Exploring a Technique for Digital Tintypes

The other night I came across an article on Petapixel about a photographer, Victoria Will, who made real tintype portraits of some actors who attended this year’s Sundance Film Festival.  The portraits themselves were excellent but what really drew me in was the effect of the tintype medium and the old lens and camera that was used to make the images; very narrow depth of field, low tonal range, and non-uniform exposure across the frame.  I decided I wanted to see if I could replicate the look of tintype using my Sony A7R and some Photoshop massaging.

First, using one of Ms. Will’s images as a baseline, I measured the average RGB values of its whitest and blackest points.  Since the tintype images are not neutral in color, these measurements also revealed their coloration.  I jotted these values down for use later in Photoshop.  Next, I evaluated the image exposure as a whole:  Highlights appear to struggle with separation from mid-tones.  Of course, blowing out a highlight that only measures 164 out of 255 possible values makes it look as though it’s just a creamy upper-side of mid-tone ,especially with the near-skin-tone coloration of the medium.  The darkest blacks I could find had an RGB value of around 24,22,18, respectively.  This leans the blacks to a very dark gray with just a hint of orange.  Most of the shadows measured in the 40’s – 50’s.  Since the highlights are not very bright and the blacks aren’t very black, the image has about 56% of the tonal range of a typical black and white image (on screen of course).  With all of that said, I’d like to share with you what I did on my first attempt at simulating a tintype.

Step 1:  Shoot a portrait using a large-aperture lens set to its widest setting.  In my case, I used a Minolta 100mm f/2.8 lens.  For lighting, I used a fairly low-in-the-sky sun to light my subject (one of my daughters).  This gave me directional lighting for good contrast and shadows, giving the image good dimensional quality.  Here’s my straight out of camera source image:

Sony A7R w/ Minolta 100mm f/2.8
Sony A7R w/ Minolta 100mm f/2.8

Step 2:  After importing the photo to my computer, I loaded it up in Photoshop.  Using a Gradient Map adjustment layer, I set the black and white point and coloration:

Gradient Map Black
The gradient bar has two little squares at each of its ends. Click on the lower square on the left side of the gradient bar then click the ‘Color’ drop down to bring up the Color Picker for your black point. I used the RGB values of 31, 28, and 23. Click ok to close the Color Picker.


Gradient Map White
Now, click on the lower square on the right side of the gradient bar then click the ‘Color’ drop down to bring up the Color Picker for your white point. I used the RGB values of 164, 158, and 145. Click ok to close the Color Picker.



Here is the effect of the Gradient Map:

Step 2 Result


Step 3: Now that we’ve redefined the black and white points and coloration, we need to work on that mid-tone contrast.  Create a Curves adjustment layer beneath your Gradient Map.  This is important as you don’t want the effect of your Curves adjustments to extend your tones outside the confines we set in the Gradient Map.  The edits made to your curve will be unique to your photo.  Your goal should be to try to compress the mid-tones to get a decent contrast while not getting so blocked up that your shadows and highlights lose all detail.  This is one of those things you have to simply fiddle with until it looks right to you.  Use a real tintype as a reference.

Screen Shot 2015-04-10 at 3.48.25 PM
I added two anchor points in the shadow area to bring them down a good bit. I added one point for adjusting highlights up to the point where my skin started to take the creamy appearance I see in real tintypes.

Step 4: By this point, the image is starting to mimic the look of a tintype.  I wasn’t quite satisfied with how clean the image still looked.  It still looked like a modern photo.  I wanted to create some overlain imperfections and character – a little brightness and darkness here and there.  To do this, I soaked a piece of printer paper in water and used watercolor paints to give it some character.  After I had gotten what I felt would work well in Photoshop, I set my camera up on a tripod and photographed it.  I shot the image with a Rokkor-X 35-70mm f/3.5 set to it’s macro focal length of 70mm with an aperture of f/5.6 and ISO 100.  A flash can be seen on my camera but I did not use it.  The kitchen wasn’t very bright so this gave me a fairly slow shutter speed.  Taking advantage of this, I used my Vaping rig to generate some clouds which I blew across the paper while the shutter was open.  This effectively softened up the image in places.


Here is the result:

Screen Shot 2015-04-10 at 4.10.41 PM

Step 5:  After importing this photo of the paper on my computer, I used Photoshop’s ‘Place Embedded’ function in the ‘File’ menu to bring it into my portrait photo.  I moved this layer on top of my Background image, beneath my Gradient Map and Curves adjustment layer, and set the Blend Mode to Soft Light.  The Soft Light blend mode will make this Paper layer transparent, using it to darken and lighten the Background layer according to the dark and light values in it.  This proved to be very effective in changing the look of the photo.  The only criticism I have for myself on this is that while it did create some spot randomness to the exposure, it gave the image a paper-looking grain that you would absolutely not see in a tintype.  Given the time, I would like to attack a sheet of copper with some salts and acids to create a new and more realistic source for an overlay.

Step 6:  This final step is simple.  In Photoshop, press Shift+Command+N (Windows = Shift+Control+N).  This pops up a window for creating a new layer.  In this window you have the option to change its Blend Mode.  Change it to Soft Light.  An extra option is now available at the bottom of the window to ‘Fill with Soft-Light-neutral color (50% gray).  Check that box and press ok.  Drag this new layer to the top of your layer stack.  With this new layer selected, select the paint brush tool.  Press ‘D’ on your keyboard to default your color palette to black and white.  You can press ‘X’ to switch back and forth between black and white.  Using your paintbrush, you can now lighten and darken your image by hand.  Black, painted onto that new layer, will darken and white will lighten.  I like to use a brush opacity of ~ 20% and a fill of between 5 and 10%.  I used this layer to brush in some light leaks (white) around the border.  I used black to darken up a few areas just to balance things out some.

One of these days, I’d love to pick up an old box camera and give the real thing a go.  There are plenty of resources on the web for preparing and shooting tintypes.    When it comes to making art, newer isn’t always better.  Technology will continue to progress cameras into new realms of image quality but old techniques like this will never be forgotten.



4 thoughts on “Exploring a Technique for Digital Tintypes

  1. Absolutely interesting write-up and experiment, Tom!! I, too love old tintypes… fascinating. I would thing you’d invest in an old-style camera like that… would be awesome for portrait work- at which you’re so good at… I believe they also have kits to build your own?? Could be an interesting project!


  2. Hi Wes. Glad you liked it! I’m actually researching the equipment right now. I can’t imagine it would cost a whole lot of money to get a basic setup to build up from. The chemicals seem easy to get and the metal plates are nothing special or hard to find. Just clean and polished. If I need any custom lens boards made, I know who to call 😉 Hope spring is starting to show itself up there in the North.


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