Friday, August 27, 2010

Case Study: The Polaroid and Film Effect

Every once in a while the fashion magazines are flooded with a certain faded Polaroid/Film washed out look with  cyan/teal shadows and warm pink/cream highlights. During film days, this look has been a favorite of photographic artists for a very long time. Paolo Roversi is known to create images like this but with actual Large Format Polaroids till date(see title image above). Recently, we are seeing this old look has split into different styles and resurfaced in the Digital era in with the old legends like Patrick Demarchelier, Steven Meisel, Annie Leibovitz and the new heavy hitter Norman Jean Roy. 

Lets begin with Norman Jean Roy, who is regularly published in Vogue and Harpers Bazaar. One of the earliest adapter of a part of this the boost of cyan/teal tone in the black shadows of the image. Sometime even the highlights get a little cyan in them but mostly they are daylight balanced. This style is similar to the Blockbuster film look, where also the shadows are full of the cyan tone, giving the movie a cool and warm look at the same time. Take a look at some of Roy's work below...

Roy had this look down for a long time and it was a mixture of film processing and digital techniques. He still shoots film for many assignments even these days, along with digital. His final images consistently show the same tone of cyan regardless of film or digital format. 

Annie Leibovitz's work is also showing heavy traces of this effect where only the shadows and some mid-tones are tinted into cyan or teal, while the highlights on subject are neutral. This gives a certain painting feel to the images.

In the above images, the artists have only boosted the shadows with cyan to give a vintage film effect. Now lets go to images where the highlights are tinted with colors like cream/pink etc. This technique give a faded Polaroid look to the images.

The perfect example of this technique can be seen in Patrick Demarcheliers 2008 Campaign for BCBG.

 A similar effect can be seen on Patrick's Pirelli Calendar images below. I'ts mostly the blacks that get toned to cyan and highlights to very light pink.

As you can see from Patrick's work is that he uses this effect a lot but still, these effects don't define him. 

Steven Meisel is one of my favorites who does this from time to time. In his latest Campaign for Louis Vuitton with Madonna, he has used this color toning and faded effect to give the images a feel of an old painting rather than a vintage photograph.

There is one thing common in the images of Annie, Patrick and Meisel. None of them do or have time to do retouching themselves. All their images are edited, toned and made ready to print by one guy....Pascal Dangin. Yes this person and his team of 40 retouchers are single handedly responsible for the editing of images of every Vogue Cover to Vuitton Campaigns you see in the past few years. He works for the 10 best Photographers in the industry including the above mentioned. 

Pascal started out as a hair dresser for shoots in NY City in the late 80's and got fascinated and sucked into the computer side of digital photography. He is a master artist who knows  is colors and anatomy. For complicated shoots he even  accompanies the above Photogs as a digi-tech.  You will never see any image from these top photographers unless they have been doctored by Dangin.

For the above images, the effect is accomplished with a combination of Luminosity masks, Hue Saturation, Selective Color, Levels, Curves and Channels in Photoshop to tone the low end, mid and high separately to add that perfect 'haze' depending on what final look is required.

Disclaimer: All photographs and videos used in this article are copyright of their respective owners.


  1. Thanks Ben. Big fan of your work too!

  2. do you recomend any of your actions to acheive such effects?

  3. 'Cinemascope Blockbuster' action and 'Sleek Cyan' and 'Grunge Portrait Cyan' are designed to achieve the effects of the images of Norman Jean Roy and Annie Leibovitz images shown above.

    Lighting is also a very important factor before photoshop.All the above images have been shot with flash on location.

    The images of Steven Meisel and Patrick Demarchelier are more complex in editing.

    For Patricks image, you have to run a 'white skin mask' action to make the skin white and then either 'Frozen Blue' or 'Winter' action for the blue tone.

    Stevens images of Maddonna will require experimenting and masking with 'Vintage' and 'Stone Wash' actions.

  4. Great article! Your work and insights are fantastic. I'm wondering... do you have any insight on the toning of the mid-tones? I suspect there is some sort of "link" that helps establish a harmony between the "cyanish" shadows and the pink/cream highlights. Thank you in advance!