How-To Geek

Create Instagram Style Photo Effects with GIMP or Photoshop


You’ve probably seen lots of vintage photo effects, or maybe even made some of your own using software like Instagram. Today we’ll look at a few “vintage effects” and see how they can be replicated in either GIMP or Photoshop.

Vintage effects like Instagram are simple, and can be approximated or reverse engineered quite easily if you know how. We’ll take a look at how even free software like the GIMP can replicate effects of iPhone photographers and pros alike.


Automatic Vintage Photos with Photoshop Actions


In case you hadn’t seen them already, Gizmodo has blogged about the very excellent Photoshop Action set by Daniel Box. Great as they are, Daniel was far from the first photographer to offer vintage style photo effects packaged as PS actions. A few quick searches on Vintage Photo Photoshop Actions will bring you loads and loads of gorgeous, easy to use actions that will instantly transform a photograph.

If you’ve never used Photoshop Actions before, they’re like little programs you can create in Photoshop to save, load, and share. But for those of us that can’t use Photoshop Actions (or want to create out own unique photo effects) there’s always the manual method.


Manually Creating The “Nashville” Effect


Let’s recreate one of these effects in Photoshop or GIMP, using similar tools either program can handle. Find an image you’d like to play with, and fire up either image editor. Save an alternate copy of your image so that you can revert at any time you need to.


Create a new Layer and fill it with a pale yellow color, then set that layer’s blending mode to multiply.


You can use a color similar to this RGB recipe, if you prefer. The RGB recipe of 250, 220, 175 and the hex #fadcaf will both recreate a similar color in either program.

(Author’s note: Changing this color can definitely affect your final result—so experiment with it!)


Jump back to your background layer. We’re going to make three quick adjustments to the background. First, adjust the central slider bar, moving it over toward the left side of the histogram. You should be adjusting in all three channels of your RGB.

To open Levels, Press Ctrl + L in Photoshop, or navigate to Colors > Levels in GIMP.


Then, change levels to work in the “Green” channel, and adjust the output levels by moving them closer to the right side of the screen. Be certain to do this in the Green channel, and not any other, or the RGB channel.


Change your levels to adjust the “Blue” channel, and dramatically adjust the Output Levels slider. Once you’ve done all three of these, you can press OK.


With only those few steps, a photo can be dramatically transformed. You can always go further, but this is a fine vintage look in and of itself.


Vintage photo effects sometimes try to destroy detail, such as the flattened blacks and highlights to simulate bad prints or aged photo papers. Additional adjustments to levels can add to this effect, but are not necessary.


Manually Creating the “Lord Kelvin” Effect


Let’s do one more of the Instagram effects, this time one similar to “Lord Kelvin.” Start with another image, and this time, we’re going to make some adjustments to the curves. If you’re unfamiliar with the curves tool, read about how they can help you adjust contrast like a pro. Remember to save an alternate copy of your image before you start working!


Open curves in Photoshop by pressing Ctrl + M. In GIMP, Navigate to Colors > Curves.

We’re going to be adjusting the curves of each channel separately. For the Red channel, create a curve similar to this one. Note that the leftmost point is raised up off the bottom of the curves box.


Now let’s adjust the Green channel. Again, raise the leftmost point, curve the line slightly with the midpoint shown above, and lower the rightmost point and bring it in, so that the line plateaus on the right.


Finally, adjust the Blue chanel. It’s bizarre and radical compared to the last two channel adjustments. Raise the leftmost point up fairly high, and drop the rightmost point inward and downward as shown. Then bow the line slightly downward, and press OK.

(Author’s note: You can use whatever values you want for any of these three adjustments. These are values similar to the ones Daniel Box uses to replicate Instagram, but there’s no single way to create a vintage effect. Change it to your liking and make a crazy vintage effect of your own, if you like!)


You can create additional subtle changes in levels or curves to tweak your image to your liking. Both tools are equally useful, but give you control over subtly different parts of the image. Play with both of them, and create the effect that works the best for you.

Have questions or comments concerning Graphics, Photos, Filetypes, or Photoshop? Send your questions to, and they may be featured in a future How-To Geek Graphics article.

Image Credits: Friends by Alireza Teimoury, available under Creative Commons. Chinese New Year by Brian Yap (葉), available under Creative Commons.

Eric Z Goodnight is an Illustrator and Stetson-wearing wild man. During the day, he manages IT and product development for screenprinted apparel manufacturing; by night he creates geek art posters, writes JavaScript, and records weekly podcasts about comics.

  • Published 07/20/11

Comments (12)

  1. jon_hill987

    I never got this. Camera companies spent millions getting better and better colour replication, why would anyone want to emulate inferior photography techniques?

  2. Eric Z Goodnight

    I more or less agree, although many pros create effects similar to these. After browsing for a while on I came to understand these kinds of effects are really popular. My point with this is just to show people the method behind the effect is actually very simple.

  3. ceeluk

    @Jon – I was thinking the same thing reading the through this.

  4. Joebloe

    The beauty of digital is that you can usethe “better colour replication” if you like, but you can also alter any image to your liking in millions of different ways that you couldn’t do with film. As long as you work on copies of your originals, go for it.

  5. Hatryst

    I’ve been using these actions, but didn’t know what’s going in the background. Thanks for the information ;)

  6. Troy

    Now I don’t need to wait for the “graphic artist” to come Back from their 2 hour lunch.
    I can do this simple effect with no problem now. But now I understand the basics of curves
    And channels! Thanks !

  7. PBDoetMee

    @jon_hill987 That’s simple: these plugs bring back the sense of nostalgics, warmth in photo’s, which was “killed” by the new digital techniques. Thats’s all. And: you do not HAVE to use them ;-)

  8. abdi

    Cool! :)

  9. olatundun bolaji

    How i am going to install it on my phone.

  10. Martin

    @jon “why would anyone want to emulate inferior photography techniques?”

    It’s called Art. It’s called Style. It’s called BECAUSE I CAN. Why would anyone use a 1968 Fastback mustang anyway…

  11. Lissa

    There’s a plug-in that i think just came out. It does what Hipstamatic and Instagram do.

  12. Ashley Pomeroy

    $99, so I think I’ll pass. This kind of thing is fascinating – using new technology to emulate old flaws – and I remember when I started out with a digital camera I used to paste over the messy film edges you get rom uncropped prints as a mock frame. It does tend to foster a syndrome whereby people process every photograph they take, whether it’s a shot of a rusty old car or a brand-new toy, or the kids etc, even if the results look incongruous.

    You know, there’s going to be a generation to come who will look back at the childhood snapshots their parents took, which will be pristine digital copies of photographs that were processed to look faded and worn with Instagram. And there will be a divide by zero error and the world will end.

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