Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Case Study: The Faded, Blurred & Textured Look

Vintage has never been out of fashion, especially in the area of Fine Art Photography. In the previous case study of the Polaroid and Film effect, all the attention was paid to the color and toning of the image. In this part we go way beyond that looking into the faded effects, blur/grain and abstract grunge texture. But most importantly, besides these technicalities, we will see what 'subject' matter makes such a 'Paolo Roversi' type of image click.

In the digital age of Photography, many artists and graphic designers bought a Digital SLR and joined the Photography band wagon. These group of people came with a strong influence of Photoshop skills which compensated for their limited lighting experience. Some went as far as creating fantasy images and putting fairy wings on model shots. Why, because they could, it looked cool, and traditional photographers couldn't. 

A decade back, i belonged to this category and such was my portfolio. When I showed it around to art directors, they looked at me and asked if i was there for Photography assignments or Retouching jobs. Problem was, they couldn't see the lighting skills in such a portfolio to trust you with a photography assignment. Since that day i stopped bombarding my images with color effects, grunge textures and...umm...fairy wings.

I'm glad i did, as since then i learnt a lot about lighting the image and really understanding what i need the visual to communicate in terms of expressions and emotions of the model. That brings us to the first part of this topic...the subject matter!

So....what type of images really do work with this effect?
What I have seen, for this look to be really powerful, you need models who can express emotions, either excitement, movement or sensuality. This applies for mainly female models. For male models, this effect will look nice on serious portraits. This is not a fixed rule and of course you can experiment, but take my word for one not try this look on a busty glamor model smiling in the camera.  

Nick Onken is a NY based lifestyle photographer with an amazing skill of capturing (actually recreating) the 'Kodak moments'. Besides the liveliness of the models in his images, you will find subtle traces of the faded part of this look.

What Nick does to his images is to make it look very real like prints from a negative film in the 70s. His images have decent amounts of faded edges, grain and motion blur.  The use of these subtle techniques adds a lot of character to the already expressive capture.

While Nick shoots these images mostly with film cameras just to be authentic, they can also be captured digitally and color tone masks and grains can be added in Photoshop. He also has an excellent photography blog which you should definitely dig into.

Lot8Studios is a Bay Area photographer with an unparalleled gift for capturing fond memories and feminine sensuality.

His true calling lies in his unique photojournalistic style with his nostalgic appreciation for treasured memories of girlfriends past....which is evident in his 'girlfriend' series. An important part of this look besides the faded color tones, is the shallow depth of field. 

It is very important that the images of this type to have a soft feel, either by use of motion blur to show movement or a very shallow depth of field produced by use of a sharp lens. I am not telling you to invest in lenses upto $2000 like the 70-200 f2.8mm lens or the 85mm 1.2 lens. If you can afford it, great. But a cheap entry level 50mm 1.8 lens will get the job done. For all those who are chirping in chorus that this lens not 'that' sharp wide open, i have to tell you one thing as far as this look point exactly!

Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II Camera LensNikon 50mm f/1.8D AF Nikkor Lens for Nikon Digital SLR CamerasNikon 50mm f/1.8G AF-S NIKKOR Lens for Nikon Digital SLR Cameras

Many times due to limited space it is difficult to get a nice bokeh with the lens, and might have to fake the depth of field in the computer. This demands a lot of experience in making and visual sense. I would strongly suggest you to get the shallow depth right in camera itself.

All this blur talk takes me to an expert visual artist from Flickr, Dylan K. His work is a bit dark and moody 
and he enjoys taking self portraits.

Dylan's sense of color toning is amazing. Although the soft blur to drive the eye only to the focussed areas is not that evident in his self portraits, his retouching collaboration with another Flickr photographer Not Jane Doe, shows his brilliance in color toning and selective blur. Take a look at this image below, shot by Not Jane Doe and edited by Dylan...

