Aging Photos Roundup

Intro | Multi-RAW Processing | Creating HDR Images by Hand [Part I] | Creating HDR Images by Hand [Part II] | Sharpening in LAB Color | Converting to Black and White | Using LAB Color Adjustments | Inverting Backgrounds with LAB | Intro to Compositing | HDR in Adobe Photoshop CS5 | Using Image Apply Image | Aging Photos Roundup | Making Colors Pop in Photoshop

Intro Image: I used the Nik Silver Efex Tintype filter and then added a hand-painting effect to create this digital simulation of a hand-painted tin type—creating an interesting antique effect.

If you are the kind of person who likes to visit antique shops—or stores posing as antique shops—you may have noticed furniture that is intentionally “antiqued”: recently built pieces that have been “distressed,” and then treated so that they look genuinely old. A point of this kind of distressed furniture operation is to make people think they are buying something old when they are not; however, in many cases people know perfectly well that they are buying modern replicas and just like the antique “look.”

In a similar way, the process of aging a digital photo means intentionally making the photo look old so that it resembles an antique image rather than a contemporary one. This is an effort at aesthetics, not deception. Nobody is really expected to believe that the digital simulation of an old chemical photographic effect, or the digital simulation of “distressing” the image, has produced a genuinely aged artifact. This is all about the appearance of the digital image.

By the way, sometimes the term “aging” as applied to photos is used in a different way: to mean the forensic process of determining what someone would look like as they grow older from a photo of the subject at a younger age. An interesting topic, but not the one under discussion in this column.

There’s no single technique for aging a photo, because aged photos from different eras looked very different. A faded color photo from the early days of color photography, circa 1960, presents a very different appearance than a tintype portrait from the 19th century. You can’t just apply a rote formula to a digital photo and expect it to appear authentically aged. You have to visualize the aged effect you want, and then figure out how to create it.

It’s worth stating the obvious at this point, if only to get it out of the way: some photo subjects cannot be successfully aged. You cannot start with a photo of someone posed next to this year’s car, in modern clothes, working on their iPod or iPad, and hope to present a convincing and successful aged image. The starting point for an aged image is a digital photo with subject matter that can successfully pass as content from the era whose photos you are trying to simulate.

This article starts with a discussion of possible aging effects and ideas about how you might go about implementing some of the most common aging effects—fading, and adding a sepia tint.

Nik Silver Efex, a third-party Photoshop plugin, provides a number of antique simulations—and I’ll briefly cover some of these options.

Also, hand colored images were a big thing a hundred years ago before the birth of color photography. It’s easy to simulate a hand-colored look in digital, and I’ll show you how.

These techniques are like a roundup or smorgasbord—you have to pick and choose depending upon what you want to achieve. The article shows you some of my favorite aging techniques, but of course there are many more aging effects possible in Photoshop.

Digital simulation of aging a photo is great fun—and can add variety and depth to your images. So let’s get started!

Sepia Tinting

On a snowy day in Yosemite Valley, California I photographed the view of Cathedral Spires and Bridalveil Falls shown in Figure 2. Reviewing the image in my studio on my large monitor, it seemed to me that the photo was very appropriate for aging: the subject is, of course, timeless and the atmospheric conditions at the time I shot the photo render it as almost monochromatic and toned without any work.

Figure 2: This landscape, shot on a snowy day in Yosemite Valley, California, seemed a natural candidate for aging.

I decided to truly “age” the photo by adding an overall sepia tone. There are many possible ways to accomplish this result. One of my preferred techniques is to first convert the photo to monochromatic, as shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3: As a first step, I converted the photo to monochromatic.

Before continuing, I decided to add a white margin around the photo. Whether this border will show online depends upon the background it is placed upon. It is always possible to add a black retaining line to make the white border show—and adding the border certainly helps to give the image the feeling of an old-time print.

To add the border, choose Canvas Size from the Image menu. In the Canvas Size dialog, shown in Figure 4, make sure Relative is checked, add the desired amount to the width and height (I added 1" to all dimensions), and make sure the anchor is set so that the extension is symmetrically added (as shown in Figure 4).

Figure 4: It’s easy to add a “border” around your photos.

Finally, click the color swatch to the right of the Canvas extension color drop-down list and use the Color Picker (shown in Figure 5) to choose white as the background color.

Figure 5: You can use the Color Picker to set your Canvas extension color to White (#ffffff in hexadecimal).

With a border added to the monochromatic image, it’s time to add a sepia tint. First, I duplicate the Background layer as shown in Figure 6. With the copy of the Background layer active, I select a Black & White adjustment layer from the Adjustments palette.

Figure 6: Duplicate your background layer before applying a Black & White adjustment.

