10 Tips and Tricks of "Nostalgraphy"

Oddly, this post starts in the middle of a Big Bang Theory Episode.

Character Dr. Sheldon Cooper makes mention of a word he is coining, "prevening," to accurately describe the period between afternoon and evening.

My own coined term doesn't quite roll off the tongue as easily as that of Jim Parson's famous character,  but I think it's about as succinct in describing a favorite photographic theme of mine: "nostalgraphy."

It's a fairly simple portmanteau that combines "nostalgia" and "photography."  That said, the concept of nostalgraphy is not exactly self-explanatory by default.  In short, it is the process of taking a photo in the present day with the intention of making it look as if it were taken decades ago.

Succinctly, what it boils down to is how this image definitely looks like it was taken decades ago...

but what about this one?

While recreating an image with all the elements of the first image in the present day (lining up vehicles, people, signage, etc.) would be all but impossible for all but the most financially able individual, there are still ways to get images that appear as though they were taken decades ago.  However, as I've come to find out, creating a truly nostalgraphic sometimes image can require a measurable amount of planning, patience, luck, skill, and manipulation to successfully pull off.  It is far more often than not quite a bit more than simply snapping an image and applying an Instagram filter. It is challenging to say the very least, but getting a successful result makes it feel worth it.

Below, in no particular order are ten general tips and tricks I've compiled as I have tried to improve upon my own results in this oddly adventurous but fun aspect of photography.  

1- Use online tools to find possible scenes.  From 2001 to 2004, I used to scramble around my area by car and foot looking for old artifacts to photograph for a website. Finding these remnant bits and pieces depended largely on luck.  Today, there are a number of resources available to do "recon" to depend less on luck, from websites and blogs, to Google Street View in the Google Maps, as well as enhanced features like Google Image searches.  These can help provide a useful starting point on where to go to attempt some retro imagery.

2 - Using old film lenses on digital cameras often helps impart a "film look."  I admit to loving the era of digital photography, but I can also admit that the images I take on my Olympus mirrorless cameras on the kit lenses (as with the vast majority of digital images) look very digital in nature.  They are vivid, sharp, and full of contrast, thanks in large part to the resolution and coatings in the lens.  This is more often than not a great thing, but when desiring a nostalgic look, these great enhancements can tend to interfere with getting an evocative image.  Fortunately, technology has allowed older lenses to be adapted onto modern day interchangeable camera bodies.  This can often help in composing an image that has less contrast and softer sharpness.  There is a major caveat to this, in that the use of these lenses and adapters will typically increase the focal length of the lens to anywhere from 1.6x to 2x the focal length, making it tougher to compose scenes, creating a telephoto look not too common in older images, while running the risk of running afoul of item #5 below.

While neither of these first two images are terribly convincing as far as looking old, they do illustrate two things.  In this image, shot on a digital camera with an adapted wide angle lens, the image portrays a softer contrast to give a more pastoral effect.  

3 - However, the "easiest" way to get the look of old film is to actually use film in an older camera.  Okay, easy is a relative term given that you must undergo the somewhat arduous process of obtaining film, an older camera, sending the film off for processing, and then scanning it upon its return.  However, if you are like me, you'd prefer spending your time taking photos instead of manipulating photos in image editing software, you'll find that scans of film provide a much easier starting point than trying to impart a look of film on a digital image by adding grain, fading, and other imperfections.  Besides, overly manipulated images tend to look overly manipulated.  It took me a little time to accept that I get my best "film look" results by using film, but now that I have, I find my enthusiasm for taking nostalgic photos has certainly increased knowing that I won't have to undergo so much surgery to an image in the digital darkroom.   

The above image however was shot with a folding camera on film, and despite some soft focus, provides a better image starting point than any native digital image to create a true retro feel.

4 - With historic elements, try to find that middle balance between too pristine and too forlorn.  This can be a big challenge today, as can be all too readily illustrated in a vintage car.  When fortunate enough to come across an antique auto, far too often they are either meticulously restored to showroom condition, or they are sitting decrepit in a field as either a parts resource for a restoration job, or are the never started restoration job.  While I never shy away from a chance to take a photo of vintage relic in any condition, I'm only lucky enough every now and then to find a subject that I can convincingly convey in such a way that it may appear as though my image of it was taken years ago.  

The sign in the photo above fits the middle ground between decrepit and pristine.  It is still fully functional though there are burnt out light bulbs as well as a very dim neon tube.  I also took advantage of tips #6 and #9 in creating this image. Taken on a Digital Camera. 

