The Orton Effect – The Wayne Fox Method


The Orton Effect is named after it’s creator, Michael Orton, who pioneered the technique in the mid 80’s with transparency film.  Using a tripod he would take two exposures of a composition, one of them in focus and the other considerably out of focus.  He would also over expose both images one to two stops, I assume how much depended on the scene brightness.  After processing he would then sandwich the two slides together, resulting in a dreamy soft focus glow.  Because the two slides were over exposed, they were lighter than normal, but once sandwiched and light transmitted through them, the two densities would combine, creating an exposure that looked somewhat normal.

Simulating the Orton Effect in Photoshop has been around for quite some time. There are many YouTube videos as well as blog articles about it. All take advantage of the multiply layer mode, which effectively works similar to sandwiching the slides.  Most create a screen mode layer of the image and then turn it into a normal layer, then duplicate that layer, which is then blurred and changed to multiply mode.  Screen mode effectively creates the “overexposed” aspect of the image data.

I rarely use the technique but on occasion have tried it on some images with interesting and sometimes very pleasing results.  One advantage of creating the Orton Effect digitally is we can vary the effect, trying different blur values, as well as mask out part of the effect or even blend the result back into the original which lessens the effect.

Recently I started playing with a new way to create the Orton Effect, and after some experimentation I’ve come up with a technique which I think has several advantages over the traditional methods done in Photoshop.  My thought was using smart objects with the raw file imbedded, or using tiff files turned into smart objects then creating a camera raw smart filter.  The main advantage is every step can be edited and changed, so you can fine tune the effect as much as you want. You can still mask out part to blend back in the original, but some of the challenges of the traditional method such as shadows blocking up or adding too much contrast can be better controlled by adjusting the Adobe Camera Raw settings in the layer.

To begin we need our image to be a smart object in Photoshop. If coming from Lightroom, all you do is select that option from the menu when you right click on the image, any file format (raw, tiff or jpeg) will open as the desired smart object.

If opening directly into Photoshop, a raw file should open in Adobe Camera Raw.  Instead of clicking the Open Image button, hold the shift key down and that button should change to Open Object.  If you are using a tiff or jpeg file, then convert the layer to a smart object once it is opened in Photoshop.

If you open a raw file (below) , then the layer will contain the image, but the original raw file is embedded in the layer and allows all settings to be modified. In this case you are ready to create the Orton Effect.

If you open it as a tiff or jpeg file, make sure the layer is a smart object. Then select “Camera Raw Filter” from the Filter menu.  The image will open in Adobe Camera Raw.  Click the OK button, and now you have an editable camera raw smart filter for your layer. (below)

Once you have your image opened and setup as a smart object, you will create a duplicate of that layer.  However, rather than just hitting Control or Command-J, right click on the layer name(not the thumbnail preview) in the layers palette and choose “New Smart Object via Copy”.  We don’t want this new smart object to be linked to the original. I normally name this layer “base”.

After creating this new layer, we do want a duplicate of it, so you can just press Control or Command J.  I normally rename this layer to “Blur”. You should now have 3 smart objects all of which appear identical.  I recommend putting these last two layers into a grouping (which I name Orton), allowing the effect to be disabled, reduced with the grouping opacity slider, or parts masked out with a layer mask on the grouping. Below is what the document looks like to this point if opening from a raw file …

Now we need to “over expose” our shots. Rather than using something like screen mode, in this method we simply do just that, we brighten the image with the exposure slider in Adobe Camera Raw, effectively creating an “over exposed” image. Double click on one of the two smart objects in the Orton grouping.  If you have a camera raw smart filter because you are working from a tiff or jpeg, double click the smart filter.   It doesn’t matter which of the two layers you choose… whatever you do to one of those layers in Adobe Camera Raw will be applied to the other layer.  We want all changes to be mirrored between our two “transparencies”, and because these two layers are linked, all changes will apply to both layers, but will not reflect in our original layer (which is why we used the make smart object via copy option).

Normally I start with 1 stop.  As I mentioned, this is where I believe this method offers much more flexibility than other methods. We can tweak this density easily after the effect is finished to fine tune the final density. Below you can see the exposure has been moved to 0.85, from it’s original of -0.15.

Once we click OK, notice both of the two layers in our Orton grouping now show as much lighter than our original.  Just what we want.

Now we can create the actual Orton Effect. Select the Blur Layer and change the blending mode to Multiply, then Select Gaussian Blur from the Filter menu.