Note that this Black & White adjustment layer is not actually about monochromatic conversion. The image is already monochromatic, and I’ll be using the Black & White adjustment layer to add the sepia effect, not the change the monochromatic values. Therefore, as shown in Figure 7, I chose the Default settings from the Black & White adjustment dialog, which does not change anything about an image that has already been converted to monochromatic—yet!

Figure 7: To not change the image (other than adding a sepia tint) accept the Default settings in the Black & White adjustment dialog. When you start with a monochromatic, untinted image nothing changes so far.

Now for the “business end” of this tinting process! Check Tint as shown in Figure to apply an overall tint to the image, and use the Color Picker as shown in Figure 9 to select a light overall sepia color.

Figure 8: If you check Tint, you can apply an overall tint to the image.

Figure 9: For a sepia effect, use the Color Picker to choose an image that is light sepia.

Since the sepia tint was applied using an adjustment layer on a layer that is itself a copy, you can easily control the intensity of the effect by merging down the adjustment layer and then setting the opacity of the duplicate layer. The final version shown in Figure 10 has the Opacity of the duplicate layer reduced to 50%.

Figure 10: The Yosemite image with a sepia tint

Dust and Scratches Filter

Another step that I decided to take with the tinted Yosemite image was to add some more aging using the Photoshop Dust & Scratches Filter. This filter is a somewhat deprecated tool intended to remove noise, dust and scratches by blurring the image. (I describe a technique for adding defects such as scratches later in this article, as many aged photos do in fact appear scratched or dusty instead of, or in addition to, being blurred.)

To apply this filter, choose Filter > Noise > Dust & Scratches. The Dust & Scratches window, shown in Figure 11, will open.

Figure 11: The Dust & Scratches Filter adds to the antique effect.

You can use the Preview button to see the impact of your choices before applying them. The higher the Radius setting, the more blur. Interestingly, if you set the Radius and Threshold settings sufficiently high, Photoshop will generate rounded, “tipped-in” corners as shown in Figure 12—very appropriate for an aged photo.

Figure 12: The finished aged image, with a sepia tint and the Dust & Scrtaches filter applied.


Old color photographs fade, particularly if they exposed to light. This fading tends to coincide with a color shift in the orange-red direction, so the first step in simulating fading a color photo is to shift the colors. The next step is to brighten and wash-out the highlights, as happens when a color print fades naturally.

To show one approach to accomplishing these goals, I’ve started with a photo of my daughter Katie Rose in the bubble bath (Figure 13).

Figure 13: This color image of Katie Rose already has a somewhat antique feeling—so it seemed like a good candidate for virtual color fading.

To shift the color balance in the image towards orange, I’ve applied a Photo Filter adjustment layer with an orange color selected as you can see in Figure 14. The opacity of this layer is set to 54% to partially mitigate the strength of the effect.

Figure 14: A Photo Filter Adjustment layer helps the fading begin.

Now it’s time to blow out the highlights and brighten the light tones in the photo to simulate true fading. To do this, I’ve used a Curves adjustment layer as shown in Figure 15.

Figure 15: A Curves Adjustment Layer can be used to increase the fading.

The trick is to drag the highlight point in the upper-right corner of the Curves adjustment dialog towards the left. In addition, I also dragged the dark point in the lower left up to lessen the contrast in the shadow areas.

Note that I reduced the opacity of the entire Curves adjustment layer to about 60% to make sure the effect wasn’t too strong. Figure 16 shows the finished, aged photo.

Figure 16: The finished faded color photo.

Photoshop Aging Action

Photoshop ships with its own photo aging action, named—logically enough—Aged Photo. If you look inside this action, you’ll see that it accomplishes color fading much like that accomplished by the two Curves adjustments I just showed you. However, the color shift is a bit different, and using the action is easy, so why not try it out to see which approach you like better?

Figure 17 shows a photo of a cute model ready for an application of the Aged Photo action.

Figure 17: A cute model with an umbrella.

Open the Actions palette. If you don’t see the Aged Photo action, it needs to be added to the palette. To do this open the Actions palette fly-out menu by clicking the small icon on the upper right of the Actions palette. From the fly-out menu, choose Image Effects (Figure 18). The Image Effects group of actions, including the Aged Photo action, will be added to the palette.

Figure 18: Image Effects, found on the Actions fly-out menu, includes the Aged Photo action.

It’s always a good idea to duplicate the background before applying an action—this allows you to lower the opacity of the effect after it has been applied if you need to. Figure 19 shows the image of the Aged Photo action at about 50% opacity.

Figure 19: The model following application of the Aged Photo macro.

Nik Silver Efex

Nik Silver Efex, a plugin for Adobe Lightroom and Adobe Photoshop from Nik Software,, is intended to be used for monochromatic conversions. As part of its monochromatic conversion, Silver Efex provides a number of filters specifically intended to provide an aged look including several versions of Antique Plate, Soft Sepia, Cyanotype, Tin Type, and Holga.The two aging effect filters in Silver Efex that I like to use most are Antique Plate and Tin Type.

