Create a retro or vintage photograph using GIMP

Moderate GIMP Tutorial


Chances are, your mobile phone's camera has got some built-in filters to create a retro look typical of photos taken in the 1960s and 70s. But how does it do it, and can you re-create the effect or maybe even do a better job? Well, in this tutorial we're going to use GIMP to simulate this effect for ourselves using some simple techniques and our understanding of layer blend modes. This is a moderately involved lesson which uses plenty of common features and tools, but also one or two lesser-known tricks which should stand you in good stead to go off and try it for yourself.

Skills you'll be developing in this tutorial

Let's just take a look at what we're aiming for as a final result from today's tutorial:

A classic car in a Havana street which has been photo-manipulated in GIMP


Before beginning this tutorial, you'll need to source the following images and textures and save them somewhere on your computer:

Step 1 - Locate, download and import your source image

I've hit Google Images for "car in a havana street" and used the Advanced Search to filter by image license type so I can get one that's free to use and modify in this project.

Source an appropriate image to give your retro look to

When you've chosen one, open up your source image in GIMP in the usual way. I've done a little bit of preparatory work on this image already, which doesn't come into the scope of this tutorial but which I should probably mention. After downloading, I quickly cropped it (Shift and C) to focus on the lovely vintage red car in the foreground, and airbrushed out a person's face which appears around the back of the car.

Quickly tend to any obviously distracting areas before starting in earnest

Step 2 - Boost contrast and add a selective blur

The first thing we'll alter in our photograph is the contrast, which is a little bit underwhelming at the moment. From the menus, select Colors --> Curves. In the dialog box that appears, click and drag the line into a smooth S shape, by dragging the line downwards on the left and upwards on the right. This will darken the shadows and intensify the highlights in the image by boosting the overall contrast.

Using the Color Curves dialog to boost contrast

Depending on your image, this may result your whites becoming blown, but that can sometimes be a good thing when striving to imitate a photograph taken on old-fashioned equipment.

Result of using Curves to boost image contrast in GIMP

Next, we're going to add a gradual blur to our image, to make it look like it was taken on an old camera without all the modern gizmos that keep everything in focus.

Switch to the Gradient Tool by pressing L on the keyboard, and make sure your foreground and background colours are set to black and white respectively. You can do this very quickly by hitting D, as this is GIMP's default colour setup. From the Shape area of the Gradient panel, select Radial, turn your attention to the main image window.

Setting up radial gradient for blur

Locate the Quick Mask button on the bottom bar of GIMP's image window; it resembles a square with dotted edges. Click this, or press Shift and Q to activate the Mask mode, which allows us to select an area defined by the region of our gradient, as you'll see in a moment. By default, this will produce a red overlay on top of your image. This tells us we're making changes to our mask, and not (as yet) the image underneath.

Activating GIMP's Quick Mask

Now draw a gradient from the point where you want the image to remain fully in-focus to where you want it to be more blurry. In my case I'm going to keep the chrome bumper in focus, along with other areas of detail at the front of the car, so I'll draw my gradient accordingly.

Drawing a gradient on GIMP's Quick Mask

When you release the mouse button, you'll see the red-filled region change to reflect the gradient you've created. Convert this mask to a selection by clicking on the Quick Mask button again, which will now look like a red box in the bottom bar. You'll see your selection area will appear on the image - the outer region of the image away from the centre of your gradient.

Mask to Selection in GIMP

From the menus, select Filters --> Blur --> Gaussian Blur and in the box that appears, enter a value of around 8 pixels in one of the boxes. The other should change to match.

Setting up Gaussian Blur values

If you're using a large photo you might need to use a bigger number, but remember that while we're trying to simulate old, low fidelity equipment, we're not conducting a depth-of-field experiment, so keep the blur throttled back a bit. Click OK when you're done.

Result of adding blur to base layer

Step 3 - Being the ageing process with Gradient Maps and some noise

Press Ctrl, Shift and D twice, or click the Duplicate icon in the Layers panel (press Ctrl and L to bring it up) to create two copies of this layer.

Making a copy of the original layer

Hide the topmost layer by clicking on its eye icon and, with the first of the copied layers selected, click on the foreground and background colour boxes and set them to #397adc and #ece638 respectively; a foreground of pale blue, with a yellow background colour.

Setting up colours for gradient map

Crudely, what we're planning to do is change this layer's colours and restrict them to this blue-yellow choice, replacing the dark areas with blue and the lighter with yellow. Select Colors --> Map --> Gradient Map and you'll see how this plays out on your image.

Gradient map applied

To get this outcome, it's important to make sure you've got that gradient's colours the right way round although, as we'll see later, playing with different colours and gradients can give some quite creative alternative results.

Change the layer blend mode of this blue/yellow layer to Hard Light, and lower its opacity to around 50% to stop that Gradient Map completely overriding every colour in our image.

