How to Create an Orton Effect Using Photoshop

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Even if you have never heard of the Orton Effect before I can virtually guarantee you’ve seen this type of photograph at some point in the past. The Orton Effect is a carry over technique from the darkroom which has made it into the brave new world of digital image processing. The name comes from its inventor, photographer Michael Orton, who came up with the idea in the 1980’s.

It is essentially a method for producing soft, pictorial style images but it goes so much further than simple soft focus. The original method involved the capture of at least two frames (more were often used) of transparency film; one being in focus and slightly overexposed and the other out of focus and slightly overexposed. The frames were then sandwiched together to produce a dreamy, and to use the words of Orton himself, “painterly” photograph.

How to do a Quick and Easy Orton Effect in Photoshop

Example of an Orton Effect image.

Today, we can easily replicate a similar Orton Effect using Photoshop. There are numerous ways to do it but this method will not only produce the Orton Effect style of imagery from a RAW file extremely quickly, but it will also give you incredible flexibility in controlling the effect.

Begin with a RAW File

As always, start off with a RAW file and apply some basic edits in Lightroom CC. This is now the photo you will send over to Photoshop to engineer your Orton effect.

How to do a Quick and Easy Orton Effect in Photoshop

This next part is important – don’t skip it. Right-click on the photo and select: Edit In > Edit as Smart Object in Photoshop (as shown below)

How to do a Quick and Easy Orton Effect in Photoshop

Converting the image to a Smart Object is a crucial step to this process. True, it will increase the file size of the photo but it adds so many benefits when working with the image later. I’ll show you why in just a second.

Going Orton in Photoshop

Once the image loads as a Smart Object in Photoshop, you can begin going to work on replicating the Orton Effect technique. The first thing you need to do is copy the base layer. Don’t simply duplicate the layer. Instead, right-click on the base layer and select New Smart Object Via Copy, as shown below.

Think of this as the second frame of unfocused transparency film. This layer will add not only the blur but also the slight overexposure indicated by Orton. By doing this, you now have two separate copies of your image.

What’s more, and this goes back to why you converted the photo to a Smart Object from Lightroom in the first place, is that you can now manipulate all the edits you applied in Lightroom while you’re working in Photoshop. It’s all done in Adobe Camera RAW. Just double-click the image to bring up the ACR panel.

How to do a Quick and Easy Orton Effect in Photoshop

This allows you to stay completely flexible while you apply the next steps of the Orton Effect.

Applying the Overexposure and Blur

With the new copy of your Smart Object layer selected, you will now apply both the blur and the brightening found in many Orton-style images. To do this, select Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur.

How to do a Quick and Easy Orton Effect in Photoshop

The radius you select depends on both your image size (in pixels) and the degree of blurring you want to achieve. Larger sized images from high megapixel cameras generally require a larger radius.

How to do a Quick and Easy Orton Effect in Photoshop

Once the image is blurred, set the Blending Mode for the layer to Screen. Not only will this give the image a “painterly” effect with the blur but at the same time, it will also brighten the image. Talk about two birds with one stone. Change the layer opacity until it reaches the desired effect.

How to do a Quick and Easy Orton Effect in Photoshop

Tweaking the Orton Effect

Congratulate yourself because you’ve just made your very own Orton Effect image! But you don’t have to (and probably shouldn’t) stop there. You can adjust the opacity of the layer to soften the effect. You can even use the paint brush to selectively remove the effect from areas of the image (using a layer mask). Also, don’t forget that since the image is a Smart Object all the adjustments in the Camera Raw editor are still at your disposal just by double clicking the image thumbnail.

Final Thoughts

In just a few steps we went from this….

How to do a Quick and Easy Orton Effect in Photoshop

…to this.

Here’s a video walk-through of the whole process if you want to watch me do it step by step.

Conclusion

The Orton Effect is a super cool editing technique that’s rooted in the golden days of film and darkroom processing. Today, we have digital wizardry at our disposal that still tries to mimic the trade secrets of the masters. Use the technique in this article to start making your own dreamy images and learn just how creative you can be with your photos. It’s easy, fun, and unlike the darkroom, mistakes cost nothing. Be sure to share your own Orton Effect images in the comments section!

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Adam Welch is a full-time photomaker, author, adventurer, educator, and self-professed bacon addict. You can usually find him on some distant trail making photographs or at his computer writing about all the elegant madness that is photography. Follow his blog over at aphotographist.com or pick up his new book Cameras in the Wild.

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