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Design it Yourself: How to Create an Expired Instant Film Look

The Mood Setter April 29, 2021 · 5 min read

It’s almost paradoxical that in the era of digital photography and retouching, the retro expired instant film look is still so relevant. The haziness, the nostalgia, the dreamy feel that instant photography offers somewhat seems to capture beyond the reality of the scene that is shot, something almost belonging to the realm of the emotional gaze of the photographer. Its sense of poetry, its texture, and feeling of wonder can’t compare to the cold, clinical, smooth photoshopped images that have flooded our visual landscape.

Perhaps we enjoy how instant film captures authenticity, spontaneity, truth. If you thought you can’t cheat when it comes to instant film… you actually can! Ironically, most of the imagery that we see these days that we associate with the instant film look is shot with a digital camera and heavily edited. Some old school photographers will totally despise this way of doing things, the ones who went totally broke buying endless instant film cartridges from 1982 on eBay… but that’s another debate!

How to give your photos the Instant Film Look

Shooting digital actually gives an interesting creative control of the final image. But let’s be honest: shooting instant film can also be the luck of the draw, especially when trying to use expired films to get interesting outcomes.

Going digital allows us to be experimental and playful in the post-production process. As trying to get the desired look with the help of Photoshop and/or Lightroom can be pretty tedious and time-consuming, using Lightroom presets specifically designed to get the instant film look is a great compromise, especially if you have an idea of the grading effect you want, but are not quite sure how to get there.  These presets are not necessarily a magic wand, but rather a starting point for you to get a rough look, which you can then tweak to achieve the exact look you are going for.

With that in mind, I’d like to introduce you to this set which includes 35 Instant film presets and 15 Light leaks presets to add that bit of imperfection that sometimes makes an image perfect.

Here are a few examples of the possible outcomes using this set of presets:

Quick Tip: If you prefer a more subtle analog photography look, I’d recommend instead using this set of presets which will make your pictures look like analog photography with a retro color palette without simulating specifically instant film photography.

Keeping creative control

Lightroom presets can allow you to achieve a lot of different instant film looks. Depending on the film brand and camera used and the lighting conditions, instant film photography can show a lot of different variations. Some images will have distinctive yellow highlights, while others are colder with a touch of magenta and blue in the lighter tones. The dark tones can be blue, green, or more neutral. Some images can be overexposed in the middle with a vignette, while others are flatter. The possibilities are endless, so it is best to have a clear idea of what look you really are going for before beginning the editing process, in order to know which creative direction you want to take.

Creating the Expired Film Look: Step by Step

If you need help on how to install the presets on your computer, this article shows you how to do it in just a few clicks.

Once the Lightroom presets are installed, you can start applying the instant film presets. Let’s apply each of these steps to a sample photo:

In this case, we’re applying Polaroid 12 first:

Grains add a layer of texture to your photo, making the whole vintage look more realistic. This is the effect we get with Grain 7, included in the preset pack we’re using:

You can also apply one of the light leaks presets on top if you prefer that effect – they work as overlays. This is Light Leak 4 on the set:

Don’t forget to tweak the temperature to give more or less warmth to the overall image, the exposure, the contrast, and play with the split toning to get exactly what you want regarding the tint of the dark tones and highlights. You may want to play around with the sharpening too – maybe slightly blurring your images to give it that moody hazy instant film feel. This is the most important part: you get to make adjustments and customize the final product based on your own style!

These instant film presets also include different grain settings if you like to add noise to your image. You can also play with the texture and add dust and scratches, this pack is full of beautiful vintage effects!

For display purposes, I love this mood board

If you want to emulate the iconic white border, these frames by The Muza are for you:

If you prefer a distressed look with rips and tears have a look at these frames by Modern Design Elements:

Bring your vision to life

Making your digital photos look like they were shot with an instant film camera is super easy using Lightroom presets. I’m tempted to say you can do it with your eyes closed, but here is the point: presets are to be used as a tool among others in your digital toolbox to express your own vision. Never assume these settings will work on the first click with all your images. Chances are that might happen from time to time, but retaining the full creative control is definitely the way to go, as you are able to customize and adjust the presets to achieve the exact look you’re going for. And most importantly – don’t forget to have fun with it!


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About the Author
The Mood Setter

Hi! I am a photo retoucher from France. I started my career in Mario Testino's London studio and have been freelancing for over 5 years, working internationally with top photographers. I feel passionate about photo editing and its creative power to transform a good picture into a great one.

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