Digital photos never age – only their subjects do. The snaps you shoot today will look as sharp and fresh in a week as they will a decade from now. The corners won't crease and the colours won't fade... and they won't age and mature the way a 'proper' picture does.

The inherent perfection of digital photos could well be their most serious flaw, though, as it means they lack character and rarely evoke the kind of nostalgic sentiments brought forth by traditional prints.

Fortunately it's relatively easy to recreate the faded imperfections of 'exposed' shots in Photoshop Elements using layers, masks and blend modes. In this workshop we'll show you how to take a regular snap and apply two different treatments. One takes you back to the seventies and eighties with an uneven faded finish; the other rolls back the years still further to produce a punchy black and white portrait.

By using adjustment layers you can achieve this without any artistic ability. All you need to do is control the strength of the effect by picking an appropriate blend mode, and then mask out the areas that you don't want to affect in the finished photo.

If you haven't used adjustment layers before, they are simply a way to split out the regular colour, contrast and lighting controls you find in the Elements menus onto separate layers. They apply to every layer that sits below them in the layer stack, but not to any of the layers above them.

The primary benefit of applying adjustments this way is that you can finely control the strength of the adjustment by changing the layer opacity and use different blend modes so that – for example – they only affect darker or lighter tones, overlay existing colours or affect luminance but not saturation.

Every adjustment layer is accompanied by a mask, which can be used to block out the areas to which you don't want it applied. By default the mask is empty, so your chosen adjustment will be applied equally across the whole frame. Selecting the mask and painting on it using black blocks out the effect from the parts of the image aligned with your strokes. Painting with white removes the mask, while using various shades of grey allows progressively more and more of the adjustment to take effect.

Layer masks

The best way to get to grips with layers, adjustments, blend modes and masks is to play with them, so open your image of choice and follow these six simple steps.

How to fade images in Photoshop Elements

1. We're going to start by unevenly fading a photo in the style of printed pictures in the seventies. Decide whether you want the red, green or blue channel to be faded and select the other two colours using the colour chips at the button of the tools menu on the left-hand side of the screen.

Choose colours which don't fade

2. Click the Adjustments icon on the Layers panel (the black and white circle) and select Gradient Map… This applies the foreground colour (here, red) to the darker areas in your image and the background (green) to the lighter areas.

Apply gradient map

3. The effect is too strong in its default state, so change the blend mode to Soft Light and then use the opacity slider above the layers to adjust the opacity of the effect without affecting the original underlying layer.

Apply soft light

4. To make a punchy black and white photo, pick Image | Mode | Grayscale and flatten the image when prompted. Click the Adjustments icon and choose Levels. Drag the mid-tones marker towards the right (lighter) end of the scale to slightly darken your image.

Convert to black and white

5. Now select a soft brush, set your foreground colour to black, and paint on the layer mask (click the white box to the right of the adjustment, then paint on your photo) to remove the effect from any areas where details you want to see are lost in the shadows, such as the cat's eyes here.

Use brush to mask out areas

6. Finally, we’ll add a second Levels Adjustment, this time dragging the mid-tones to the left, repeat the process of drawing over the cat’s eyes and then invert the mask by pressing Ctrl, I. The result is a striking monochrome portrait.

 Apply levels

Blend modes

Blend modes

Blend modes, such as soft light which we used in step 3 above, control how Photoshop mixes the contents of one layer with the layers below. Some of their functions, such as darken and lighten, are self-explanatory – they only darken off lighter tones or lighten up darker ones respectively – but what of hard and soft light, or overlay?

Overlay is used to apply one layer to another while preserving the highlights and shadows of the lower layer, so it's a great way to apply, say, a national flag to a rippling box to make it looks like it's flapping. Hard and soft light darken or lighten the underlying layer (depending on the colour you're laying down on top of it) to varying degrees. As their names suggest, soft light applies the adjustment in a diffused manner, while hard light is more direct. To picture this, think of the difference between a naked lightbulb (hard light) and one that you're seeing through a paper lampshade (soft light).

Although they are great for producing creative results, blend modes are often best used as corrective tools when smartening up your photos. For example, if an image is too light, creating a new curves adjustment layer on top of your shot that dials down the highlights, then changing the blend mode to luminosity will preserve the colours of the original, but take the overlaid layer as its reference point where brightness is concerned. Adjusting the overlaid layer's opacity lets you tweak the strength of the effect.