How can I achieve a retro-elegant, faded, low-contrast, look, as seen in photos by Samuel Elkins?

Assuming this is done in Lightroom or Photoshop, I suspect photographer uses a preset because he has several photos with the same look.

Possible elements:

  • Change hue saturation and luminosity of greens
  • Rise balck points in curves
  • Some split toning
  • Maybe lower highlights, black and/or white point
  • Maybe RBG curves

Photo by Samuel Elkins

  • 3
    \$\begingroup\$ "Retro" and "elegant" aren't very actionable descriptors. Can you be more specific? \$\endgroup\$
    – mattdm
    May 27, 2018 at 19:01
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ Have you tried asking Samuel Elkins? \$\endgroup\$
    – Michael C
    May 27, 2018 at 19:11
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ @mattdm the point is that if I was able to describe it more carefully. E.g. desaturated reds, raise shadows, etc. I would already know how to do it. For me is like describing a smell or a color to someone who never experienced it. I do not have the concepts and the words to exaplin it. BTW how would you define the colors and the tones of this picture? :) \$\endgroup\$
    – Paolo
    May 27, 2018 at 20:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ I have asked, but he has no tutorial videos on his youtube channel. I am not sure he will share his secrets ;) \$\endgroup\$
    – Paolo
    May 27, 2018 at 20:41
  • \$\begingroup\$ Are you seeing the same thing as in this question? Or this one? Or this one? \$\endgroup\$
    – mattdm
    May 28, 2018 at 11:44

4 Answers 4


I see 3 things here :

  1. the infamous faded look, where you push the blacks into greys and whites into greys, resulting in a reduced contrast. Usually it's done with tonecurve,
  2. a slight color desaturation,
  3. some sort of film emulation color profile to shift the tones, especially the skin tones (looks like Kodak Portra).

I don't think there is split toning here, the white balance is pretty neutral in every tone range.

As usual when someone asks how to reproduce a style, I will ask you back : don't you think we have seen these tricks too much already and would you really like to be just another minion following an already old trend ?

  • \$\begingroup\$ I want to undestand how it is done, it is a way of learning. I am saing his style is good or bad :) \$\endgroup\$
    – Paolo
    May 27, 2018 at 20:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ For what it's worth, you probably need, as a pre-requisite, to use a camera with a decent dynamic range and pleasant highlight roll-off. \$\endgroup\$ May 30, 2018 at 2:13

Keep in mind that part of what is different from other images is the actual scene — to recreate this look, you'll need... a model with a stripy black and white shirt, similar plants, and probably a room with big bright windows (although it's very possibly this is studio lighting).

But given that, one way to figure out what's been done here is to try to put it back to a neutral state. Then, you can do those things in reverse to recreate the effect.

The most obvious thing is the raised blacks. This is very, very typical for "film effect" filters or post-processing (even if it doesn't actually mimic film in reality). Here's the Curves tool in Gimp:


See how the histogram doesn't extend to the far left? That whole eighth of the scale is empty. That means there are no pure black pixels in the whole image. Generally, when capturing a photo, the default is to try to use as much of the available dynamic range as possible — our vision, of course, perceives a lot of detail in deep blacks, and so doing this definitely looks unnatural. We can "fix" it with a this adjustment in the curves tool:


... where the new line stretches the old to cover the whole range. The result:


A lot more contrast than the original! Now, we also notice that this is mostly tones in the low register — that big "mountain" at the left. Let's pull them back up to middling, like this:


Now, normally, you'd want to do this as one step — and if you're aiming for perfection, you really want to start with a RAW image. But we're just reverse-engineering here, so that doesn't really matter. The result:


Okay, and so the second thing here is that those plants look really desaturated. Unless they're fake, they're probably a brighter green than that. Actually, probably even more so if they're fake. This is hard to put back, but we can push up the saturation in green, like this:

resaturate green

... with this result, which isn't perfect but is probably the best one can reasonably expect from that simple tool operating on a JPEG:


Note that if you use the "master" saturation and increase everything, the model's skin turns bright orange. That indicates that a tone curve (or "film simulation") which desaturates green (and maybe blue) but does something different with skin tones.

That's really all there is to it (and to other similar "looks").


A possible approach to achieving the fashionable instagrammy film look™ is - shoot some film!

I am only half joking. A beat up Praktica costs next to nothing, just make sure the meter is working. Forget the looks of the thing, and remember the commrades from GDR built it to bear some abuse. Load it with Kodak Portra (if people is your game) and off you go.


One way to figure out what effects were used is to see what it takes to make the picture look more "normal".

Here is the version you are asking about:

Making the darkest part black and the lightest white yields:

The brightest part was (.991, .991, .997), so the original was using full white. However, the darkest part was (.134, .143, .126), showing that the original black level was elevated and made a little greenish.

Another thing that is now apparent is that the dark areas decend rapidly into black. There is very little brightness resolution in the dark areas. This can be somewhat undone by applying non-linear brightening that brings up the dark areas quickly:

This is now more "normal" what I think most people's perception of normal would be. Going further is difficult when starting with your post-processed result. More expansion of the dark areas would show the quantization in the image we started with.

So, in summary, here is what was done to the original:

  1. The black level was elevated about 0.13, and made a little greenish.

  2. The dark areas were squashed towards black rather aggressively.


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