Photographing Vintage Items

Whether you are photographing vintage items for fun, practice, or to list them on a website to sell or show your design expertise, there are a few how-to items that you’ll need to know. To create a truly vintage vibe you’ll need to create an ambiance that involves the feel of vintage photos. That feel of vignettes, low contrast, reduced saturations, colored tints, and noise; the feel of a blown-out old photo and the look that brings to mind the era that you are going for. Photographing vintage is definitely an art form, and regardless of why you are photographing a certain item or subject, you need to create the exact vibe and scene that you want to convey.

In this how-to guide we’ll go over some steps that you’ll want to take to create the photo of your dream as well as the equipment you need to create a vintage work of art. Remember, photography is as much about creativity as it is about skill, when going over this guide, keep in mind that a lot of these are personal preferences and suggestions, you and your creativity is just as important as the logistics provided within.

Table of Contents

Here is what you can expect; In this guide we will walk through the following steps, with plenty of tips, tricks and details:

  • What You'll Need
  • Camera Equipment and Settings
  • Creating the Shot
  • Taking the Photos
Vintage Items on Desk

What You'll Need to Take Photos of Vintage Items

Photographing vintage items is kind of an art form depending on what you’re photographing them for, regardless, there is not much that you’ll need. If you are photographing single items for a website, you’ll need a backdrop so that there aren’t any distractions. However, if you’re photographing a scene or creating a specific vibe, make sure to have other vintage items on hand. For example, if you’re photographing a great vintage mug grab yourself some other vintage kitchen items and set the scene; for this, I would use a Kitchen Aid Stand Mixer in the background and maybe some vintage cookbooks or silverware to create the vibe I am going for. That being said, the possibilities are endless, so be sure to show your creativity.

When photographing vintage items, it’s all about what you want to convey, so sit with your subject and study its history – there is always a story to be told when photographing vintage items, so don’t be afraid to be creative and take risks with your photography. A good starting point is looking up that item and looking at how it is portrayed in its time period. Are you photographing a gorgeous, Pyrex mug? Then look up that time period and the mug that you’re choosing and look at old ads. Or, if you’re photographing a subject in a vintage dress, set the scene for your subject; a 70’s vibe may mean red and orange hues, a picnic outside, etc.

The scene that you set is just as important as the photo itself, so grab a pair of bell bottoms and a gingham scarf and let’s get to the good stuff. 

Camera Equipment

To photograph vintage items, you honestly don’t need much but let’s go over some suggestions to get you started. 

What kind of camera and lens do you need?

Use whatever kind of camera you have! There is no need to buy anything new or fancy, most vintage shots I have taken for my website were taken on my iPhone using a lens attachment. However, I do recommend shooting vintage with vintage, for example, if you have a simple vintage point and shoot with a 55mm lens, that would be great! However, if you are a new photographer, shooting with a digital camera is an excellent choice because you’ll be able to go over your shots, take more shots, and switch things around to get the shot you want (more on that later). Remember, there are ways to edit your photos to make them look like they were taken with a manual, vintage camera, so no worries about what kind of camera you use, use what you have!

Your lens does not need to be larger than 55mm, this photo is not so much about your lens length, it is more so about your ability to focus on your subject. Thus, don’t worry so much about what kind of lens you need or if you need anything fancy – you don’t. Again, your iPhone is fine for this project. 


Do you need a tripod?

A tripod is not necessary at all but it can be helpful to reduce shake, this option is completely up to you. Having a desktop tripod is a cheap and easy way to use a tripod, that being said it is not necessary and you may want to take your photo with your camera in hand (suggested).

Floor tripods of course are more expensive and are not needed for this project, in fact with a shorter lens (55mm) it will only take away from the shot.

In my own humble opinion, just leave a tripod out of this. Shooting by hand will allow you to get a more creative shot with different angles and viewpoints.


Creating the Shot

Getting the shot is going to mean focusing on your item and having everything else kind of fade into the back (this doesn’t mean that props don’t matter). You do not need anything larger than a 50mm lens if you are shooting with a traditional camera and if you are shooting with your iPhone, just make sure to focus on your subject. To do this you will need to use Portrait Mode because it already creates a vignette for you without you having to do anything.

Set up your props and create a scene; think about the vibe you are going for, if you are shooting macabre make sure to have a black background and focus only on your subject, if you are shooting something much more upbeat be sure to set up a fun, vintage scene, that is set in the correct period of time. Seriously, don’t shoot 70’s vintage with a 50’s vintage feel, it’s going to look all wrong. You want to make sure that the vibe matches your subject, so be creative with this and be sure to show your photography style. The possibilities here are endless, and this is where you get to fully showcase the way that you take photos.

How to set your camera if you are not using your phone

Once you have set your scene you can begin to set up your camera for shooting. Here is a handy guide that will have your light and settings ready for you to be able to take the photos. Save this and refer back to it in the future.

  • 1/60 (minimum)
  • f/4 (at your lowest)
  • ISO 800 (for newer cameras)
  • Av (A) (mode)
  • 1/60 (minimum, Av (A) mode)
  • f/2.8 (to f/5.6)
  • ISO 200
  • Set up your scene to make sure you are not backlit (the sun is facing your items)

If you are using a tripod be sure to set that up on solid, steady ground to prevent shake. If you are shooting by hand (recommended) skip this step.


