Retro photography is all the rage at the moment. From the out-of-focus, heavily vignetted results from ‘lo-fi’ cameras such as the Holga and Lomo, to the distinctive colours and tones of much-loved vintage film, there are almost as many retro looks as there are other styles of digital photography put together. So it’s not surprising that getting to grips with retro photography can be a bit confusing.
Looking at much that passes for retro or lo-fi photography, it might seem like it’s simply a matter of snapping away and applying some Photoshop magic. Yet, as with any photographic style, you’ll get the best results if you shoot carefully and try to expose the image correctly in-camera.
Below we’ll offer our best advice for how to get the retro photography look in-camera by applying the right camera settings and techniques to allow you to spend minimal time in Photoshop.
Despite the blurry appearance of many retro-style shots, you must pay attention to focus – especially if you are using shallow depth of field (find out what you need to know about depth of field for successful images).
But you don’t necessarily have to have the point of focus slap bang on the main subject.
We’d normally recommend choosing the lowest ISO setting for cleaner shots, but don’t be afraid to go for a high ISO and treat the increased noise as part of your retro photography riffing.
3. White Balance
Set your camera to its Daylight white balance setting, as most traditional films were designed for daylight color temperature (download our free cheat sheet to understanding the color temperature scale).
For more stylised images, you can deliberately use ‘wrong’ white balance settings to shift the colour balance of your shots and emulate film/filter effects.
To find out how to set the ‘wrong’ white balance, as well as answer some of the many common problems with white balance, check out our in-depth guide on What is White Balance.
4. In-camera effects
While almost every camera has a black-and-white shooting mode, many now offer retro effects too. Both Olympus and Sony cameras have a number of modes, such as toy camera and even retro photo, which can be applied to JPEG shots.
With Canon DSLRs, you take your shot normally, then ‘process’ the image in-camera using Creative Filters (find out more about how to use the Canon Picture Styles in-camera effects). Nikon offers a similar system, but it doesn’t offer quite as many retro styles.
The exposure systems in most of the film cameras you’re trying to emulate were very basic, so the results were often a bit crude, too. So when exposing for retro images, don’t fret about losing highlight or shadow detail.
That doesn’t mean that you should completely ignore the exposure, but don’t be afraid to under- or overexpose your shots for creative effect – use the +/- Exposure Compensation button or shoot in Manual (download our cheat sheet for understanding how to use exposure compensation).
There’s a ‘shoot from the hip’ aspect to retro photography, but that doesn’t mean you should leave your composition completely to chance (check out the 10 rules of photo composition – and why they work).
The two main composition tricks that set this style apart are placing subjects in the middle of the frame and positioning them at the extreme edges, although more normal composition ‘rules’ can still be applied.
When attempting the more extreme effects, such as extreme grain, or soft focus to replicate plastic lenses, it pays to keep the composition as simple as possible. This makes the subject and composition stand out.