to slow down and shoot more deliberately just as they did back in the glass-plate days, enhance overall image quality, allow you a wider choice of apertures and shutter, and let you compose more precisely. You’ll even look more like a vintage photographer!

  10. Shoot multiple images of the same subject whenever possible. Subtle variations in shooting angle, expression, and lighting can make a big difference in whether you achieve a convincing vintage effect or not.

Aster. Rolleiflex MX EVS; Zeiss Tessar 75mm f/3.5; Rolleinar #1 close-up lens

Analog Alternatives for Vintage-Look Images

One of the easiest, most direct ways of capturing vintage look images is to shoot them on film with a vintage camera and/or lens, then scan the film on a high-performance scanner to yield hi-res digital files (I prefer to save them as TIFFs or DNGs.) Indeed, I captured all the images shown here, except one, on film, the majority on 2-1/4 x 2-1/4-inch format Kodak Tri-X Professional or Ilford HP5 Plus 120 roll film. I expose these films at ISO 400 (some prefer ISO 320) and develop it normally in fresh Kodak D-76 1:1. Virtually every current film in the world is listed on the B&H website, and a wide variety of classic film cameras are available at the B&H Used Department or through B&H eBay listings.

Canon EOS 3; Canon EF 100mm f/2; Ilford-HP5-Plus

My favorite 2-1/4-format cameras for shooting “vintage” images are twin-lens reflexes (TLRs), because I often shoot handheld at slow shutter speeds, and the combination of a low-impact leaf shutter and no flipping mirror makes it easier to capture sharp images. The Rolleiflex MX EVS of the mid 1950s, with either a coated 75mm f/3.5 Zeiss Tessar or Schneider Xenar lens, renders beautiful images, provides automatic parallax compensation, and delivers excellent image quality when using the parallax-corrected Rolleinar close-up lens sets. The Mamiyaflex C330 with the 80mm f/2.8 Mamiya-Sekor or 105mm f/3.5 Mamiya-Sekor lens sets provides great image quality, close focusing without accessories, and has an indicator that lets you adjust for parallax at close focusing distances. For an even “dreamier” vintage look, I break out my ancient 1932 Rolleiflex Old Standard with uncoated 75mm f/3.5 Tessar lens (see picture captions).

Father & Son. Rolleiflex MX EVS; 75mm f/3.5 Schneider Xenar

Vintage 35mm SLRs are also excellent choices for capturing nostalgic film images when you use the right lenses, and many are amazingly affordable. Among my personal favorites are the Beseler Topcon Super D with 58mm f/1.4 or 1.8 Topcor lens, Pentax Spotmatic or K1000, with 50mm f/1.4 or 1.8 SMC Takumar lens, Konica Autoreflex T3 with 57mm f/1.4 or 50mm f/1.4 Hexanon lens, Nikon F or F2 with 105mm f/2.5 Nikkor lens, and the Canon F1n or with 50mm f/1.4 Canon FD lens. If you’re a rangefinder fan, consider the excellent and relatively affordable Canon VI-L, VI-T, or 7s with 50mm f/1.4 or 100mm f/3.5 Canon lens, or the best-of-breed non-interchangeable-lens Konica IIIA with 50mm f/1.8 Hexanon lens.

The Plumber. Topcon Super D; 58mm f/1.4 R.E. Auto Topcor

Cool Vintage Tip For Black-and-White Shooters: To simulate the distinctive effect of shooting on old-fashioned orthochromatic film of the late 19th and early 20th Century, place a Tiffen #47 Blue Filter over the lens of your film camera, or your digital camera set for black-and-white capture. This allows only the blue wavelengths to pass through and blocks the red wavelengths, so you’ll get classic effects like red lipstick rendered as black, lightened skin tones with more detail, and enhanced haze and fog. The downside: it has a filter factor of 4.5 so you’ll have to increase your exposure by 2-1/3 stops.