Settings in Depth

  • Manual Mode Overview

    Most of the time you can just let your camera decide its own settings in automatic mode. Unfortuantely with photographing ink in water the camera won't be able to determine the best settings until its too late, since the scene will change once the ink goes in to the water. First, the camera can't focus on water, so it will focus on the background or an edge of the tank instead. Second, the light will change once the ink starts filling the water, which may cause your camera to change settings. For these reasons we are going to set up focus and exposure before hand. Don't worry, it's not that complicated and you only need to do it once. If you are using a phone there are apps that let you control settings better than the default camera app.

  • Aperture Overview

    This is the measurement of how large of a hole your camera lens opens to allow light through. The wider it is the more light, but also the less is in focus (near to far). This setting that will let you decide if you want your background in focus or not. If you want as much in focus as possible you will want to set this at f/8 or slower. If you want as little as possible in focus you will set it at f/2.8 or faster.

  • Shutter Speed Overview

    this is the measurement of how long the shutter stays open when taking a picture. The longer it is open the more light that is let in, but the shorter the duration the more crisp, or frozen in time the image will be. Generally you are going to be aiming for 1/125th of a second or faster to freeze the action.

  • ISO Overview

    This is the measurement of how sensitive your digital camera sensor (or film) is to light. However, as the ISO goes up, making the camera more sensitive to light, the tradeoff is the more grainy the picture will become. While you may wish to have some grain for an effect (and grain can look nice for film photography), generally speaking you will want this to be at its base level, ISO 100 for most cameras. However, if your lighting setup has you close, but not quite bright enough, ISO is the first setting you will want to compromise on. How much depends on your camera, but anything up to 400 should be nearly perfect, 800 a bit less so, 1600 and up will likely show grain. Older cameras will really fall apart between 3200 and 6400, but some of the newer ones can go up to 10,000 or higher and still get pretty decent results.

  • Focus Overview

    This is how far away the lens is set to get a sharp image, with things nearer and further away being out of focus. This is obviously impossible to set ahead of time as the ink isn't there yet, however there is no reason not to put something in the water (like a ruler) and hold it at the same place you will drop the ink, and pre focus on that.

  • Manual Mode, Shutter Speed and Aperture for Sony Cameras

    Locate the mode dial at the top of your camera and switch it to the 'M'
    Sony Mode Dial
    Use the dials to set the aperture to around f/2.8 (or the fastest your lens allows) and the shutter speed to 1/125.

  • ISO for Sony Cameras

    Set your ISO to 100.
    Sony ISO Dial

  • Focus for Sony Cameras

    Manual mode should allow you to focus with the lens ring. Once this has been enabled put the ruler in the water and use the lens to focus on it.

  • Manual Mode for Canon Cameras

    Locate the mode dial at the top of your camera and switch it to the 'M'
    Canon Mode Dial

  • Aperture and Shutter Speed for Canon Cameras

    Use the dials to set the aperture to around f/2.8 (or the fastest your lens allows) and the shutter speed to 1/125.
    Canon Command Dials

  • ISO for Canon Cameras

    Set your ISO to 100.
    Canon ISO Dial
    Canon ISO Dial

  • Focus for Canon Cameras

    Turn on Manual Focus Mode.
    Canon Focus Mode
    Once this has been enabled put the ruler in the water and use the lens to focus on it.

  • Manual Mode for Nikon Cameras

    Locate the mode dial at the top of your camera and switch it to the 'M'
    Nikon Mode Dial

  • Aperture and Shutter Speed for Nikon Cameras

    Use the dials to set the aperture to around f/2.8 (or the fastest your lens allows) and the shutter speed to 1/125.
    Nikon Command Dials

  • ISO for Nikon Cameras

    Set your ISO to 100.
    Nikon ISO Dial

  • Focus for Nikon Cameras

    Turn on Manual Focus Mode.
    Nikon Focus Mode
    Once this has been enabled put the ruler in the water and use the lens to focus on it.

TODO: research iPhone apps for manual setting override

TODO: research android apps for manual setting override

Taking the Photos

Now that you have everything ready it is time to take your photos! Begin by testing the shot to make sure that your light and settings are correct and then move from there. In between shots be sure to reset the scene and try different things. For example, did the photo not turn out the way you wanted it to? Then, switch some things around and try again. Is the light too bright? Change the angle that you’re shooting at (just make sure not to cast a shadow). There are so many things that you can change and retry while taking photos, especially digital photos, your options are truly endless.

Don’t simply take one or two photos; while switching things around and taking photos of your items, especially for a website or Etsy, or even eBay, when photographing vintage items (or anything for that matter), be sure to take at least five photos (minimum) so that you can create and get the shot that you are going for. You may think your first shot is perfect, but once you can look back and choose between a few you will begin to realize that the first shot is often not the one you pick for final editing. I almost never choose my first photo.


Now that you have read through this article be sure to save it and look back on it in the future. However, you are now ready to get the vintage photos of your dreams! Go out, explore, use some ideas and inspiration from this how-to, but be sure to show your creativity and add some ideas of your own.

You could create vintage looking photos with Afterlight by using their Polaroid filters! Or, you could take LOMO photos of your own – the possibilities are endless. Have fun with it. There are also so many options to buy new cameras that are meant to produce a vintage look and feel for your photography, so look at your options and design your dream photographs from there.

© Copyright 2021 Chris Duesing - All Rights Reserved