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How to Create the Feeling of Nostalgia in Photography

How to Create the Feeling of Nostalgia in Photography

Nostalgia is a powerful tool in photography that triggers memories and emotions. Take a trip down memory lane with these stylistic effects. 

Have you ever looked at a photo and felt like it tapped into a long-lost memory and opened up a Pandora’s box of emotion? Chances are, you were looking at a photo that evokes nostalgia. 

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, nostalgia evokes “a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for a return to or of some past period.”

In photography, we can use nostalgia—or the effect of nostalgia—as a powerful tool to add emotional impact. 

Before we look at some of the stylistic ways we can add a nostalgic feel to our photography, let’s first discuss what nostalgia is and why it moves us in such a profound and meaningful way. 

Nostalgia evokes a sense of yearning to return to the past. License these images via mike mols, Image Source, Cavan Images, Photo_Time, and Joe Schmelzer.

What Is Nostalgia? 

We’ve all experienced that feeling of nostalgia before, but what is it? There’s a key time in our lives when we’re most affected by nostalgia—and that’s during our late adolescence.

This is when our brain’s memory systems are at their most efficient—and when our memories are at their most vivid. 

Girl playing with a vintage phone next to a vase filled with flowers in her bedroom
License this image via Ella K. Sverdlov.

Our late adolescence is a critical developmental period when we’re experiencing many things for the very first time. We’re forming an identity and attachments to different music, ideas, and philosophies that shape who we are.

Many of these very same attachments will stay with us throughout our lives because when we’re exposed to these things again as adults, our brains experience a dopamine release, making us feel good.

This perhaps explains why every generation will swear they had the music back in the day. And why nostalgia appears to be stronger during our adolescence and young adult years than any other period.

Nostalgia permeates our culture in more ways than one, also finding its way into the commercial world. 

Fuji Film cameras are popular with photographers for their retro range. Instagram filters became wildly popular for their vintage effects.

Simulating a vintage look in photo editing software is also a very popular technique. Re-creating the vintage imperfections you often see in film is just one of the many methods that photographers have used to add visual interest to their shots.

Top view of cute little three year old girl in ballerina attire laying on the floor looking up
Re-creating photographic imperfections, such as grain, became a popular technique when evoking nostalgia in photography. License this image via saranya33.

It’s important to note that the problem with nostalgia is it’s subjective. Something that might be nostalgic for you might not be nostalgic for someone else. Nostalgia is simply a feeling that will only resonate with those who share the same nostalgic triggers.

To use the power of nostalgia more effectively, we can incorporate nostalgic qualities in our photography while embracing the new.

So, rather than emulating the past, let’s move forward by harnessing the power of nostalgia to communicate a message, but in a new, modern, and authentic way. 

Approaches to Nostalgia in Photography 

So, how can we incorporate elements of nostalgia in our photography? A more on-the-nose approach would be to make the subject matter of your photography something old.

Perhaps an abandoned gas station that retains the old signs and pumps, old photos, or even clotheslines can take us on a journey to the past. There are also some stylistic approaches to photography that evoke nostalgia.

So, let’s discuss ways you can work these styles in your photography. 

Subject matter depicting old objects is a direct route to evoking nostalgia in photography. License these images via BRETT STEVENS / Image Source, Martin Bergsma, Nejron Photo, Chris Wise, Elle Gerais, View Stock, JOAT, and Ari Wid.

1. Black and White

The first ever photos were taken in black and white by French developer Joseph Nicéphore Niépce when color photography was still not possible.

Today, we can nod to the past by translating our photography into black and white. We can do this in several ways.

In Adobe Photoshop, simply use a Black & White Image Adjustment layer. Try different presets and move the color slides within each of the presets so you can adjust the appearance of your photo to your liking.

Moving the slider to the right will lighten the image, and moving the slider left will darken it.

Black and white photography is where it all started, serving as a subtle nod to the past and evoking a sense of nostalgia. License these images via Denys Chernyshov, Brothers Art, Gabriele Maltinti, Photo Volcano, and TONL.

2. Photo Filter

Perhaps you want to add a color wash, such as sepia tone, to your image? Sepia toning was used back in the day to make photographic prints more resistant to environmental pollutants. Today, we can give our photography a sepia tone wash purely for aesthetic effect.

To do this, simply add an Adjustment Level and select Photo Filter to explore the different washes. You can also add a blue or green filter to your photos to evoke a vintage-like quality to your shots. 

A good alternative to Adobe Photoshop? Shutterstock Create. Go to Create and Effects to choose from a variety of different sepia tone presets with the option to adjust the color in the settings.

Using a photo filter in photography gives your photos a wash of color for a vintage aesthetic effect. License these images via Roxana Gonzalez, PEACE ECOLOGY, Mats Silvan / Design Pics, Tupungato, and ANDREI_SITURN.

3. Noise 

As mentioned, noise can give your photos texture reminiscent of vintage film by adding a nostalgic quality to your photos.

Noise is a type of distortion and a favorite go-to visual effect when wanting to add a vintage feel to your shots. The visual distortion of pixels often appears in photographs when a picture is taken with insufficient light.

To add noise to your photography, go to the Filter menu along the top of the screen, click on Noise, and then select Add Noise.

You can adjust the amount of noise in your photography by moving the Amount slider. 

Dark silhouette of a children's boat floating under a bridge
Noise is a type of visual distortion and can evoke vintage film. License this image via Dmitriev Mikhail.

4. Brightness and Contrast Levels

Ever noticed how older images appeared to have less contrast and weren’t as bright back then? By adjusting the brightness and contrast levels of your black and white photography, we can also drive home that nostalgic feel.

In Photoshop, add another Image Adjustment Layer to your image and go to the Brightness/Contrast setting. This is where you can adjust the brightness and contrast of your shot to your liking. 

Tweaking the contrast and brightness levels in your photography can evoke a nostalgic feeling from the past. License these images via Maksim Safaniuk, Paul Steven, Yasonya, and Elzbieta Sekowska.

5. Soft Glow 

Visual memories often appear hazy in our minds, so adding a hazy glow to photography can also evoke a sense of nostalgia for many viewers.

To create this soft glow effect, in Photoshop, go to the Filter menu at the top of the screen, and choose Blur. Here, you can select Gaussian Blur, which brings up Photoshop’s Gaussian Blur dialog box.

Go to the slider box at the bottom to control the Radius value. Play around with the Radius value to see how much of a blurring effect you want to achieve.

You don’t want to overdo it, so a good place to start is setting the Radius value to somewhere around 8 pixels. You may find that you need to go higher if you have a higher resolution photo.

The best thing you can do when adjusting the settings is to keep your eye on the preview window to see what effect your settings have on the photo. 

Adding a soft glow to your photography can be used to evoke a hazy memory in your photography. Licenses these images via Ireshetnikov54, Evgeny Atamanenko, Ireshetnikov54, and Ireshetnikov54.

So, are you ready to take your viewers on a journey back in time? Return to these tips as a resource when looking to add an element of nostalgia to your photography. 

License this cover image via beccarra.

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