This is the first of a two part blog series that shows the process I took to transform photos from a 2012 anniversary trip to Las Vegas into a retro-inspired album.
While the polished artistry of modern photography will continue to inspire my ongoing attempts to perfectly capture the people and places I love, there is something about old family photos that inspire me to do the very opposite: embrace the amateur.
Whether I’m looking at my mom’s photo album or photos of strangers enjoying family vacations (dug up on Google or Pinterest), pictures taken in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s always take me to my happy place. Less formal than photos from the decades before, it seems the affordability and portability of mid-century cameras ushered in a golden era of amateur photography.
What do I admire most about this time period of photography?
A little like the album I scrapped from prints taken from disposable cameras our guests used to capture the best moments of our wedding day, I love the honesty of these retro photos. How each printed photo authentically represents exactly what the photographer viewed while looking through a tiny window. No beauty aps, no filters, no fancy cropping, no Photoshop (eek) – reality back when it was still valued for being real.
Anatomy (of a Retro Photo) 101
To achieve a retro-inspired quality with my modern Las Vegas photos – and most importantly, to design a versatile overlay pack I could apply quickly & easily to multiple photos – I made like a mad scientist and systematically dissected the retro photos I had on hand to see what made them so awesome.
(This is a photo from the late 1960s taken of my mom enjoying a little sun on a weekend trip she took with some friends and family. She doesn’t remember who took this photo, but clearly it was someone who could appreciate the importance of commemorating this quiet, peaceful moment.)
Here’s a little about what I learned during that process.
While the colours of retro photos can range widely, when compared to the standard vivid colours of unaltered, modern day photos, retro photos often have some of these qualities in common:
- desaturated colours
- one colour may feature more heavily than others (blue, blue-green, red/pink)
- an all over washed-out look
- an overall pink, blue or yellow/green hue
- whites are off-white (reflecting a paler version of the most vivid colours)
- darkening of colours by the photo’s edges (vignette)
Taking into account the quality of the camera, film & printing technology of that time period + how carefully the photo has been stored over the years:
- slight overall blur to the entire photo
- colour noise and speckling, especially in the most vivid colours
- yellowing of the photo
- scratches, scrapes & dust spots
Working with film that had limited exposures, needing to purchase separate flash bulb attachments and paying for each and every photo developed (whether it turned out or not), mid-century amateur photography had it’s challenges. Looking through these photo collections (and chatting with family members), I got a sense of how picture-takers of that time developed strategies to deal with these:
- group photos – an efficient way to make certain all couples, siblings, aunties, grandparents and other friends & family were immortalized – have everyone pose in one photo as a large group or sub-group.
- posed photos – having your subjects stand still reduced those blurry, disappointing throwaway prints.
- outdoor photos – bright & sunny days brought the best light, saving on the expense of flashes.
- special occasions – limiting most picture-taking to holidays, birthdays, graduations, trips, summer vacations and other assorted celebrations made family photography an acceptable expense and also gave all of those occasions an additional nod to their importance.
- distance shots – two reasons: lack of a zoom camera feature/lens + another efficient attempt to get everyone and everything into one photo (a family vacation go-to)
- off-centered or cut-off subject and crooked framing – while this is a quality that professional photographers work hard at achieving on purpose, back then, in the hands of an average, inexperienced photographer peering through a much too small window, that button was clicked with crossed fingers and a whole lot of hope and trust. The results, of course, weren’t always so pleasing.
The Best Photos to be Retro-ed
Achieving a believable retro vibe is easier for some photos than for others. Here are a few tips to help you dig out the photos that will work best with this process:
Photos that already have something retro about them
Of course, there’s the obvious – bowling alleys, drive-in theaters, diners, vintage car shows, Las Vegas, Route 66, any mid-century buildings & businesses in cities and small towns.
Consider, also, the not so obvious – picnics, birthday parties, pool parties, backyard BBQs, beach days, carnivals & fairs, Disney (Land & World) – anything that conjures up that mid-century classic image of family fun.
Your “worst” photos
This will go against your photographer/scrapbooker sensibilities – all the reasons that initially made you cringe and abandon a photo on your hard drive – crooked framing, cut-off subjects, blurry, noisy, busy shots, too much sky – this one is a keeper. The more amateur the photo, the better.
Any other photo that embodies the rest of that stuff I talked about under Content
Lol – especially bright & sunny outdoor photos and distance shots (these were the easiest photos to transform for this album).
Grab your photos and meet me back here later this week for a step-by-step tutorial showcasing how I transformed one of the photos from my Las Vegas trip into my most favourite layout in this album!
Here are the products I’m using to create my Las Vegas retro themed album: