The Orton Effect: Mimicking darkroom processes in Photoshop

The Orton Effect: Mimicking darkroom processes in Photoshop

Photoshop gives us tools we can use to create effects which previously could only be obtained in the darkroom using images which were captured specially. One such process is the Orton effect named after photographer Michael Orton. This process results in a somewhat surreal image which has a slightly out-of-focus look while retaining lots of edge detail.


In the darkroom this effect is created using two images one of which is slightly out of focus and both of which are slightly overexposed. Sandwiching these together and taking a print yields a photograph similar to the one above.

Thanks to Photoshop we can create this effect from a single well exposed image and create the overexposed and soft focus looks digitally.

Here is how to create this Orton effect on an image from your collection:

Step 1

Open the image, right-click the background layer in the layers palette and select Duplicate layer. With the duplicate layer selected choose Image > Apply Image, select the Screen blend mode and click Ok. This applies the image to itself in screen mode which is the same as creating an additional duplicate layer, setting this layer’s blend mode to Screen and then merging the two layers. The benefit to using Apply Image is that you do it all in one step.


Step 2

Duplicate this layer and set its blend mode to Multiply. This has the effect of cancelling out the lightening effect from applying the Screen mode.


Step 3

With this topmost layer still selected apply a blur to it using Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur. Select the Preview checkbox so you can see the result on the image. Adjust the blur Radius to your choice of value – I used 4.5 but choose the best for your image. Notice that, if you create a very large small or very large blur, the effect all but disappears.


Step 4

If the image isn’t light enough, return to the middle layer and repeat Step 1 to apply the image to itself again in Screen mode.

Then, if desired, add some noise to the image to give it a grainy look. To do this, choose Filter > Noise > Add Noise. Disable the Monochrome checkbox, click Gaussian and adjust the amount till you get a slightly grainy feel to the image.

The result is a soft focus image which still has lovely detail in the edges and it is a process well suited to being used with portraits as well as landscapes and cityscapes.


Using Photoshop Elements?

The same effect can be achieved in Photoshop Elements but you will need to perform step 1 the long way. To do this, duplicate the Background layer twice, set the top layer’s Blend Mode to Screen then choose Layer > Merge Down to merge it to a single layer. There is no Apply Image command in Photoshop Elements.

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Helen Bradley is a Lifestyle journalist who divides her time between the real and digital worlds, picking the best from both. She writes and produces video instruction for Photoshop and digital photography for magazines and online providers world wide. She has also written four books on photo crafts and blogs at

Some Older Comments

  • ColininOz March 15, 2012 08:35 am

    A lot of trouble to achieve an image which looks as if the focus of the camera was badly out ! Very clever, but why would you do it ?

  • Ken Pugh July 11, 2009 01:54 am

    There is one detail missing from your article. Orton's second image is out-of-focus, but in many he also zooms very slightly out. Very slightly, for if you zoom too much, it will appear as two sandwitched images, not as one as intended.

  • Ken Pugh July 11, 2009 01:49 am

    To the person who said the Orton technique is "boring', I suggest he/she take a look at Orton's photographs published in Once Upon an Island, Orca Book Publishers, 1992. Far from boring.

  • Kimmie March 31, 2009 08:16 am

    this cool and nice picture.. i learn how to do this.. wow.. thank you for explanations! XP

  • Shuryk March 21, 2009 12:39 am

    It's really nice effect. Thank you.

  • Tanny March 18, 2009 09:08 pm

    Hi Helen,

    Nice article. :-)

    Once read an article written by a UK photographer, cited that Lomo images have attributes; out of focus, saturated colors, pinhole vignette, high dynamic range, because of the spider eyes construction of the camera. I think he refered to the firsts of Lomo camera. He, was in the article, demonstrated how to approach the real gear effect using software tweaks applied to a sharp original image. Gaussian Blur, Add Grain, etc.

    I found that my gear, Nikon D300, although the High ISO NR & Long Exposure NR already turned on, noise, maybe because of the CMOS type censor, still appear in condition of slightly underexpose, high iso, and out of focus.

    Apply to macro flower image, shallow DOF, high iso setting. After i had the blur, then bracketed to deeper DOF by increasing the aperture one stop and decreasing the speed one stop to retain the same exposure value until all DOFs covered.

    One of them looks like this.

    Maybe if i add pinhole vignette and apply Gaussian blur to focus area, it will be a true Lomo effect. Only minor tweaks i added.

    Another way to achieve the same effect.

  • Crystal Chick March 17, 2009 01:34 am

    I tried the Orton Effect out on a few photos a while back. I liked the result in some, but not in others.

  • Richard Khuptong March 13, 2009 09:46 pm

    Nice and educative
    Thanks DSP

  • Jacquie March 13, 2009 09:52 am

    I'm brand new to Photoshop, all ideas to make my pictures look better I'll take. Thank You

  • Norton Orton March 13, 2009 03:52 am

    Nice tutorial though the effect is rather boring- i can't remember ever seeing it used anywhere. It definitely looks 'photoshop gimmicky'.

    If i had to pick, i'd choose a tilt shift image over this... which is what the orton effect reminds me of- only run through the 80's.

  • thekevinmonster March 12, 2009 09:24 pm

    @scott: I think the add noise step is throwing off your expectations. I've actually found the orton effect to be great for selectively softening, kind of like those oldschool vaseline-edged filters for 70's glamour portraits. If you use it too hard, it starts posterizing your colors.

  • Jeffrey Kontur March 12, 2009 09:36 am

    A very interesting technique. I love these somewhat more obscure techniques!

  • Light Stalking March 12, 2009 07:35 am

    Oh great, now I am gonna waste the whole day messing with photoshop! ;)

  • Scott March 12, 2009 07:22 am

    I don't really think this is a great example of the Orton effect.
    This seems to be much more along the lines of the named works.