How to Create a Retro Faded Look Using Lightroom or Photoshop

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You’ve probably seen images floating around because it’s popular these days, you know, the ones with the retro faded look. It’s pretty popular with the instagram and wedding photography crowd. It’s not my fancy but I am all about empowering photographers to shoot what they have in mind. If that happens to be retro-faded here’s how to achieve that look in Lightroom and Photoshop.

How to Create a Retro Faded Look in Lightroom and Photoshop

Why this look is so popular

Here’s why I believe this look is very popular, it’s a quick and easy way to de-digitalize digital images. When you click that shutter release button, you get a straight, clinical, boring representation of reality. The faded retro look makes the images seem dreamy and ethereal because the colors are muted. Since it’s easy to do and already built into apps like Instagram, you have a recipe for popularity.

How to Create a Retro Faded Look in Lightroom and Photoshop

How to get this look using Lightroom

In Lightroom go ahead and process the image the way you want first. Once you are done, go to the Develop Module and scroll down until you reach the Tone Curves panel. Click the button on the bottom right.

How to Create a Retro Faded Look in Lightroom and Photoshop

First, click the button on the bottom right. Next, click on the little circle on the bottom left of the graph and drag it up. The higher you put it, the more faded the look. Adjust to your tastes and you’re done!

What you are essentially doing is putting a cap on how dark the black pixels will be. Imagine you had 3 groups of students with black, gray, and white shirts. The darkest shirt is black. But if you tell the group of students in black to become grey, the darkest shirt will be grey. It’s the same principle here, you are taking pixels that would normally be black to become dark gray.

How to get this look using Photoshop

In Photoshop the principle is the same. After you have processed the image, go in Image>Adjustments>Levels. You could also alternatively make an adjustment layer to do non-destructive edits by going to Layer>Adjustment Layer>Levels.

How to Create a Retro Faded Look in Lightroom and Photoshop

Drag the black output adjustment to the right to taste and you are done!

Examples

So to recap, take your straight image:

How to Create a Retro Faded Look in Lightroom and Photoshop

Straight original image.

Post-process to taste:

How to Create a Retro Faded Look in Lightroom and Photoshop

Post-processed with basic adjustments.

Then edit the blacks using Levels/Curves:

How to Create a Retro Faded Look in Lightroom and Photoshop

Black level lowered using Levels or Curves.

Further customization

Just like for any new technique, the trick is in experimenting, mixing, and finding your own favorite style. You can add some grain in Lightroom (My favorite, de-facto settings are 50-50-50 for Amount, size, and roughness) but you can also play around with the colors of the photograph for an added effect.

Under the Develop Module, you will find Split Toning in the right-side panel.

How to Create a Retro Faded Look in Lightroom and Photoshop

Split-toning adjustment panel.

The top is where you color the highlights of your image, the saturation controls how strong that color will be. The bottom is where you select the color for your shadows and saturation does the same as above. The Balance slider adjusts which direction you want the colors to lean more toward. If you push that slider to the right, the image will lean more towards the color you have chosen for highlights. If you push the slider left, the overall image will lean more towards the colors selected for the shadows. It’s usually best to keep it at 0 (in the middle) and play around with it after selecting the colors.

Starting points and examples

I personally keep my saturation levels around 10 for Highlights and Shadows because too much saturation will make the image go completely one color. Color images, I find 35 maximum saturation fit my tastes. Here are some results:

How to Create a Retro Faded Look in Lightroom and Photoshop

Playing with split-toning to add to the retro look. Top left is the original faded image.
Top right: Highlights color 299, Saturation at 25, Shadows at 99 and Saturation 31 (Balance at 0)
Bottom right: Highlights color 101, Saturation at 25, Shadows at 47 and Saturation 31 (Balance at 0)
Bottom left: Highlights color 30, Saturation at 25, Shadows at 253 and Saturation 31 (Balance at 0)

Yes, that is indeed how you get a cross-processed look in Lightroom. It fits in well with the overall retro faded look.

Conclusion

That’s it. It’s pretty easy to do if you ask me. It probably takes a bit more time (and you have more control) than using Instagram filters but it’s worth the time to learn if the look resonates with you. You will quickly learn “the numbers” that you like most and be able to be consistent throughout your images. Be yourself, stay focused and keep on shooting.

Please sure your faded retro look images in the comments below and tell us how you achieved it.

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Olivier Duong is a Haitian-French-Vietnamese graphic designer turned photographer, he is the co-creator of Inspired Eye Photography Magazine. This ex-gear head now teaches photographers how to develop their eye, heart and mind. Join his photography newsletter to keep in touch. You’ll receive weekly inspiration, a free beginner’s course, tutorials and more.

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