The Gaussian Blur dialog box shows a small section of the current layer of the image, previewing only how the blur affects that single layer.  The document window will preview the final effect on the image.  I normally will zoom the document window to 50% so the effect will show somewhat similar to when the image is printed.  (Note that if you are using a high density display such as a 5k iMac or 4k monitor you may want to try 100% to preview the effect when printed).  It seems with this method a radius of somewhere between 9 and 12 works pretty well.  I normally try to make sure the Gaussian Blur preview window is pretty blurry but still showing some detail … similar to what I think Michael Orton’s transparency would have looked like.  You can also use the preview checkbox to turn the effect off and on to judge the final effect in the document window. With this method the blur becomes a smart filter, so you can always double click it and change it!

Here’s the image with the final effect. If the overall density is too dark or too light, just double click one of the layers in the Orton Grouping and tweak the exposure slider.  A pretty small change can make a big difference, but even if it takes a few tries to get it right, it’s quick and easy.

One of the challenges with the Orton Effect in Photoshop is the added contrast, sometimes saturation, and shadows blocking up too much.  Most of the time it is necessary to somehow either soften or remove the effect from parts of the image.  Some of this can be a creative effort … maybe you want the effect in the sky, but not the foreground. Adding a layer mask to the grouping allows you to do that with traditional masking tools.  You may also want to pull the effect out of the shadows to try and lighten them up a l little bit, and this can be accomplished many ways.  I usually do a luminosity mask for this.

However, with this method, I’ve found I can tweak the Adobe Camera Raw settings to get a desired result, and I can experiment with all the settings as much as I like, because once I’ve created these three layers everything else simply changes the effect, it doesn’t change the files.

In fact I’ve found almost all of the time I ended up making similar changes, so at this point I actually do them when I first adjust my exposure.

Here I’ve pulled my blacks up , my whites down, the shadows up considerably, and removed some contrast.  I also lightened the image a little more.  The results (below) are a little closer to what I’m looking for…

As I mentioned, all of the settings can be modified.  I like that I can change the density and make other adjustments through the camera raw filter to control the results of the final image.  Often I find I can get the finished effect I want with no masking or other changes.  Other times I find I still need to blend some of the effect out, which I do by lowering the opacity of the grouping.  I also sometimes still find a luminosity mask on the Orton grouping works quite well to eliminate some of the shadows blocking up.  To me the effect is about creating a glow, and my logic tells me glow comes from light, so the effect should be more pronounced from lighter areas of the image.

To create the luminosity mask, select the Orton grouping, then move to the Channels palette.  Command or Control click on the RGB preview thumbnail.  You should see the marching ants selection appear on your layer.  Now hold down shift and command or control click on the preview thumbnail again.  This will narrow the selection.  Normally 5 or 6 clicks will be required to get the selection down to just the darkest parts of the image.

Now move back to your Layers palette, make sure the Orton Group is selected and click the mask button.  This will create your luminosity mask for the Orton effect, revealing parts of the original image back through. If you think it removed too much of the effect, you can delete the mask, go back to the channels panel, and repeat the process, clicking more (or fewer) clicks. I always count how many clicks when making the mask so I can either increase or decrease the intensity of the luminosity mask.  You can also lower the density of the mask using the mask properties panel, negating some of the mask’s effect and allowing more of the Orton effect to show through.

Here is the image after applying the luminosity mask. Note only the darker regions were affected, and the shadow detail isn’t blocking up quite as severely.

A luminosity mask is far more complex than a simple selection – the marching ants preview is decieving. Below is what the luminosity mask ends up looking like. Because it is a grey scale image and not just a black and white mask, the effect on the final image varies based on the density of each pixel (which of course is based on the luminosity of that corresponding pixel in the image).

The final image I ended up with is the one at the top of the article.  I thought I would post the original image here straight from Lightroom so you would have a good comparison.  Also, I’ve included a few other final images resulting from my method of creating the Orton Effect.

In this image, the effect was removed from the building using a simple mask on the Orton grouping.
In this image, the effect was removed from the building using a simple mask on the Orton grouping.
This image has no masking to remove any of the effects.
This image has no masking to remove any of the effects.
In this image I used Select->Color Range ... to select the white tree trunks and masked the effect out of the trunks, leaving the original detail.
In this image I used Select->Color Range … to select the white tree trunks and masked the effect out of the trunks, leaving the original detail.

Wayne Fox
August 2019
Wayne Fox
Draper, Utah

Retired professional photographer now focused on landscape photography.

Article Type: Tutorials, Columns, Videos

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