The Orton Effect tutorial – digital magic

In Sweden there is an old junk yard, that closed sometime in the seventies. The old cars were just left, and as time passed by, a forrest grew up around the cars. Today this is an open air museum, and it is great fun to walk around looking at this ghost junk yard in Ryd, Sweden. Photo by: Jacob Surland,

Ryd Junk Yard in Sweden.

The Orton Effect is named after photographer Michael Orton, who invented the method back in the 1980’s – that’s in the film era, but you can apply it to digital photos too. It’s like digital magic. And digitally you can even control it much better and easier than you could in the old film days.

The Orton effect applies a magical soft and dreamy look to your photos, you could call it Glow. It has a softness to it, and yet it remains a sharp photo, if zoomed in.

The junk yard photo above, has Orton Effect applied in the trees and the leaves, and the tree below also has Orton Effect (click to see larger version). And as you can see, it is both sharpness and unsharpness at the same time. That is what gives the magic dreamy look.

Example of Orton Effect

It really can be that piece of digital magic, you add to a photo, that makes it really unique and special, but you must use it with care. I fairly often use it (or one of it’s sisters – which I describe later). I use it in perhaps 20% of my photos, but I only use it selectively and sometimes even only in very subtle ways. If you compared to a version without, you would be able to see the difference, but otherwise you wouldn’t notice it, because I use it with care.

This is the final version of the tree from Wanaka in New Zealand, and it has one of the strongest uses of the Orton Effect I have ever used:

To anyone who has been to Wanaka on the South Island of New Zealand, they would know what the THE tree is. And this is NOT the one, but it is a tree in Wanaka that I liked too. Photo: Jacob Surland,

How to make the Orton Effect step by step

There are some requirements for making the Orton Effect, and these are:

  • You need to have Photoshop (any version) or Gimp.
  • You also need an over exposed photo. But don’t worry you can make one artificially.

The Orton effect works best on overexposed photos. If you do not have an over exposed photo, you can increase exposure artificially both in Photoshop and in Lightroom. I shoot HDR photos most of the time, which gives me over exposed photos that I can use for the Orton Effect. Later in this tutorial I will show how to make artificial overexposed photos, but also a couple of alternatives to the Orton Effect.

Let’s make some Orton Effect.

Step 1: First open your overexposed photo in Photoshop or Gimp. Duplicate the layer twice, so that you have three layers with the same image.

Step 1 - Duplicate layer

Step 2: On the top layer you have to change the Blend Mode to “Multiply”.
Step 2 - Set blend mode to multiply

Step 3: The second layer must be out of focus, that is you have to blur it. You use Gaussian Blur to do that.
Step 3 - Select gaussian blur for the middle layerStep 5: Try moving the slider between different pixel levels. As you can see in the preview, the Orton Effect changes, as you change the blur levels. It changes quite a lot.

There really are no rights or wrongs, just different effects, and you pick one that you like.
Step 4 - Blur the middle layerStep 7: Don’t always use the same blur level, experiment for different effects, before picking one.

Step 5 - Experiment with blur levelStep 8: Merge the two layers forming the Orton Effect into one layer, that makes it easier to work with.

You can merge the two layers by selecting them and pressing CTRL + E or selecting it from the context menu.
Step 6 - Merge layersStep 9: Using the effect globally is generally not a good thing and by merging the two layers, you can add a layer mask, and the mask in what you like.

Create a black layer mask to hide the layer. This allows you to paint in what level of “Orton Effect” you want to apply in your photo, and more important, where to apply it.

You can add a Layer Mask by pressing the button, and then invert the layer mask by pressing CTRL+I, while having the mask in focus. Or you press ALT (or CMD on a Mac) and press the button, and you will get a black mask.
Step 7 - Add a layer mask

Step 10: Using the brush tool (read about layer blending here, if it’s new to you) you can paint in what level of Orton Effect you want in your photo. As you can see I only use it selectively.
Step 8 - Blend layers

The Sisters of the Orton Effect

You might already be thinking ‘What happens if I use some of the other blend modes?’ Well, most gives something that is quite unusable and psychedelic, but ‘Soft light’ and ‘Overlay’ gives something that you can use. The method is otherwise exactly the same, and the effect is somewhat similar, in particular for the ‘Soft light’.
Step 9 - There are other blendmodes

The advantage of using the Soft light and Overlay is that you can easier stick to your ordinary exposures.

As you can see, you still end up with a a nice and glowing images, that has a dreamy touch. This is Soft Light:
Step 10 - try other blend modesAnd this is Overlay:
Step 11 - This is Overlay mode

As it happens I often end up using either blend mode ‘Soft light’ or ‘Overlay’, rather than ‘Multiply’ because it works better with normal exposures, and therefore is easier to incorporate in my existing processing workflow. Or maybe I am just lazy.

Changing the Exposure to Overexposed

It’s really no big deal to make an over-exposed photo artificially. In Lightroom there is a slider for it, and you can make a virtual copy of the normal exposure, increase the exposure of it and export it along with the normal exposure.

Step 12 - Change exposure to overexposed

And in Photoshop you can add an Adjustment Layer for exposure, and do the exact same thing. And if you duplicate your layer, and merge the Adjustment layer to the duplicate, you will have both the normal exposure and the overexposed as two layers.
Step 13 - Changing exposure in PhotoshopAdjust the exposure to overexposed by 2 stops.
Step 14 - Photoshop exposure layer

And then you can do the Orton Effect easily:

Example 2 of Orton EffectEnjoy using the Orton Effect or one of it’s sisters, but remember, to use it with care. Too much of everything is not great.

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