Antique Plate comes in two varieties, Antique Plate I and Antique Plate II. Of these, Antique Plate I is my favorite. Figure 20 shows the Antique Plate I filter applied to a photo of Sea Palms along the Northern California coast.

Figure 20: I used the Nik Silver Efex Antique Plate filter to create a vintage look for this abstract view of kelp along the California coast.

Figure 21 shows an internationally high-key shot of a model shot on a white background. Looking at the image, it seemed to me a good candidate for some kind of aging.

Figure 21: I intentionally overexposed this photo when I shot this image of a model on a white background for a high-key effect.

My first idea was to apply the Nik Silver Efex Tin Type filter, with the results you see in Figure 22.

Figure 22: The Nik Silver Efex Tin Type filter was applied, creating a monochromatic image.

Desaturation and Hand Painting

Before there was color in photography, hand coloring—painting on a monochromatic photo—was used to add color in a stubbornly black & white world. Therefore, selectively adding color creates an aged look because it reminds people of hand painting.

My favorite technique for creating a virtual hand-painted look is to duplicate an image and desaturate it, by converting the duplicate to monochromatic. Then I copy the color version back over the monochromatic version, and paint on a layer mask to selectively add color back in.

Looking at the virtual monochromatic tin type shown in Figure 22, I decided to selectively add color back into the image. To accomplish this, I pasted the original image (shown in Figure 21) back over the monochromatic version and changed the Blending mode to Overlay. At this point, the image looks as shown in Figure 23.

Figure 23: The color has been added back into the image on a layer.

Next, I added a Hide All layer mask (Layer > Layer Mask > Hide All). With the Brush Tool I painted in white on the layer mask to selectively add color back. The Layer Mask is shown in Figure 24 (areas in white are where color was added back in). The final image is shown in Figure 25.

Figure 24:I used a Layer Mask to paint the selective color back into the tin type image.

Figure 25: A simulation of a hand-painted tin type.


Essentially, aging tools in Photoshop provide a way to enhance the narrative in your image. These techniques won’t work for all photos—because the “story” in many photos is not appropriate for aging when the subject matter is modern. But when a retro look fits the image, appropriate application of aging techniques can greatly enhance your image.
Bear in mind that there are many possible to ways to proceed with aging a photo. The techniques I’ve shown you in this roundup are only a few of the possibilities. There are many alternative ways to do some of the things I’ve explained. For example, I can think of at least half a dozen different techniques for adding a tint or tone right off the top of my head.
There also are a number of other aging techniques not included in this roundup. I’m saving them for a future column in which I will be explaining some other options, including scanning textures to combine with your photos to create a wonderful, aged look.

You should pick and choose the tools that are right to age your particular photos, with a pre-visualized aging effect in mind bearing in mind that there are many different aging effects to choose from, and often multiple ways to implement those techniques. I hope showing you some of my favorite aging methods will help spur your creativity and give you some ideas for aging your own photos.

This article explained:

  • Why it sometimes adds to the appearance of a digital photo to simulate aging
  • Adding a sepia tint
  • Using the Dust & Scratches filter
  • Simulating fading
  • Using the Photoshop Aged Photo action
  • Nik Silver Efex aging options
  • Desaturation and virtual hand painting

Other Photoshop Tutorials

Creativity in the Photoshop Darkroom by Harold Davis: Multi-RAW Processing | Creating HDR Images by Hand [Part I] | Creating HDR Images by Hand [Part II] | Sharpening in LAB Color

Advanced Photoshop Tutorials by Jay Kinghorn: Layer Masks | Smart Objects | Advanced Masking | Image Sharpening | Burning and Dodging


Harold Davis is a photographer and author. His photographs have been widely published, exhibited, and collected. Many of his fine art photography posters are well known. Harold’s images have won a Silver Award in the International Aperture Awards 2008 competition, and inclusion in the 2009 North American Nature Photography Association Expressions Showcase.

Harold is the author of The Photoshop Darkroom: Creative Digital Post-Processing (Focal), Creative Composition: Digital Photography Tips & Techniques (Wiley), Creative Night: Digital Photography Tips & Techniques (Wiley), Creative Close-Ups: Digital Photography Tips & Techniques (Wiley), Practical Artistry: Light & Exposure for Digital Photographers (O’Reilly Digital Media) and other books. Harold gives frequent digital photography workshops, many under the auspices of the Point Reyes National Seashore Association.

Text and photos ©2010 Harold Davis.

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    • Good stuff Harold! Thank you!

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    • Harold,

      for those of us who do to have either the skill or the time (or both!) to engage in this activity, could you give your opinions on "pre-fab" sepia effects, as the ones you get with PS, Lightroom, Efex Pro, etc? Thank you very much. Marco


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