Easy Way to Create Old Photo Effect in Photoshop

Easy Way to Create Old Photo Effect in Photoshop

In this tutorial, we will cover how to create or simulate an old photo look. It is much easier of what you may think and we will take the easiest approach in my opinion: using Gradient Map adjustment.

What does Gradient Map in Photoshop

It will really help if you open any image in Photoshop and evoke Gradient Map adjustment from Window > Adjustments panel. By default, it uses Foreground and Background colors for gradient and you will probably see Black and White image on your screen (assuming that black and white are your foreground/background colors). Click on the rectangle in the Properties panel to open Gradient Editor dialog. Click on black color stop, then on rectangle next to Color at the bottom of the dialog. When Color Picker (Color Stop) dialog opens, click and choose any color: bright or dark red or green or blue. Just pick any color you want and watch the changes in your image. What is going on with your image? It is changing colors according to chosen color for color stop, right?
gradient map left color stop

What conclusion, we can get from this experiment? A gradient map is mapping or replacing colors, right? On the left hand side in Gradient editor you can pick a color to replace the darkest portion of the image while on the right hand side you can choose a color to replace colors in the light portion of the image. Everything in between will be replaced (mapped) with colors or gradient which is formed from two chosen colors. At this point, you should see the light how we can use the Gradient Map to simulate old or vintage photo looks even without converting an image to grayscale first.

Templates, Actions, Patterns, Styles, Frames

You can also test what is doing the Gradient Map to grayscale images which do not have any information about color. Basically, it will do the same thing, the left side will be mapped to a dark portion (shadows) while right hand side stop will be mapped to a light portion of the image (highlights). It is super easy, isn't it? Do not stop at this great discovery and think how this behavior or feature can be used to produce cool effects. There is an option to change the Opacity and the blending mode for Gradient Map layer what can produce very cool results.

Steps to create Old Photo effect

You can find inspiration for this effect using a search engine like Google or by visiting sites like Flickr. There are tons of uploads with real World examples which you can use as reference. Furthermore, you have ability to even download some samples and to have them in Photoshop side by side for comparison. It is an option, not ultimate requirement because we are not going to recreate, we are going to simulate. To create something that will look exactly as photo was captured long time ago we will need more information and observations, but let's say we are fine to simulate that look and feel.

Step 1 Black and White adjustment
It is not required to use this adjustment when using a Gradient Map but it can be helpful because you can easily control conversion and change final result or effect.
black and white adjustment

Step 2 Gradient Map adjustment
The Gradient Map adjustment is the second step in this process. I will use the following values for color stops:

  • left side color stop: #231704
  • right side color stop: #e6dbbf
gradient map

Step 3 Blur and Noise/Grain
The third step in this process is optional but contributes to the final result, at least in my opinion. Usually I am converting layer with the image to Smart Object and then applying Add Noise or Filter Gallery > Film Grain and Gaussian Blur. Apply values to taste, you can change them at any time since filters are actually smart filters.
smart filters

Step 4 Add more pizazz
You can continue creating an effect using the famous and always required: the Brush Tool. Create new layers and paint with colors used in Gradient Map Editor. Use Opacity or apply Multiply/Linear Burn blending modes to the layers with dark color and Screen/Linear Dodge (Add) to the layers with light color. This is the process of building effect step by step. Usually I am painting few strokes and then using the Smudge Tool or Gaussian Blur to soften edges. On top of all you can use a Curves adjustment layer, for example, to lighten/darken the image for the final effect.
final effect

Photoshop plugins

Another easy way to create an old photo effect is using Photoshop plugins like Filter Forge or Topaz BW Effects (read more about BW Effects from here).

Filter Forge has many filters to create an old photo effect and you can download them for free from their huge library with filters. I will recommend you to start with Old Photo by Kochubey.
Filter Forge filter Old Photo

In Topaz BW Effects you have a couple of collections with lots of options and control over the final effect.
Topaz BW Effects

Vintage Frames & Effects

Here is preview of all frames included in my product: Vintage Frames & Effects which is available on Adobe Add-ons.

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