As you can see in the above image, besides the excellent color toning, Light and Sharpness of the image has dropped significantly in areas around the main subject, directing your eyes to the man in the center. In other words, there are a lot of layer masks involved for color, light and blur. Another example of their collaboration in this amazing shot by Not Jane Doe by replacing the fridge light with 1 bare SB-600 at 1/64 and 1 SB-900 at 1/128, bare, behind model, 8' away, right of camera....

I can just imagine a bunch of  layer masks, gradient maps, curves, selective color, and some masked feather gaussian blur going on there. This color toning is discussed in the previous case study of Polaroind and Film effect, where the blue tone looks dropped onto the shadows. What is special in this image is the models pose, lighting and composition of this shot. Also the colors chosen by Dylan in post seem to always mesh with this shot.

Regarding the lighting, I'm pretty sure that choice of lighting is an important factor in achieving the effect. There is a difference in the result when working with daylight and studio lights. This look works better with daylight, window light or a single diffused studio light from one side or angled. The simpler the lighting is, the more appealing the look is. I think the secret to getting this effect rests on mainly the way the subject is lit.

Okay, so far we have seen examples of faded colors, selective blur/shallow depth of field and lighting. That leaves us with adding texture to create an abstract grunge, which brings us to another excellent fine art photographer Jaime Ibarra.

Jaime has been a graphic artist for years and truly understands post processing. There are likely several ways to accomplish the general look of his post production, but that is only part of the equation leading to the end result he achieves. The effect is simple to achieve but that is not the same thing as giving life to the image. Jaime Ibarra's Photography is brilliant. His usage of natural light and image composition and approach to eliciting emotions from his subjects is the most driving factor in the look of his work.

Complementary colors are a common choice. So if you go orange/pale yellow in highlights, you go blue/teal for the shadows, sometimes the midtone is magenta, and sometimes it is green, depending on the color wheel. His workflow involves curves, gradient mapping and he does mask and texturize his backgrounds alot. Take a look at some more of his images and see how the textures have been used...

Now take a look at some of my own examples below. This first image was shot with one big soft light from the left of the model.

First thing i do is to add the color tone. Since i wanted the colors to compliment her tattoos, i ran the Lomo LC-A action from my set of Pro Photoshop Actions, which has a palette of green for shadows and pale yellow for the highlights and adjustable vignette. I am not going into details of color in this post to save a lot of steps, as you can find almost all color effects here. For those who don't own them yet, you can experiment with curves, selective color and color balance to get a similar effect.

Next i added an old paper edge texture and set the blend mode to multiply and 29% opacity. You can get amazing textures from CGtextures. Some folks on Flickr also share their textures for you to use. Creating your own textures is also very simple and fun, but thats another topic for now.

Next i added another texture of an old grungy wall with around 60% opacity in multiply mode, and masked the layer. I didn't want this texture to be visible on the model so i painted her out as you can see in the mask layer below.

Next i added a masked layer of blur. My preferred method is box blur rather than gaussian or lens blur. I just find it more appealing and realistic with such images. You can see on the mask how little areas of blur i used in the actual image. Mainly i just blended all the sharp edges of hair, cloth, knees into the background.

It looks fine so far...but missing the faded look. To achieve that, i used the Cross Faded action at around 70% opacity which fills in the blacks with a faded gradation of red and blue. I prefer this over filling the blacks with an even faded red or an even blue, as this adds more interest in the image.

I've come to find that there is no formula. Each image would require something different. It all depends on the look you are looking for and playing with the tools to get it, right from the time of shooting. Below are some more examples with their respective layer panels for you to reverse engineer.

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


  1. Great post, thanks! Didnt know about the CGtextures website - what a great site that is too! Well done.

  2. Been waiting for this, great article!!

  3. wow man incredible stuff! Really great sets of images and photographers included!

  4. Fantastic, i want most dayly post! your are geourgus!

  5. Fantastic post!!!. Thanks.

    Miguel Mora