Everyone loves the 'Instagram look' that makes photos feel more authentic and real than the stark accuracy of your phone's camera. But how do you recreate the Instagram look in Photoshop, so you can have more control over the output than with the app itself – so you can create vintage-style shots that look much better than using automated filters.
See also: 86 Best Photoshop tutorials
In this tutorial, Fabio Sasso will show you how you can create retro lighting effects in Photoshop with a degree of control that means you get exactly the look you want without the trial-and-error aspect of the iPhone or Android apps. And when you work with high-res photos and Photoshop’s toolset, the results are far superior, too.
Time to complete
Photoshop CS4 or higher
To start off we will need an image that evokes the era we’re attempting to emulate: a photo that’s been stuck to the wall of a VW Camper ever since it trundled out of the first Glastonbury Festival packed with hippies hallucinating the arrival of UFOs.
I’ve chosen one with a suitably retro look that also includes a hint of creative stylishness. You can download this image from Shutterstock
Start by giving the photo a faded, bleached look. Go to
Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Curves and alter the RGB, red and blue curves roughly as shown. The result should look like what appears above.
Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Levels and reduce the black output level to 42. The idea here is to drop the contrast to give that washed-out look.
Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Color Balance. In Midtones, change the value for the magenta-green to -8.
For the Shadows, change the three values to +25, -2 and -11, and the Highlights to +12, -21 and -25. Note that you’ve increased the red and magenta values, giving a warmer cast to the image.
We don’t want the whole image to look this warm and bright; more contrast will make it look more dynamic.
We’ll first dull it down and then bring some contrast back. Go to
Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Hue/Saturation and change the Hue to 28, the Saturation to 37 and the Lightness to -10. Check the Colorize tickbox too.
The previous step gives you a sepia tone. Adjustment layers always have a layer mask active, so with the Brush tool (
B) and a very soft black brush, start painting the area over the model’s face and the soap bubble to let the previous layer show through.
These areas will be in full colour while the rest of the image retains the sepia tone.
Select all the layers and duplicate them (
Layer > Duplicate Layers), then do Layer > Merge Layers or Cmd/Ctrl + Shift + Alt + E to merge the duplicated layers into one.
With this new layer selected, go to
Image > Adjustments > Desaturate, then do Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur with a radius of 20 pixels. After that, change the layer’s blending mode to Soft Light, with the opacity at 100%.
Once again, duplicate and merge all the layers prior to step 7. Go again to
Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur with 20 pixels for the radius again.
Set the blending mode of this new layer to Screen and then, with the Eraser Tool (
E), delete the areas over the model’s face and hands and the soap bubble.
Add a new layer and fill it with black. Change its blending mode to Linear Burn at 30% opacity.
Select the Brush tool and a very soft white brush, and start painting in the centre of the layer to create a vignette effect. Use the image above as a reference.
Now to create the light leak effect. It’s quite simple really: you may need to use different colours depending on the hues of the image, but the process is always pretty much the same.
First add a new layer and then, with the Brush tool and a very soft red brush, start painting some red blobs like the ones shown.
Now add a new layer and switch to a smaller yellow brush to paint some yellow spots in the centres of the red ones.
That done, go to
Filter > Blur > Motion Blur. Push the Distance slider all the way to the right and use 90º for the angle.
Group these two layers so they are inside a folder in the Layers panel, then change the folder’s blending mode to Screen. You should now have a nice light leak effect.
Let’s repeat the process to create a sun flare above the model’s shoulder.
Use the same techniques to create two layers with red and yellow brushed spots, group them into a folder, and change the folder’s blending mode to Screen.