Kodak published all the curve data for the films going way back, it's easy to duplicate what the film was doing. There was a greater tendency for halation and scatter, of course, but good shooters made a point of KNOWING what they were doing, and a lousy image was not a charecteristic. Paper is paper. Don't think that good printing was invented in 1999, or restricted to the AZO/Pyro cult.
3 things stand out from the vintage years ( to me, '30s - '50s ).
- Two flawed, limited and incredibly beautifully designed lenses: Sonnar & Elmar
- Expensive, slow, and precious film: shoot 35mm with the care of 8x10, and you're halfway to a 'vintage' look.
- The thrill of making images in low light, and of having your camera with you... always. Wipe irony and postmodernism from your consciousness and you're halfway there.
But the MAIN ingredient, the lenses. Learn how to exploit the strengths of an uncoated Sonnar or Elmar, and you're there.
And for the heck of it, I shot a portrait yesterday with a 1936 Sonnar. It is NOT soft, but it muted the overlit studio in which I was working. Instead of the picture being about contemporary architecture with people in the scene, it was about an artist working in a new building. Big difference. Normal processing. Easy.
Vintage lenses = another tool in the bag.