The profusion of tools for altering digital images has made it impossible to know whether a photo is as-shot or improved. While this raises all sorts of questions regarding journalistic ethics and skill as a photographer versus skill as a software operator, this represents only one aspect of digital manipulation. Another is the use of the same set of tools to obviously alter photos into something that lies between photography and digitally-created art. The latter could be considered controversial, I suppose, in the way that art can be controversial, but no one is going to mistake a heavily-altered photo for as-shot, barring the introduction of heavy hallucinogenics.
My own vintage-prone tendencies led me to explore digital alteration to try to recreate the look of old film photos. I’m not sure where this lies on the spectrum of art versus correction; it could be mistaken for actually being an old photo (assuming the subject matter doesn’t give the game away), but I’m not really sure that counts as art, and I can’t think of any reason why someone would try to pass off a digitally-aged photo as authentic. I’m sure there are ways to figure out if it’s been manipulated if that ever became an issue.
Anyway, I rather like the look of old film photos. The grainy, color-shifted look of Kodachrome slides from fifty years ago has a certain nostalgia about it. The ability to give recent photos this look is sort of a neat party trick, nothing more, as far as I’m concerned. If applied to photos where the subject matter is appropriate, it can generate a fun illusion of times gone by when, in all likelihood, the subject would have looked exactly the same. To wit:
This is the original. It was shot at the Lime Rock Park Vintage Festival (year unknown, but probably in the late 1990s or early 2000s) with my Pentax SFX on Kodak Gold 200 (a poor choice of film for the subject, but I was young and stupid. Well, not-so-young and ignorant, to be more precise, but still…). It was scanned but was not altered in any way.
This version was modified using the Film Imitation Lab plug-in for GIMP, specifically the Vintage option. I also added light grain and a little vignetting. Already I think it looks much more interesting and atmospheric, and as a bonus nicely disguising the fact that the original was slightly blurred. But other options await.
This process comes courtesy of Picnik, a site that offers quite a lot of photo editing tools via a browser interface, many of them free. This one is called Cinemascope, which one presumes is intended to mimic the look of old films shot using that film process. You can even letterbox the photo with a single click, if you like.
Picnik also offers a setting called 1960s; you can see the results above. Rounding the corners is supposed to make it look like an old slide, I guess (it’s optional if you don’t like it).
Finally, my favorite. This is another FIL effect in GIMP, specifically Photochrome. Grain and vignette settings remained as with the earlier example from this program.
As should be obvious by now, this type of alteration tends to reduce detail and render colors in somewhat less authentic ways than might be considered ideal in this age of pixel-peeping photographers armed with DSLRs with more processing power on board than Apollo 14. But to me the changes can create photos that are more evocative, have more character, and are simply more interesting. None of these alterations took more than one minute to accomplish, so it’s certainly not too time-consuming to mess around with a few variants and find what you like for a particular photo. Not for everyone perhaps, and certainly not to be applied to every sort of picture, but with the right subject, an entertaining little exercise.