Faded Matte Effect in GIMP

Today’s tutorial shows you how to achieve the faded ‘matte effect’ when editing photos using the open-source image editor GIMP. GIMP is free to download and use on Windows, Mac & Linux systems, and is a good alternative to Photoshop. Download it here.

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The faded, matte look is very popular, and is often used to achieve a vintage, retro or nostalgic feel in photography. Once you understand what’s going on, it’s very easy to add this effect to your own editing process and to play around with it until you have a look that you’re happy with.

This faded, matte effect works by ‘crushing’ or rather lifting the blacks or the darkest parts of your photograph. Instead of allowing parts of the image which have been recorded in your camera as pure black to display as pure black, this editing technique will make your blacks softer, lighter in tone, and closer to a dark grey in colour than true black. You may be familiar with this effect from photo editing apps you’ve used on your mobile / cell phone, but it’s always nice to understand how to reproduce the effect for yourself. As with all editing techniques, my advice is to be cautious with your application. This technique works best when the fade is subtle.

Open your base image in GIMP. If you like, you can also rename it something like ‘Original’ by right clicking on it in your layers panel (‘Ctrl + L’ will bring up the layers panel if it’s not displaying) and selecting ‘Edit Layer Attributes’.

Next, duplicate your original layer. Rename this layer ‘Copy’. This is so that if you make any mistakes you can easily toggle back to your original image. Now we’re going to learn how to use the ‘curves’ module in GIMP.

The ‘fade’ effect in apps such as VSCO and Instagram’s native editor will all use a version of the following curve in order to achieve the matte look. The beauty of editing yourself rather than through an app is that you can choose how steep you would like the fade curve to be.

Add points to your curve by clicking on the black line. Try to replicate the curve shown in the image above. Please note, the blacks are only slightly lifted, and the highlights (brightest parts of the image on the RHS) are softened a little by lowering them by a couple of percent.This is a non-linear edit. The whites and highlights of the image are lifted more than the blacks, and the shadows remain largely unchanged. This curve adds a small amount of contrast to the image, which helps to make details ‘pop’, and prevents the image from looking flat and lifeless.

A before (the lower half) and after (the top half) look at the changes you have made using GIMP.