Digital Solutions for the Vintage Look

The best thing that ever happened to digital shooters who want to capture vintage-look digital images is the rise of the mirrorless camera. Now available in full-frame, APS-C, and Micro Four Thirds formats, mirrorless cameras let you mount and shoot with virtually any vintage lens using relatively inexpensive adapters. These include screw- and M-mount Leica lenses, Pentax M-42, and K-mount lenses, Nikon F-mount Lenses, Canon FL, FD, and EF lenses, Konica AR-mount lenses, Topcon R.E. and Exakta-mount lenses, and practically anything else you can think of. Adapter brands listed on the B&H website include FotodioX, Dot Line, Novoflex, MTF Services, Ltd., Sigma, and Metabones. Most are simple mechanical mount-to-mount adapters that provide manual-focus operation and basic aperture-priority auto-exposure, but there are some, including adapters for DSLRs, which provide more automation and additional modes.

Antique Mother and Child. Leica M9; 50mm f_0.95 Noctilux; converted to sepia tone in post-production

For a great article on what’s currently available, click on the link below and watch the informative video, An Overview of Lens Adapters for Mirrorless Cameras.

10 Classic Lenses for Capturing the Vintage Look

Many old lenses made prior to and just after World War II capture beautifully distinctive images that seem to take you back in time. Uncoated ones tend to flare when shooting in backlight. Herewith are five of my favorites, all rangefinder lenses.

  1. 50mm f/2 Leitz Summar: Leica’s first true high-speed lens is pleasantly soft wide open, but quite sharp with a low-contrast “luminous” quality at f/5.6 on down, in 39mm Leica screw mount.

  2. 50mm f/1.5 Zeiss Sonnar in Contax mount: The first super-speed normal lens of its day, it’s surprisingly sharp wide open and has beautiful rendition throughout. The later coated version is also an excellent choice.

  3. 90mm f/4 Leitz Elmar: A beautiful portrait telephoto that’s available in screw mount at bargain prices in coated and uncoated versions.

  4. 35mm f/3.5 Leitz Summaron: Gorgeous bokeh and beautifully luminous rendition throughout. Screw mount, in coated and uncoated versions.

  5. 100mm f/3.5 Canon (or Serenar): This 5-element, coated screw-mount beauty is sharp, has high contrast, but captures “the look.”

Classic SLR Lenses

  1. 58mm f/2 Zeiss Biotar in Exakta mount: Beautiful rounded rendition and impressive bokeh at its widest apertures. It’s available at modest cost.

  2. 50mm f/1.9 Steinheil Quinon: Super-sharp even at maximum aperture, but there’s a lovely natural quality to its images. Tends to be pricey.

  3. 100mm f/2.8 R.E. Auto-Topcor in Topcon/Exakta mount: Super-sharp with gorgeous bokeh and luminous image quality throughout.

  4. 35mm f/2.8 or f/2.4 Zeiss Jena Flektogon: Either version of this classic East German wide-angle is unsurpassed for overall image quality. In Exakta or M42 Pentax/Praktica screw mount.

  5. 85mm f/1.8 Auto-Takumar or SMC Takumar: This Asahi Pentax medium telephoto is acclaimed for superb image quality, lovely bokeh, and beautiful rendition. In M42 screw mount.

Actor. Rolleiflex MXEVS; 75mm f/3.5 Zeiss Tessar; Rolleinar #1 close-up lens
Dadaist Fantasy. Mamiya C220; 80mm f/2.8 Mamiya Sekor
Robert. Mamiya C220; 80mm f/2.8 Mamiya-Sekor
Rolleiflex MXEVS of 1955; 75mm f/3.5 Zeiss Tessar
Rolleiflex MXEVS; 75mm f/3.5 Schneider Xenar; Rolleinar #1 close-up lens
Rolleiflex MXEVS; 75mm f/3.5 Zeiss Tessar
Rolleiflex Old Standard of 1932; uncoated 75mm f/3.5 Zeiss Tessar
Snapshot. Zeiss IkonTengor box camera

Looking to add a vintage look to your photographs? Check out B&H’s Used Department to go back in time. Do you have a favorite camera/lens combination that captures the old-time look? Tell us about it in the Comments section, below.