Photoshop vintage effect

23 Jun 2011

Letting photos shine by adding some subtle effects is something you learn to do by trial and error. Some photos will work perfect for certain effects and others won't, but it's something we creatives love to experiment with. One of the more popular effects is creating some kind of a vintage color effect. You create a certain atmosphere and it can give more depth when you add these kind of effects the right way. As always, finding the right balance in how much effect you add is crucial.

A set of Adjustment Layers

Wouldn't it be great if you can start from a certain set of effects for each photo you like to give a vintage look? Once they are in place, all you need to do is a little bit of fine-tuning. Today's post is all about the creation of some Adjustment Layers in Photoshop that you can add to your photos to get you all set. The photo below is an example of what I mean.

Hover the photo to see the original
Example photo with vintage effectOriginal photo

Choose your image carefully

You need to be aware that some pictures are suitable for this effect and a lot of them aren't. The effects explained here are just an example, and only serve as a starting point. It's a good to experiment a lot and find out if the result is to your satisfaction. Sometimes you can even discover a cool effect by accident. How it looks for you also boils down to personal preference. I've taken a few different pictures as examples. Each of them use a set of Layer Adjustments piled on top of each other, all with subtle differences. You can view the original photo of each of them by hovering the mouse over it.

Hover the photo to see the original
Example photo with vintage effect Original photo

Hue/Saturation preset Old Style and Red Boost

Example photo with vintage effect Original photo

Saturation to -40 and Contrast to 54

Adjust Levels

First place the image in a separate layer. If the photo looks a bit on the dark side you can make it a bit lighter using Levels. In the Layers palette click the Adjustment Layers menu icon and select Levels. Move the Highlight Input Level a bit to the left to make the photo a bit lighter.

Adjusting the levels

Add Contrast and Saturation

In the Layers palette click the Adjustment Layers menu icon and select Brightness/Contrast. Set the Contrast to +20. Click the Adjustment Layers menu icon again and select Hue/Saturation. Set the Saturation to +20.

Adjust Curves

Add another Adjustment Layer. This time choose Curves.... Select the Red channel and make sure the edit points icon is selected. Change the curve line a bit as shown in the image below.

Red Channel curve

Select Green from the Channel dropdown menu and adjust the curve as shown in the image below.

Green Channel curve

Now select Blue from the Channel dropdown menu and adjust the curve as shown in the image below.

Blue Channel curve

Apply Lens Correction and Vignette effect

Select the layer with your photo, go to the Filter menu and select Convert for Smart Filters. Doing this means you can apply filters to the photo while leaving your original in tact. It's a non-destructive way of applying filter effects, as you'll be able to adjust the filters you've applied at any time. First you'll get a message saying the layer will be converted into a Smart Object. Click OK.

Now go to the Filter menu, and select Distort > Lens Correction and select the Custom tab. In the Vignette option set the Amount to -75 and the Midpoint to +75. Hit the OK button. You'll see the Smart Filter appear below the layer. Double clicking this will open the Lens Correction filter options again where you can adjust anything you want. Double clicking the slider icon on the right will give you the option to adjust the Layer Mode and the Transparency of the effect on the layer. Set the value to 70%.

Add some Old Style

Your photo should look pretty dramatic right now with a lot of contrast. Now we'll tone it all down again, but of course with a special effect to make it look like an old photo. In the Layers palette click the Adjustment Layers menu icon again and select Hue/Saturation. From the presets dropdown menu select Old Style (which sets the Saturation to -40 and the Lightness to +5). Change the opacity of this adjustment layer to 50%.

Add Red Boost

Depending on the result you're after, you could add another Hue/Saturation Adjustment Layer on top of this and choose the preset option Red Boost (which sets the Hue to -5 and the Saturation to +20). This effect adds a bit of a pinkish touch to the photo. The last 2 effects are both presets, but you can of course play with the sliders and see what happens. Plus you can also adjust the opacity of the layer a bit to reduce the effect.

Use the Layer Masks

Also very important is to use the masks in each of the Adjustment Layers where needed. Sometimes an effect can make certain elements less nice (overblown) or even disappear. For example in the photo with the wheat (the last photo on this page), the top of the wheat was disappearing if I applied certain effects, but on the other part of the photo things looked quite to my liking. So I fixed this by revealing the top of the wheat: I selected the mask in the layer palette first, and then I painted over the tops using a very soft transparent brush.

Use the Layer Masks

Try out different variations on different photos

As you can see the options are really endless and the amounts applied in each of these effects really depends on the photo. The examples you see on this page all have different settings applied. This set of effects mentioned in this tutorial will help you set a basis to get started, but needs different fine-tuning for each photo. What I do is move all the effects in 1 layer group. Then when I want to apply it to a photo I drag this layer group into my photoshop document and tweak the settings, throw some effects out, add new in, adjust the opacity of the layer etc.

Example photo with vintage effect Original photo

The Levels have been tweaked a lot.

Example photo with vintage effect Original photo

Very visible lens correction effect.

Make sure you experiment with the settings of each Adjustment Layer and Smart Filter. Like I mentioned earlier the outcome differs a lot on the photo you choose and the settings you apply. Also keep in mind that a lot of photos may not be suitable at all for this kind of effect. Make sure to choose them carefully. Hope you enjoyed this tutorial and learned a few things again :)

Example photo with vintage effect Original photo

Using the Layer Masks to reveal most of the sky.

Example photo with vintage effect Original photo

Using the Layers Masks to remove some effects on the wheat stems.


  1. 1 Dan 23 Jun 2011

    Amazing! More of these kinda of tutorials please!

  2. 2 Tom Hermans 23 Jun 2011

    Nice tutorial Veerle. Like!

  3. 3 Josh LaFayette 23 Jun 2011

    Hello, Veerle!

    Your original “Photoshop Vintage Effect” tutorial (on Veerle V2) taught me so much about Photoshop while I was in school—so much so that I had it memorized at one point! It’s great to see an updated version.

    Thanks for posting!

  4. 4 Deiby 23 Jun 2011

    Love this post! The examples look amazing. Your older v2 Vintage Effect tutorial is still one of my favorites too :)

  5. 5 Heath Waller 24 Jun 2011

    Great tutorial - very comprehensive. I love the image-swap transitions you have provided on your examples (essentially giving a before/after effect) - makes the whole thing extra-special.

  6. 6 Jennifer Lynn 24 Jun 2011

    I’ve always wondered how to do this and can’t describe the elation I feel at finding a GOOD tutorial on how to get this effect that doesn’t involve a brush. Thanks! //Jenn

  7. 7 Troy 26 Jun 2011

    Very Insightful Veerle!

    I second “Heath’s” comment - the before and after effect adds that extra dimension of visual understanding.


  8. 8 Jenny 27 Jun 2011

    very awesome :D I’ma have to try an see if this works in PSE7 :P

  9. 9 designi1 28 Jun 2011

    This was what i was looking for :D Bought a new camera and needed some inspiration how to change tone levels and other image ajusts. This post its awesome because i found the way to produce the images that i had in mind for so long! :D thanks!