You don't need a smartphone app to get those cool effects.
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Though it's hip to hate on low-effort photo apps like Instagram and Hipstamatic, the retro-style effects have an undeniable cool factor. More importantly, these apps succeed because they make it easy to make your crappy smartphone pictures look good.
Most of your apps' creative filters are inspired by the look of old film shots; they're effects that were a natural byproduct of earlier, less technically impressive lens designs and iffy film quality. But what you might not know is that if you own an modern interchangeable-lens digital camera—whether it's a DSLR or a cutting-edge mirrorless model—you can reproduce many of these eye-catching effects by simply mounting the same film-era lenses, utilizing the same old-school techniques, or taking advantage of a few Photoshop presets.
So read on to discover how you can get hipster-approved results without suffering Instagram's stifling 612x612-pixel resolution limit.
One of the biggest advantages of a DSLR or compact system camera over a smartphone is its enhanced depth of field capability. Smartphone cameras have tiny sensors and extremely compact lenses, and a byproduct of this miniaturization is that virtually everything in your photos will be in focus at all times. You have to get very, very close to your subject to create any real background blur, and the only alternative is to use the selective focus tool in an app like Instagram, which simply fakes it.
With a system camera, the physical properties of the sensor and lens allow for a much greater degree of creative control. A wide-aperture lens paired with a typical DSLR sensor lets you blur away the background and isolate your subject without the use of any extra filters. This gives your shots a real sense of depth, and a natural focal point for the viewer.
That was easy, wasn't it? Not every effect is this simple, but many can be achieved entirely in-camera with just a little know-how. Fans of more vintage-looking background blur (or "bokeh") can try their hand at tilt-shift photography.
They've probably become a bit too mainstream for the hipster crowd, but tilt-shift effects like the ones featured in the opening credits of BBC's Sherlock are achievable even on a budget. If you're serious about selective focus as an art form, you can splurge and buy a dedicated lens; they run anywhere from $1,000 to well over $2,000.
Those with only a passing interest, however, might be interested in something like the Lensbaby Muse, which retails for just $150. It's a lot less precise than the more expensive options, but the results have a lot of character. True DIYers can take things a step further and cannibalize old headphone ear pads to turn cheap vintage glass into a tilt-shift rig.
If you learn more about the construction of a lens, you can also try "free-lensing" some shots. Essentially, this involves removing a lens's mount and hand-holding it in place over the sensor. Turning it slightly from side to side changes the orientation of the plane of focus, letting you select which areas of the frame are sharp and which are blurred away. (Warning: Your sensor will probably get pretty dusty, and the lens will be a write-off for any other kind of shooting.)
The lenses of yesteryear were designed before the advent of computer-aided drafting, and often finished by hand. This less technically perfect design and manufacturing process gives vintage lenses a sense of character that many modern optics seem to lack. So if you like the imperfections that Instagram filters add to your smartphone snaps, you can recreate many of them on your DSLR by simply employing an old yard-sale lens.
The most important thing to remember is that not all lenses fit all cameras, though many can be adapted. Nikon and Pentax digital bodies have excellent backward compatibility with native film-era lenses; Canon, on the other hand, abandoned its old lens mount when it transitioned to autofocus in the mid-1980s. Mirrorless cameras are the most versatile of all: Thanks to their short flange focal distance, they can be used with virtually any lens, provided you purchase a cheap mechanical adapter. There's lots of information on the internet about how to adapt Lens X to Camera Y, so be sure to do a little research before you try screwing grandpa's glass onto your modern camera.
The upshot of adapting older glass is that you can get lots of nifty side-effects, ranging from unusual flare, to extreme vignetting, to crazy spiraling bokeh. True, you can replicate many of these effects with the right photoshop tools, but achieving these results in-camera is just way more fun.
Lenses to look out for:
—Soviet-era Helios-44 58mm f/2, Jupiter-9 85mm f/2, or Helios-40 85mm f/1.5
—Anything cheap with an M42 screw mount
—Anything with a very wide aperture—typically a max f-stop of f/2 or lower
—*Beware* of lenses with fungus or element separation—these issues can cost a lot to repair
Though we love in-camera effects, sometimes your equipment just can't give you the results you want. That's where post-processing comes in.
Photoshop pros can tweak their way to any desired result, but novices will probably be more comfortable working off of presets. For that purpose, we strongly recommend shelling out for VSCO Film's suite of Lightroom filters. These ingenious, meticulously researched presets are designed to replicate various old-school film stocks, and can quickly lend a vintage feel to any shot.
Using this kind of PC software might seem just as lazy as slapping an Instagram filter on your smartphone snaps, but look at it this way: You're getting far higher-quality photos with these artistic filters than you are with Instagram shots. Not only that, but the source files are far bigger, so you can print them large for framing or use them as desktop backgrounds without any resolution loss. Maybe the means by which you get to the final photos is similar, but the end result is far superior.
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