Looking for An Authentic Throwback Look? Go Back to the Future With Film

Instagram, the iPhone, even point-and-shoot cameras are coming loaded with them: filters to make your digital photos look like they were taken decades ago and stored in a shoebox until the internet came along. As professionals, we recognize digital simulations of color shift, scratches, chemical spots, light leaks, vignetting, lens flare, distorted lenses and edge print. But most people are just looking to invoke the nostalgic feel of decades past that, while not technically perfect, are no less steeped in loving memories of past happy times, family and friends. That cell phone snapshot that you just shot of some friends at a favorite restaurant? You can now make it look like it was shot with a Brownie 50 years ago.

But as these filters and digital techniques become more ubiquitous, I’m beginning to see the same digital effects repeated. Your “old” photo looks just like everyone else’s on Facebook. If I want my photos to look like old film shots, it’s hard to beat the real deal.

Here are some basic tips to get started:

Cameras: Film cameras are practically free nowadays, and we’re not even looking for the top of the line. Chances are you still have one in the back of a closet, or even displayed on a shelf. Film in 35mm and 120 formats are still available either online or even from your local department store. The inexpensive Holga plastic cameras are specifically used by artists for the dreamy effects their cheap lens and light leaks produce. Holga even makes physical clip-on filters for your iPhone.

Film: Bricks of expired film can be purchased on eBay for a song. After all, it’s not just film, it’s expired film. I still see consumer film stocked at Wal-Mart and Costco and even the corner Walgreens. And these stores and others are still developing 35mm C-41. For 120 format, pro labs such as Dwayne’s in Kansas will develop 35mm and 120 C-41 for $3.99 plus shipping.

Chemicals: For black-and-white negatives, I just develop rolls in a dark bathroom using D-76, which like other powdered chemicals can be ordered from online shops. I’m lucky enough to still have a local shop that stocks darkroom chemicals. Plenty of tutorials online can walk you through black-and-white developing if you’ve never done it before. And if it doesn’t come out perfect, in this case, all the better.

The Roulette Wheel of Effects: If your color film is all the same batch, start by assuming it’s all been stored in the same manner and each roll will share similar defects, if any. You can shoot a test roll, have it developed and go from there. Serious color shifts already? Good. But you’d like more of an effect, consider leaving the film in your hot car for a week, or even popping the unexposed film in a skillet over heat (Don’t microwave your film, though.)

Scanning Your Images to Digital: Don’t have a film scanner? Using a macro lens or the macro setting on your camera, simply digitally photograph the negative on a light box and use the “Convert to Negative” setting on your post-processing program. Don’t have a light box? Make a simple one by placing a white sheet of paper on a table, and use spacers of your choice to place a piece of glass (i.e. picture frame or the like) above the paper so the two are parallel. Shine a gooseneck lamp at the paper, being careful not to hit the glass to avoid glare. Place the negative strip on the glass and shoot as you would with the light box. At this time you can add real scratches with a thumbtack or paperclip. Once the image is in the computer, you can further manipulate the color, cropping and whatever else you’d like to do. But the more you do to the actual negative before scanning, the more authentic it will look, and the more unique your image will be. Your Facebook friends will be begging to know which iPhone filter you use.

One Response to “Looking for An Authentic Throwback Look? Go Back to the Future With Film”

  1. Related story on NPR:


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