5 - Don't create an overly claustrophobic image.  These almost always feel obviously manipulated for a number of reasons.  Aside from posed people images, many of images taken decades ago are normal perspective images of nature and cityscapes.  Thus, it was not common for people to hone in on an advertisement to take its photo.  As a result, an image of an advertisement (or other historic element) taken today will too often look forced in that it lacks any context to the wider world.  Where possible, dial it back to show as much of the current scene as possible, while being careful not to reveal too many telling anachronisms. 

While the main point of interest was the old storefront and its vintage sign, I waited patiently for a break in traffic so that I could record this scene from a wider perspective to make a less claustrophobic feel to the composition.  The double yellow lines and shoulder lines are very likely anachronistic to the 1950's or 1960's for which this image takes it cues. Taken on a 1951 Agfa Billy 1 Camera.

6 - Be mindful of modern day anachronisms, but consider downplaying them instead of entirely cropping them from the composition.  This is one to use in conjunction with the above guideline.  Obviously it is tough to widen one's viewpoint in a nostalgic photo taken today without obviously revealing the image was taken today.  Still, through skillful use of shallow depth of field (by using wide apertures) and wise use of shadows, one can allow anachronisms to creep into a photo without them being glaring. The result can be an image that is still very believable to all but the most discerning eye.  

I could have easily trimmed out the car on the right and stooped lower to vanish the ones in the background of this photo, but to be honest, they are hardly noticeable in this image as it is, since the Volkswagen draws the attention clearly.  Taken on a 1990's Seagull 4A-103 TLR Film Camera - the vignetting is part of the natural look of the camera, and is not applied digitally. 

7 - Consider using weather elements and seasons to enhance the nostalgic feel.  Rain and fog can tend to give a 1940's "Noir" feel, while sunshine tends to bring out the most of a colorful 1950's era feel.  Foliage blooming or falling helps strike up nostalgic chords within us as well, and can be used in an image to heighten those stirrings.  Relying on these devices can enhance the feeling of your overall image

Fall leaves and mist tend to lend to the nostalgic mood of this photo, though I don't feel that it works well enough to be convincing, particularly with those modern wheels on the Mustang.  Taken with a digital camera with a 35mm manual focus lens.

8 - If you can't find period-specific elements for a picture, don't hesitate to resort to timeless scenes. One of my favorite examples of this is the use of farms as a subject matter.  Just enough built environment to keep it from being a completely unspecific nature scene, but still quite evocative of decades past in many ways.  Add in that farms are also quite scenic and calming in nature (though perhaps not to hard working farmers) and you have the makings of a very compelling and sentimental image.  

Now this one just works for me.  Lots to look at, nothing at all standing out as out of place, and a nice composition to boot. A very nostalgic farm image taken on the 1951 Agfa Billy I on Velvia 100 film that looks like it was taken in the 1940's.  

9 - Just because people don't dress like they did decades ago does not necessarily make it necessary to have photos devoid of life.  While in theory, you can convince your nephew to cut his hair in a 1960's style, don horn rims and period garb, and pose as a part of your recreated setting, it is not quite practical for him.  Still, a collection of nostalgic images should not leave the viewer feeling as though they are perusing a gallery of a post apocalyptic world.  A photographer seeking to inject a little life into the frame can use tip #6 to show people subtly in the background.  Further, using a tripod, they can slow the shutter speed down in some instances so that people and vehicles become indistinct blurs.  It doesn't fully negate the lack of people presence in these modern day images, but it does help.  

I stopped the lens on the Yashica 12 down to f/22 to be able to use a 1 second exposure on a dreary day.  The result is that the parent and child are greatly blurred and not immediately evident as anachronistic.  Drawback of doing this was that the modern day Subway logo in the backdrop is as clear and sharp as can be.  I may need to look into some neutral density filters so that I can shoot slow speeds wide open.  

10 - Using black and white instead of color can be very helpful, though it won't make the image. Nearly every digital camera made today has a black and white, and even a "Sepia" setting for those times a photographer wants to give a classic feel to an image.  Even image editing software can convert a color image to black and white in seconds.  That said, simply shooting or converting to black and white does not be default make an image timeless.  Try to use as many of the tips listed above, but by all means feel free to use a black and white or toned image as your final result if it helps the overall result.  

The sign plus an overcast day help complement this black and white image seen here.  I do wish I'd dialed this one back a bit, as it does seem a bit too tight.    

Finally, and foremost, take some time to view actual old images and get the general feel of how they were often composed as well as the feel they give off.  This can be very helpful in trying to recreate the feeling of these sorts of images in the photos you shoot.  Above all else though, enjoy the challenge!