The Orton Effect - What is it, When to Use it and How to Create it in Photoshop

If you've never heard of the Orton Effect in photography, the chances are you've seen at least a few photos that utilise this technique. But what is the Orton Effect, when should you use it, and how can you replicate it in Adobe Photoshop?

What is the Orton Effect?

As you might expect, the Orton Effect was invented by a photographer named Michael Orton back in the 1980s using slide film. 

It creates an effect where the image appears both highly detailed but also soft and dreamy, resulting in a very distinctive and almost fantasy-esque style. This was done by combining multiple exposures of slide film - One of which was in focus and the other(s) out of focus.

Of course, the wonders of technology means that this effect is very easy to achieve using basic image editing software.

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When to Consider Using the Orton Effect

 creating orton effect in photoshop

The Orton Effect is most commonly associated with landscape and nature photography at the moment due to the dreamlike qualities it brings to an image. It can be a very effective way of transporting the viewer into a different world, but as is often the case with image editing techniques the Orton Effect has been somewhat overused in recent years.

Applying a pronounced and obvious Orton Effect to all of your images is, unsurprisingly, not a recommendation of mine. Instead, I tend to prefer to use the effect in a more subtle manner, and only on a select portion of my photographs.

Here are some of the conditions that can meet my criteria. As you can see, our chosen image fits these criterion perfectly:

  • Strong Backlighting
  • Strong Side Lighting
  • Illuminated Vegetation
  • Light Breaking Through Mist

As you can see, every single one of these criteria revolves around the light. Learning to use natural light to your advantage is absolutely imperative, and in doing so you will gain an understanding of when and why to use certain techniques. Using the Orton Effect when you have flat front light hitting your subject just doesn't make sense and would just result in an image lacking coherency. 


How to Create the Orton Effect in Photoshop

Fortunately, you don't have to be an expert at Photoshop to apply the Orton Effect. It really is as simple as following these instructions, and none of them introduce too many advanced techniques.

1. Edit in Lightroom

After selecting a suitable image, the first step is to apply your initial adjustments in Adobe Lightroom. We want to get it as close to finished as possible here, but don't worry if it's not absolutely perfect. We can still make adjustments after the Orton Effect has been applied.

The image below is the one I've chosen. The strong backlighting and light breaking through the mist makes it the perfect Orton Effect candidate. This sort of landscape is regularly subjected to the Orton Effect, but often it's done with a heavy hand and comes across as wildly over processed. Here, I will try to demonstrate how a more subtle approach can be much more effective.

After your initial edits have been made, simply right click on your image and navigate to Edit In > Edit in Adobe Photoshop.

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 orton effect photoshop tips

2. Prepare in Photoshop

Once your image is loaded into Photoshop it's time to prepare for the effect to be applied. Firstly, duplicate your background layer as shown below.

 orton effect in photoshop
 orton effect landscape photography

Select this duplicate layer and navigate to Image > Apply Image to open the dialogue box as shown. The settings should be identical to this from default, but double check everything to make sure it matches to the dialogue box below.

 Ensure that all the settings match up to the ones shown here. Your image will turn very dark, but don't worry. We rectify that in the next step.

Ensure that all the settings match up to the ones shown here. Your image will turn very dark, but don't worry. We rectify that in the next step.


3. Applying the Orton Effect

First things first, we need to get rid of that darkness that has engulfed the image. Fortunately this only takes two clicks. Go to "Blend Mode" and then select "Screen".

 orton effect in photoshop

Next, we'll apply the trademark Orton Effect blur by navigating to Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur. This will open another dialogue box. The pixel radius you select here depends on the size of the image you're working with. This was an almost full size 36 megapixel shot, so I went with a fairly high radius of 25px. Play around until it looks right.

 Play around with the Gaussian Blur settings until everything looks right. Don't worry about getting it perfect, we'll fine tune our Orton Effect in the next step.

Play around with the Gaussian Blur settings until everything looks right. Don't worry about getting it perfect, we'll fine tune our Orton Effect in the next step.

So now we've got two layers open, our original in-focus image, and a second which has been digitally altered to be 'out of focus'. This is where most photographers slip up though, so pay careful attention.

This level of blur is simply too much for me, so what we want to do is click the 'Opacity' option and reduce it significantly. Again, just play around until it looks right. I've settled on 35% opacity, and we're getting very close to completion.

 Orton effect photoshop landscape photography

4. Fine Tuning the Image

One potential problem with applying the Orton Effect in Photoshop is that it tends to overexpose the highlights in the image. But once again, this is relatively easy to fix with a few clicks of the mouse.

First, we want to create a white layer mask on our blurred layer. Now we go right back to the start by navigating to Image > Apply Image. Again, leave all the settings the same, but this time click the 'Invert' checkbox, as shown below. This should fix any issues with overexposed highlights.

 orton effect in landscape photography

That's the Orton Effect complete, and you can happily end there and take your photo back into Adobe Lightroom to either export it or apply some final adjustments. I want to take this one step further though.

Navigating to the button shown below, I create a color balance adjustment layer. Then, by right clicking on this layer, I add a clipping mask. This ensures that any edits we make here only apply to the blurred layer rather than the background layer below it.

 Create a color balance adjustment layer by clicking the button as shown.

Create a color balance adjustment layer by clicking the button as shown.

 Adding a clipping mask ensures that the edits don't apply to your background layer.

Adding a clipping mask ensures that the edits don't apply to your background layer.

The reason for this is that I want a bit more warmth added to the image. I do this by making a small adjustment to the left on the Yellow/Blue channel. If I moved it to the right it would cool down the image. I apply this small edit to the Highlights and Midtones using the dropdown menu.

 A small change to the colour temperature of the highlights and midtones adds a lovely warm glow to the Orton Effect.

A small change to the colour temperature of the highlights and midtones adds a lovely warm glow to the Orton Effect.

5. Finished!

There you have it. I told you it wasn't hard! Now you can compare the before and after images below. Note how the effect is rather subtle, but definitely makes a positive difference to the final image.