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Creating an Aged Photograph in Photoshop

How to turn a 21st century digital image into a 19th century cabinet card By Dave Nagel
Judging from the letters I receive, every single person in the world at one time or another needs to create an "olde tyme" photographic look in Adobe Photoshop. The most popular request seems to be creating a sepia-toned photo showing the effects of aging. While there was never any one look for sepia photographs--and certainly no one way for photographs to age--the are some generic characteristics of older photos that we can emulate in Photoshop.

Today we'll take a crack at what I think is the archetype of sepia photo processing--the cabinet card, a photo printed on very thin paper and mounted on card stock, commonly used in portraiture. And we'll make it look like it's had a little wear and tear, fading and chemical degradation using only the tools and filters available in the stock Photoshop 7 package. The card mount itself is sort of a no-brainer, so I'll leave that up to you and focus on the photo itself, though I will show an example of the mount at the end created using techniques discussed in this article.

Preparatory notes
To begin, as always, please make sure you calibrate your monitor beforehand. We're working with color, and there's no point if it's just going to come out wrong from the printer. And trial and error won't cut it either, what with ink cartridges costing what they do. For those on a Mac, you can calibrate using the Monitors Control Panel (OS 9) or the Displays System Preference (OS X). For those on Windows, you can use the calibration tool that comes with Photoshop.

Since we're going to be dealing with fading, you're going to want to lighten up portions of your background that contain large blocks of dark areas. I can't provide you with specifics on this process because so much depends on the individual photograph. But keep in mind that, for some reason unknown to me, a good number of old cabinet card prints have come down to us with astonishing crispness in the foreground, with fading and other forms of deterioration in the background. As I say, I don't know why. But, if you want to create a sense of authenticity, you want to lighten up the background.

Because we're going to be altering the luma and chroma values of the image significantly through this process, it would be best to lighten up the image as non-destructively as possible so that you can go back and make changes later, if needed. For my image, I'm adjusting the lightness of the image using two adjustment layers--Hue/Saturation and Curves.

Select Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Hue/Saturation. When the dialog box pops up, increase the lightness of the individual channels except for red and magenta. For my image, I put all of these at +100, though your image might require different values or no adjustment at all.

Then select Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Curves, and play around with your curves until you have a lighter image without too much loss of contrast and without causing any extreme color distortion. I adjusted my channels individually, altering the curve to give it a hump in the middle.

Don't worry if the color looks "off." Remember, we'll be turning this into a sepia image, so you won't even notice it later on.

Finally, if you feel it necessary, you can add some grain and diffusion to the image. You can add something akin to film grain by choosing Filter > Noise > Add Noise. Set the noise to about 3 or 3.5, and check the "Monochromatic" option. Or you can use the Film Grain filter, which is at Filter > Artistic > Film Grain. For diffusion, choose Filter > Stylize > Diffuse. This last option might not be necessary, but it can add some authenticity to close-up portraits.

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