The Digital Eye: Creating Old Timey Pictures—Daguerreotypes

Stephen Romaniello is an artist and educator teaching digital art at Pima Community College in Tucson, Arizona for over 20 years. He is a certified instructor in Adobe Photoshop and the author of several books on the creative use of digital graphics software. Steve is the founder of GlobalEye systems, a company that offers training and consulting in digital graphics software and creative imaging.

A few years ago, I wrote an article for this publication called “Retouched by an Angel” about restoring old photos using Adobe Photoshop (January 2011 issue of Sign & Digital Graphics). Today there are even more tools and techniques that make restoration and retouching images a compelling and potentially lucrative activity. Restored images are highly valued, especially in family archives and as an historic record of events, architecture and people.

Backwards March!

In this edition of The Digital Eye I want show you a few techniques that do the exact opposite. These are techniques make new photographs look old. The value of these vintage-looking images in the commercial world of publishing and advertising is that they evoke the past. Resurrecting yesteryear and its dusty memories can be a great way to sell a product.

History Lesson

Old photos have specific characteristics that indicate when and where they were taken. Photos from the mid 19th century, for example, required long exposures where the subject had to sit very still for as long as a minute or two, and consequently usually look a bit wooden. During this period, a camera consisted of a large wooden box with a fixed lens and coated glass plates that captured the image. As film evolved exposures became shorter and images became more candid.

In February, 1900 Eastman Kodak introduced the Brownie camera—a cardboard box with a lens that used 120 roll film. It was an instant success. Its simplicity and its one-dollar price tag suddenly made photography accessible to everyone. Since then two great milestones have had major influences on photography. Color film—though experimented with in the 19th century—was introduced commercially in 1935 by Eastman Kodak, naming it Kodachrome. 

The other major technological innovation affecting photography was the invention of the digital camera which was conceived of, engineered and built by Steve Sasson of Eastman Kodak using a charge-couple device image sensor back in 1975. Digital cameras became available to consumers in the mid 1990s, and by 2005 had all but replaced film cameras.

Visit the Past

Photos from different eras appear distinctly different in each time period, depending on a number of aesthetic and technical factors. Costumes, props, environment, lighting, facial expression, hair styles, camera angle, type of camera, focal length and lenses all play a role in creating vintage photo from a particular time of history.

If you want to produce an old-timey looking image you should consider these factors and determine what period of time you would like to simulate. Study images from that particular period to determine what the characteristics need to be. Pictures from every period of history can be found on the Web. In this article I’d like to show you a technique for creating antique Daguerreotypes. 

Daguerreotypes

You’ve captured the image with your scanner or digital camera, making sure that the resolution meets your printing requirements. Daguerreotypes were the first commercial type of photograph. The technique was first introduced by Louis Daguerre and Joseph Nicéphore Niépce in 1830.

Here is a short step-by-step breakdown of the very complex process:

Step 1—Coat a copper plate with silver.

Sept 2—Polish and buff the copper plate.

Step 3—Expose the plate to iodine and bromine fumes to make it light sensitive. (Toxic)

Step 4—Cover the plate with a protective slide made of opaque glass or metal.

Step 5—Load the plate into the camera in absolute darkness.

Step 6—Place the subject in front of the camera. Fix the pose using clamps and stands.

Step 5—Remove the protective slide from the plate and then the lens cap from the camera lens.

Step 6—Wait for 15-30 minutes for the image to be exposed. (in 1841 after refinements to the process, the time was reduced to 20-90 seconds)

Step 7—Make the resulting latent image visible by fuming it with mercury vapor. (Very toxic)

Step 8—Remove its sensitivity to light by a liquid chemical treatment, (involving more nasty chemicals)

Step 9—Rinse and dry it.

Step 10—Seal the easily marred result behind glass in a protective enclosure.

Fortunately you don’t have to mix toxic chemicals or have your model stand still for an interminable amount of time to achieve this effect. Photoshop makes it easy to simulate these beautiful old images.

Color to Black & White

Open your image in Photoshop. (Figure 1) If your image is in color, convert it to black and white. Display the Adjustments panel (Window > Adjustments) and click on the Black and White icon. (Figure 2) You can adjust specific colors to improve contrast by dragging the colored sliders, but don’t get carried away. Remember old images use primitive lenses and weren’t nearly as sharp and contrasted as they are today.

Adding a Metal Texture

A real Daguerreotype would have been shot on a silver surface. And being more than one hundred and fifty years old, would probably develop surface scratches and flaws. We’ll distress the surface with textures to simulate the effect.

I found a Website called Mayang’s Textures (www.mayang.com/textures) that contains more than 4,300 free texture images—many are metallic that are perfect for this project (see Figure 3).

With so many textures to choose from you can experiment with different ones to get the best results. Place the texture layer between the Black and White Adjustment layer and the Content layer. That will desaturate it. To affect the underlying content layer, experiment with various Blend modes. Overlay, Soft Light or Screen work really well depending on the texture you choose. Dragging the opacity slider on the texture layer controls the visual strength of the effect (see Figure 4).

Photo Filter

Old Daguerreotypes usually are a pale sepia color. A warming photo filter accomplishes this very nicely without compromising detail. Click on the Photo Filter icon in the Adjustments panel and place it at the top of the stack (see Figure 5). The default filter is the warming filter and works well, or you can experiment with different filters from the menu or create your own colored filter.  Here too you can experiment with layer opacity.

Blur It

Because it took so long to expose Daguerreotypes, sometimes they are not completely in focus as the model may have moved or the focal length of the old lenses was very short. You can create a nice blur effect on the content layer while keeping parts of the image in focus by using one of the Blur filters from the Blur Gallery. I used Iris Blur for this image (see Figure 6), but once again, experimentation pays off. The Iris Blur filter blurs everything outside of the marquee. Establish a focal point and then drag the marquee to change its size and shape. The control panel controls the intensity of the blur.

The Vignette

Many real Daguerreotypes contain a darker vignette around the edges. In order to create a vignette, go to Filter > Lens Correction. Under the Custom panel you should find the Vignette filter. Drag the Amount slider to the left to darken the edges and the midpoint slider to adjust the size of the darkened area (see Figure 7).

Grain

Old pictures sometimes appear grainy. Add grain to the content layer by choosing the Filter Gallery. Choose Texture and then Grain. Experiment with the controls until you find the perfect balance of Grain Type, Intensity and Contrast (see Figure 8).

At this point you may want to tweak the opacity of the texture layer or the color and opacity of the Photo Filter (see Figure 9).

Printing

Of course, it’s important to print your images on a suitable substrate. I recommend an archival matte, watercolor or satin stock such as Epson, Canon or Moab Luster, Watercolor or Matte. If you want to produce a Tintype-style image, try printing to a metallic photo paper. Best results are achieved with high quality professional photo printer with water-based pigmented inks.

Photography is a continual record of the past. Since its inception, pictures from each decade are unique and reflect the changing styles and technologies of the time in which they were made. In future articles I will demonstrate the processes of simulating vintage photos from other eras in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, each having unique characteristics that evoke a particular time in the past.

Simulating a Golden Age

So there you have it—easy step-by-step simulation of old Daguerreotypes, from the Golden Age of early photography. These images can vary greatly in color, texture, grain and blur effects, depending the content of your image and on how willing you are to experiment. By studying old photos and balancing these characteristics you can produce extremely convincing images that look as though they were taken in the nineteenth century and discovered today in your attic.