Setting the layer mode to Hard Light affects layers below it

Now make the topmost layer visible again - the copy of your original image - and choose Colors --> Colorize from the menus. Set the Hue slider to around 16, the Saturation to about 70, and the Lightness to 5. That should give you a single-colour version of your image in a coppery sort of hue.

Applying colourise function to image

Set a layer blend mode of Overlay for this layer and slide the opacity down slightly to 90%. This should produce those classic 60s/70s 'jaundiced' colour tones in your photo.

Using a colourised version of the image as an overlay modifies the colours underneath it

These two steps are pretty quick to perform, but the technique is really powerful and can be altered in a number of ways for different effects and results (see my examples at the bottom of the page), so have a play around with different colours and see what outcomes you can create.

Switch back to the bottom-most layer - your original image - and from the menus select Filters --> Noise --> HSV Noise. Move the sliders around so you get a Holdness of 2, Hue at 3, Saturation at 64 and Value at 76. You'll see a preview of the result in the pane at the top left, then click OK when you're done.

Adding noise to the image increases its feeling of having aged

Now we're getting somewhere. Applying some noisy grain to the image really adds to its feeling of having aged since it was taken, and we'll push that idea further in the next step.

Step 4 - Carry out some additional re-colouring

Create a new layer above your others using the button in the Layers panel, or by pressing Ctrl, Shift and N, selecting Transparency for the fill-type. Change its blend mode to Overlay, and set the opacity to around 50%.

Creating new layer for re-colouring work

The kind of colours that are going to work here are the ones that will make it look like the photograph's ink has faded over time. Feel free to experiment, but I recommend using some yellow, orange and red colours, selected through GIMP's palette options. Activate your Paintbrush tool with the P key, and select a soft-edged, circular brush such as the default one at Hardness 50%.

Set up your colours and brush using GIMP's Toolbox

Use your brush to create some patches of colour on this layer. You'll see the effect it has as you paint, and how much is needed where is entirely subjective. I'll show you what I've done here with screenshots of the layer at Normal blend mode and as it's actually applied to the image in Overlay mode.

Re-colour layer at normal blend mode

Note what happens to those areas you've painted and judge where, and how much, to brush as you do so. I've cheated a little and used some white to lighten areas that were made too dark by all the other work, which also assists the degraded effect in certain areas of the picture.

Re-colour layer at Overlay blend mode

You can take this further and fine-tune your overlay colours if you think it's needed, but I'm going to settle with that for now.

Step 5 - Add a texture to distress the canvas further

Press Ctrl, Alt and O or click File --> Open As Layers and locate your cracked wall texture file. Open it and resize the layer if necessary so it covers your whole image (it doesn't matter much if this means making it bigger). You can use GIMP's Scale tool for this job: Shift and T.

Scaling and moving texture image

Hop back to the Layers panel and change the blend mode of this layer to Grain Merge, then lower its opacity so you can still see the texturing coming through without it re-colouring your image too heavily. In my case, that happens at about 55%.

Altering opacity of grain-merged texture layer

Feel free to experiment with different textures and blend modes at this point, as it can make or break your final image. I felt mine was better with the texture flipped vertically so the more extreme rips were at the bottom rather than the top.

Step 6 - Add a strong vignette to darken the edges and finish the photo manipulation

The last thing to do is to add some darkening to the edges of the image, which will complete the ageing process of our photograph, as well as focusing the viewer on the central image area. There are several ways of doing this next bit but I'm going to go with the quick-and-dirty method.

On another new layer at the top of your stack, activate the Rectangle Tool (keyboard key R) and draw a rectangle which is slightly inside the border of your canvas area.

Selecting an area ready to apply vignette

Press Ctrl and I or choose Select --> Invert from the menus, which will swap the selected area from being inside the rectangle, to outside it instead. We want this effect to have soft edges rather than clearly-defined ones, so choose Select --> Feather from the menus and enter a value of about 120px in the box that appears.

Feathering vignette selection

Fill this area with black (Press D to reset your foreground colour to black quickly) and tweak the opacity down slightly if you feel the impact is too strong. I've gone with 80% here. A Normal blend mode should be fine for this layer.

Filling vignette area with black

And we're effectively there. You might like to add some embellishments to jazz things up a bit or if there's some dead space to fill.

Final embellishments are optional, but can add to the overall feel

And what about those alternative Gradient Maps I mentioned earlier? Well, let's take a look at a couple of examples. Nothing else has changed here apart from altering my Hard Light layer's gradient colours to the ones shown in each example. It's quite versatile though, isn't it?

An orange-yellow gradient is another good way of ageing a photo

Or how about a stronger effect, with the colours in danger of being bleached out?

A green-white gradient can create a truly aged look to an image

I hope you've enjoyed this tutorial on how to create a classic photo which looks like it's from years gone by, let me know your thoughts or share your work in the comments section below.

Mark is the Editor and owner of Designmark Graphics Ltd. Publishing tutorial articles and guides for Inkscape and the GIMP, this blog aims to boost the profile of these Open Source graphics applications and showcase what they are capable of.

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