The Orton Effect: how to create a popular editing technique that adds a dreamlike glow to landscape photographs.

The top image is the original; the image below shows the Orton Effect in use – the adjustment is quite subtle.

Our eyes have always been drawn towards things that look different. We find them intriguing and want to investigate. This is probably why we’re attracted by effects filters in our smartphones and cameras – as well as popular image editing applications.

One of the subtlest and most popular effects for landscape photographers is the ‘Orton Effect’, which was originally developed to imitate watercolour paintings. By producing soft halos around high contrast areas, it adds a dreamy glow to the scene.

What is the Orton Effect?

The Orton Effect was created in the 1980s by Canadian landscape photographer, Michael Orton, who would sandwich two or more simultaneously-recorded transparencies of the same scene together in a kind of High Dynamic Range (HDR) simulation. The first exposure recorded the subject’s details, in focus and slightly overexposed. The second recorded the colours and tones, out of focus and also overexposed. Sandwiched together, the result was a single image that was both sharp and blurry with a soft glow in the highlights.

A shift to digital capture and versatile editing software have made the effect one of the most popular post-processing techniques for landscape photographers today. Most image editors can be used to simulate the effect and a few applications (Skylum Luminar, for example) have pre-set filters that allow one-click application of the effect. The Glamour Glow filter in the Nik Color Efex collection is another quick Orton Effect simulator.

Used appropriately with subtle adjustments, the Orton Effect will make some images more engaging. Applied with a heavy hand, the result is as kitsch as a poorly executed HDR merge. Practice will teach you how far to push the adjustments, regardless of which software you use.

It’s important to be aware of three essential facts before you embark on this effect:

1. You should never apply the Orton Effect to make poor quality photos look better; it usually has the opposite effect.

2. The effect should be used sparingly. While there’s nothing wrong with a couple of Orton Effect photos in your portfolio, your credibility will be shot if it appears in all your landscapes.

3. Trial and error is important. Experience will show you which images work best and how to balance the adjustments for optimal results.

In most cases, the Orton Effect works best with images containing soft light with clean gradients and no harsh shadows. It’s most successful with shots containing fog or smoke, mist around water, moving water and landscapes showing forestry or mountains.

Each image will have a point between under- and over-adjustment that will need good judgment by the photographer. It’s worth looking at online galleries – including Michael Orton’s own gallery – as well as landscape photographers’ portfolios to see whether you can identify images that rely upon the effect. (There are many examples online of over-adjustment with Orton Effect application.)

How to do it

There are many ways to achieve this effect but most lead to similar results. Careful consideration must be given to each photo to which you want to apply the Orton effect. It doesn’t necessarily work with all images. If the original lacks strong composition or interesting lighting, it probably won’t be improved.

In this feature we’ll provide two examples of applying Orton Effect processing, one using Serif Affinity Photo and the other done with Adobe Photoshop (which can also be used in Lightroom). You can also find instructions online for creating the Orton effect in GIMP, while dedicated filters are provided in Luminar 4 and Snapseed. Which one you use will depend on the software you prefer.

Method 1 – Using Affinity Photo

Open the image in Affinity Photo and move it to the Develop Persona to apply any necessary adjustments before adding the effect. Then return to the Photos Persona and select the Layers function from either the top toolbar or right-click on the right hand tool panel and duplicate the layer.

Double-click on the top duplicate layer and rename it so it’s easy to see where your adjustments have been made.

To produce the Orton Effect double-click on the top layer and go to Filters and select Blur > Gaussian Blur.  How much blur you apply will depend on the resolution of your image and how obvious you want the effect to appear. We chose a blur radius the same as the megapixel count of the camera used to take the shot.

Once you’ve applied the blur, create a curves adjustment layer by double-clicking on the top layer and moving from the Layers tab to the Adjustment tab. Select Screen in the Blending box options in the right hand panel. Then click OK.

Go back to the Layers tab and Group the top three layers together.

Then in the Blend mode select Soft Light. You can experiment with the blending modes as each of them will give a different result (shown as you mouse over them in the dropdown menu). Soft Light is usually the best option to start with.

All that’s left now is to select the layers then move to the Layers tab in the top toolbar and click on Merge Selected to combine them. You can then swap to the Export persona and export the result in whatever format you prefer.

Before and after shots of a forest scene to which the Orton Effect has been applied using Serif Affinity Photo.

Method 2 – Using Photoshop or Lightroom

Open the image and create two duplicate layers using the Layer menu in the top toolbar.

Select the top layer in the stack, go to the top toolbar and click on Filter > Blur-> Gaussian Blur.

Select a radius in the box that appears; the ideal radius depends on the image and the camera it was captured with. As before, start with the camera’s megapixel count.

Once the top layer is nicely blurred we need to introduce some contrast. This is done by going to Image > Adjustments > Levels. Although we will over-do the adjustment at this stage, make sure the shadows don’t get too dark. Pull the highlight slider to the left and the shadow slider to the right until the image looks very contrasty. (It will look really horrible.)

Now, make the layer invisible by reducing its opacity to 0 and then gradually increase the opacity until you begin to see some of the soft glow you’re after. Somewhere around 12% should be your target. At this point, some of the details and textures have been lost. To restore them you need to add a sharpening filter.

Take the original merged layer (located beneath the duplicate) and drag it on top of the duplicate. This will make the Orton Effect invisible for now. With the top filter selected go to Filter > Other > High Pass.

The image will turn grey and a dialog box will appear. Again, the radius depends on the camera used to capture the image but we’ve found somewhere between 2.8 – 3.2 will work well. At this point, the image appears gray and only some outlines are visible. To fix this simply change the blending mode to Soft Light.

The image is now visible again and you can see that you’ve recovered some details and textures in the image while maintaining the Orton Effect glow.

If you select the two layers and add them to a group it lets you make slight adjustments to the group’s opacity to fine-tune the effect. You can also convert the group to a layer mask by clicking on the Mask icon at the base of the right side panel. This allows you to erase areas like the foreground to reveal a more natural level of sharpness that contrasts against the subtle glow in the middle and background.

Finish by flattening the image and saving it in the format of your choice.

Article by Margaret Brown (see Margaret’s photography pocket guides)

Excerpt from Photo Review Issue 86

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See more editing tips in Digital Darkroom pocket guide (print and digital editions).